What Makes Art Therapy

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Topic : Power of the art image- What makes art therapy unique?

Although visual expression has been used for healing throughout history, art therapy did not emerge as a distinct profession until the 1940s. Given its short history, “art therapy” exists as a term that describes a collection of diverse practices held together by a belief in the healing value of art making. (American Art Therapy Association [AATA], 2010) Though art making itself is inheritably therapeutic, it is the creation of an art object and the introduction of a “third object” into the previously two- way dialogue between client- therapist that defines and distinguishes the discipline.

Art as Therapy versus Art Psychotherapy

Currently there is no universal definition to Art Therapy. With the constant interplay of various shaping forces, art therapy has changed significantly since its early beginnings (Jones, 2005; Malchiodi, 2007; Waller, 1991). Given the challenge to define the discipline, there is a need to not just simply recognize, but also organize, the various definitions of art therapy. Malchiodi (2007) attempted to depict the tension among various schools of thought by neatly dividing them into two camps – “Art as Therapy” and “Art Psychotherapy”. Referred to as “Art as Therapy”, this notion of art therapy focuses on the “inherent healing power” of the creative process of art making. The process of art making remains central and is seen as an experience that can lead to emotional reparation and personal transformation. (Malchiodi, 2007) A strong focus on the process of art making could be seen in AATA (2010)’s official definition of Art Therapy:

(Art Therapy) is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.

— AATA Website

On the other hand, “Art Psychotherapy” differs to “Art as Therapy” in that it sees art as a mean for symbolic communication. By highlighting the art image or artwork, a triangular relationship is formed between the therapist, the client and the art. Artistic expressions such as drawings and paintings was said to play a significant role in “achieving insight; resolving conflicts; solving problems; and would lead to positive changes, growth, and healing”. (Malchiodi, 2007, p. 5) The unique contribution of a client- therapist- image triad would be demonstrated in various parts of this essay.

Theoretical Orientations- An Eclectic Approach

In practice, art therapists build on various theoretical orientations for healing purpose. Sometimes regarded as an interdisciplinary form of psychotherapy, art therapy is fundamentally a synthesis of art and therapy (Malchiodi, 2007; Rubin, 1999, 2010; Vick, 2003). With the constant interplay of various shaping forces, the scope of knowledge art therapists possess is rooted in a variety of sources including; developmental, psychological, educational, cognitive and transpersonal perspectives. (AATA, 2010) As the very nature of art assumes a dynamic unconscious (Rubin, 2004); many believe that psychoanalytic theory still dominates art therapy. However, both the AATA and the British Association of Art Therapy [BAAT] described art therapist to be of a variety of orientations. The claim is backed up by research conducted in 2000, where 21% of art therapists described their theoretical orientation as “eclectic” and a diversity of theoretical approaches indicated gestalt, behavioral, cognitive, psychoanalytic and Jungian were being cited at similar levels. (Elkins & Stovall, 2000)

Post-modern approaches- Art therapy melding with systemic therapy

Growing up parallel to group therapy and family therapy, art therapists readily embrace the systemic perspective and a postmodernist way of thinking. Family art therapy was recognized in 1989 by AATA; since then the...
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