Being an art teacher hugely inspired my decision to enter art therapy. Students deal, often invisibly, with a variety of forces that enter the learning situation, and by far the most common roadblock in the art classroom is the struggle with “I can’t do it”. Referring in part to this, Ada Zhang, owner/operator of Lolart Enjoy Education art school and the first and greatest of my art teaching mentors in Toronto, once said “You can’t just be an art teacher. You have to be a psychologist.” And it’s absolutely true. Few things I know of confront people so rudely and immediately with their own perceived shortcomings as creating works of visual art.
For this reason, although the focus of art lessons is on the surface of a technical nature, learning success is truly a matter of emotion. Specifically, it is about the repairing or balancing character of interaction between two or more people, one of which serving as an informed guide. From a clinical perspective we call this the therapeutic relationship.
Contemporary literature on the subject indicates that variances in theoretical orientation among therapists matter less than the strength of the therapeutic bond between they and their clients. Put simply, the more likeable and trustworthy therapists appear, the more profound and lasting the changes that occur in therapy are predicted to be. This begs the question – and it’s a good one – about what the effective differences between art therapy, and standard art sessions which hold a therapeutic effect (art-as-therapy) are. In fact, this just might be THE central dispute driving the evaluation of art therapy at large as a treatment modality.
If individual skill sets or approaches are really secondary to basic personality in determining therapeutic success, how do art teachers compare with art therapists? Can’t a teacher outperform a therapist if adequately gifted?
The role of empathy in relationship cannot be overstated, and the plain truth of it, before proceeding to nuance, is that there are more and less empathic people, both therapists and teachers alike; and yes, there is no reason why a given teacher or artist, compared with a given therapist, could not in fact have more to offer a particular client with this in mind. But here we are dealing in concretes: THIS teacher compared to THAT therapist. Getting nitpicky, adding THAT client shifts the dynamic yet again. However “Teachers” and “therapists” as types of things is what we set out to evaluate. For our purposes, the real issue is whether a person enriched by psychotherapeutic training becomes more empathic. In other words, if we put that same talented teacher through an art therapy program, would they become yet more effective, and thus outperform our compared therapist by an even greater factor?
I should say that the answer is a great big YES. It’s unlikely to think that someone would become less empathic by undergoing this process, and if no benefit is gained, then they still remain in full possession of their starting talents. At the very least, I will say that I personally have profited enormously from studying psychotherapy, especially in the sense that it has made me a trained listener…and this is a skill that I take just about everywhere.
There is much more to therapy than listening, naturally; judicious application of area-specific knowledge is also entailed. This is especially pertinent within one area where artists, art teachers, and art therapists may find themselves competing: grants. Many sources of art funding out there have been created to target specific populations (e.g. at-risk youth). That art is meant to be therapy-like is implied in such cases: especially as an outlet for expression, art acts as a balm for the host of issues experienced by a demographic. Without question, art’s inherent properties allow people to use it to this end somewhat naturally, and the art teacher can with their insight into the medium enhance their efforts that much further. Unlike their counterpart, however, the art therapist is trained both in how to engage the emotional dimension underlying art making, and in population-specific issues, making leveraging the intended benefits of art easier and more efficient, in theory. Certain details and issues that would never chart on your teaching radar otherwise become visible through the art therapy angle, and this information is applicable in or outside of clinical situations.
Not every art session will be therapeutically based, and art therapy sessions can include more instruction than therapy. It’s a complex world! While I have made no presumptions here about the technical art skills of art therapists or their ability to lead instructive sessions (this too is down to concretes), I do hope to have made a case, or illuminated my view anyway, for the reverse situation. To the extent that therapeutic goals are set for art projects, an art therapist has a definitive edge over the competition in realizing them.