“Tell me what you see.” The sentence varies, but the meaning is always the same: please interpret this piece of art for me because I think it might contain important clues about what’s wrong with the individual who made it. That’s not the way art therapists work, but no one else seems to know.
In Analyze This!, I delineated the importance of recognizing a client’s response and associations to her/his own artwork. After all, clients are experts on themselves, even if sometimes they claim not to be. It’s really important for others to understand that the creative process itself can yield more information than the end result of that process (the art). That’s because the creative process is neurological activity in motion; the art that results is a byproduct of neurological activity. But laypeople tend to think there’s magic in the finished product.
It happened again recently. I work for a public school district and was asked by an administrator to “look at” a drawing done by an elementary student who was known to have a history of trauma and had succeeded in attracting the attention of authority figures because of his behavior. The administrator showed me the drawing and described it in a reductionistic fashion, pointing out what elements were what, based on her conversation with the young artist. There were some elements that the student had apparently not understood himself; “He said he didn’t know what these things were”, explained the confused but caring administrator.
I tried to assure her that some things are a mystery and that it was ok for the student to be uncertain. The student wasn’t one of my clients, so I had no previous knowledge of him and his visual language. I commented on the few things that I could ascertain via the drawing: the artist’s developmental level and the formal elements responsible for the drawing’s impact. I also explained that since I hadn’t seen the student make the drawing, I missed most of the information that was revealed about how his physical self, emotional self, and intellectual self were integrated—or not.
I’m sure I left the administrator with more questions than answers. After all, she’d wanted some clues that would help her figure out this child, and that’s what she’d come to me for. It can be very ego-gratifying to be sought out as someone who has special knowledge. But giving in to opportunities for such gratification can be a slippery slope, as reducing people—especially unfamiliar people—by committing “imagicide” (a term coined by art therapist Bruce Moon) leaves them and their artwork defenseless against the judgmental, and perhaps erroneous, words spoken by an “expert”. An expert would never take such bait, seeking instead to enlighten others about who the true expert on the art is: the person who created it.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan November 2014