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What is Art Therapy?

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

As some of you know, I have recently started a Masters Degree in Art Psychotherapy. I'll be writing some blog posts and posting videos on social media about this subject, but to kick if off I wanted to share a short essay I had to submit to get onto the MA degree initially - it gives a basic overview of what art therapy is.

For thousands of years people have been expressing themselves through art as a healing mechanism. One of the oldest art forms in human history created by the Sans people are believed to have been linked to ancient healing rituals (Witelson et al. 2021) along with the Navajo people of Native America, who to this day still use sand paintings within healing ceremonies. Frida Kahlo is one of many famous artists who created art to deal with traumatic events, quoting in Time Magazine (1953), “Painting completed my life... I am not sick, I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” Whilst it is evident that art has been used as a therapeutic tool throughout history, the concept of art therapy is fairly new and it was only officially recognised by the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine in 1981 (Waller 2013).

Art therapy is a hybrid term combining the arts and psychoanalytic ways of thinking, primarily to help individuals experiencing psychological challenges. Art therapists work with people from infancy to old age and you do not have to be skilled in art to take part in art therapy. The current definition from the British Associations of Art Therapists (BAAT) is:

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing. (BAAT website 2021)

The emphasis within this definition is on using art as a third dimension of communication, however Adrian Hill, the UK pioneer who coined the term art therapy in 1942, may have disagreed. Hill saw the act of art-making as the healing itself and noted that art engaged one physically and in thought (Hill, 1948, as cited in Case and Dalley, 2014). From my experience as an artist I can agree with Hill on that creating art you have to be present in the moment to forge a mind & body connection which in itself is an act of mindfulness and therefore can aid relaxation. Nevertheless, even though this is a form of expression it does not take into account psychoanalytical ways of thinking and understanding how this expression can give us access to our unconscious and therefore overcome emotional challenges. Margaret Naumburg (1955) pioneered art therapy in America and was influenced by the psychoanalytical writings of Freud in that art-making can give us access to our unconscious through symbolic images. She emphasised the importance of understanding the image through the transference relationship with the therapist (1953).

Once we see how art can bridge the gap between the inner and outer world then it is clear to see what art therapy is. Art is subjective and a way of communicating without using words, therefore an art therapist is trained to work with their client to make sense of the artwork produced and give the individual a voice.


By Bethany Lewin, 2021


References Márquez, F. Mexican Autobiography. (1953, April 27). Time Magazine. http://content.time.com/ time/subscriber/article/0,33009,818329,00.html Case, C., & Dalley, T. (2014). The Handbook of Art Therapy (3rd ed.). Routledge. Naumburg, M. (1953). Psychoneurotic art: its function in psychotherapy. Grune & Stratton. Naumburg, M. (1955). Art as Symbolic Speech. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 13(4), 435–450. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540_6245.jaac13.4.0435 Waller, D. (2013). Becoming a Profession (Psychology Revivals): The History of Art Therapy in Britain 1940–82 (1st ed.). Routledge. Witelson, D. M., Lewis-Williams, D., Pearce, D., & Challis, S. (2021, March 31). An ancient San rock art mural in South Africa reveals new meaning. The Conversation. https:// theconversation.com/an-ancient-san-rock-art-mural-in-south-africa-reveals-new- meaning-157

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