Art appreciation in an age of anxiety

Image showing the inside of the Hall of Memories, Waitaki Boys' High School.

The calm you are looking for might be as close as the nearest work of art, Rosalie Elliffe writes.

Living through the uncertainty and stress of a cost-of-living crisis, a pandemic, the climate emergency, extreme weather events — it is no wonder that a quarter of New Zealanders suffer from some form of anxiety.It can be difficult to find a place of calm or safety in either our online or offline worlds.

That is what I love about art, in all its myriad of forms. When looking at an artwork or reading a good book, I am forced to stop and focus — it demands I remain emotionally and cognitively engaged. I can forget about the busyness of modern life when confronted with a moment of thought-provoking creativity and connection.

Recently we accessioned a photograph of Laurence Aberhart’s into the Forrester Gallery’s collection. On display in a small exhibition at the Forrester until the end of October, Aberhart’s Hall of Memories, Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru, 22 May 2015 displays the grand interior of Waitaki Boys’ High School’s memorial hall in stark black-and-white. 

It conjures up an array of emotions: from a deep sense of loss to a great sense of appreciation — for all the hundreds of people whose lives are remembered within the memorial hall, for those who seek to honour them, and for the skill and technical acuity of the photographer.

During and after the world wars, many soldiers came home with noticeably different behaviours and personalities. First described as shell shock, these behaviours later became known as identifiers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Art therapy developed as an important tool in treating soldiers — and has since become more widely known for helping us process emotions, lower stress and facilitate healing.

My sense of appreciation and awe for art is so important for my wellbeing. With the fast pace of exhibition and event work conjuring up a certain level of anxiety, it is working with and caring for the artworks — both those in our permanent collection and those from exhibiting artists — that bring calm amid the chaos. 

Being able to appreciate the skill of the artist, the beauty of the work and the thought that went into its creation makes me so thankful.

I am not alone in that feeling — studies that have measured self-reported stress found a significant decrease after participants viewed artwork, including four studies showing lowered blood pressure and two studies finding a decreased heart rate.

For me, art can grant a moment of stillness. Find something that resonates with you — be it in nature, sport, music (or in your local art gallery!).

Rosalie Elliffe is curator at the Forrester Gallery. This was first published in the Otago Daily Times, 2 October 2023

Rosalie