Theoretically Speaking


Theoretically Speaking

One of the problems associated with workshops, books, and other such training opportunities for sharing art-based interventions with non-art therapists is that these things may recommend techniques without alluding to theory.  What is theory?  To recap, it’s a conceptual framework for making sense of information that is revealed and for developing a relevant plan of action.  Responses to this plan of action are viewed through the lens of this conceptual framework in order to determine the effectiveness of theory-based interventions.


While we all study theory right off the bat in our graduate programs, many of us opt for eclecticism in our practice rather than adhering to any one school of thought.  This was once looked upon with a frown, but it appears to be acceptable these days—as long as the therapist can identify the components of her/his eclecticism and be aware of which theoretical model is being used when and why; “anything goes” doesn’t actually go very far in terms of defending a clinician against complaints and litigious activity!


But what about those “theory-less” art-based interventions?  It may come as a surprise to some that the field of art therapy is rooted in theory.  (No one goes to grad school just to learn about techniques that can be followed like a recipe and applied on a “one-size-fits-all” basis!)  If the person presenting the workshop or authoring the book has credentials in art therapy per the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors and/or the Art Therapy Credentials Board, it’s safe to expect that the material being presented has theoretical underpinnings specific to art therapy, some of which might be intangible to non-art therapists.


Why don’t art therapist presenters/authors explain these theoretical underpinnings?  The same reason other presenters/authors don’t; an assumption is made on the presenter’s/author’s part that the audience has enough requisite knowledge to make sense of the material being covered, otherwise they would have skipped the workshop/book to begin with.  Think about it this way: how much longer would a presentation/book have to be in order to bring a novice up to speed so that the workshop/book could move on to its intended focus?  Ugh.


The use of artmaking in therapy is different from art therapy.  That frees up non-art therapists to incorporate art-based interventions into their work without having to pursue graduate studies in art therapy, provided that they have a solid rationale for the materials and methods they use with specific clients in specific circumstances.  This is a cornerstone of clinical competence.  It benefits clients and practitioners alike when the rationale for using art-based interventions complements the clinician’s theoretical leanings.


If you’ve never thought about the marriage between artmaking and psychotherapeutic theory, I’d like to suggest Approaches to Art Therapy: Theory and Technique (edited by Judith Rubin, 2nd edition 2001, Routledge) as a good starting point for building a conceptual bridge between these two worlds and building an associated conceptual framework in your mind.  While this will not provide you with art therapy theory, it will help you make connections between art-based interventions and theories that are already familiar to you.  Developing awareness about technique as it relates to theory will help ensure that the art-based interventions you utilize are appropriate for your scope of practice—adios “anything goes”—and it will provide you with the perspective necessary for getting even more out of those “theory-less” workshops and books!


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan December 2011

About the Image on This Page

This is a thumbnail of Free Abstract Art, posted to The Public Domain website by Mitch Featherston in 2012. Click here for more information.