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September 15, 2007

'Does art have a place in hospitals?'


Above, the headline over Turner Prize-winning British artist Grayson Perry's provocative September 12, 2007 Times of London essay.

Perry wondered whether art's ability to aid healing is overrated.

He wrote, "Part of healing might be facing up to the realities of being stuck in a fallible body."

He concluded, "I don’t want the last thing I see from my deathbed to be a jaunty painting of fishing boats."

One of Perry's works appears up top.

Here's the Times piece in its entirety.

    Does art have a place in hospitals?

    I was having dinner the other night with some friends, a married couple. They were consultants, she for art, he for the heart. He’s a surgeon. We got chatting about art in hospitals. He said that in the anteroom to his operating theatre there was an interactive video installation. It is there to distract patients from the thought that they are about to have someone up to his elbows in their chest cavity.

    I was struck by the image of someone on the brink of life-threatening surgery staring at a piece of video art, often a bit of a chore for me even in the best of health. I was reminded of the dystopian science-fiction film Soylent Green in which the world is a polluted, overpopulated hell and people who elect to commit suicide are shown a film of how beautiful the world used to be while their lethal injection takes effect.

    Our conversation got me thinking about the healing potential of art. I believe that art is good really for one thing only and that is giving aesthetic pleasure. Any other positive function is a lucky side-benefit, but don’t depend on it giving measurable results. Most of my works would serve as admirable doorstops but I tend not to promote them as such.

    One person who believes in the social and healing benefits of art is Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, Dean of the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College London. She has instigated a series of visual arts commissions for the school called Culture and Care. The photographer Eileen Palmer has taken portraits of staff and students, and the jeweller Laura Potter has made “a collection of things inspired by a collection of other things”, in this case the Florence Nightingale archive. Professor Rafferty hopes that displaying the art round the school will help to bring a cohesive sense of identity to a fragmented campus with little or no communal meeting spaces. She would also like the works to inspire discussion among the students “even if they just say it’s a load of b******s”.

    I asked her why she thought having art in hospitals is a good thing. “Hospitals are stressful environments; people suffer terribly from anxiety and boredom,” she said. She thinks art can help to alleviate these. Research shows that art in hospitals adds to a good healing environment, which can speed recovery and helps to retain staff. The idea of art being used as a sort of visual Muzak or a trendy organic balm rankles slightly. I asked her: “Does that mean that the better the art the better the healing potential?” This question seemed to flummox her somewhat. I doubt that the recovery rates are faster in the hospitals that display the higher quality artworks. For me one of the great qualities of art is its ability to unsettle us, to provoke uncomfortable questions.

    Hospitals are places of extreme drama: death, injury, birth and the saving of life are hourly occurrences. This is not reflected in the art that ends up in them. The emphasis seems to be on calm – few, if any, of the works loaned by Paintings in Hospitals seem to tackle the churning existential questions that must clamour in the heads of so many in hospital. Paintings in Hospitals is a charity that’s been going since 1959 and has a collection of 4,200 pieces, some by well-known artists such as John Piper, Tom Phillips and John Bratby. Predictably, the collection includes a lot of restful landscapes and soothing abstracts and no Damien Hirsts or Francis Bacons.

    I imagine that art can take people’s minds off the stresses of a hospital but so can an old copy of Heat magazine. Art in any environment is now part of the vocabulary of upmarketness, along with acres of frosted glass and a water cooler, meant to reassure us that we are in a capable and caring place. A few carefully chosen conversation pieces, preferably in cheerful colours, punctuate the shiny minimalism that is the modern professional workspace.

    A prime example of this is the large pebble-like sculpture by John Aitken called Monolith and Shadow on the steps of the recently built University College Hospital. Made of a beautiful multicoloured Brazilian marble, the work cost £70,000 and caused a small outrage on its unveiling. The Daily Mail called it the “gallstone” and asked “how it could possibly improve healthcare”. UCH said it would “enhance its welcoming and reassuring environment”.

    For me the polished pebble is the flagship symbol, along with scented candles, of New Age spirituality and its associations with aromatherapists, the I Ching and pampering vouchers. Not necessarily what I want to encounter on my way in to sort out a broken wrist. If hospitals want to use art, please can they treat us as adults? Part of healing might be facing up to the realities of being stuck in a fallible body. I don’t want the last thing I see from my deathbed to be a jaunty painting of fishing boats.

September 15, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I've spent the last 5 years working with hospitals in the Detroit area.

Recently, I started working at a Detroit hospital with an exceptional art collection (over 1000 pieces). Some of the major works are 40 foot tall sculptures in centrally-located courtyards visible from 5 different floors. I can't tell you what a delight it is to be reminded of such simple beauty in an otherwise challenging environment.

There is no doubt that I am affected by the art everyday. Thank goodness.

Posted by: Tracy | Sep 25, 2007 3:51:26 PM

Art in a hospital helps remove the clinicalness of the place....but my garwd! Most art I've seen in hospital is the most politically correct, overly processed, placid bullshit I've ever seen. Even when it isn't, it is put into settings where its impact is minimized and postprocessed into the same crap as before.

Art is needed for this world...without art, there is no reason to live. Personally, I think every hospital should have at least 5 musicians on staff...roaming troubadours and all that. Someone walking around with a guitar. Maybe someone teaching painting out in the court yard ever, regardless of who shows up. Something to make life not just normal, but hypernormal.

Posted by: clifyt | Sep 15, 2007 5:10:23 PM

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