Podcast: New era for art therapy education in China
A recent exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts' (CAFA) School of Design reviews self-relationships from an art-therapy perspective. Titled "Art Therapy: Art as Self-Care," the multimedia show is actually a roundup of session reports by some 20 undergraduates and postgraduates for their art therapy class.
It is the first semester for CAFA to list art therapy as one of its latest academic directions under the school of design. Three classes are open to undergraduates and one to postgraduates.
Shi Yunyuan, the school's academic convenor of art therapy, is thrilled to find some of her students really changed after the 8-week class.
"Some have become more confident, understood and accepted themselves better," she said, "just as the name of the class – Art as Self-Care – implies, to find oneself, to modify, heal and rebuild oneself with art."
Unlike music therapy that many might be familiar with in China, "art therapy as a therapy based on visual expression is quite a newcomer in higher education institutions," Shi said.
A 2020 graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with a master's degree in art therapy and counseling, Shi is now taking the lead in building the budding discipline. She is also working on drafting professional ethics for the art therapy practice in China.
She believes it is the time for more people to "get to see it, understand it, recognize its value and benefit from it."
Q: When did CAFA decide to list art therapy as one of its latest academic directions, and why?
A: It all goes back to the teaching reforms inside the academy in 2015. Since then, the design school established a dozen new types of disciplines, which are typically interdisciplinary. For example, art and technology, social design, creative design, systematic design and smart cities.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 prompted us to reflect on the environment and our health and wellness. It is under such circumstances that our design school decided to have this iteration of disciplines, and set up new academic directions such as eco-crisis design and art therapy.
For now, art therapy-related classes are provided to both undergraduates and postgraduates. Meanwhile, we are starting to recruit postgraduates specifically for art therapy direction to train some of the top explorative talent in this field.
We've hired art therapy experts from home and abroad to give lessons. They include experts with the Chinese Psychological Society and professors from SAIC. We are also working on exchange and cooperation programs with other colleges and institutes, and hospitals as well, to provide a diversified platform to students for further study and practice.
Q: What's the academic position?
A: We'd like to be the bellwether to lead the development of art therapy in China. On the one hand, we will make full use of the advantage and resources of CAFA fine arts; on the other, we'll have to play to our school's strengths, which is interdisciplinary studies.
It will be a lengthy process for the professional development (in China), including how to qualify an art therapist. It has to advance together, whether in theory, academics or professions.
Q: What are the academic settings?
A: The concept of art therapy is different from artistic expression. Even with basic art creation abilities, it does not mean you are qualified for art therapy jobs. So at the graduate level, we'd like to lay a solid foundation for undergraduates in their psychological studies, including developmental psychology, general psychology and personality psychology, in order to better prepare them for future studies after graduation.
For undergraduates, the curriculum is set based on programs. Varied interdisciplinary teaching groups are established based on different research topics. We believe it will provide students with a three-dimensional understanding of and experience with art therapy, and thus prevent them from being confined to a single perspective or theory, which results in bias.
Q: What's the status quo of art therapy in China, and how do you expect CAFA to make changes?
A: Art therapy has drawn great attention in recent years, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19. People start to wonder what art therapy is, including some technology companies. Though the health and wellness industry has overtaken education as a core driving force for economic development in China, I noticed there's a lack of service and support for psychological health care and wellness. The supply is inadequate, which is why I think art therapy attracts so much attention. It is also a great opportunity.
Right now, it's still a fledging field in China with a limited scale. Most of the valuable and influential journals and books have no Chinese versions, which leaves our students and the public with limited access to the field.
We hope that by developing the discipline, more people will get to see it, understand it, recognize its value and benefit from it.
Q: How did your three years of studying in Chicago influence you?
A: Art therapy study can very much train one's mental strengths. It's not easy to achieve a master's degree in art therapy in the US. At SAIC, it's a three-year program that requires 900 hours of academic studies and 1,000 hours of professional practice, aka internships. It is physically exhausting, and there were times I could only get by with will power. But looking back, I am grateful that I did not quit halfway.
One of my most impressive moments was when I was working in an institute for Asian refugees and immigrants. On my last day, the clients I served sang a song to me that they spent an entire month writing, practicing and learning to play on guitar. I still have the musical score.
All those bits and pieces are the spiritual values of this field.