Art Therapy and Art Education: An Essential Schism

Art Therapy and Art Education
An Essential Schism
Danielle Horak
University of Florida

Author Note

This paper was prepared to support a final project for ARE2049:0101 History of Teaching Art taught by Dr. Kushins.  The final creative project is in the form of an informative website located at

We need to talk.

During the 1960’s when my grandmother was working as an elementary teacher she would take her troubled student’s drawings to my aunt who was studying art psychotherapy.  My aunt would offer interpretations of the students’ work, plausible diagnoses and possible explanations for their behavior.  These results affected the way my grandmother dealt with students, sometimes leading to investigations of their safety or mental well being.  Though this informal exchange between art therapy and the classroom was common then, it would not meet today’s standards for ethical practice.  A separation between the fields of art education and art therapy was necessary to protect patients and students as well as therapists and educators.

Vincent Lanier’s 1969 article on “Schismogenesis in Contemporary Art Education” explains how advances in art education were made possible by differing approaches and philosophies within the field.  I argue that a similar schismogenesis distinguished art therapy as an occupation apart from art education and has offered new insights that have made the research and identity of both fields more robust.

I know we have history between us.

The origins of art therapy and art education are ancient (Rubin, 1999, p. 87), but we will begin tracing their relationship in the early twentieth century.  As Agell (1980) observes, the history of art therapy “is characterized by a rather long gestation period followed by a period of spectacular growth (p.3)”.  This growth occurred during the rise of progressive education when the encouragement of self-expression and student-centered teaching methods cultivated an environment in which art therapy grew (Rubin, 1999, p. 96).  Rooted in the ideals of Froebel’s kindergarten and the Montessori schools of Italy, the belief that a child’s desires mattered and that their actions were meaningful led to the first practices of art therapy (Rubin, 1999, p. 95).

In addition to its embrace of progressive education, the public was fascinated by art brut or outsider art, art made by those with no formal training or by the mentally ill (Cardinal, 1972).  Psychologists were especially interested in this artwork believing that it revealed information about the maker’s unconscious mind.  Rubin (1999) reveals how the interest garnered by these works made art therapy an especially attractive treatment for “those who have no words” such as mentally ill patients (p. 231).  As depth psychology emerged in the 1940’s, psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet, and Carl Young were interested in the unconscious mind, and they believed that art was one way to tap into it (Rubin, 199, p. 90).  Their work influenced Viktor Lowenfeld and Herbert Read who advocated for the inclusion of art therapy in the classroom (Rubin, 1999, p. 96) and D’Amico (1943) praised art therapy as “one of the most significant developments in modern education (p. 9)”.  Art therapy and art education had a brief, blissful honeymoon during the early 1940s, but by the end of the decade, the quarreling had begun.

It’s not you, it’s me.

The presence of art therapy in art classrooms quickly provoked unrest.  Edward Rannells (1946) went so far as to call the inclusion of art therapy in the art classroom a “distortion and misuse of art in education (p. 36)”.  During the 1950s, art educators moved away from self expression and favored more structure in their lessons.  The sentiment was that art teachers should stick to what they know and not include the second hand practice of other fields in their lesson plans.  A grievance from Kaufman (1963) captures the mood: “the art room is often a ludicrous mixture of expert guidance from many fields. There is rich farce in hearing the art teacher conscientiously mouth the words of the psychologist (developmental growth, therapy, stereotype, norms, and so on)… (p. 18)”.

This shift forced art therapists to cling tightly to their roots in psychology, to conduct research, and to advocate for their field.  Naumburg (1955), often considered the grandmother of art education, helped shift the focus of art therapy away from classroom settings and onto its psychological origins by reminding therapists that “analytically oriented art therapy has become possible as a consequence of Freud’s achievement in recording the psychological mechanisms of unconscious response in man (p. 443)”.  With this reestablished foundation, art therapists wrapped up the 1950s no longer depending on the field of art education to provide settings for their practice.

The 60s were a coming of age decade for art therapy.  The field stood on its own, and the American Art Therapy Association (2013) was founded in 1969.  Following its founding, substantial research was conducted and guided by scholars such as Wadeson (1980) who developed new research methods, Kramer (1979) who helped identify both overlapping and unique functions of art education and art therapy, and Gantt (1998) who called for a more scientific approach to data collection and evaluation in art therapy. One misunderstanding that crept up as the field distinguished itself was the belief that art therapy focused on the process of making art while art education focused on the creative product.  This is an oversimplification of a complex overlap.  Kramer (1979) hashes out these issues in an article concluding with the assertion that “…what links art therapy to art education is understanding of the productive process and genuine respect for the products which are the result of children’s creative efforts (p. 17)”.

Can we still be friends?

Today there is a give and take between the fields of art therapy and art education.  Without art education, art therapy would not have had a place to blossom, and in return, the research done by art therapists has made its way back into the classroom.  One of the schism’s benefits is a deeper rapport with artwork and art making due to psychological insights uncovered by art therapists (Eisner, 1972).  Art educators are also better prepared to teach special populations because of research conducted by art therapists (Blandy, 1989).  Possibly the most important gift the field of art therapy has given art educators is the knowledge that creativity is being actively used to heal.  The weight that art educators once felt to use creativity for the purpose of healing their students is lightened and borne by the field of art therapy, so they may in good conscience devote their attention to the education of their students.


Agell, G. (1980). History of Art Therapy. Art Education, 33(4), 8-9.

American Art Therapy Association. (2013). American Art Therapy Association. Retrieved June 21, 2013, from

Blandy, D. (1989). As I see it: Ecological and normalizing approaches to disabled students and art education. Art Education, 42(3), 7-11.

Cardinal, R. (1972). Outsider art. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.

D’Amico, V. (1943). Art therapy in education. The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, 10(3), 9-12.

Eisner, E.W. Educating artistic vision, New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Gantt, L. (1998). A discussion of art therapy as a science. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 15(1),3-12.

Kaufman, I. (1963). Art education: A discipline? Studies in Art Education, 4(2), 15-23.

Kramer, E. (1980). Art therapy and art education: Overlapping functions. Art Education, 33(4), art therapy and art education, 16-17.

Lanier, V. (1968). Schismogenesis in contemporary art education. Studies in Art Education, 5(1), 10-19.

London, P. (1988). Art therapy’s contribution to art education: Towards meaning, not decoration. Art Education, 41(6), 44-48.

Naumburg, M. (1955). Art as symbolic speech. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 13(4), 435-450.

Rannells, E. W. (1946). Objectives of art education in the junior high school. The School Review, 54(1), 32-38.

Rubin, J. A. (1999). Art therapy: An introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor and Francis.

Wadeson, H. (1980). Art therapy research. Art Education, 33(4), 31-34.


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