Art therapy is a set of methods based on the therapeutic use of the process of artistic creation. Art serves to restore communication, encourage self-expression and strengthen the creative processes in a person.
Art therapy is an occupation both for the hands and for the mind. In addition to aesthetic delight which activates the pleasure center in the brain, it can free us of certain symptoms of mental disorders. An explanation of the mechanism behind this is offered by psychoanalysis. Freud uses the term “conversion” to refer to the transfer of “purely mental excitement to the bodily” , and one of the areas where anxiety disorders manifest themselves is the body (the other two are thoughts and behaviour). According to psychoanalysis, the libido is interwoven with the other types of mental symptoms. The disentanglement of this knot and the investment of the libido in, say, creativity (known as “sublimation”) may lead to elimination of a symptom. Sublimation, according to Freud, has given rise to “many of the achievements of our culture”. And while sublime art is for the most talented and gifted artists, the expression of the mental excitement at the root of the symptom through painting, crafting, dance, etc. is available to anyone who can overcome their fear of spontaneity and lack of restrictions in the creation of a painting, mosaic, a clay figure, a collage or a poem.
Art therapy, just like psychoanalysis (and sometimes even better), can “look at” and cast light on all topics important to the individual – ideas of one’s own self, family, the past, traumatizing events, ways of coping, the future.
An interesting element in art therapy can be the use of silence which Prof. Shipkovensky refers to as “healing”. Immersion in the creative process enables the person to temporarily stop complaining, rest in silence and experience the pleasure of creating something beautiful.
Various art forms can be used: sculpting with clay or plasticine, drawing, collage, photography, mosaic, installation, puppets, theatre, pantomime, video, filmmaking, cartoon. A special place is held by music therapy which may include singing, dancing, listening to music, playing various instruments. Creative writing opens up vast opportunities – although here the main tool for expression are words, the possibility of projection on imaginary characters circumvents censorship on disapproved emotions or thoughts. This process not only leads to expression of forgotten events and profound experiences, but also to rethinking and transformation of mental contents. It connects our inner world with reality.
Art therapy can be especially beneficial for people who find it difficult to speak, organize and structure their thoughts, express their emotions and bodily perceptions in words. Self-revelation through art is achieved imperceptibly and without the tension which may accompany verbal sharing. It allows one to ignore the laws of logic and common sense, which can be done safely within such a framework.
A participant in art therapy can give symbolic expression to their memories, experiences, and even to mental trauma. They can cut and tear paper, which “awakens playfulness and a child’s freedom to destroy.” Drawing takes up back to our childhood when we were more curious and motivated, more inventive and seeking. The building up of a work of art stimulates also our ability to build up and accomplish our real-life projects. It makes us act, be active, fulfill our desires. It brings satisfaction from the creative process and from the outcome, from the feeling of being a “creator”.
Art therapy also has the advantages of play – it triggers the pursuit of discovery, releases us of the burden of responsibility, breaks the frames and is fun.
Art therapy is closest to the primitive forms of expression trough art, which are the most spontaneous ones. Aesthetic criteria are not so important, what matters is “the sincerity and fullness of self-expression, and not the end product or what the audience thinks of it.” This method “differs from other forms of psychotherapy in its trilateral process between client, therapist and the image or product created.” It “makes use of the overall experience of the body, and not just of that of the intellect,” and is an extraordinary opportunity to develop emotional intelligence, which has been justly emphasized lately.
The practicing of art therapy in a group teaches empathy, understanding and respect for the feelings of others, the ability to assume a different point of view. It gives a chance to achieve satisfaction from the recognition and appraisal of others, from belonging within a group of peers. Negative emotions – anger, envy, hatred – can be expressed in an acceptable and non-destructive way.
In cases of apathy or anhedonia, lost feelings may come back first in a drawing or a creative process, and later on in one’s thoughts and mood.
In addition to forgotten or traumatic mental content, through art one can reach one’s hidden abilities, talent and potential for personal development.