Stephen Colbert Goes to Art Therapy

Did The Late Show just lampoon art therapy?

Posted Mar 15, 2018

Art therapy is not a newcomer to comedy and spoof. For as long as I can remember, the field has had its share of humorous jabs and misrepresentations, some in the form of cartoons and others via television and film. Last night, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert took on the topic:

The segment ended with Colbert determining that “art therapy is not stupid” (after he said it was, albeit jokingly) and the announcement that the images created during the skit would be auctioned for charity. While many art therapists are cringing at the twists and turns of this comedy skit, others and the public seem to be split on their responses. After all, it was meant to be humorous and as Colbert said, “I was just working through some issues” including his frustrations (authentic) with the current political scene and his shock (pretend) about the death of Public Television’s iconic art instructor Bob Ross.

While I love humor and satire, the skit often fell somewhat flat; perhaps I have seen one too many lampoons of the field over the course of my art therapy career and this one had no surprises. For me, however, it was helpful to watch because it brought to question once again “just what is art therapy?” That seems odd to say after three decades of work in this field. But I was both surprised as well as amused at the two “directives” were used as the centerpieces in the skit—“draw what you are feeling” and “draw a bridge and show me where you are on the bridge” (to which Colbert found a clever retort, observing that he jumped off the bridge). His visual responses were understandably pretty straightforward—a Snoopy-like sketch, a canvas simply said “Art,” and a face that expressed an emotion (with a related reference to drinking). While art therapists do embrace the idea of the unconscious emerging via drawings, it was hard not wonder what role each image played in the skit for comedic effect, too.

I do understand that many art therapists may still be using these techniques to start their sessions, but it also made me wonder why these particular directives may continue to be “go-to” approaches among the art therapy community and if they were apparently still being taught as standard practices for art therapy sessions. I have to admit, this is not the way I work, nor do many of my art therapy colleagues. I had to wonder if the art therapist interviewed had captured, on purpose or by accident, some of methodology that has remained stereotypically representative of the field for decades, even as neuroscience has expanded views of how expressive work such as art therapy repairs and improves health and well-being. It is an interesting question for all art therapists to think about and for me, reframes this Late Show lampooning as an opportunity to examine the trajectory of the field.

Finally, it is admirable that Colbert has put his art therapy sketches up for auction; he understands fully how public personas can make a few lines on paper and what those doodlings can bring in terms of charitable donations from those eager to own something that celebrity has touched. As I said via social media today, I am hopeful that the money raised from this auction goes to the cause that was the focus on the day this episode of The Late Show aired—the national student walkout and the issue of gun violence in the US. Make the March for Our Lives movement and the Sandy Hook Promise the recipients of these funds, Mr. Colbert; I can endure any spoof or lampoon of art therapy as long as we can put human rights first over professional spotlight.