Consider this: Art therapy and gender constructs
Consider this: On Art Therapy in Society Art therapy and Social Constructs: Gender.
Upon entering my classes on the first day, I did not notice anything peculiar about my immediate environment but around my second week of studies it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was the only man in my program. This very gendered reality never went away from that moment onwards and an in fact became a more focused observation during my internship in a children?s hospital. Gender became increasingly obvious as a determining factor in the conceptualization of presenting problems, treatment approaches and outcomes. To illustrate the importance of gender in the clinical setting, I remember a rather patriarchal psychiatrist suggesting to the treatment team that we needed to help a 17 year old patient to ?control her anger?, when suddenly, a female psychologist on the team retorted: ?You mean we need to show her how to express her anger?!?
It became a regular hobby of mine to ponder why the college of like-minded people called ?art therapists? came to be nearly 90% women. Gender issues coloured just about everything I saw and did throughout my training, including my master?s dissertation on: ?The Relevance of Gender in the Profession and Practice of Art Therapy?. This dissertation was my first attempt to situate art therapy within a lager social context. I discovered that gender inequality was a motivating force in the development of art therapy because women had a vested interest in participating in the emerging subfields of art history and psychiatry in the 1920?s. Women?s identities were being shaped by the intellectual and visual worlds of psychiatry and art but they had little involvement in the discourse of either of those fields. Women artists and critics had largely been kept out of the art world from the outset, yet they figured prominently as visually portrayed subjects. Women were being visually defined by art and psychologically defined by psychiatry, without having much input in the discourse which was shaping those definitions. As the field of psychiatry gained momentum, women were confronted by a host of inequities. Psychiatry emerged in a patriarchal society to define personalities, behaviours and motivations without much intellectual participation from women. Given that women?s mental health issues were being characterized by terms like neurotic, hysterical, and penis envy, it is not hard to see why they wanted greater control over the description of their own mental health. The power to define mental health is a power too dangerous to be left in the hands of a lone group of male aristocrats with medical degrees. One could say that for any oppressed group, re-defining or appropriating the definition of one?s mental health is a big step towards self-sufficiency and freedom from oppression. When the social and political climate was ripe for the emergence of art therapy in Europe, Canada and the U.S in the 30?s and 40?s, women were at the right time and place for the job. Women had long been the primary workers in the ?empathy? fields as mothers, social workers, childhood educators and nurses, so when art therapy began to take form, many brought constructive knowledge with them. Veterans, returning home from the war, needed therapy and women already occupied therapeutic roles as occupational therapists, nurses, social workers. Art therapy was there to create a space where the trauma of war, too horrible to speak of, could be painted or drawn out by other means. Given this climate, it is no wonder that the first art therapists were women and it may not be too far a stretch to say that art therapy could be considered the first professional baby of feminism.
Eventually, I looked past gender and saw a number of other socially constructed spheres where art therapy was involved. It became clear to me that the field was seriously understated in terms of its impact on the social construction of art history. On one hand, the field of psychology frequently ignores art therapy as a distinct therapeutic modality while on the other hand, art history textbooks casually neglect to print anything about what may in fact be the most relevant artistic movement of our time. Nowhere in psychology or art history textbooks, will any reference to this hugely important field be found. Yet art therapy has the power to revolutionize current conceptions of both psychotherapy and art history. Art Therapy and Art History: What?s the Connection? Like most disciplines, art history emerged over time, being pieced together through bits of dialogue between various co-constructing forces. Over time, it established a basic version of the facts that it now uses as the basis for forming judgments and opinions regarding art. At times, those socially constructing forces take form in a relatively democratic type of dialogue, while at other times, they are autocratically determined by the commanding heights of the economy. Until very recently, the socially constructed field of art history has been the exclusive domain of specialists, tasked with interpreting and defining our art and culture for us. The world in which art history is fabricated remains within the control of a relatively small group of people who have economic interests in commercializing artistic movements. The advent of art therapy signals a fundamental change in thinking about who should define art for whom. In fact, art therapy takes everything we think we know about the history of art and turns it upside down. Art therapy is not just a revolution in thinking about mental health, but it also signals a fundamental shift in the course of art history. The previous way of looking at art history as a timeline of segmented and compartmentalized movements, funded by private patrons and pushed forth by dealers, no longer holds when one speaks of art therapy. Doing away with exclusively circumscribed or academically prescribed notions of what art means to us, art therapy opts instead for co-constructed and inclusive dialogue about art. Whether it intends to be or not, art therapy exists as a movement for the democratization of creative process and the artistic product born from it. Art therapists don?t reject any creative process or product and in fact value them above all else. We proclaim to the doodler: ?your scratches on a napkin are not insignificant! Let?s look at them more closely?. In art therapy, you don?t have to be an important artist to create important art. It has value because you have value. The adjectives ?good? and ?bad? are no longer pertinent. It is no longer for the art historian to tell us where art is from or where it is going. It is up to us. In keeping with the tenets of art therapy, it is the individual who is the self-determining master of art and it is the individual who determines what is relevant. No longer must we find the meaning of art taught to us exclusively through books, lectures or guided tours offered by a culture of specialists in culture. Art therapy asserts that creative process is an inalienable right and that if culture is truly our story, we should be the one’s telling it.
Though art therapy can be considered an artistic movement, it is unlike any other because there is no identifiable image or artist to go with it. The image is ?whatever-you-want? and the artist is ?whoever wants-to be?. No other movement in art history has ever dared to suggest that we areall great artists. There are some founding figures in art therapy, of course, but they are known more for their thoughts on creative process than for any art they may have made. The founding figures are more likely to be known in connection with the images of the children they worked with in therapy or the art of veterans recovering from combat related post-traumatic stress. Perhaps the most ground breaking factor, differentiating art therapy from traditional art history is the fact that the founding figures are not men. Art therapy is a slap in the face of the traditionally male dominated art world. It wrenches art from the clenched fists of art history by the mere fact that it is the only artistic movement ever founded by women. It?s not that women had never before put forth original artistic work, or assembled into politically minded women-only art groups. However, this is the first time women have laid out a new course for the entire history of art to follow. Art therapy is bigger than cubism, minimalism, post modernism and all the other isms because it does not simply take an idea and add to it, but it breaks the mould that the idea came from. Art therapy breaks art loose from chains of proprietary, elitist and gallery pushed notions about what it is and who can make it. Art therapy releases creative process from the strangle hold of private institutions like Hollywood over film, galleries over visual art, and corporate interests over the sacred relationship we have to our very own art and culture.
Whether it intends it or not, art therapy is an affront to the economically driven course of art history. It is a move for the democratization of creative process. Art therapy theory and practice recognizes that art has a greater mission than that accomplished by hanging on walls of private living spaces. Most art therapists probably don?t think it is fair that a small group of people possess a disproportionate amount of influence in terms of defining what art is. Private interests fund museums and museums are the final word in terms of art?s significance. These establishments mediate the message that some works of art deserve to live better than most people do and be valued by sums of money grand enough to build schools and hospitals. The message is that a handful of geniuses like Borduas or Picasso or Pollock are responsible for reflecting our culture back to us and telling us who we are. Private interests embodied by the very first corporations of religion and aristocracy have thus far determined all that?s fit to paint on cathedral ceilings or print in the annals of art history. In fact, wealthy and powerful men are responsible for just about everything we know about art except for art therapy. Art therapy is still looking for wealthy and powerful men to help move it forward because virtue alone, seems to be a very slow and lonely road.