When I looked at Dr. Susanne Schwarz’s website and learned that she is not only an artist http://susanneschwarz.net/, but also a licensed, practicing psychiatrist and medical psychotherapist, I knew I had hit the jackpot! An interview with her would give me the opportunity to chat about her work, contemporary art, mental health – which no one wants to talk about - and art therapy. What could be better? Well, let me tell you. She delivers on all fronts. Her insights are so valuable that I’m starting our chat below with three pullout quotes from her. Enjoy!
“… Art means the freedom to think. It is the freedom of mind. This “helps” society. I think because of this, any dictatorship wants to destroy art, especially contemporary art ...”
“… The problem with contemporary art isn't thinking itself, but more the complexity, the freedom of mind, the many possibilities to see something that doesn’t give an easy answer. So people are confronted somehow with themselves and this can be uncomfortable. People unfortunately like easy answers ...”
“… One of the problems we're experiencing with mental health - besides trauma and biochemical issues - is that people don't know what to do with their emotions. They just suppress them. This is one of the main causes of mental illness and it is one you can do something about ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Susanne, First of all, your work seems very contemplative and introspective to me. I get the sense that you're definitely in your own world while you're painting. Is this true? What does painting do for you?
SUSANNE: Ops, how is the question? I was in my own world.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
SUSANNE: Seriously, I AM most of the time in my own world. I love the inner worlds and enjoy them mostly. So, you are right. Painting is a way of contemplation to me, a way to let brain and heart team up, the entrance to my own world. Art and books generally are my lifelong loves and are ways to my inner world and to the inner worlds of thousands of artists and authors to me. By the way, thank you for asking at all and it’s so to the point!
MICHAEL: When I look at your work, I see narratives or maybe even allegories - even in your abstract works. When you paint, are you also telling stories or are you just painting thoughts and feelings?
SUSANNE: No, not just feeling or thoughts. I feel the deeper essence of art isn't anymore to depict or to just please - at least not anymore since the invention of photography.
Fascinating about making or seeing an artwork to me is the transmission of something or the story in one picture. Here it comes again to the inner worlds of at least two people hundreds of years or thousands of miles apart.
MICHAEL: I love the fact that you're a doctor. Actually, a psychotherapist, but you're also an artist. Is there a connection between art and psychotherapy or art and mental health? Surely, you knew I was going to ask you this question!
SUSANNE: Ha! Ha! Yes, I expected a question like this. The loose connection between art and psychiatry and mental health is commonly known by now with Van Gogh, Munch, etc. The multiple and individual possibilities of art therapy are very, very important. There are great examples and fantastic theories about this.
For me, the main themes are again, the inner worlds. Job wise, I wander about other people's worlds, like a travel guide. As an artist, I wander about my own world.
MICHAEL: In what ways can we say that art has shown to be therapeutic for people? How does art work in therapy? What does art do for you?
SUSANNE: There are many effects of art therapy, but I generally can say, that it helps people to open up their inner worlds and learn to work with them, even to have fun with them. It's a large possibility to communicate without words, when words are not enough.
For me, art is the deep communication of two beings, the artist and the beholder - without talking. Art is traveling about my own world instead of others (job wise).
Additionally for me, it is kind of challenge, like some people do crossword puzzles. It challenges my wits, my feelings, my skills. And it's a lot of fun to me!
MICHAEL: As you well know Susanne, we're now living in the age of data and metrics. Don't we need data to prove that art therapy is really helping people? I mean, don't a lot of people still question the value of contemporary art? So many people still think art is “bullcrap.” How is it really helping society?
SUSANNE: I don't think so (that it’s “bullcrap”). We're living in the age of “post-data” and “fake news,” but I bet I can find surveys about art therapy benefiting in some scales. And perhaps it's the truth, perhaps not. I worked in science in my younger years, I know what I'm talking about.
And yes, of course, there are people saying art is “bullcrap.” But I have learned these days there’s a radio host saying juice packs make frogs gay. I think in the end, we don't need tests about art, because I don't need a test if ill people are supposed to eat and drink. We all need to eat and drink and we all need some kind of art, perhaps not drawing or painting, but music or acting.
And finally it “helps” society, perhaps not in concrete benefits in any way, but perhaps it does. Art means the freedom to think. It is the freedom of mind. This “helps” society. I think because of this, any dictatorship wants to destroy art, especially contemporary art.
MICHAEL: I think we're living during a time when many people do NOT want to THINK. Thinking can be difficult. Many people would rather watch TV shows all day or listen to music. Yes, art makes us “think,” but maybe this is why more people don't like contemporary art ... because it makes them think. Do you “think” this is the problem with contemporary art?
SUSANNE: That's difficult to answer for me. As a German artist, I have rarely experienced the problem myself fortunately. The atmosphere about contemporary art is very free and open. Job wise, I would say of course a certain laziness plays a role ... like perhaps in the case of training running.
Running (also thinking) lies in our genom, but there is laziness and you have to be trained or be untrained and so perhaps people would rather not do it. In my humble opinion, the problem with contemporary art isn't thinking itself, but more the complexity, the freedom of mind, the many possibilities to see something that doesn’t give an easy answer. So people are confronted somehow with themselves and this can be uncomfortable. People unfortunately like easy answers.
MICHAEL: They sure do. You know Susanne, more and more hospitals, health facilities and churches are looking at art therapy and they're even forming art groups. What do you think about this? I'm asking because it seems to me that if we kept funding for arts programs in public schools to help kids learn how to express themselves in healthy ways, perhaps we wouldn't have so many people in trouble today with psychological issues. I don't know. Am I exaggerating this? What do you think about this issue?
SUSANNE: No, I don't think you're exaggerating. One of the problems we're experiencing with mental health - besides trauma and biochemical issues - is that people don't know what to do with their emotions. They just suppress them. This is one of the main causes of mental illness and it is one you can do something about.
SUSANNE: In Germany, pupils are learning at least a little bit about emotions, but it's a pity there isn’t more done. Any kind of art can help to express emotions, learn how to deal with them and get to know oneself better. I think too, this would be the right way. My own son is 10 years old and he doesn't have to paint, but I want him to do something to get to know this area. And imagine, it's not only him who loves to work with me in my studio, but also his friends (little boys!) who look into the studio, first tell me they can't “paint” and finally draw hours and hours because they feel it's good obviously. So I agree completely!
MICHAEL: You know Susanne, I find it so interesting that when creative expression is suppressed, it can contribute – as you say - to mental illness. I have always believed that some of the violence that we're seeing in society, in the form of school violence and even terrorism, might possibly be linked to suppressed creative expression early in our childhoods. What do you think about this? Can this be the case?
SUSANNE: If we see art as something - like I do – that people are doing to express their emotions, to express themselves, to feel themselves in the world, to acquire the world into their lives, then yes, if you restrict more and more ways to do so, the effect will be violence, the consequences will be violence.
MICHAEL: Wow. Back to your work, I love the way you use colors. Your colors seem like a happy story unto themselves. Does color feel like a joyful thing to you? What's your relationship with color? Do you believe that certain colors evoke certain thoughts and emotions?
SUSANNE: Thank you very much. Yes, I love colors! And shapes! And the way they are interacting with each other. Very simple - a red square beneath a blue circle will trigger special feelings and thoughts and a green triangle beside a yellow hash will provoke alternate movements. A great joy for me - and something I could play with the whole day. Color is something very sensual to me. It pleases and indulges my eyes - concretely.
MICHAEL: Wow. Finally Susanne, what would you say to people who think contemporary art is a joke or that it's garbage? Does art really matter in the world?
SUSANNE: If people say contemporary art is a joke or garbage, I honestly avoid discussing it. But I would advise them not to judge so fast, not to talk about something they do not know and do not understand. I would advise them not to have so much and so fast opinions. They should wait and see if they felt something operating.
I know people who say that there is no soul and I usually answer: “But you feel it, don't you?” For me, it is the same with art especially. Perhaps we don't know how it's exactly operating, but we feel that we need it, that it helps us and that it causes a lot of joy. What is the reason, why we shouldn't spend our time with it?
MICHAEL: Very nice. Thanks Susanne. I've enjoyed our chat.
SUSANNE: Thank you very much, too! It was so nice chatting with you!
Check out Dr. Susanne Schwarz at http://susanneschwarz.net/.