What is Art Therapy ?
Is art capable of therapeutic effect? “Yes” would probably be our first guess, as we are able to recognize that certain images and sounds have the potential to calm us down, or lift us up. But what if we assume that art is a form of therapy as well, not only as a composition of beautifully arranged elements, but also as a process, or rather, a form of expression? Well, it seems that we would be right again. Art therapy is a term that usually refers to practice pursued by those professionals who specialize both in art and therapy, and from which people can benefit just like they do from regular psychotherapy. How is this achieved, and are there any other types of art therapy? Let’s dive into the topic.
What the Professionals Mean by the Term
Picture paints a thousand words, and art therapy relies on this statement entirely. Psychotherapists who were trained for this type of treatment appreciate art’s capacity to interpret human condition and emotional state more directly and accurately than phrases and terms. Therefore, they encourage their patients to express themselves through different media, allowing them to choose the suitable one and to use these techniques as a tool of communication. Results come in a variety of forms, including drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, even dancing is mentioned as a common mode of expression. Images and artifacts that are produced serve to send a message to the therapist, delivered in a form that is undoubtedly more genuine as a transcript of thoughts than the type of expression constrained by language, since the latter is prone to errors and it often causes misunderstandings. This way, the bond between the therapist and the client comes in a pure form, which not only helps the therapist understand the client’s issues and concerns, it also distributes their anxieties and subconscious trauma that haven’t been articulated into words. It is one safe, effective way to get through to someone, and in some cases, for people to get to know themselves better.
Is It about Art, or about Therapy?
As you can suppose, art therapy takes its place loosely within the confines of “mental health” professions, and you can probably imagine what a session looks like. However, this type of activity could make us wonder if art can be a form of therapy without the presence of a psychotherapist as a mediator, or better yet – if therapy really is art. Of course, the question has to be explained in more detail, and assessed from a few different angles. First of all, it should be noted that the syntagma “art therapy” consists of two significant words, each of which could be the dominant one. Art therapists sometimes emphasize that the point of art therapy is not in the visual beauty or representative value of the artwork created, but rather on the process of healing and the accomplishment of well-being. It seems like art is hereby used only as a tool and that it definitely steps away from the “art for art’s sake” concept – which is fair, given that it is merely a discipline from which therapy borrows some principles, while the focus remains on therapy. On the other hand, we could address this matter from another perspective and ask if art is, indeed, an appropriate term to complete the name given to this type of counseling or healing, or is it just used as a word that’s close enough to what this type of therapy does, and sounds better than “visual expression”. Point in question being – without trying to undermine the significance and inventiveness of art therapy, does this type of expression really aspire to the status of an artwork?
Outsider Art – A Possible Predecessor of Art Therapy
Now seems like a good time to call for Outsider Art to back us up. Apparently, not everything that we create nowadays needs to be placed into one of two categories (contemporary art versus lowbrow or kitsch). Jean Dubuffet defined Art Brut (which is the French “version” of the term Outsider Art) as raw, primitive art, and here the word primitive is used in its original sense, meaning uninhibited, natural. In this case, it most directly means: not interested in the rules of the game set by the “elite” culture. Hence, Outsider Art involves a variety of forms, diverse in aesthetics and probably not even aiming to be artistic or to send a particular message. Most of outsider artists didn’t like to be called artists at all, they were simply expressing themselves through artistic mediums, which is, admittedly, quite reminiscent of what the art therapy attendants seem to be doing. Relevantly, Adolf Wölfli, one of the first people who were proclaimed as outsider artists, spent more than a half of his life in a psychiatric hospital, even claiming that he had no interest in art before he admitted himself to a mental institution.
Art-Making is Therapeutic, but Is That Enough?
Our ancestors used to make drawings and carvings without even knowing what art means, which is one of the possible ways to refer to the idea behind art therapy (and behind Outsider Art as well). The need to represent and to document is apparently something that came to us naturally, and probably much before language evolved. Admittedly, this could also mean that your own wish to create, or to simply express your emotion through something other than words is something that can easily be done without the agency of a professional therapist. Perhaps Jackson Pollock used dripping and rolling over his giant horizontal canvases as a form of stress relief. Or Cy Twombly, when he tried to take on the intuitive, primitive drawing in dark. And even the figurative painters, the realists, hyperrealists. Art-making, as well as the very realization of an artwork, must have the capacity to affect the artist positively at every level, regardless of their mental and physical health.
Still, the term “art therapy” is reserved for the therapists who do their work in order to help people, especially those in actual need. This means that a psychotherapist is, indeed, a mediator whose engagement is required, in cases when the goal is not to simply “take everything out” on paper, but also to help us understand our problems and conditions through one of these programs.
In case you don’t believe in the efficiency of art therapy, this book will explain everything from a scientific point of view. Art Therapy and the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity and Resiliency may be interesting to you even if you’re not interested in therapy as such, and if you’re not an artist either. It could satisfy your curiosity regarding the secrets of human nature as well, given that it offers an in-depth outlook on the structure of our behavior, specifically regarding creativity. In addition, the book is beautifully illustrated and it provides extensive examples, which bring the whole issue to a more engaging level.
Featured images: Venus de Milo; Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, 2016; Color palette; Example of an art therapy session. All images used for illustrative purposes only.