Can art therapy be a form of visual protest?

The body social is a term that relates to society and the impact of social content upon identity. Art therapy has a role to play in understanding how subjectivity and society are related. Everybody has the potential to live out of bounds, and is entitled to expression on their own terms.

A feminist agenda for art therapy not only highlights the significance of “the personal is political”, but also activates public declarations of agency that declare the importance of “the political is personal”. Nothing is more personal than the performance of identity and one’s self as artistry in process.

Art therapy is a series of visual art declarations that utilise creative media to communicate personal narratives. Such declarations are not definitive, but rather act as possibilities that elaborate agency. In essence what is declared is complexity, with each artwork featuring an expression of identity and meaning that is extended out as a series—or selfhood in the making.

New developments in the practice of art therapy are showcasing its relevance to activist agendas. The protest it proclaims relates to representing people on their own terms. The profession is reaching out, and encouraging art making within public thoroughfares and gathering places. Art therapy is now present in galleries, museums, libraries and even parks. It has taken to the streets and also appears within festivals, social media and urban centres. The body social is about inclusiveness, and making room for everybody within open studios, where the art is made from a range of available materials. Feminism offers a critique of authority structures that generate divisions. This form of practice is about mediation through the use of visual art that opens the door to joint efforts and social commentary. The art of feminism, is the support of difference and giving voice to the underserved. What is performed is subjectivity-in-process, and the urge to create more of oneself along a continuum of distinction.

Public practice art therapy (Timm-Bottos, 2017) connects people within art studios that are accessible in neighbourhoods, universities, and cultural centres. The aim is art making for a different kind of society, where the art characterises nonconformity and unique contributions. The studio environment is open for debate and analysis alongside the production of art. It is a social forum, where the possibilities of being together are enhanced by an equality agenda. Visual art is the energy that fuels activism, becoming both a product and a process of articulation that is socially therapeutic.

In ever greater numbers art therapists are opening their office doors and creating safe, welcoming spaces to connect with each other in ways that inspire our imaginations, awaken our hearts and provide places to mobilise collective actions. These liminal spaces are located in storefronts, libraries, social service institutions, museums, schools…and universities and are addressing the growing challenges of a disconnected world by inspiring new knowledge through informal exchanges of differing ways of knowing (Timm-Bottos, 2017, p.95).

The body social is expressed within art therapy studios available in public places. Here art is a catalysis for active citizenship, co-production, and anti-oppressive practice. A studio of innovation, performed as an act of affirmation and participation, that makes a difference in people’s lives. This is the aim of art therapy encouraging public relations. It is a social practice incorporated within the art therapy training at Ulster University, where the learning extends off campus as a happening with artists, social innovators, and activists.

So yes, art therapy can be a form of protest activated through artworks that have something to say. This is creating as a form of response/ability (Sajnani, Marxen, & Zarate, 2017)—a social performance enacted through reaching-out and inviting-in. The aim is the generation of encounters, encouraging both personal and political outcomes and a feminist vision of advocacy. The body social is a society where everybody is represented through the art of their own making.


Timm-Bottos, J. (2017). Public Practice Art Therapy: Enabling Spaces Across North America. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 30 (2), 94-99.

Sajnani, N., Marxen, E., & Zarate, R. (2017). Critical perspectives in the arts therapies: Response/ability across a continuum of practice. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 54, 28-37.

Dr. Pamela Whitaker is Course Director and Lecturer, MSc Art Therapy, Belfast School of Art at Ulster University.

There will be a free live event on this topic on Wednesday the 6th of November 2019. It is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in Northern Ireland 2019. Get your free tickets here…

Photo by garageband is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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