Posted by Michelle Dean, Jun 14, 2010 4 comments

The quote “Hardening of the categories leads to art disease” is attributed to Kenneth Snelson, and his defiance to define his work as science or art. He described his work, a cross between aesthetic vision and the scientific inspiration behind the engineering of his sculptures, which defy the neat categorization of art or science. Art therapists too grapple with the continuum of the artistic and scientific but it is evident that hardening of any category related to a creative function can lead to a malady and stagnation.

Art, psychology and religion share a fluid symbolic nature. Thus it is the symbol, which is the lens that we may see the world.  It both consolidates and expands. And all symbols are relational, meaning when taken out of context they often lose their significance. Although some have their misconceptions about art and psychology, or should I say stigmas about either as a profession, they are often equally dumb-founded at the mention of combining the two into the profession of art therapy. Most of this is due to unfamiliarity with the concepts. So for clarity sake, let’s start with some of the basics.

The etymology of the word art comes from the Latin ars, which is defined as a “skill as a result of learning or practice” or “to fit together or join” And psychology is a derivative fromthe Greek word: psych, “soul”; and, logos, “word” or “speech” or the manifestation of the soul. Thus the word psychology implies “the speech or manifestation of the soul”.  The speech here is not defined to only words but to other manifestations of expression as found in images and symbols.  Historically, psychology has had more to do with spirit than the mind, as a more operational definition may apply. So the discipline of art therapy may be loosely defined as the learning or practice of the ability to fit together or join expressively, coupled with the ability to give speech or expression of the soul in a symbolic artistic means. So if the work of art therapists are more akin to spiritual guides, it would make sense that we too must possess some flexibility and creativity to see things anew as well as in relation?



Megan Van Meter says
June 15, 2010 at 1:35 am

Hello, everyone. I thank Michelle for taking on this subject--very timely in our technology-biased world, which is now coming around to revisiting the world of art and reconsidering its appraisal of that which is difficult to quantify. It seems that when most people hear the word "art", they have problems relating to it, obviously not having been praised as children for their artistic abilities. The public understands what therapy is, but when we throw the word "art" in front of that term, people tend to dismiss the whole concept as warm, fuzzy, and generally irrelevant or ineffective. Unfortunately, the limitations of scientific study have forced art therapists to communicate the significance of their work via lines such as "art is healing", but these convince very few skeptics.

The good news is that times are changing. Recent advances in neuroscience are forming the foundation upon which art therapists can substantiate their claims. We now know that subcortical regions of the brain are dysregulated in episodes of emotional and behavioral disturbance, and we know that talk therapy doesn't appear to tap directly into these regions, thus the focus on including non-verbal therapeutic methods for the treatment of trauma. Easy-to-read books such as Norman Doidge's "The Brain That Changes Itself" and and Shankar Vedantam's "The Hidden Brain" underscore the significance of symbolic thought and image processing at an unconscious level where rational, logical thought cannot go; symbols and images are the domain of the brain's subcortical regions, but they have a strong influence over the concious, word-using mind. (Encouragingly, the authors of the books I've mentioned here are both from the world of science, not art.) Check out these two links: http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57493/The is an article from The Scientist that examines the role of artmaking as a means of understanding human perception and its quirks, and http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=why-so-many-artists-h... is an article from Scientific American that looks at what art can teach us about the brain. (Both articles are recent and at least theoretically represent a current vein of interest in the scientific community.)

If art therapists and the rest of the world can hang on just a little bit longer, I think we're likely to see the reunification of art and science, which once were almost indistinguishable (think of Leonardo DaVinci). Art therapists would do well to pay attention to this trend and learn the language of science, as this is the language most people look to when they want to understand maladies and remedies (sickness and healing). While I agree that mainstream science has kept the arts in a dark corner for a long time, this has only been due to science's limitations. Those limitations aren't what they once were, so we need to contemplate a paradigm shift: embracing science for what it can do for art and thus for art therapy. Art therapists really don't have to limit themselves to talk of "art is healing" when the scientific community is poised to help us find more substantial words to describe the magic of what we do. Using scientific jargon doesn't make our work less magic; it makes it more understandable to a broader range of people and thus creates more opportunities for us to serve a broader range of people.


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June 14, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Hi Michelle,
Thank you for raising this issue and for inviting me to participate. There is, as you say, an opinion that does not like the marriage of art and psychology, or at least doubts its value. I am not so much worried about this. I have learned to listen inward and trust what I hear there. So I do not care about what these people say. I may care about them, but not from an argumentative state.
For me even the attempt to justify the coming together of these two terms, art and psychology, based on their definition, is like an agreement to be viewed through these two specific lenses. No matter how wonderful these two are, for me even this is limiting. Every definition stops the movement of life. You end up being left with a nice definition, that may even be beneficial to the profession, but life does not stop there. It flows wonderfully on.
I think you were coming close to what I am going to say. I just want to take it one notch further.
The most precious thing that we, humans, have is the inner spring of fresh life going on. This fresh life is what keeps experiencing everything as if for the first time. The problems that we have stem from the ways in which we have come to define our fresh experiences, thus killing them as experiences with power and making them into dead definitions, meaning repeated behaviors, with no ability to move and change. The essence of healthy life is change. Only through change we can heal.
Therefore, so that our clients will stand a chance to heal, the most important skill that we have to master as healers is to never stop a process and always leave it open for what will naturally happen next.
The other important skill for helping people heal is to help the clients be in a state, in which the inherent direction of the change is positive. This is the state in which one can be a witness to the inner processes, without being stopped by those habitual definitions. This state gives the clients the wisdom to choose change over stagnation.
Call it what you will, but the process of making art is one of the best ways to be in that state in which positivity is natural, and in which either the living change or stagnation is what is being observed through the art, and a spontaneous, healthy choice can be made by the client. The choices are usually made based on the clients’ direct experience that being in a flow of change is so much more pleasant than being stuck.
What you call symbolic artistic means is a good way to look at change without defining it, and allowing it to move on.

Does it make sense to you all?


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June 14, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Thank you Giora and Thomas for your thoughtful remarks. I agree and have more (much more) of this discussion, some of which will be posted later in this week. It is my hope that there will be another posting tomorrow morning and yet another by week's end. If you like how this blog is going, please help spread the word. It's very important. Thank you again for adding your voices to this discussion.

With Kind Regards,

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thomas says
June 14, 2010 at 1:09 pm

there is a war on non-scientific thought being waged right now. You could say that the war between science and art is the biggest intellectual battle of our time. The science professions pay more, have more status and are generally held in higher esteem. The Arts professions such as teaching, and social work or counseling are paid least when one accounts for equal amounts of education. Our school system arrogantly encourages sciences and passively discourages the arts at secondary level education. Make no mistake, the war agains the right side of the brain is on in a society obsessed with quantification. We can understand that art and science have different things to say. We can understand that they may even spend some time in the corner, pouting about how the other is such a snob. What is inexcusable, is that one brother bullies the other. Science has naturally taken to emotional extremes because it does not recognize emotion as a significant part of what it does. It is after all objective. WRONG. Science is directed by money. Money is directed by the unconscious. We could understand that science should be angry with art because art is blamed for religion and religion is getting a very bad rap for it's lack of scientific credibility. While as a society, we may choose to do away with organized religion, we can not do away with the need for something more than science alone. We simply can not live in an emotionally objective world, dettached from our senses and our interpretations. Even if we could, I would rather not. Rather, with the advent of technology and computers, I feel that our left brain functions will be taken care of by artificial systems. Scientists will be replaced by machines and I will at last be freed to feel like an animal and live naturally. Art is naturally upset because science claims to be the only gig in town. Science has been dominating the discourse for a long time and religion has not had anything interesting to add to the discussion in a really, really long time. But art therapy is here to say that the right brain will not be silenced. Art will not be contained for it is our container.

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