I walked down the street, bustling with college students, professors, and random passersby, on a fall evening, a slight chill in the air. However, the chill soon became one of awe as I approached the colorfully painted walls of the Mass Art Art Museum or the MAAM. Everything faded away as the main doors closed with a slight thud, leaving me in a room that can only be described as playfully eccentric in its dreamlike colors and airy ceiling. Little did I know that this transition space was one of the most tame things I’d see that night.
I was attending the opening night of the “The Myth of Normal” exhibit inspired by Gabor Maté’s book of the same name. This display exposes the pitfalls of limiting self-expression and mental illness, highlighting the impact on not only our society but also our bodies. From sculptures made of synthetic hair, to a giant clay beaver to a frozen clock, this exhibit conveyed intensely personal, powerful stories about healing, as well as expression. Not only that, they specifically dealt with the societal prevention of these things, the normalization of squashing one’s feelings and person down for as long as possible.
As this portrayal of suppression came up again and again across the exhibit, I couldn’t help but wonder: what does this societal pattern mean for my generation? Though many would argue that our society is a little bit too sensitive or “feely” as of now, I disagree. The structures that we have currently set up for young people, particularly in schools, to teach them how to process emotions are deeply flawed. This is because while they are being taught how to identify their feelings and express them in a communicative sense, they lack support in areas such as the arts, which encourage more abstract processing of one’s feelings. In fact, according to research by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “after a steady trend of increased arts education in the twentieth century, access to arts education has been declining for the past three decades.” This pattern is disturbingly relevant to Boston Public Schools, despite its Art Expansion plan, with many teachers leaving due to a lack of funds for their programs.
In an ironic twist, this downfall in expressive studies has been accompanied by skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide for teens. Between 2019 and 2021, the amount of BPS high schoolers who reported feeling sad or hopeless increased by nine percent, with the national rate increasing by five percent. In light of this, you think there would be more efforts toward scientifically backed, nuanced care for our young people. Numerous studies have shown just how impactful visual arts are in psychological well-being, with The Guardian saying that when presented with the opportunity to work in a variety of mediums, participants in such studies had a “71% decrease in feelings of anxiety and a 73% fall in depression; 76% of participants said their wellbeing increased.” Students need an outlet, and by defunding the arts we are taking that away from them.As we inspect the compelling exhibit that is currently being shown at the MAAM, it is clear that this invalidation of visual arts is an incredibly deep pitfall. On the web page of the exhibit itself, it says that “art, as a form of self-expression, plays a pivotal role in overall wellness,” a sentiment that is readily reflected throughout the show. Again and again, you see artists show just how personally and socially powerful their work can be. The toxic pressure of conformity is eating away at our society, but we can stop it from eating away at our youth and future.