Doubtful That Art Saves Lives? Evidence Indicates It May Heal

Art Saves Lives,” is a bumper sticker I occasionally see around town, and every time I do  I think, “Maybe, but in an emergency I’d prefer my rescuer know CPR than how to wield a paintbrush.” It’s a conundrum created “where science, humanity, and art converge.”

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012
Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

But what of art’s ability to heal? Most nurses know the benefits of art therapy: self-discovery, personal fulfillment, empowerment, relaxation, and symptom relief. However, can merely looking at art produce similar effects?

This question came to mind while rereading Vermeer in Bosnia¹, an written essay by Lawrence Weschler. Weschler interviewed Antonio Casse, then the presiding judge of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, during the trial of Dusko Tadic for crimes against humanity.

Weschler asked Judge Casse how he maintained his sanity while listening day after day to horrific accounts of torture, rape, and murder. Casse’s answer: “Ah, you see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town [in the Hague], so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.”

Can looking at art — even a painting as beautiful as Girl With a Pearl Earring — reduce the effects of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue? If so, can nurses and patients benefit from this simplest form of art therapy?

A small study ² conducted by Dr. Marina de Tommaso, a neurologist, found that patients who gazed at and contemplated paintings they considered beautiful felt less pain when subjected to noxious stimuli. The New York Times has reported that museum visits help Alzheimer’s patients experience symptom improvement ³. The mechanism triggering these effects on the brain is not well understood.

Though the jury is out (pun intended) as to whether looking at art has therapeutic power, I think it’s worth a try for patients — and their nurses. Here are a few easy to implement suggestions.

  • Incorporate artwork into waiting rooms and hallways, but be mindful of the patient population. Art with jagged edges or mirrored surfaces (some types of sculpture, for instance) may evoke posttraumatic symptoms in patients who have disfiguring scars, surgical or otherwise.
  • Place something beautiful in the patient’s view from the hospital bed or the infusion clinic lounge chair.
  • Place books featuring artwork in waiting rooms instead of year-old magazines.
  • Hang a beautiful painting in the staff lounge instead of that big, messy corkboard cluttered with safety committee meeting minutes and medication recall notices.
 OK, that last one will never happen, so here are some suggestions to try at home:
  • Find a location with a beautiful view on your route home. Pull over, take a deep breath, and look. We live in a beautiful world.
  • Shop for art at a museum gift shop. Not every budget allows for buying original art. Gift shops offer an assortment of quality reproductions. Have less money to spend than that? Collecting postcards of works by famous painters is an inexpensive alternative. Buy frames from dollar stores or thrift shops, paint them white, and hang them in groups on a bright color- painted wall.
  • Create an art space in your home. I pinned my postcards to an old vanity. Once I added candles, it doubled as a place for meditation and reflection.

Do you think it’s the art or a meditative response to looking that provides relaxation and improves symptoms?

¹ Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler,The New Yorker, Nov. 20, 1995
² ITALY: Beautiful Art Eases Pain, Monica Dobie05 October 2008 Issue No:47
³ The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer’s Therapy, Randy Kennedy, October 30, 2005, The New York Times