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What is Art Therapy?

ART TIMES September 2008

Art making is not art therapy. The difference is very meaningful, but confusion and ignorance about art therapy are rife and its reputation somewhat dubious.

Art therapy has finally become a licensed psychotherapy in New York State. It is now officially recognized as parallel in status to the other, more traditional, psychotherapies. As such it is reimbursable by most big private health insurance companies.

Clarification is definitely called for.

Not that art therapy is unknown. Nor is it that art therapists are not doing good work. Lately there has been a flood of articles about the power and benefits of art therapy in magazines, newspapers and journals all over the country and the world. It's a hot topic. Readers of this magazine may have come across some of these articles. The problem is that descriptions of what art therapists actually do and why it helps are either ill-informed or just not good enough.

One of the biggest mistakes is to equate art therapy with art making.

I think everybody accepts that making art can be good for you. A wonderful example appeared recently in a documentary on PBS about an open studio project in a hospital upstate. A professional artist with a crusading ambition to help patients was given a big space and a big budget. Easels and artist quality materials were bought. The studio opened and was made available for many hours daily. Patients were encouraged to come and make art.

A number of patients came. Some of them started to spend many hours every day in the studio. It helped all of them cope with their hospital stay and for a few of them it was a life changing experience. Those, for whom it was life changing, were people with real talent. They had not pursued careers as artists before their hospitalization, but the illness or injury which brought them to the hospital, and made it impossible for them to continue doing the work that they did before, made them ready for change. Now, given the opportunity to experience making art regularly, some of them decided to become artists. No doubt this is a good thing. But it is not art therapy.

Another example would be to look at your own lives as artists, or people who enjoy art witnessing in any form. As long as you are making or experiencing art, you become curious, you come alive, your inner world is touched, you experience beauty and you are more then OK. But again, this is not art therapy.

Indeed art therapists agree that making art per se is good. They use this beneficial state as the foundation for good therapy.

Let us look at the benefits of making art.

Many of the articles written lately refer to these benefits: Having a good time and enjoying the process of artmaking; the chance to turn one's attention away from suffering (I am not sure that this is a therapeutic benefit at all); having a sense of accomplishment when the work turns out to his or her satisfaction; becoming calm and satisfied; being able to express and communicate content that is hard to express otherwise. The last of these benefits can become therapeutic. The participation of a good, sensitive, and deeply knowing witness can turn this expression, of the otherwise inexpressible, into therapy. But this is already beyond just making art.

As an art therapist I find it necessary to term the benefits of artmaking differently. Here are a few examples:

One turns inward at last — instead of trying to pursue his happiness outside, which is impossible.

One develops the ability to consider the overall composition, which allows for a wider and wiser view, instead of getting lost in separate details.

One learns that his own creativity can be the source of satisfaction, which means that HE or SHE is a worthy person and HIS or HER life is meaningful.

All these do come automatically from just making art, if you do it long enough. They can be enhanced immeasurably, so that they happen quicker and in a deeper way, with the presence of a good art therapist.


How do art therapists use artmaking in a way that is so uniquely effective?

I would like to give an example from nature. This is justified, because the process of healing is basically a natural process, in which people let go of what stops them from being happy, and come back to the way they can be, which is their innate happiness.

The sun shines every day and sends its warmth and benefits to the earth non-stop. It is always there and always shining.

If there is a tree, the light of the sun falls on the tree, which in turn casts its shadow on a part of the earth, blocking the sun's light. Some plants cannot grow in this shadow. If you want to plant something that needs light you had better know the map of where the shadow falls.

Like the sun outside which always shines, we have an inner source of happiness that always shines. Every one of us has it. It is always there and always shines. But we too have things that block the light and cast shadows. These blocks are our habitual inhibiting thought patterns, or inner conflicts. The more thought patterns we have, the more difficult it is for that inner light to shine through.

This inner light comes out as creativity. Not only in art, but in everything that we do. Creativity here means a fresh, authentic and truthful response to everything.

When art therapists start working with a person, the first thing they do is to help this person find his/her way to let creativity come through. What for artists is an inborn gift is not inaccessible for all others. Everybody can be taught how to tap into his or her creative source. This serves as the basic condition for what comes next.

When the inner light finds its way to the paper or the canvas, the inner conflicts or thought patterns, which stand in the way, cast their shadows on the artwork.

An art therapist is trained to see these shadows in people's art. His next duty is to help the client see them too. This role, of helping the client become aware of his or her inner workings, is best done through the arts. Nothing can shine the inner light into the outside world like any of the arts. But art therapy has an important advantage over almost all the other arts. The results of the light and the shadows remain fixed to the paper or the canvas and visible for as long as we want to look at them. We can go back to what was expressed long ago, when it is meaningful to do so and it is very helpful. We can find repeated patterns and tendencies. In all other therapeutic modalities, except for writing and poetry, (and lately, video), the testimony of inner life disappears as soon as it is done.

The culmination of the process is when the therapist guides the patient through the release of these inner inhibiting thought patterns and emotions. Again, there is nothing that so easily enables this process of releasing better than artmaking.

In the hands of a good art therapist, artmaking becomes the good foundation for the therapy, the instrument of discovery and one of the best and strongest ways to easily release blockages.

If even one of the shadow-casting inner-thought-patterns is eliminated, more of the inner light comes through, and the client becomes more authentic, his or her life becomes more meaningful naturally and he or she becomes happier.

Artmaking then becomes a very good way to experience and express wellbeing, which is also very important, until the next problem shows itself in the art.

This was a general description of art therapy. There is one more important thing to note.

It used to be that psychotherapists specialized in one or several diagnoses, and based their work on specialized learning and the experience that they have accumulated in their specific areas. It is still that way in most cases. But the more modern modalities of therapy are universal and this may be the direction therapy is going. The process of healing through art therapy is a universal process too. Problems that people have are varied and numerous. But the principles of how problems are created and how to discover and release them are the same. Every problem that people suffer from will show itself in their art, and, in the presence of a good art therapist, will be released.

(Giora Carmi is an art therapist, founder of "Psychotherapy Through Art" in New York City.)