By Charles Anderson, BFA, ATR
I feel fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of art therapy over the many years of my career, including over 40 years at Menninger’s, and after that (while I am supposedly in my retirement) at the psychiatric unit of a major medical center. I have observed that our profession has generated much dialogue and even contention when it has come to articulating our identity. In the earlier years, when we were employed at Menninger’s, I engaged in many discussions with Don Jones and Bob Ault about what would be the defining factors of our field.
Bob addressed an early AATA conference by asking the following question: “If someone woke you in the middle of the night and asked, what is your profession and what do you call yourself, what would you say?” The variety of answers generated by this presentation and later discussion reflected the diverse makeup of our membership at the time: “I am an artist doing therapy through art” or “I use art to supplement words in my private practice as a psychotherapist.”
We agreed that what was needed was a unified identity, rather than individual explanations. However, although Art Therapy seemed the best choice for referring to what we did, there was a reluctance to emphasize the word “therapy” too strongly, because of the fear that it might not accepted by other types of clinicians.
Of course, this was prior to the formal establishment of any significant number of master’s programs specifically in art therapy. Many people doing this work at the time, including Bob and myself, were trained as artists, and were tied to the identity that “I am an artist who uses the creative process of art as therapy.” This response reflected the emphasis on the healing quality of the art-making process.
At the time, activity therapists also emphasized the creative process and used the same explanation for their approach. At Menninger’s, they made remarks such as “We all use art media with patients, so we are all ‘art therapists’.” Many activity therapists and others believed that Art Therapy was just a fancy title for an organization and profession that would spring up and disappear within a short time. My own activity therapy supervisor at Menninger’s communicated this belief to me. Fortunately, early AATA leaders and others were working to define our profession with exciting ideas and theory; yet for quite some time we continued to struggle over the multitude of approaches.
Margaret Naumburg saw the benefit of art as a form of speech to permit a direct expression of inner experiences, which often occur in pictures or symbols rather than words. The projection of material directly into imagery allowed it to escape the censorship that was more likely in verbal expression. Naumburg believed this was beneficial in terms of accuracy as well as to speed up the therapy process. The image is a permanent contribution to the session, in that it is a material object that cannot be undone, forgotten or denied. In addition, the art could serve as a substitute for the therapist in traditional dynamics such as transference or dependency needs.
On the other hand, Edith Kramer felt that art therapy’s primary contribution was in manipulating the inherent healing power of the creative process. She applied psychodynamic concepts to her understanding, but the patient was not involved in verbal psychoanalysis. Instinctual or psychotic energy could be integrated via sublimation through the process of producing finished works of art. The creation of psychic order via an art product provided an equivalency experience of creating order in the patient’s internal and external world.
Kramer’s approach was a metaphorical way of working, and attractive to people with their training in fine art and no additional training (such as we could obtain in psychoanalysis at Menninger’s.) But others aligned with Naumburg’s model and viewed the primary value of the art as a means of symbolic communication within the psychotherapeutic relationship. They might call what they did art psychotherapy; the identity was more strongly tied to traditional therapy.
Elinor Ulman, who loved dialogue (and some would say, argument) and had established the first art therapy journal, wrote a seminal essay in which she described art as the “meeting ground of the inner and outer world.” She ventured that the primary goal of this art activity must be therapy, both in the form of assessment as well as treatment; however, depending on the individual approach, she acknowledged that patients might see you as more of an art teacher than a therapist. Ulman concluded that Art Therapy needed to be true to both art and therapy. She provided an essential definition of its overall purpose as “assisting favorable change in personality or in living that outlasts the session itself.”
Ulman’s notable attempts to unify the field did not immediately resolve the tension within the profession as to whether Art or Therapy would be the dominant parent. However, as a result of the willingness of all of the aforementioned art therapists’ willingness to engage in discussions and dialogues, our field gradually became more clearly defined, established, and respected. Thank goodness my old supervisor was wrong! As the ATCB celebrates its 25thyear and the AATA moves into its 50th, we can all be proud of a profession with a unique identity grounded in a strong body of literature, well-established graduate training, and rigorous national credentials.
Ault, R. (1976). Are you an artist or a therapist: A professional dilemma of art therapists. In R. H. Shoemaker & S. Gonick-Barris (Eds.), Creativity and the art therapist’s identity: Proceedings of the 7th Annual American Art Therapy Association Conference (pp. 53-56). Baltimore, MD: American Art Therapy Association.