Art therapy, sometimes called creative or expressive arts therapy, is a form of psychotherapy in which the primary mode of communication is the use of different art media, as defined by the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT). Due to the dual origin of the term (art and psychotherapy), definitions vary considerably. For example, some definitions emphasize the inherent therapeutic potential of the art-making process, while others put focus on the psychotherapeutic process between the therapist and the patient. As art therapy is firmly based on psychotherapeutic principles, some feel that the term art psychotherapy would describe the field more accurately although this view has not yet been generally accepted.
Humans started to express themselves and communicate through visual symbols in Prehistoric times. French psychiatrists Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon were among the first scholars to highlight the use of drawings as an effective tool to diagnose mental illnesses in the late 19th century. This diagnostic aspect is used in some psychological drawing tests and projective personality tests popular in the 21st century that involve recognition of visual symbols. Although there were examples of tentative art therapy attempts by some practitioners already in the first half of the 20th century, the art therapist profession was not officially recognized until the 1980s. The idea of using art in psychotherapy was supported by early analytic writings such as that of Carl Jung (1875 to 1961), who highlighted art as an important means of both unconscious and conscious communication. As part of his own self-analysis Jung made drawings of his dreams and fantasies, and encouraged his patients to do the same.
According to Caroline Case and Tessa Dalley in The Handbook of Art Therapy (1992), Jung's meditation technique of active imagination is similar to the inspiration and creative process in art. This technique can bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious by encouraging patients to fantasize when they are neither asleep nor awake and when judgment is suspended, while consciousness is still present.
One of the pioneers in art therapy was the American educator Margaret Naumburg (1890 to 1983), who established the Children's School in New York in 1914. The methods used in the school, later renamed the Walden School, were based on the belief that the main goal of education should be to foster emotional development of children via creative expression and self-motivated learning.
Although art therapy is often associated with the use of visual art forms such as drawings, there are examples of using music and other non-visual art forms in the sessions. Art therapy has various applications - it can be used when working with individuals or groups, children, adolescents or adults and people with mental or physical problems. Nearly all types of patients can be treated using some form of art therapy as visual symbols and images are considered to be the most natural form of human communication, physically accessible to almost everyone. A number of different conditions can be treated using this psychotherapeutic method - mental illnesses, emotional and behavioral disturbances, autism, learning difficulties even physical diseases.
One particularly common use of art therapy is in the treatment of children, whose language skills are often limited and who have difficulties identifying and labeling their emotions with words. These difficulties can be overcome through the use of non-verbal forms of communication such as drawing or other visual means of expression. Art therapy is also useful in working with adolescents and adults who are not able or willing to talk about their thoughts and feelings. For example, art has been used to help soldiers who have had traumatizing experiences during war. Although art therapy is primarily used in mental health treatment, it can also be helpful in treating physical diseases and conditions by relieving stress and developing coping skills in the patient.
In art therapeutic sessions both the process of art-making and its product are essential. The art process makes it easier for patients to bring out inner experiences and feelings that may be difficult to express in words due to various reasons. On the other hand, the art materials produced as a result of the process are reviewed and analyzed and their meaning is interpreted by both the patient and the therapist. In art therapy sessions the moments of not-doing are equally important as the moments of doing, just as silences are in verbal analytic sessions.