Revisioning Art Therapy History, One Postcard at a Time

Posted: November 18, 2010 by artchangeslives in art therapy
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My inspiration for the Art Therapy Without Borders International Postcard Art Exchange came from something my mother bought us to help us learn at school– flashcards. I remember learning to recite multiplication and division tables from those cards and ever since then, I have a visual memory of mathematics in the form of manila-colored cards in my head.

We all learn to recite answers to questions, no matter where our education takes us. In graduate school, soon-to-be art therapists are taught a certain set of historical and other facts that we pretty much start to accept as dogma eventually. So I started to think, just what would a set of art therapy flashcards look like? What are the “facts” that we have been taught to recite to our professors, for an exam, and to each other in order to feel that we are part of the group? But most of all, are these facts correct?

My first flashcard is one of several on Margaret Naumburg. When I was in graduate school studying art therapy I had to read Margaret Naumburg’s original works. In the US, we are generally taught that Naumburg is the “mother” of art therapy and the “creator” of art therapy as a profession. These are facts that we readily accept, as to if to anchor ourselves within a lineage of professionals who came before us and as a starting point for the existence of a profession.

Naumburg’s declaration that art therapy is a “profession” took place in the mid-20th century. Meanwhile in the early 21st century we are now questioning if there really is a profession called art therapist. In the US, “art therapist” is not listed as a separate job category in the Department of Labor. Even if it becomes a category, there are challenges to its acceptance. Art therapy degrees are being transformed into counseling degrees for the sake of licensure; is this marriage a good match or a way to keep art therapy education programs in tuitions when unlicensed graduates could not find employment? Naumburg created a profession for the most part by declaration, but does that declaration translate into something more than just an agreed upon “group-think” that there really is a profession called art therapist?

Finally, how does one become the key “creator” of anything? If someone is the first to declare something in writing does that make that person the creator of that premise? It’s easy to realize that Naumburg was not the only person talking the talk, but she was one of the first to get into print. It echoes an unspoken tradition in the field of art therapy that involves rushing to publish on a topic in order to “claim” it. In my humble opinion, that has resulted in a lot of half-baked books and has not really helped to establish a credible profession called “art therapist.” Not sure that is what Naumburg envisioned! I’ll get back to these questions later in future re-visioning.

More flashcards soon!

Cathy Malchiodi, November 17, 2010

  1. thanks for this post! i found this link through twitter actually…u raise some good questions about art therapy in the u.s. hopefully i’ll have the opportunity to seek out the answers for myself

  2. Hi Cathy, we agree. There are a lot of half baked books on art therapy. Is it possible that the reason for this is that art therapy education doesn’t teach art therapy in a professional format? Is it possible that the reason for this is that our educators have lost sight of the relationship between therapy and art as it was envisioned by Naumburg, Kramer, Kwiatkowska, Ulman,Rhyne et al? I never heard or read Margaret or any of the others define their goals in terms of helping their patients (not clients) “feel good”, I am old enough to have sat with them, taught their very brilliant written works, hired Edith Kramer to teach my students. And their goals were always to treat their patients and help them to better understand those emotional conflicts that prevented them from leading productive lives. And inspired by them, and what I have learned as a professional art theapist, I have even written some art therapy books that I don’t think are half baked. And incidentally, I have been employed in Florida, as an unlicensed art therapist since 1986.

    • Hi Myra, thanks for writing. I appreciate you in particular responding because you are sharing a sense of history that not well-known anymore, in my opinion. Whether or not people agreed with these ladies’ opinions, each was an excellent writer. In their time period, there were also excellent editors at the publishing houses that brought their books to print; many of the publishers that accept every and all art therapy manuscripts these days do not have the fine eye for content nor do they have skilled editors. Some do not edit at all.

      This leads me to another thing that I find disturbing lately– it seems that the field of art therapy is being “dumbed down.” I really believe that in part, this is due to the marriage with counseling. I walk in the counselors’ world and they really think about the creative arts in counseling as a set of activities to be applied, rather than a way of thinking about how to apply expressive methods. This just their worldview, but it is impacting the field of art therapy. There are other signposts that point to a “dumbing down” and maybe I will have to courage to articulate those in coming blog posts.


      • Lisa Kay says:

        Hi Cathy!! Interesting conversation. I have always been curious why Friedl Dicker Brandeis’s story and work has not been more visible in art therapy literature and education. She is, in my opinion, one of the key figures in the history of art therapy. While there are articles in art education, some in art therapy and recent published books, there is little to no mention or knowledge of her work in art therapy education.

  3. Hi Lisa! Glad to hear from you and I hope all is going well with you. I agree about the Friedl story and also Mary Huntoon– and in my mind, there may be more and probably are. It is just fascinating to me that we learn to recite certain names for various reasons and we don’t think too deeply about where these “truths” come from or if they indeed are truths. Perhaps as art therapy becomes more global, other voices will emerge to enrich the narrative of the field and add new stories to the existing ones.

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