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An Introduction to Archetypal Art Therapy

‘Since art therapy activates the imagination and allows it to materialize – that is, enter the world via the emotions of the patient – therapy by means of the arts must take precedence over all other kinds.’ James Hillman

Tamboo_Introduction to Art TherapyIn psychotherapy, there are many approaches to the images produced by dreams, fantasies, emotions and art.

The dominant schools of psychotherapy use art as a diagnostic tool. Here, the paintings are confiscated by the therapist for analysis. Some insight might be gained but the image is lost. Jungians too betray the image through diagnostic reductionism of original images herded into groups called ‘hero’, ‘mother’ or ‘shadow’ and the like.

The medicalized army views the irruption of the unconscious and the imaginal realm as dangerous, leading potentially to chaos and madness and to be avoided at all costs. This is achieved by medication and by keeping patients distracted with occupational arts and crafts.

Most clinical psychologies see their function as strengthening the ego and functionality. Here, images through art are encouraged but then therapy makes a series of moves to normalise and improve them, betraying a fear of the imaginal on its own terms.

In the psychoanalytic approach, the image is seen as a disguise for latent meaning into some past trauma or psychosexual issue, to be read into the analyst’s narrative of reality. Here imagination is scrubbed of spontaneity.

For the cathartic approach, it is the simple doing of the art that is important, no meaning or dialogue is needed. This perpetuates the divide between the imagination and everyday life, with little connection between them.

None of these approaches satisfy. Since ours is an Archetypal Therapy, we would encourage a teaching and practice where images are engaged with as they might arrive: wild and unorthodox, sensuous, terrifying, humorous, stubborn, kind, original and ultimately lovable. Images present themselves for our appreciation, not our interpretation.

This view suggests that images are not of our making. They arrive mostly unbidden, slipping past the rational mind. Images attract us with their presence, excite our interest, invite our response and offer the possibility of a relationship.

We could start with the words used to define our field: ‘Art’ and ‘Therapy’. Art and ritual were once part of a continuum. All art was originally the performance and expression of the rituals of devotional service, and implied an erotic dialogue with the Sacred. And therapeia means a passionate involvement, not with our own needs, but rather as attention and service to the gods. Now we can enter into an appropriate Art Therapy that delights the soul.

‘Shamans who wear the skins of bears do not ‘become’ bears. They use themselves as instruments through which the bear presents itself. Similarly, when I perform in response to an image in a painting, I do not become the image on the canvas. I use myself as an agency to present an image that lives through me, just as the figure on a canvas lives through the paint.’ Shaun McNiff

Foundation Workshop. 3 days. Residential (Knysna). Homework. Preparation.