In this interview, expressive arts pioneers Stephen K. Levine and Ellen G. Levine discuss their fascinating new JKP book, Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change.

How did each of you come to the expressive arts field?

Steve: My primary field of education was in philosophy. I earned a PhD with a dissertation on Heidegger’s philosophy of art at the New School for Social Research in New York. I was particularly interested in the philosophy of art, since I had been a poet for many years. I was also becoming interested in theatrical performance, particularly in improvisational and physical theatre (clown, commedia dell’arte, bouffon, and neutral mask), and did intensive training in that. I wondered what it was about the arts that made them have such a powerful impact on people’s lives. At the same time, I had completed a five-year training in psychotherapy and discovered that creative and artistic approaches to human development were more effective than verbal reflection. Thus I was working in several fields, teaching philosophy and social thought as a Professor at York University in Toronto, practicing psychotherapy, and working in the creative arts. I felt a connection between these fields and began to look for some way to put them all together.

This search lead me to the Expressive Therapies program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The program was housed in the Institute for the Arts and Human Development at Lesley; it was an innovative and creative program which not only integrated the arts in therapy but also was searching for a philosophical foundation for the field. After a year as a Post-Doctoral Fellow, working with Paolo Knill and Shaun McNiff—founders of the field—I decided to focus on this integrative approach to the creative and expressive arts therapies and to try to articulate the philosophical concepts and principles that underlay its practice.

Upon returning to Toronto, I founded ISIS Canada, a three-year training program in Expressive Arts Therapy, together with Ellen Levine in 1991. In 1996, I helped create the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Education, Consulting and Social Change, at the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland. These programs continue to this day and have been the site of further reflection on the foundations of the field, as has the journal of EGS which I edit, POIESIS: A Journal of the Arts and Communication. I have also continued to write about the basic principles of the field in a series of books for JKP, including Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul, Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Towards a Therapeutic Aesthetics (co-authored with Paolo Knill and Ellen Levine), and Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering.

In the course of the work, it became clear to me that the basic principles of expressive arts are not restricted to therapy but can be extended to education, consulting and social change. As Dean of the Doctoral Program at EGS, I encouraged students to develop research projects in these areas and to conduct practical as well as theoretical investigations. The current book, Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change, is an extension of these efforts.

Ellen: I also studied philosophy originally and had a first career as a university teacher. My doctoral dissertation was entitled: Psychoanalysis and Symbolism: The Space Between Self and World.

I was always interested in the arts and was a painter almost all of my life. I also was involved in social movements and highly engaged in anti-war activism in the sixties and seventies. I had an abiding concern for those who were less privileged and marginalized and decided to pursue training as a therapist in order to be of help. Bringing together my impulse toward the arts and my social concern, I studied art therapy from a psychoanalytic perspective and this led me to another training in psychoanalytic child psychotherapy. I recognized that working with children and parents might be a way to interrupt long-standing and entrenched individual and familial patterns.

Steve’s involvement at Lesley University intrigued me. I attended some of his classes and met the teachers whom I recognized as innovators in this new and interesting field. I began to expand my thinking beyond a psychoanalytic perspective and was inspired, by these teacher/artists/therapists, to place art and art-making activity more at the center of the therapeutic relationship—not to see the artwork as simply a reflection of the individual life or psyche of the one who made it. I recognized the enlivening aspect of the art-making itself and the strengthening impact it could have on individuals, groups and communities. I also was inspired to expand my own range of artistic practice—becoming more serious about painting and moving on to study clown and learn to play the accordion. I have found that all of these practices have added a significant richness to my own life.

In 1995, I decided to write a book articulating the encounter between an arts-based therapeutic practice and the psychoanalytic project. This book, Tending the Fire: Studies in Art, Therapy and Creativity, has become a major text in the field of expressive arts therapy. In the book, I bring together a description of my own studio practice of painting with the ideas of psychoanalytic writers that I consider “crossover thinkers” (particularly D.W. Winnicott) and the practice of expressive arts therapy, citing many examples of my own clinical work in play therapy and intermodal expressive arts therapy.

My contribution to the field in my writing and in my teaching has been to ground the principles and theories in practice. In addition to Tending the Fire, I have co-edited (with Stephen Levine) Foundations of Expressive Arts Therapy, among other important works.

How did the new book, Art in Action, come about?

We knew that there were a number of practitioners who had begun to use the principles of expressive arts therapy in the field of social change. Ellen and I decided that it would be useful to bring their work together in one volume and also to invite some of the founders of the field to reflect on the way in which expressive arts can be of use on the societal as well as individual level. Thus, as well as contributions from practitioners in different parts of the world, we invited Shaun McNiff and Paolo Knill to contribute and also wrote new essays ourselves in which we tried to lay a foundation for the work.

The publication of the volume coincides with the inauguration of a new MA program in Expressive Arts in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding at the European Graduate School and will serve as one of the sources for understanding the principles that support the practice of expressive arts in areas of social turmoil and trauma.

What makes expressive arts therapy a powerful tool in resolving or mediating conflict?

The central concept of expressive arts is that of poiesis. The original Greek term referred to making or producing in all its forms, including art-making. I use the term to indicate that art-making is not foreign to ordinary human experience; rather it is one of the varieties of making or shaping in general. Human beings are not born into the world with instincts that are pre-adapted to a specific environment. Rather humans shape the world in which they live and, in so doing, also shape themselves. In this sense, we could say the the human being is the poietic animal. What is characteristic of the particular kind of shaping or poiesis involved in art-making, is that it is a mode of shaping for its own sake, rather than for a purpose extrinsic to itself. Moreover it is designed to show itself and not to disappear into its function. This characteristic of showing or appearing also means that the arts can show us the world we have made and the people we have shaped to live in it. Thus the work illuminates the world and can show aspects of it that are normally invisible. This capacity for disclosure can give us a new perspective on our experience and show new possibilities for change. The fact that poiesis takes place through the senses—it affects us on a bodily emotional level—means that art can touch people more deeply than rational reflection. When communities or social groups engage in art-making together, it binds their members at a deeper level than debate or discussion can do.

Quoting from the Foreword, how does expressive therapy “transform conflict, acknowledging its complexity while trusting mystery”?

To focus on conflict usually means that individuals and groups get stuck in polarizing positions and are unable to see alternatives. Art-making, within an expressive arts framework, ‘decenters’ from the usual perspective and opens up new possibilities. It also makes us aware of resources that we might have otherwise overlooked in our focus on our difficulties.

One example of this process took place at the European Graduate School when a group of fourteen Israelis and fourteen Palestinians came to study in the MA program in Expressive Arts Therapy. Although they were all counselors or social workers, they approached each other with the conflict-laden history of their communities embedded within them. Moreover, most of them had come to know the conflict directly: all the Palestinians had experienced the occupation and the ways in which their lives were rigidly circumscribed by others. Some of the Palestinian men had been in Israeli prisons, and several of them had been shot and still bore the scars of the conflict. On the Israeli side, the Israelis had experienced the terror of suicide bombings, and several had lost friends or family members in the fighting. As a result, the Palestinians and Israelis were almost unable to be in the same room with each other.

Their teachers, especially Ellen Levine, who recounts her experience in a chapter in Art in Action, worked with them through the expressive arts to enable them to decenter from the past and become sensitive to what was present in their encounters with each other. This meant using play and art-making as media for conflict-transformation, rather than attempting to engage directly in dialogue and discussion. The culmination of this process came by chance at a dance party that the students had after an evening session. The drumming of the Palestinian men was impossible to resist, and both groups engaged in making music and dancing together. In subsequent encounters, there was the sense of having shared something that was nurturing and essential. As a result, members of each group were able to see the others as embodied human beings, capable of playing in relationship. This experience increased trust and lead to further sharing and the ability to listen empathically to the stories of the other.

What guidance might you give those on the front lines of recent social movements looking for new and meaningful ways to resolve conflict and effect change?

The framework of the expressive arts tells us that those who come to us for help, whether they be individuals or social groups, are the ‘experts’ about their situation; we can only be their companions. This means that expressive arts change agents in the field of social change are not there to give advice or to try to change people’s behaviour. Rather the function of an expressive arts change agent is to accompany those who are involved in a situation and help them find the resources which they already have in order to achieve their goals. This might mean using the arts as effective means of community-building and also as ways to show what in their situation is usually not shown, either overlooked or prohibited. It is also possible to use an ‘art-analogue’ method to help in transforming conflict, i.e., to find ways to bring new perspectives to a situation; to develop an attitude of appreciative curiosity that will lead to surprises that can open up new horizons; to build community support and tolerance for differences; to find visions that can galvanize others into action.

People on the front lines of social change are the experts in their situations; what we can do is help them find playful and engaging ways of working together, opening up to surprises and touching on qualities, like joy and celebration, that are often overlooked in the heat of a conflictual situation. Emma Goldman famously said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” If Art in Action has an impact, it will be to help us keep dancing at the crossroads and playing on the battlefields.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.