Are Art and Therapy Interchangeable?

Several weeks ago, I was invited to attend an event where several young artists took the stage and presented their artistic work to a room full of people. The work ranged from singing, to dancing, to poetry, to spoken word, to performance art pieces and even some impersonations.

I enjoyed myself at the performance and was very happy to see that these young artists had a chance to express themselves through various art forms. But, when the presentation came to an end and the curtains closed, I was left with a lingering concern.

At first, I wasn’t sure what the concern was, and I spent some time trying to wrap my head around my response, a response which I thought was very uncharacteristic of me.

Why did I think my response was uncharacteristic? Because I often write deeply personal stories on my blog and share them with my readers. My readers send me messages all the time telling me about how a deeply personal story I wrote moved them or inspired them.

So, I thought, what happened to me? I went to this performance sincerely looking to be deeply moved, touched, and inspired by the work of these young artists, but even though these artists shared very deep, personal, and often painful stories–I didn’t leave feeling inspired.

What happened? I thought to myself. Where did these young artists go wrong?

Although these young performers were sharing deeply personal stories that were incredibly cathartic for them, the thought that kept coming to my head was this:

“I hope these artists are seeking counseling to cope with their difficult past.”

I got the uncomfortable, intuitive sense that each artist who I saw bare his soul to the audience that night was relying solely on poetry or songwriting to cope with their difficult, painful past.

Now, I never like it when people set qualifiers for what makes art art. I think part of the vital beauty of art is that it’s not quantifiable, not definable, and has no limits or boundaries. But I would be the first to say that art is not a replacement for therapy. Art can be therapeutic, yes.  It can be a healthy, helpful compliment to professional therapy, but art cannot replace a professional therapist.

Although I may never get to speak to those young peformers again, I can speak to all the young artists reading this who may have gone through a tough childhood like the performers who I witnessed bare their souls on stage.

What I want to tell you is this:  please don’t confuse art with therapy.

If you love art, that’s wonderful. If art serves as way to express yourself, your story, and your true, unadulterated feelings, I say go for it. We all need to know that we are not alone. We all need to feel validated. We all need our true voice to be heard.

But please don’t rely solely on art to heal your old wounds.

Art and therapy are not interchangeable.

You deserve to have a professional get you through whatever you are going through.

And if, after that counseling, you’re inspired to write a killer verse that connects your pain to all of ours, inspires us to overcome adversity, and helps us move forward with greater strength, then more power to you.

much love,

Ollin

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? Are art and therapy interchangeable? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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20 comments on “Are Art and Therapy Interchangeable?

  1. I agree that art can be therapeutic. I also believe that there are many people who don’t seek counseling because they believe they don’t need it, it won’t help them, it’s uncomfortable, unpleasant and difficult at first, and… well, because there is still a stigma attached to therapy, and this makes me deeply sad, because I’ve benefited from it a lot and still do.

    Another common misconception that I feel a lot of people have is that if they aren’t depressed, they won’t be creative. This is blatantly untrue. Yes, a range of emotions CAN inspire us to create. But seeking therapy doesn’t mean switching off your creativity, and, in my experience, being more content and at peace has helped me to be more productive – but I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to be thoroughly down in the dumps and I can draw on those experiences.

    Basically, Ollin, I’m saying that I definitely agree with you. Art and therapy are not interchangeable.

    • Ollin says:

      I agree with you on the depressed point. I have actually heard that before, writers saying they can’t write unless they are in pain or depressed. This is not healthy. I mean yes you can use your pain and experience to make your writing more truthful and meaningful, maybe even more moving, but you should not say that: “oh, i wrote it out! Now I’m healed.” No, it may have helped you, but you really need a professional to carry you through the hardest parts of all the issues that bother you.

      Therapy isn’t for “crazy people.” It’s actually for sane people who have had to endure through incredibly traumatic, stressful, and painful experiences–and let’s be honest: who hasn’t gone through anything like that? Therapy is basically another helpful tool to get through the challenges of life. Not the only tool, but an essential tool I am finding. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Manali Shah says:

    Completely agree with you, Ollin.

  3. And yet, scores of memoirs are written as an effort in healing. It can be therapy, done right, but not in a vacuum where–as you say–no other alternatives are pursued.

    • Ollin says:

      There are actual art therapists, you can get certified in that, but even these people are professionally trained experts. I think art, as I said, can be very beneficial to the healing process, it can add to it, but it can’t complete it.

  4. Wonderful question Ollin, but I’m not sure I agree with you.

    I think for some people art is interchangeable with therapy

    This is not to say I don’t believe in therapy. I think the important thing is for people to recognize that it takes a serious concerted effort to heal oneself, no matter the path of healing chosen.

    I say this because art allowed and continues to allow me to heal. However it was not done in a vacuum and I did consider therapy along the way. I did not choose therapy because I (and those around me) felt and saw the progress and healing I experienced.

    Healing is a spectrum, and some of us can use art as therapy, and some of us can’t. I would find it hard to believe there is an absolute answer to this question.

    • Ollin says:

      Interesting viewpoint! I think that art therapy with the guide of a professional art therapist is great, and I used to volunteer for a battered women’s shelter that helped women who left abusive relationships to heal through art. It was an amazing program and there was really a lot of sweet people who worked there.

      But yes, I supposed we disagree, art without the guide of a professional therapist or art therapist can be healing, but it cannot completely heal your wounds. That is just my opinion.

      • I respect your opinion Ollin. We agree to disagree.🙂

        I think of it in terms of soap. I no longer use soap and shampoo in the shower. This was prompted by a fella that said something like, “I can’t believe we’ve evolved into creatures that require a host of chemicals to keep ourselves clean.”

        By the same token I don’t believe that we’ve evolved into creatures that require therapy to heal ourselves. I believe the capacity to heal rests within all of us and the tools to that healing are varied, just as people are, and healing includes many things even outside of art and therapy.

        Excellent debate on this topic!

  5. I have to agree with you Ollin. Art can help us to heal, feel better about ourselves, express who we are and so much more. In fact, I don’t see how someone who is truly creative can be healthy without creating.
    But, there is also a lot that art can’t do.
    There are therapies that actually re-wire the brain and change the chemistry, and there is really no replacement for the input of a trained professional.
    From my own experience with myself, a family member and friends, I know how easy it is to mistake feeling better with actually being better.

    • Ollin says:

      I think I may have one of those people in college who relied too much on art in college. There was a performance piece I did where I literally ate my heart out. Haha! I was a much more intense artist then. But with therapy I have learned to deal with my past issues in a more healthy manner. My art, as a result, is a lot more, well, like art, as opposed to just me spilling my guts.

  6. LAP says:

    I’m in a nonfiction MFA program, and I can tell the difference between a writer who has worked out his/her issues when he has not. If he has not, the writing is heavy and you come away feeling blasted, like someone you just met on the street spent an hour telling you their deepest problems. If they have worked out their issues, the writing is lively, intense, and often heartbreaking. Art. It’s the difference between telling and showing. I probably err on the side of keeping myself out of it too much, because my classmates are often asking “but how did the narrator FEEL?” Probably the way the reader feels.

    I listen to The Moth podcast a lot. The art of storytelling is in the unadorned and unsentimental narration of events. In a book you have a lot more leeway to include detail, but when a story is stripped down to its bare framework, it’s just as powerful.

    So, yeah, I highly recommend therapy or whatever artists need to do to get the junk out of the way. Morning pages works, probably talking with a partner could work too. Complaining and art are not good friends.

    • Ollin says:

      Great point about the difference between a writer who sees writing as therapy and a writer who sees it as therapeutic. Fascinating. Thank you so much for offering your thoughts!

  7. As I read it, your claim is that art, alone, is not therapy, as it cannont, replace a professional therapist. I would say that the converse is just as true: A professional therapist cannot replace art as the sole “cure” for whatever the ailment is. Countless are the patients who have not been “cured” by working solely with a therapist.

    Looking at this another way, by defintion:

    Therapy: the treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process.

    Therapeutic: of or pertaining to the treating or curing of disease.

    Interchangeable:capable of being put or used in the place of each other.

    Given the above, I’d argue that art certainly is interchangable with therapy.

    However, maybe we should back up a bit and take a look at the assumption that all of these young artists were looking to heal all of their old wounds. Maybe that wasn’t their point at all. Maybe it was enough for them to have the courage to create, and desired nothing more.

    Or possibly, you were left wanting as their efforts did nothing to place any salve on your old wounds?

    • Ollin says:

      I definitely agree with you that therapy alone cannot heal you either. As you can see above, I never made the claim that therapy alone can heal you. I was just saying that art alone cannot heal you.

      Mmmm… I think your simplifying therapy to a definition is not very illuminating here. I am not a therapist so it would be difficult for me to explain exactly what they do, but I can tell you from experience that going to a therapist and creating art is a VASTLY different experience, and certainly cannot be interchangeable at all.

      I’ve heard it said that when our plumbing is broken we do not hesitate to contact a professional: in this case a plumber. When we have trouble with emotionally dealing with something challenging in our lives, we need a professional to get us through it and no, art alone cannot suffice.

      As to your last point; as you might imagine it is very hard to recreate what I saw, and I will tell you that I was not the only one of the group that went with me that thought what I thought. What the artists were sharing was simply things you would tell your therapist, and it seemed very much that they were in pain doing this. My thoughts came from a place of intuitive concern, and I doubt I was wrong. Of course, I cannot recreate the experience for you so of course embodied experiences can always be doubted if all you rely on are facts and data. Oral accounts can never be seen as valid, I suppose.

      And I’m not sure you can argue that I was only working on assumption and then reach an assumption of your own about what I was looking for from the performance. I was not looking to “heal my wounds” I was looking for what I stated above: inspiration – I was looking to be moved and touched. Instead, I left feeling concerned. Obviously my entire point was that art can’t heal wounds alone so I would not have gone into a performance intentionally looking for it to “heal my wounds.”

      Unless your point was that I was unconsciously looking for the performance to heal my wounds, and I was not aware of this drive. And that may true, and you may be right — in which case: I should probably see a therapist about that right?
      😉

  8. Kimberly says:

    This is a very interesting topic, thanks for bringing it up!

    I studied the difference between art therapy and art in a hospital environment for my dissertation.

    With being an artist and Having cystic fibrosis which results in me spending so much time in hospital I was very interested in the way art can help your recovery during a traumatic time, as I often find being creative during the weeks alone in a hospital room lifts my spirits and keeps my mind active. Is a way of expressing myself when I don’t have any other outlet.

    I looked at myself and aspects in my life for a self study project in university, my health and how I coped.
    It occurred to me that in all my 27 years of 2-4 weeks in hospital every 3 months, I had never seen an artist in residence in my hospital and began to question this and staff to the reason why.

    I then followed artists in residence to see what they brought to an environment which is dull & sterile and how it changed the atmosphere to a more inviting and accepting place. The way certain colours and shapes make a difference to the mood of a patient.

    Personally I have gained from seeking therapeutic help as do not believe the only outlet is through art, art is a way of expressing yourself.
    If I am feeling low I find it hard to tap into my creative side.

    I deal with life issues by talking it through and understanding what is happening and why, which helps free up my creativity.

    Like others I do not think artists can only be creative when depressed, it may help some but everyone is different.

    • Ollin says:

      Fascinating thoughts Kimberly. Thank you so much for sharing. I love the idea of an artist in residence at a hospital. That would be pretty awesome.

  9. 83October says:

    I wanted to comment for the simple reason that i’m a psych major and recently took a course in art therapy. You make a wonderful point. Art can be therapy, but its the sort of therapy wherein you want to let out some steam. However, for deep wounds it will never suffice, somebody has to walk you through the issues, help you deal with it. Art therapy is a way of putting processing into the art work. You allow the artist to express themselves first and as a therapist guide them through it.

    Often, because we are so deeply involved in the problem we cannot see a new perspective or a solution to the problem and by going through therapy we are given that opportunity. Anyway, just wanted to share those thoughts as outside of my psych major i too learned that art and therapy isn’t interchangeable.

    • Ollin says:

      “Often, because we are so deeply involved in the problem we cannot see a new perspective or a solution to the problem and by going through therapy we are given that opportunity. ”

      I think you drove the point home there, 83. THAT’S what therapy provides that art can never. It gives us perspective, puts us outside of our own lives so we can see the patterns and issues we face. It is hard to do this kind of “objective” emotional work on your own. I think it’s impossible. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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