What You Should Know About Art, Art Therapy & Art as Therapy

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

You have probably heard about art therapy. However, the term can seem nebulous. I mean, there are art historians with several degrees that are not sure how to define contemporary art. If they cannot do it, how is anybody supposed to understand art, let alone art therapy?


What is your own definition of art?


Let’s start with the basics. Art is any creative action taken by a human being to express themselves. The emphasis is on being creative. It may seem like this is a vague definition. However, the arts include everything from sculpture to painting to poems to theatre. This definition allows for the inclusion of these multitudinous art forms. Also, it allows for variations of creative practices. For example, there are artist that show their work in fancy New York galleries while others are at country craft fairs. The difference between them is termed Fine Art (with a capital “F” and capital “A”) versus art.


To understand the difference between Fine Art and art, it is really a matter of understanding the terms utilitarian and conceptualism. Utilitarian means to be designed to be useful or practical, not necessarily attractive. Take a coffee mug made by an artist. It is useful. It may even look pretty. It is art. But not Fine Art. In this example, the coffee mug has the ability to be used. If the coffee mug is lucky, it maybe visually attractive too.


Now we come to Fine Art. In Fine Art, a piece of artwork may have a function, it is useful or visually attractive, but it must contain something for the mind as well. It must be conceptual. According to Tate.org, conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. Let’s look at a piece by Picasso (see below).

Pablo Picasso Musicians Playing
Pablo Picasso Musician Playing

When you first look at this piece by Picasso, it is easy to only see shapes and colors. It may look like white and blue square stacked upon one another. But if you look closer, the stacked squares are three people behind a music stand (delineated by musical notes) playing instruments. It does not matter what the people look like. I don’t need every detail of a person to know that it is a musician. Picasso gives the viewer enough information that the brain can tell it is a group of three musicians playing. Picasso’s painting gives the idea and the feelings of watching a group of musicians, not the color of their eyes or their hair color. It is the idea of musicians playing that is most important. Therefore, Fine Art is not just a feast for the eyes but the mind as well.


What is art therapy?


Let’s define art therapy. Imagine you are a teenager. Do you remember in your teens, when you would feel all your emotions at once? Mad, sad, embarrassed, excited and happy all at the same time. However, all that would come out when asked, ‘How are you?’ was an eye-roll and a scoff. In art therapy, an art therapist helps people express themselves using art. Again, going back to the teenager example, you had a rotten day at school but felt there was no way your parents would understand. A word just did not seem to express what happened or how you felt. In art therapy, an art therapist would ask you to draw out your feelings and/or have you use different exercises to help you express your experience.


More plainly put, art therapy lets the soul express itself. According to Shaun McNiff an art therapist and author of Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination, provides a definition for the soul,


The word soul suggests the essential nature of persons and other phenomena. It is characterized by individuality, the aesthetic quality, or aura that distinguishes one thing from another. It is also an inner movement or stirring, the force of creative animation and vitality.

Everyone has an internal consciousness or spirit. However, the difference between most and art therapy participants is an inability to express upsetting experiences or feelings. McNiff explains, “Art therapy’s embrace of pathos can actually contribute to the revitalization of art, which flourishes when it opens to the troubles of the soul.” By learning how to use an artist’s tools like paint and a brush, participants have new ways to communicate what words often lack. As a result, art therapy participants gain new skills in expression in a safe environment where trauma is accepted not feared.


The skills one receives in art therapy are critical. McNiff quoting Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, “As Jung suggests, a better understanding of inner processes will benefit what we do in the “outer” world of therapeutic practice.” Therefore, the definition of art therapy is to assist patients therapeutically in understanding and expressing their souls’ so they can better function in the world.


What is Art as Therapy?


Art as therapy is the process where the artist uses their own artistic practices to independently express their own life experiences and emotions. By ultimately expressing the artist’s soul, the artist gains the therapeutic benefits of traditional art therapy. McNiff reiterates this process, “Life itself is the material of art. Individual artists are encouraged to experiment and find styles and methods of expression that resonate with their natures and the needs of the soul.” This is the purpose of art therapy is for the patient to become an artist. Once the patient has found the right artistic tools that resonate with them, the patient can practice art therapy independently of the art therapist. It has now become art as therapy.


Yayoi Kusama Close-Up of Work at 2019 NYC Exhibit
Yayoi Kusama Close-Up of Work at 2019 NYC Exhibit

Many artists feel they are expressing their emotions and experiences in their artistic practice. However, some artists feel that art as therapy is the conceptual underpinnings of their practice. Take, for example, Yayoi Kusama who is the highest-paid female artist of our time. If you are not familiar with her work, Kusama paints polka dots on multiple objects. She then takes the objects and places them in a room where the ceiling and walls are covered with mirrors. The mirrors create an infinity effect. The resulting room becomes one singular art piece. In the art world, the room is called an installation. In this way, Kusama expresses her mental health processes, experiences, and emotions using the tools of polka dots and installation. McNiff explains, “It was temenos, a sacred precinct, where soul paintings covered the walls and welcomed those yet to come.” For artists like myself and Yayoi Kusama, we are throwing our souls on the wall.


Currently, I am using metal flowers to express my soul. My flowers are scarred metal transformed into a sacred soul object. This is what I do with my trauma. I transform it. I make my trauma a source to help others. This is also why I donate part of the proceeds back to help others. I want my work to be a soul painting on the world.


If you would like a sacred soul object and help improve the world at the same time, please join me here.


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