MAO Assembly: Art as Instinct

MAO Assembly invites you to have your say in shaping our digital conversations, from global issues to local stories you think deserve some attention. 

Graphic artist, web designer and Fine Art student, Maria is a member of Modern Art Oxford’s volunteer team. When we spoke to Maria about MAO Assembly, she suggested we spend some time exploring the subject of art as instinct, and it’s impact on our society’s wellbeing. This theme underpins her new post for us below. Remember that you can to contribute to the conversation by using the hashtag #MAOAssembly on Twitter and Instagram (@mao_gallery) or tag us in your Facebook posts (modartoxford).

As a part-time Fine Art student I am aware that over the last four years, I have given myself ‘permission’ to make art, to indulge all my senses in creating.

Forty years after leaving school, via a hand-chiselled career in graphic arts, multimedia and web-design, I found myself stood in the studio at Oxford Brookes University beginning my Fine Art Studies. It struck me how instinctively ‘at home’ it felt to be amongst materials of making, and with other students engaged in their various creative practices. How curious we all were, and how the conversations flowed naturally around ideas and observations in each other’s work.

It is interesting to consider that one of our most basic instincts is to create, to make sense of our environment, and to share that understanding with others. This natural desire to understand our world is boldly tackled by the differing disciplines of art and science, with the latter currently appearing the more dominant of these two forces. The empirical lens of ‘measuring’, ‘analysing’ and ‘reporting’ sadly often trumps the more philosophical and enquiring nature of art. As we move headlong into the ‘age of information’ and artificial intelligence, it would seem more important than ever to remember our natural creative instincts, and consider where art and science intersect.

Presence and Absence, 2019. Image © Maria Robertson

So, what is it that drives us to both make and engage with art?

Seen from our Western perspective, modern art often resonates with the idea of individual expression. The Abstract Expressionists particularly took up this mantle, dismissing formal reproduction in favour of exuberant gestural symbolism. Making the ‘internal’ visible sat comfortably amongst the Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical theories of the time, and the concept that art could have a therapeutic effect on the individual took hold.

Research in the field of art therapy has continued, and is well documented. For example, in relation to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the work of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk in his book on trauma and recovery ‘The Body Keeps the Score’. He observes that when we are in imminent danger and feel threatened, our minds focus on immediate details such as sight, sound and smell. These sensory inputs are evaluated by our ‘limbic system’. The amygdala is the first to respond, assigning meaning to the stimuli, which is then transferred to the nearby hippocampus for ‘processing’. The hippocampus then categorises the threat, and signals a response, potentially fight, flight or freeze. These ‘conditioned’ fear responses are ordinarily ‘switched off’ when the threat has passed.

Unfortunately, faced by overwhelming threat, our rational brains can go ‘offline’. We can literally become speechless, unable to access a coherent narrative, and thereby let ourselves ‘consciously’ know we are no longer under threat. To enable us to integrate past traumatic experiences and resolve the ‘stuck’ threat response, art therapy can help us fill in the blanks and complete the picture by expressing our sub-conscious somatic and sensory version of events. This can in turn, help restore a coherent narrative, process the traumatic event and move our bodies out of a threat response. As articulated by Dr. Besell Van der Kolk.

“Both my interviews with traumatized people, and my brain imaging studies of them, seem to confirm that traumatic memories come back as emotional and sensory states, with little capacity for verbal representation. This failure to process information on a symbolic level, which is essential for proper categorization and integration with other experiences, is at the very core of the pathology of PTSD.” (Van der Kolk, 1998)

With regards to ‘art as observer’, art can give us a vehicle to both understand and reflect on our thoughts in a different way.

When we visit an art gallery we are looking instinctively for clues, to help develop our understanding of the world, and are drawn to artworks that express, or help articulate thoughts that clumsy words cannot. Alain de Botton expresses this well in his book ‘Art as Therapy’.

“We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. From time to time we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never fully recognised clearly before. […] In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel that we know ourselves more clearly.” (De Botton and Armstrong, 2013)

Nongirrna Marawilli,
© Yirkalla, Buku Larrnggay Mulka Centre

But, what if we look at art less as a tool to understand ourselves and the world around us, and more as an essential component of what it is be human. An intrinsic part of who we are. We are prone to overlook the need to create and connect in our economically obsessed, data-driven world. During some recent studies in Australia, I observed how Indigenous Australians have an inherently different world view to ours, with creativity existing within the natural flow of life. Indigenous art exists, and has existed for 50,000 years as a means of communicating lived stories and maintaining connection to a wider network of kinship, landscape and belief systems. This connection manifests as an intimate connection to the natural world, of utilising paint and materials directly from landscape, for example painting with hands onto body and surface. It could be assumed that from an early age there is an ongoing exchange between materials, individual and environment. An entirely natural co-existence occurs between art and life. The artist speaks to the viewer through their hands, tools and materials, creating a bridge between inner and outer world, manifesting a deep resonance with place and a sense of belonging. As quoted by Yirkalla artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu,

“I work alone with whatever is available. Usually ochres on bark. […] I am not happy unless I am painting or gathering food or going to ceremony or sitting down with my family. If there is no bark I can use other things which I find.” (Yunupingu, 2016)|

In conclusion, it would seem art has the means to help us express ourselves, but also to allow us to feel ‘present’ and ‘connected’. By actively engaging our senses in making or experiencing art, we can express, question, consider and possibly resolve questions that are not easily articulated with language. Our creative instincts allow us to connect and understand our world in a sensory way, and by engaging with our own creative instincts we feel a natural connection with the world and others. Creativity would seem to embody much of that which is considered human, and our role as artists, makers, facilitators and appreciators stands firmly alongside the rationalist ethos of our times as a reminder of what it is to think, feel and ultimately be human.

Read more about MAO Assembly here

To share your topic, or to find out more about getting involved email Andrée Latham at

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