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Does Art Really Heal?

Can art heal? My answer to one of art therapy’s biggest questions, flavoured with coconut water

As an art therapist I come across a whole range of claims, phrases and titles to do with my profession.  Sometimes I roll my eyes, sigh in frustration or giggle at bold promises. It is not that I am being disrespectful of other professionals it’s just that, well; it can be of a minefield in marketing at the best of times and it becomes even more so with things like art therapy. Why? Because art therapy is still a young practice in Australia and yet to gain mainstream familiarity. This ultimately means marketing has more weight because professionals aren’t only trying to advertise their brand or service but educate people about the profession as well. And the interesting thing is that marketing can influence how we answer questions before we have even had an experience. I find myself writing this article, an odd combination of art therapy and marketing to explore how people might be shaped to have an opinion of art therapy before they have even tried it. By considering how people consume something new we can begin to look at the answer to the question i hear a lot; does art really heal?

As with all new things people’s first responses can be varied when it comes to art therapy. For the point of this article I am going to generalise and write about four types of potential clients/customers: the dedicated sceptics, the tentative sceptics, quiet believers and immediate advocates. As a small business or service it’s easy to think that advocates are the best category of people to do your word of mouth marketing. I mean what’s better than someone who loves something so much they will shout it from the rooftops?

But before I get into that, let’s first get an idea of these generalised customer types by using a more physical and relatable example. Coconut water! You should all be familiar with it. Bottled coconut water was the first of a long and continuing stream of new and health-marketed bottled drinks. So let’s look at the dedicated sceptic and how they approach coconut water. The dedicated sceptic is likely the person who stands in the cold drink isle of a supermarket; flashes a deep frown and moves across to pick up a good ol’ apple juice. Meanwhile the open sceptic stands in front of the same shelf wondering if they should try it. They wonder if the health benefits are accurate, if it tastes nice, if it’s worth the price and whether they should take a chance. They weigh up risk and this means a decision can take a long time. They might see coconut water several times on a shelf and see at least 2 friends drinking it before giving it a go themselves. But they usually do eventually try it and if they like it, they are converted. A quick confession, I usually fluctuate between the dedicated and open sceptic type of customer.

Now the quiet believer is that friend we all have who surprises us with the unexpected. The one you think you know, until you find out they switched their daily coca-cola for coconut water 6 months ago. Lastly there is the advocate. The advocate is on board immediately. They see a new product and they try it. Soon they are drinking coconut water 3 times a day, rarely question the inflated price and share with anyone who will listen that it is great for you. Sometimes an advocate is so inspired they dream about starting their own coconut water brand.

So it may seem I am a little off track, but there is a point of raving on about coconut water and marketing strategies that only a coconut water company and their accountant would care about. If we transfer this same principle and customer type to art therapy, we can begin to see the possibility for risk and misinformation. The advocate customer may be harmlessly spruiking coconut water to anyone who will listen but they are in reality only motivated by their own experience, taste and preference- not everyone else’s. Which is reasonably harmless until we imagine someone spruiking art therapy in the same way. Now don’t get me wrong, word of mouth traffic is great and people should be able to vocalise their experiences and opinions. But it shouldn’t become evidence or truth.

I actually don’t like bottled coconut water. To me it is visceral, thick and cloudy and makes me a little queasy. It’s just not my Jam. Some people find that bottled coconut water is liquid gold. Similarly some people will find that art therapy isn’t a good match for them, or that it doesn’t evoke healing the same way it might for someone else. So if we ask does art heal? My answer is a rather boring maybe and a heartfelt hopefully. I am not going to make any eye-rolling guarantees or giggle worthy promises; but I do believe art and art therapy have a lot to offer a lot of people in the world of healing.

What I do find, going back to the customer types I discussed is that dedicated sceptics and tentative sceptics are pretty top-heavy in the Australian population when it comes to art therapy. Why? Well here are a few possible explanations:

We often ask the wrong questions

Humans love facts. As a confessed control freak; I definitely do. Facts equal predictability and efficiency. With a fact, no further research is required as you can make your choice and move on. Art therapy has a growing body of research that shows it is an effective practice for some people. But the statement art heals is not a fact or a blanket rule, making it a little bit of a grey zone. However this is the nitty gritty of any treatment or intervention, we just don’t like to admit it.  Seeing a psychologist won’t guarantee recovery neither will a doctor necessarily be able to cure you. There are so many other variables at play in any type of healing process. But the odds can be great, and if they aren’t there is usually more than one option (phew!). So Instead of asking if art can heal in a broad sense, it can be better to ask “Can art help me heal now?”

The profession has a way to go

Art therapy has a way to go in Australia and that’s okay. As the new kids on the block, it has a bit of growing to do. Some of you may not have even heard of art therapy before and you wouldn’t be alone. My best advice if you’re wondering if art therapy could be useful to you or your children is to have a go. And do your own research.  As with anything check practitioner’s qualifications. In Australia you’re looking for someone with a Master’s level degree and registration with ANZATA. You can read an article I’ve written explaining more about what art therapy is here.

Social ideas of art

Remember when you were little and everyone did art? Sure some kids are more interested in making art than others, but most of us found pleasure in freely splattering paint, scribbling endlessly and drawing x-ray visions of houses and the world around us. Unfortunately what begins to happen when we get older is that art becomes something that you only do if you are “talented” or “good at it”. I am not sure where this comes from; peers, parents, teachers or a combination of everyone. It might never be overtly said; but somehow a fair chunk of the population gets the same message. If I had a penny for every time someone told me they couldn’t draw so they weren’t open to art therapy I would be a very wealthy woman. That makes me sad, so sad. If our society makes art an elitist activity or disconnected from everyday life, it can be very difficult for adults in particular to be open to art-making and some of its cathartic processes.

So I guess in summary, I want to be a little counter-intuitive for someone who runs a small practice and business. I want to remind you that marketing is marketing, it’s not fact, nor truth. It can be an offering of someone’s hope and passion or it can be a dominant perspective. Coconut water is not life and neither is art. But both can be delicious, refreshing and nourishing depending on who you are and what your taste, needs and priorities are.  The best way to find out if it’s for you, is to channel your tentative sceptic and then give it a try.

does art really heal