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Review: Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change

Jan 21, 2013

Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change; eds Ellen G. Levine and Stephen K. Levine; Jessica Kingsley Publishers (London & Philadelphia) 2011

By Marian Liebmann

It’s refreshing to see a book which contains many surprising and good techniques using our ‘right brains’ and the whole of ourselves. We spend too much time on ‘left-brain’ activities, planning, writing notes and reports, working out logistics, spending hours in front of our computer screens. This book is about another way of experiencing the world, and of helping many others in the process.

This collection of essays seems to be an outcome of collaboration between staff of Lesley University (in Cambridge, USA and Israel) and the European Graduate School in Switzerland, the only master’s degree course in Expressive Arts in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding.  In fact many of the authors are involved in both institutions. 

This may explain why there is no reference to other similar works on the subject, such as my book Arts Approaches to Conflict (1996) and Art Therapy and Social Action (Kaplan 2007), although they do include the editors of Art Therapy and Political Violence (Kalmanowitz and Lloyd (2005).  Moreover the authors distance themselves from arts therapies, seeing them as too identified with the mental health system and professional credentials. They see expressive arts therapy as a different medium, offering psychosocial help in a broader range of contexts. These arguments also take place in the UK, but fortunately arts therapists and ‘arts in health’ practitioners have come to a positive mutual understanding in recent years.

The book is divided into three sections: principles, issues and projects – although I could not see much difference between the last two. The essays on principles include the ways in which the arts can offer something unique in many situations of conflict and hurt – described as ‘de-centering’, to remove the focus on the presenting issues and look at things in a radically different way. 

The chapters in the last two sections (just over half the book) then describe a wide variety of projects and interventions using the arts – visual art, writing, poetry, drama, music, dance or combinations of several of these. Most (but not all) of these chapters are illustrated with photographs of art works, or poems, or writings. Depending on the quality of the writing, some of these are very moving.

A wide range of contexts is covered, including:

  • Bedouin women’s art in Israel
  • The use of found objects in working with refugees in several countries
  • Poetry therapy with Iraqi survivors of torture and war
  • A post-conflict music/ drama/ dance project for mutilated young men in Sierra Leone
  • Drawing and painting workshops for autistic children and for women prisoners in Kenya
  • Art, play, music and dance in a staff welfare program for NGO staff working in dangerous situations in Darfur
  • Sharing stories and art on a field trip of US students to Bolivia, helping to run training programs for workers with street children
  • The frustrations experienced by a Peruvian arts project as bureaucracy stifled their efforts to bring healing after civil unrest and disappearances 
  • Using an arts approach (storytelling, drama, art therapy) to reach Ethiopian Jewish immigrant communities in Israel and help them to tell their ‘untold stories’ of trauma. 

These chapters show the way the arts can be used to engage a wide variety of groups. Many of the chapters show aspects of humanity that go far beyond goals and objectives. And the arts can achieve certain things that are difficult to arrive at in other ways.

My own Art & Conflict workshops have often demonstrated this: after a particular visual art exercise, someone may say ‘Ah, I see now – the conflict is in a completely different place from where I thought – and I can see what to do about it!’

Most of the chapters show how arts methods can be used to work towards healing after traumatic events – perhaps our next steps should be to put more effort into using the same methods to prevent such events before they happen?

It’s difficult to describe this book in a few words – please read it and be inspired!


Kalmanowitz, D. and Lloyd, B. (eds) (2005) Art Therapy and Political Violence. London & New York: Routledge.

Kaplan, F. (ed) (2007) Art Therapy and Social Action. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Liebmann, M. (ed) (1996) Arts Approaches to Conflict. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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Jillian Post
Jillian Post says:
Jan 21, 2013 05:14 PM

Just finishing an M.S. in Conflict Resolution, after checking into several Art Therapy programs. Makes me feel wishy washy about my decision... or like I should get another degree. :) Resolving conflict through art makes so much sense.

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