Space 22: An Art Therapist’s Review
Art therapy has been around before cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but it rarely gets acknowledged in the Australian professional literature and certainly not on mainstream TV. Until now.
The ABC has bravely moved forward with its most recent show, Space 22—an attempt to showcase the value and power of art therapy to a wider population. Wisely, the Black Dog Institute is involved in monitoring the wellbeing of the seven participating clients, all of whom face mental health challenges. There is plenty of evidence now to confirm how well art therapy works, especially for those experiencing trauma.
I have taught and practised art therapy for over 20 years in Australia, and I have witnessed how art therapy has become more mainstream over the years. It has become recognised in health as a profession next to psychology and social work, and there has been an increased interest in the combination of art and health in the last 10 years. The focus is on art; however, rarely on the type of art therapy that professional art therapists use.
I was initially excited to discover Space 22 on the ABC network, a series in which a psychotherapist uses art to work with clients in a reality TV format. However, the focus is again on the arts, and the art therapy skills on display are not up to the required standard.
As a registered psychologist and practising art therapist, I am concerned that other professional psychologists, social workers and even the public may get a wrong impression of what art therapy is all about. So, here are a few thoughts I have about the show.
Space 22: Food for Thought
Firstly, on a positive note, the artist and psychotherapist, Noula Diamantopoulos demonstrates a caring and empathic nature, which is an important baseline for good psychotherapy.
Secondly, given this is a TV production, a celebrity host—singer and actress Natalie Bassingthwaighte—is par for the course. The show is further enriched by involving an Archibald Price finalist, Abdul Abdullah, and Archibald-winning artist, Wendy Sharpe, for the art activities. Of course, this is not something a normal psychotherapist would ever do.
Thirdly, the art activities are way beyond what a normal art therapist would do: not in terms of the activities themselves, but in terms of the equipment used. The ABC has a sizeable budget for the show, which again, for a TV production is expected. For the everyday therapist working with several patients every day, a far more modest budget is the norm. And a full-on paint melee is not likely to happen either.
Finally, if I am allowed to be critical, I have the following ideas for improvement.
Even though Noula’s caring nature is well expressed, she interprets too much, not allowing the participants the chance to explore and find their own answers. In fact, it’s this personal discovery process that is so critical to enlightenment, which then serves as the catalyst for healing and growth.
One of the first lessons an art therapist learns is to avoid projecting their own ideas or interpretations onto a client. This process requires patience and takes time. It involves creating a safe space for reflection and when necessary, gently asking questions that help the client to first reflect and then explore the wisdom emerging from their own art.
When unconscious material becomes conscious, the client often enjoys an aha moment, one of self-illumination, a moment in which he or she makes sense of the revelation for themself. In this highly respectful process, the client ends up ‘shining’, not the art therapist.
Perhaps the confines of a television show don’t allow for this slow progression of personal discovery. Or maybe it requires the dialogue to be a little more staged for the camera. Whatever the reason, an incorrect impression of the therapist’s role is conveyed, one in which the art therapist is cast as an interpreter of the client’s art rather than a facilitator helping the client in a process of self-discovery through their own art.
I can only conclude that the ABC did not consult with someone who has studied art therapy, leaning instead on a psychotherapist who likes using art in therapy. While the TV show is indeed entertaining, it doesn’t convey how art therapy ought to be practised. There is even a danger of re-traumatising those who have suffered trauma in a TV-show setting or when the process of self-discovery is rushed. To be frank, a well-trained art therapist would operate very differently from what is modelled in the show.
In conclusion, I applaud the show’s attempt to bring art therapy to the public’s attention. It is well-presented and it’s very entertaining. However, I would advise anyone interested in becoming an art therapist or any practising therapist who wants to add art therapy to their skillset, to not use this show as a model to follow. Instead, I recommend seeking the professional training and skills necessary to become a good art therapist.
Feedback from the Review
After the above review was published, I received a flood of feedback from art therapists around Australia. Here is some of that feedback…
Here’s a note just to say that I agree 100% with your Space 22 review.
Having done a couple of courses with Noula, I know that your art therapy method is far superior.
CBT tells people how and what to think whereas your method is asking people to analyse themselves (who knows better than the person with the problem?).
Although I haven’t used my CECAT certificate to go into business, pre COVID I had a few group sessions with people who had various problems (psychosis being one and Parkinson’s disease another) and they all left feeling a lot more confident. So, thank you! I will be eventually doing your Diploma course as I think the world at large needs therapy right now.
Enjoy your day!
Good article on Space 22.
I hear more and more artists without qualifications saying they are art therapists instead of saying they are using art as therapy.
I did my qualifications with you years ago and find it disappointing that artists are lacking knowledge as to what an art therapist does.
Thank you, Rob!
Und danke für deine Space 22 Review!
Very much needed … and I like the way you wrote the review 🙏🙏
Hope all is well,
Agree with you about Space 22 and enjoyed your review.
I enjoyed your review and had the same concerns and uneasiness about the program, people have been urging me to watch it but I sensed it would be exactly as you write so I avoided it!
Great to get the message out to people though and I can send the link to anyone who mentions it now.
I love the way you say the client ‘shines’ not the therapist, that is what I really learnt most from your writings and activities and love most about this work, I have seen it ‘work’ so many times when the client discovers and uncovers, sees things for themselves, no matter their age, from 7 upwards.
So good to read this as I also saw the series and was pretty disappointed by how they portrayed Art Therapy.
Thank you for your review of Space 22, which I just read with great interest.
When someone told me about the Space 22 series, I binge-watched all episodes with a sense of excitement. How disappointing.
I concur with your observations- it was a staged and somewhat sensationalised attempt to portray the power of art in human wellbeing whilst ignoring the actual field and scope of art psychotherapy. Yes, yawn, a sexy celebrity, and a famous artist… what do these have in common with art psychotherapy!?
The expense of the production actually cheapened the depth and power of genuine art psychotherapy.
If it genuinely wanted to offer insight and information about art therapy, it largely failed. Anyone seeking art therapy for their inner growth/ mental health may be very disappointed if they think that’s what it will be like!
It also failed to point out the impact of the [hyped up] group dynamic, when real art therapy is most likely going to be an individual activity.
Robert GrayDirector and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.
A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has become a much sought-after art therapy lecturer and practising art therapist in Australia. His unique approach spanning psychodynamic, humanistic, spiritual and cognitive behavioural frameworks has distinguished him as a thought leader who is frequently invited to present at conferences in Australia and abroad.
Trained overseas and multilingual, German-born Robert shares the benefits of his international affiliations and access to cutting-edge research published in various languages with his students and readers. Robert is a professional member of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS).