Monday, May 01, 2006

Art as Cure

In the introduction to Magical Secrets, Kathan writes that she’s gotten her inspiration from “artists who’ve spent their entire lives finding strategies for creating miracles.”

The other day I was talking with her about an article by Randy Kennedy she read in April 17th’s New York Times about the growing number of humanities classes in medical schools. Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan has a new requirement that students there take an art appreciation course. “This year,” he writes, “for the first time, the course is required for third-year students, providing them not only with a blinking-into-the-sun break from medical rotations but also... a lesson about how important, and underrated, the art of looking is to the practice of medicine.”
Medical students learn this ‘art of looking’ to help them hone their skills as doctors: observational and interpersonal alike. Kennedy quoted Rebecca Hirschwerk, the art educator who helped to create the course, as saying “I can’t think of many places outside art where you can be in a moment, and just look, for as long as you can take it.” Like artists, these med students are finding strategies to create miracles of a different kind.

Later, I came across an article about a miraculous development at the city gallery in Limerick, Ireland. Fans of the Munster rugby team started leaving notes, prayers, and Munster memorabilia at the foot of a 300-year-old portrait nicknamed Stella (attributed to Irish painter Charles Jarvis) after rumors circulated that the painting was ‘charmed.’ One report had Stella healing both a tuberculosis sufferer and a cancer patient after a doctor’s
assistant sent them to her in the 1950’s. Another tale told of an injured Munster player, who was cured when he went to see her a week before Munster won the 1978 All Black’s match. The artists Pierre Coinde and Gary O’Dwyer, who credit themselves with discovering the painting’s mysticism, are quoted as saying, “Feelings of powerlessness can lead people to invest art with unverifiable qualities and extraordinary myths, hoping that it is not just a dead, inert thing.” To prove the point, one card placed at the foot of the painting in Limerick reads, “Thank you so much Stella. I said a wee prayer to you and you have helped me no end. It has been difficult but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. Thank you again.” Looks like Charles Jarvis created a miracle-making miracle.

'Portrait of Stella' by Charles Jervas (b 1675 Ireland - d 1739 ,London) Oil on linen, 76 x 63.5 (acq. 1948)
'This lady looks out at us with confidence and no little pleasure at the company she finds herself in…' LGCA collection catalogue. Image courtesy of the Limerick City Gallery of Art

But the curative powers of art go above and beyond kitschy spiritualism. At Mount Sinai, an anonymous student who’d taken the new art appreciation course wrote empathetically of a couple she was working with, a healthy wife whose husband had Alzheimer’s: “It was clearly taking a toll on her, and she was close to tears several times during the interview. Her husband sat next to her apparently oblivious to her distress. He was distracted, quietly picking a piece of tape with his name off his cane.”

This student will probably not go on to find the cure for Alzheimer’s. But the understanding that she shows her patient gives her the broader understanding that will fuel a more intensive search. Maybe it was (as I’m sure Rebecca Hirschwerk would like to think) partly because of her new visual training that this medical student picked up on the detail. For a moment, this student understood life as if it were art. The removal by the patient of his name from his cane is a symbolic gesture, an unconscious metaphor for how his identity is peeling away. This is what is meant by the art of looking: extending a moment, taking a lot of time to let all its levels of meaning filter through.

- Rachel Lyon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Kathan about the importance of introducing humanties and liberal studies into all specialized fields of study. Early on in college I was fortunate to be introduced author John Berger's "About Looking", and, "Ways of Seeing". The ideas proposed within these writings are enlightening to say the least in regards to what Randy Kennedy touched upon.

Thomas Kovacich

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Lyon,
Thank you for mentioning the article about medical students learning how to look. I too saw the article and was intrigued. I want to mention a further study about alzheimer's that was confirmed with my own experience. To paraphrase, a group of alzheimer pateints have been involved in an "art appreciation" class, that is, loooking at paingtings. It was found that they were happier, stayed more focused for several hours after the class. This article was also in the Times and worth a look. I can tell you directly that this is true. I had the pleasure of your Aunt Shirley visiting. I took her to 2 museums during the week's visit. First, the Neue Museum. She was somewhat distracted, unusual for her. Then i noticed that there was a particular painting that she wa looking at. I starrted to talk to her about it, engaged her in looking further. Her face relaxed and she was "herself" for some time after too. It was a wonderful, wondereful experience. The same thing happened later in the week at the Brooklyn Museum. Again, another painting that she was looking at that was the impetus to a rich, focused observation, a way to engage her further into the present moment. It was remarkable and rich and I will never forget it. I feel grateful to have had these experiences. When I read the NY Times article later, it merely confirmed my own personal experience. I mention all this to you as I think the article will be of interest. I am sure that there is further work in this area. I can tell you many additional stories about the power to see: of countless experiences that I have had in classrooms where visual art stimulated non-English speakers to speak, to encourage and stimulate an entire class discussion! of "problem" students making profound visual statements about a work of art when the teacher had all but given up- as we know, many "problem" students are visual learners! This is HOW they engage! Oh, the power of our visual world is so underestimated! Thank you for listening to my comments. I hope that they will have some resonance for you. The magical secrets do for me!
With thanks and appreciation,
Debra Pearlman

3:05 PM  

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