Thank you for asking such an important question. As I begin to answer it, I realize it is so central to the practice of any expressive arts therapy, that only a very long answer can begin to capture its complexity. My answer pertains to art therapy, so I hope others more knowledgeable in the modalities of dance, music, drama, poetry, will contrast their answer to mine. The following is the product of some graduate research I did with Pat Allen, and much of it is derived from her writing. Martin Perdoux
The ritualistic and formal qualities of the classical psychoanalytical session present a very specific set of circumstances that most art therapy sessions do not have. The art therapist often work within the client’s personal physical space when assistance is needed, and most of art therapy interactions are easily seen as casual.
In A consideration of transference in art therapy (1988, American Journal of Art Therapy, 26, 113-118), Pat Allen noted that almost all art therapy drew on psychoanalytic personality theory, but that only some art therapists, like Margaret Naumburg, used psychoanalysis and the promotion of transference as a method. Allen, who worked several years with Naumburg, explains that Naumburg had her clients bring in artwork they made at home, and that this allowed her to work in the interpersonally-oriented style of Sullivan, Horney, and Fromm.
It would be ill-advised to promote transference in most art therapy practices, because the therapist is present during the art making, and cannot maintain the analyst’s neutrality and anonymity. In Allen’s words, art-making and analysis of transference are too different to be combined without leading to simplification and distortion.
Unfortunately, many art therapists dilute the definition of clinical transference into a benign description of therapeutic alliance, often using the term transference when they don’t like an aspect of themselves that has been exposed and amplified by a client.
The intensity of transference is “quasi-psychotic” (Waelder, Basic Theory if Psychoanalysis, 1971) and it needs to be contained by the formal quality of classical psychoanalysis. Allen illustrates the destructive potential of the promotion of transference in art therapy in a situation where the client feels sudden humiliation at the realization that infantile feelings are influencing him or her, even as an adult. If the art therapist encourages the client to express the feelings, they will need to be contained. If, as the transference may have indicated, the art therapist is subject to certain weaknesses, he/she may not be able to contain the feelings. “What then?” Allen asks (p.115). If the feelings expressed fit the art therapist’s needs, it will be an open invitation for a breach of ethics.
The alternative is that the primary relationship exist between the client and his/her artwork, instead of between the client and therapist (Allen, p.115). The client is having a relationship with his/her self via the art. What should be developed between the client and therapist is a therapeutic alliance, on a conscious level, like Edith Kramer’s “area of relaxed tension between mother and child” or Winnicott’s “neutral space protected by the mother’s quiet availability” (Kramer, Childhood and Art Therapy, 1979).
In art therapy, some conversation is initially necessary to allow for an appropriate selection of materials. Allen explains that once the art making has started, the art therapist’s role is to promote the art process (p.116). When transferential material appears in the artwork, the technical requirements of complex art making processes can help clients work through it. Allen explains that by providing “an anchor in reality,” “allowing consciousness a role in the expression of the unconscious content,” and “slowing the emergence of unconscious material,” technical requirements make it less likely that the client will be overwhelmed by that unconscious material (p.116). Should the client need help in the proper use of art materials, the therapist is also there to give instructions. Allen concludes: “In this way the client is engaged at a conscious level in the art process. . . The environment itself urges the process into being (p.116).
Now that we have established the primary relationship should exist between the client and the artwork, let’s note that as any relationship, the relationship with an image is a mutual one. Shaun McNiff, quoting Rudolf Arnheim, reminds us that “the essence of the engagement is not what we do to the image, but what it does to us.”
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