Thursday, 27 January 2011

Art and Health

In 2009, Cambridge University celebrated its 800th anniversary. It is now a far cry from  the days of 1209, when scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to Cambridge and settled there.

As part of the 800th celebrations, Quentin Blake, renowned illustrator presented the University with a 70-foot-long mural depicting famous alumni from the University of Cambridge. This was placed in one of the main corridors at Addenbrooke's Hospital, and forms part of Addenbrooke's Art Walk. I'll return to the mural later.

The Art Walk and the Art in Hospitals movement raises some interesting questions about the place of art in hospitals. The question is not so much about whether there should be art displayed in hospitals, but whether there is any health gain in them being displayed.

Grayson Perry, writing in The Times questions the value, and the type of art that is displayed. He says, "The idea of art being used as a sort of visual muzak or trendy organic balm rankles slightly. 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 hospital charities seem to tackle the churning existential questions that must clamour in the heads of so many in hospital". He concludes with, "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".

On the other hand, Dr Lee Elliot Major, writing in The Telegraph, and after initial scepticism, argues the case for giving us art for health's sake. She noted that nearly 400 academic papers had been identified showing the beneficial impact of the arts. She draws attention to one study carried out by Dr Rosalia Staricoff at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. It found that the length of stay of patients on a trauma and orthopaedic ward was one day shorter when they experienced visual arts and live music, while their need for pain relief was significantly less than for those in a control group. Visual arts and live music also reduced levels of depression by a third in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Dr Major quotes Carol Jennings, the renal transplant co-ordinator at Great Ormond Street Hospital as saying, "The opportunity to take part in something creative can offer optimism, a welcome break in a life preoccupied with blood tests and the knowledge that their existence can never be as carefree as that of their friends".

The fact that some people do not want to see pictures of jaunty fishing boats, does not detract from the overall value of this kind of art for the vast majority of people. Roger Ulrich and Craig Zimring, in their work, The Role of the Physical Environment in the Hospital of the 21st Century, say, "Results suggest a consistent pattern wherein the great majority of patients respond positively to representational nature art, but many react negatively to chaotic abstract art. Although nature pictures and other emotionally appropriate art elicit positive reactions, there is also evidence that inappropriate art styles or image subject matter can increase stress and worsen other outcomes".

I like the words of Kathy Hathorn, President of American Art Resources, "Throughout time, art has reached out to the human soul and touched the spirit of the beholder. Its ability to provide solace, inspiration and hope, makes it an indispensable element of the total health care environment".

Back to Addenbrooke's Hospital and the Art Walk. I do not pretend to understand art. I cannot comment on brush strokes, texture, colour or light; I just know what pleases me, and what affects my emotions. I spent three days recently visiting my son at Addenbrooke's, and I was worried and upset. God knows what he must have been feeling like. Walking past Quentin Blake's mural each day had an effect that is hard to describe, as it was very personal. For a while it brought a sense of calm, interest and humour. It was a way of dealing with the worry and upset, and this was for a visitor. Don't anyone tell me that art doesn't work. Music and a good book may have had the same effect, but the truth of the latter does not diminish the impact of the former. As Damian Hebron, Arts Co-ordinator with Addenbrooke's Arts when the mural was presented said, "Art at the hospital can make a real difference to how it feels to be there".

The mural is well worth seeing. Described as Cambridge's answer to the Bayeux Tapestry, it consists of 15 original drawings depicting different episodes from the University's history. Quentin Blake is a graduate of Cambridge, and his unique style will be well known to readers of Roald Dahl's children's books. He depicts well known, and less well known important characters over the centuries. Do click on the link below to see a slide show of the mural, narrated by Quentin Blake himself. 

Any comments on the slide show or art in hospital will be welcomed.

1 comment:

  1. Dad - I'm back - great post - I saw the Blake from a wheelchair and it was fantastic - Perry doesn't know what he's talking about...