Existential and Expressive Arts Therapy Sare Gebhardt GEXTH 5102. 01 Karen Estrella November 30, 2008 Sometime in the late eighties, Shaun McNiff, Sr. Kathleen Burke and I sat in a small pub in Cleveland, Ohio. It was after midnight when conversation turned to my writing project, this book. Sr. Kathleen asked, “What’s the title going to be? ” “Well,” I replied, “the working title is Existential Art Therapy. ” Shaun sighed. “Bruce, don’t be redundant. All art is existential. ” …I have thought often of Shaun’s admonition. He is right, all art is existential.
Perhaps that is why the concepts…have held up as the world of health care has revolutionized, i. e. , all art has to do with the basic human experience of life as it is. (Moon, 2005, p. xiii) I have always had an interest in existential theory and its use in psychotherapy. Every person shares the experience with those around them of just living. Existential theory focuses on “how does a person survive the difficulties and losses of life, and is it possible to emerge from such experience as fuller, better, stronger human beings? (Magnione & Keady, 2007). It seems that expressive arts therapy would help in this process, but how? Can the arts be used in the existential framework of psychotherapy? Existential Theory and Psychotherapy To better understand how the expressive arts can be used in this framework, we must fully understand the framework itself. “Existentialism is the belief that, to find meaning and purpose in one’s life, one must undertake a challenging emotional and spiritual journey” (Kanaly & Slater, 2003).
Furthermore, “existentialism has assumed profound dimensions in our modern emotional and spiritual belief systems and can be found in nearly all aspects of our culture, particularly art, literature and psychology” (Magnione & Keady, 2007). Magnione, et al, continues to explore the concepts in the movie What Dreams May Come and its correlation to the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch and the existential themes that weave the two together. Existential theory started to develop in the Europe during the forties and fifties. As industrialization became the norm, people were starting to feel more isolated and alienated (Story, 2007). As a result of these feelings of detachment, people began to actively pursue what it meant to live their own meaningful life” (Story, 2007). As Corey explains, “becoming human is a project, and our task is not so much to discover who we are, as to create ourselves” (2005, p. 132). Existential theory focuses on aspects of human condition that most people tend to deny, overlook, or defend against, including individuality, isolation, separateness, death, time, choice, freedom, responsibility, and mortality (Yalom, 1980).
Through existential therapy, “individuals must learn to become self-aware, responsible for their actions, and, above all, to realize that isolation and suffering, while a fact of life, must be confronted without fear or anxiety” (Kanaly & Slater, 2003). Existential Therapy differs from many of the medical based models of psychotherapy. An existential therapist does not attempt to “cure” their client. The therapist is a sounding board for the client to reflect upon their lives, their choices and their actions. (Existential therapy) bases therapeutic practice on an understanding of what it means to be human” (Story, 2007). Existential therapy seeks to take clients out of their rigid grooves and to challenge the narrow and compulsive trends blocking their freedom. Although this process gives individuals a sense of release and increased autonomy, their new freedom increases their anxiety…Existential therapy aims at helping clients face this anxiety and engage in action that is based on the authentic purpose of creating a worthy existence. (Corey, 2005, p. 145)
With this understanding of the existential theoretically framework, we can start to piece in the expressive arts and how it can help facilitate the process of exploring the choices of one’s life and working towards the creation of a life one would like to live. Expressive Arts Therapy within the Existential Framework Not much has been written about the use of expressive arts in existential practice. “Pat Allen, one of the founders of the open studio approach to art therapy… decided to experiment with having people make art alongside each other and be of service to each other during the process, hence the Open Studio Approach” (Story, 2007).
This approach is based upon three elements; intention, attention and witness (Story, 2007). Story continues to explain what a session would look like, “an Open Studio ‘session’ begins with art making…participants are encouraged to focus their intention towards what they would like to understand, change or accept about themselves” (2007). This is the start of the participant developing self-awareness. “Following this, is a time for each person in the group to sit before their art… (participants) are encouraged to pay attention to their bodily sensations, judgments and reactions” (Story, 2007).
The concept of dialoging with the art is often used at this stage. Allen then had individuals write for a length of time about what they had experienced during their time sitting with the art. As the studio participants gather as a group, individuals may share their writing if they wish. The other participants are there to witness, to place no judgments and do not interrupt during this time. This open studio idea was labeled as an “art therapy” process. However, the intermodal transfer of creating artwork to dialoging to writing very much makes this an intermodal process.
The concept behind the process also allows for possible explorations into other modalities. The concept of the “witness” is used also in authentic movement and psychodrama. It is possible, thus, to replace the visual art component to Allen’s process with other modalities that lend itself to the rest of her format. The use of music could be used during this time as well, either individually or as a group, with the therapist as the witness during the group process.
After the writing segment of Allen’s process, one could also choose instead of reading what they wrote, to spend time creating artwork in response. Or they could choose to take their writing and use it as a starting point for a dramatic piece to share with the group. Participants could also choose to write in the format of poetry and using this, create a drama piece around the poetry. These are a number of possibilities and could be continued to be mixed and matched for each session, giving it a fresh face but still being held with the same format and use of the expressive arts.
Furman discusses the congruence between poetry therapy and existential theory, “poetry helps writers make sense of their worlds; to put their own pain and suffering into perspective, and to find meaning in their lives” (Furman, 2003). He continues, “The creation of poetry is the giving of voice to the human experience. In this sense, the poet pays witness to the unfolding occurrence of life itself” (Furman, 2003). This highlights the very human experience that existential theory and therapy try to work with.
Furman suggests the activity of automatic writing for at least five minutes as a starting point for clients to get used to both the medium as well as “help clients get in touch with their own internal guides” (Furman, 2003). To think of this directive in a broader expressive therapy base, I can imagine the use of movement and visual art as possibilities for substitution, whether separately or jointly. Clients could be directed to move for five minutes, even if it is as simple as walking around the room. Or clients could be asked to paint or draw for five minutes, never stopping during this time.
Due to the fact that the creation of visual art has movement in it, the two directives could be combined. For one to two minutes, clients could be instructed to move and feel whatever medium they will be ‘creating’ with. The following few minutes could be spent ‘creating’ while continuously moving, such as the arm that holds the pastel. Furman also talks about the directive of a mission statement. “They are asked to imagine themselves as an organization and dream up organizational goals and actions” (Furman, 2003). This directive leaves expressive arts therapists with options of working with this concept in a few different modalities.
I imagine that this could be done with visual arts with the creation of a personal logo, symbol or crest that a client could create after having imagined how the client wants to be in the world. With music, a therapist and client could create a theme song or anthem to represent this same idea. The ability to use these modalities that can stay away from the verbal realm might be even more beneficial, allowing the client to explore areas they might not be prepared to explore verbally. Conclusion Existential theory is a viable root from which expressive arts therapy can grow from within the therapeutic relationship.
Art creates a place for us to gather information and revelations to be made in our human experience, best noted by Shinebourne as “an opening for truth to emerge” (Shinebourne, 2005). This opening is available to anyone, as we share the human experience and how we deal with the pains and joys of living. In the end, Furman best summed up the possibilities of expressive arts therapy in the existential framework, “Perhaps this is what poets and artists do in the creation of poetry and other expressive arts: bare witness to and relish the struggle to live a meaningful life” (Furman, 2003).
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