Art Therapy: It’s Not Just an Art Project
Art therapy, in all cases, is a purposeful, relational intervention.
Posted July 31, 2015
In “Art Therapy’s Achilles Heel” [April 2014], I explained that it is not surprising that uses of art making for self-help, self-regulation and self-exploration are ubiquitous. In part, this reflects the natural inclination of humankind to find reparation through creative expression throughout history not only in the form of visual arts, but also through movement and dance, music and sound, dramatic enactment and performance and imaginative play. But this aspect of human evolutionary biology also brings up the question, “Are there circumstances where art itself is the proverbial ‘therapist?’ This is a question that continues to rankle the profession called “art therapist” as well as those who are trying to establish a clearly defined scope of practice for the field. This question magnifies what is a painful and somewhat glaring vulnerability within the profession—that unless there is a clear, unified definition of “what is art therapy,” it is difficult at best to articulate a profession as separate from what is a widely used self-help approach.
A two-part definition of art therapy has existed for many decades now and is nicely summarized in the infographic in this post [courtesy of graphic artist Josh Kale]. According to this longstanding definition, art therapy is consists of a continuum of practice, with “art as therapy” at one end and “art psychotherapy” at the other end. Despite the existence of this and other similar definitions, one does not have to look very far into current social media to see how easily art therapy has been morphed into just about any “feel-good” art project on the grid. A good example of what is currently being called “art therapy” is the adult coloring book phenomenon. Coloring book fanatics proclaim that filling in pre-made designs is even a form of mindfulness and meditation that brings about benefits far beyond mere relaxation or diversion. While coloring books are not mindfulness practices in the true sense of the word, the responses [and millions of coloring book sales] anecdotally reflect that many people do “feel better” when coloring in pre-made designs.
Yes, it is important to “feel-good” and as a professional, that is what I want for each and every child, adult, family or group I see in my expressive arts therapy practice. I want each and every client to be able to use creative expression to feel better [aka resolve challenges] on a regular basis and hopefully not need my services ever again. However, the deeper experience of “art therapy” is not only based in pleasurable creative expression, it is grounded two basic concepts. First, it involves the application of a purposeful, meaningful art-based intervention in contrast to an art activity or art “project.” While some think the idea of “intervention” is not part of the art therapeutic relationship, intervention is the necessary specific, focused action that is taken to achieve or support change within any therapy of any kind. Applying interventions is a central component of any helping professional’s role and is predicated on the second aspect-- relationship. It is the right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere, attuned, interpersonal qualities of the art therapy relationship that support art’s reparative powers. Ultimately, humans as a species have always repaired, recovered and healed within relationships, whether through social support or community or through relationships found in the formal services of a mental health or healthcare professional. So while art expression may bring about a sense of wellness in some sense, it's the relational aspects that are at the center of reparation and recovery through well-targeted interventions-- this is what defines and differientiates "art therapy."
Granted, there will always be those who find art’s healing forces on their own, often in times of trauma, crisis or loss, or simply as a means to reduce stress. Most who are passionate about art therapy “the profession” discovered our calling because we have had our own transformative experiences with art. But without both the clear articulation of purposeful art-based interventions and specific relational dynamics that support these interventions, “art as therapy” and “art psychotherapy” are explanations without traction-- leaving the public to come to its own conclusions about “what is art therapy” and defaulting to “it's an art project” as the definition.
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT
© 2015 Cathy Malchiodi
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For international perspectives on art therapy and timely discussions, visit and join this Facebook page International Art Therapy Organization, or "like" and follow Art Therapy Without Borders.
For recommended art therapy and related readings, please visit this page [includes books translated in over a dozen languages in case you are an international reader].
**This post was inspired by the American Dance Therapy Association's recent article differentiating the benefits of dance/movement therapy from the spectrum of dance-related practices and professions; see ADTA's blog at this link for more information.