Art therapy, like many things, has changed and evolved over time. According to Susan Hogan (2001), the precursor to what is now considered art therapy comes from the so-called moral treatment carried out in the 18th century. This moral treatment “arose out of utilitarian philosophy and also from a non-conformist religious tradition” (Hogan, 2001, p. 47). Along the lines of Foucault’s ideas about treating madness, moral treatment was based on the idea that “the object of art can act as a mirror… patients will see themselves more objectively and … delusion can therefore be overcome and rationality brought into play” (ibid. p. 48). In other words, in this moral treatment the insane would project important features of their condition onto the art piece. Once these features could be observed in the art object, it would make the illness more objective, with features that were more easily recognizable, analyzable, and therefore treatable.
But what is art therapy nowadays?
According to the British Association of Art Therapists:
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. … Clients may have a wide range of difficulties, disabilities or diagnoses .… It is not a recreational activity or an art lesson, although the sessions can be enjoyable.
Similarly, the American Art Therapy Association says that:
A goal in art therapy is to improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal well-being … Research supports the use of art therapy within a professional relationship for the therapeutic benefits gained through artistic self-expression and reflection for individuals who experience illness, trauma, and mental health problems and those seeking personal growth.
So, it seems, art therapy’s purpose is to get a wide range of patients with a wide range of problems to create art for therapeutic benefits. Art therapy thus aims to improve people’s well-being, which is probably the aim of many therapies. The key difference is that in this case the production of paintings, sculptures, photos, and so on is the means of improvement.
How might creative production make people feel better?
I see two possible non-exclusive options. First, it could be that communication and expression through creative activities is always pleasant. That is, art production may make people feel better by increasing their pleasant feelings—and this remains true for people suffering from, for instance, illness, trauma, or mental health problems. Second, it could be that producing art is especially helpful for the people suffering from a wide range of conditions. That is, there is something about creative artistic activities that particularly helps people who are suffering.
One reason to reject the first possibility is that, in fact, not everyone finds painting, drawing, and colouring pleasurable. Think of how many people hate art class! Art therapy and art classes are, of course, not exactly the same thing. Even if we reject the first possibility, we might still accept the second. Maybe artistic activities are particularly pleasant for people undergoing physical or mental difficulties.
Whether art is particularly beneficial for sufferers or not, there is some reason to think that art therapy works. For instance, it has been shown that art therapy programs have had positive results for women in prison (see Ferszt, 2004). In a safe environment and using different techniques (drawing, sculpture, collage, etc.), “women could express feelings of sadness, emptiness, and anger. These … women also discussed that the art allowed them to express feelings that they were not able to express with traditional talk therapy” (ibid.).
Moreover, veterans who were in war have also used art therapy to cope with some of the problems they face after their return. A clear example of this is the masks made by veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, as photographed by the National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson. If art therapy has positive results for these people, one explanation may be that it is easier for them to express how they feel by creating such masks than through talking or other means of communication. Expressing how they feel, through art, seems to make sufferers feel better.
In summary, art therapy aims to improve the well being of people who undergo some type of mental or physical difficulty by the means of creative production. Over time, we have developed a clearer notion of what art therapy is, and there is now good reason to think that it is successful in improving the well being of people who suffer. So, since we know what art therapy is and that it works, maybe the next step is to start promoting it more:
For instance, you could contribute money to an art therapy program like Demelza for children with terminal illnesses or the Birmingham Centre for Art Therapies, find an art therapist yourself (in the UK or in the US), or even find out more about becoming an art therapist.
Ferszt G.G., et al., (2004), Art Therapy with Incarcerated Women Who Have Experienced the Death of a Loved One, Art Therapy , Vol. 21, Iss. 4.
Hogan, S., (2001), Healing arts : the history of art therapy; forewords by Mary Douglas and David Lomas, London : Jessica Kingsley.