In her landmark book “Homo Aestheticus,” anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake addresses the classic issue of culture versus biology: Why do people make art? Why do they respond to art in the way they do? Aestheticism, she says, is our way of bracketing things off as a way to cope with life’s more unexpected events — whether marriage, birth, death or war. It is not a parenthetical luxury that can be dispensed with whenever we don’t have the time or resources to produce it — it’s intrinsic to our very beings, a mechanism for survival.
“Having worked at the hospital for 21 years, I do think art is a basic, primal, human response,” said Elaine Sims, the director of the University Health System’s Gifts of Art program. “People’s response to aesthetic or sound — in primitive times, it was probably your mother’s voice, or sounds that meant things were safe, or visual things that meant, ‘This is my clan or family’ — I think these things are kind of hot-wired in.”
In a hospital setting, lives and responses become irrevocably altered. This is where Gifts of Art enters the picture. Through a series of traveling exhibits, musical performances and healing gardens, the program uses art to recenter patients from the illnesses that comes to define them, to bring them back into the fold of humanity.
“When you’re in a hospital, you’re up in a space pod in outer space,” Sims said. “I mean, your whole world slips away from you. It’s just you and that scary, scary reason why you’re in the hospital. And your whole world shrinks to that.”
Sims added: “(Art) really signals all those things about self identity — being human and being there versus, ‘It’s my illness, I have no control.’ It keeps bringing you into the moment, bringing you back where you need to be, to get through what you have to get through.”
Gifts of Art originally began at the University as an offshoot of a University of Iowa program in 1987. Sims stepped up to the role of director three years later and has been championing the field ever since. Today, the program has 54 rotating exhibits that are viewed by over 10,000 people a day and encompass all sensory mediums — visual, auditory and tactile.
Studies have shown that patients respond more favorably to nature scenes, baby animals and French impressionists, so these types of art are often shown. For individual rooms, volunteers also wheel around an Art Cart, a lending library that provides framed artwork for patients — its number now totals 1,000 for the 900-bed hospital.
“Patients become very, very attached to the art, sometimes in a magical or mystical way,” Sims said. “If they had a good result, somehow it had to do with this picture — or this picture pleased them, or helped them through a dark time.”
Studies have shown patients who are exposed to art are calmer — they have lower blood pressure, need less pain medication and require a shorter stay at the hospital. That’s not to say, however, that any abstract, color-splattered Jackson Pollock painting or red, severed hand sculpture will be able to hasten the healing process. If a patient is sick on a hospital bed, mind addled by medication or the stress of the situation, he or she needs to be comforted.
“For people in the hospital, it’s not a time to be challenged, it’s not a time for ambiguity — your mind doesn’t have the energy to work at anything,” Sims said. “Things that are like comfort food, that are familiar, that take you back when you were young and protected are the best kinds of art.”
Music, in particular, causes cells to release substances like endorphins, which are the same pleasure-producing chemicals that give us runner’s highs, and immunoglobulins, which help to fight disease.
In this vein of thinking, Sims has recently been looking to expand Gifts of Art within the auditory spectrum. The Life Sciences Orchestra, which was founded in 2000, is composed entirely of caregivers, staff and science students and presents two free concerts to the public each year. Last month, the orchestra performed Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony at Hill Auditorium to an audience of thousands. During the summer, some musicians from the orchestra play in smaller chamber groups in the hospital’s courtyard for patients to enjoy.
But Sims’s personal favorite is the Bedside Music Program, a 70-hour-a-week outfit that provides musical therapy at the bedside of a sick patient. Currently, there are three full-time music practitioners who perform a variety of songs on guitar, voice and viola. The program is particularly popular in the intensive care units — during a particularly harrowing illness or at the end of life.
“That’s so immediate, so intimate,” Sims said. “It’s right there in the moment where people really need it.”
Art for healing’s sake is part of a larger, country-wide movement known as integrative medicine — a practice that emphasizes the doctor-patient relationship and pays attention to the entire mind, body and spirit of the person rather than just the affected parts. Incorporated in this are alternative methods that utilize a number of therapies across disciplines in order to support optimal health and healing, among them acupuncture, herbal supplements, yoga, mind-body imagery and preventative medicine.
Dr. Sara Warber, the director and founder of the University Integrative Medicine Program, studied herbalism and spiritual healing for 14 years during her fellowship under the direction of a local Native American healer. Warber was clear to distinguish integrative medicine as supplementary to conventional medicine, rather than alternative.
“It’s actually combined with conventional care and is purposefully selected by physicians who are trained to know what to select,” she said.
In order to foster this closer personal relationship, integrative physicians try to get to know their patients better initially, focusing a larger amount of time on preventative healing and by offering longer visits. In their clinics, they strive to promote a healthier hospital environment, providing patients with softer lighting and more ergonomic furniture.
Research in this field tends to pay more attention to daily environmental effects on human health rather than the more cell-level concerns of biochemistry or molecular biology. For instance, the University of Michigan Health System is currently involved in research on whether eating tart cherries on a daily basis will have effects on patients’ lipid levels and how performing acupressure might affect fatigue. Elsewhere, integrative scientists are investigating the capacity of paintings to heal or guided imagery to relieve pain.
On the aesthetics spectrum, too, the University has been making strides to incorporate holistic healing into its curriculum. For the past four years, Art & Design Prof. Anne Mondro has been teaching a studio art class called “Retaining Identity: The Role of Creative Work in a Healthcare Setting” that combines imagination with a healing surface.
“The philosophy of the class is to look at the benefits or to examine the role of creativity — the potential of art to really aid the human spirit,” Mondro said. “Creativity is so beneficial to our life and it enables us to express ourselves … to give us a chance to get into our own world.”
This semester, the class is working with the University Geriatric Center’s Silver Club Program, a day club composed of elderly patients with moderate to advanced dementia. Over a 10-week period, students will facilitate a series of art workshops for the members, eventually creating a collaborative work of art infused with lessons they learned from their elderly partners.
Mondro’s own art stems from her interest in portraying the human body accurately. In her graduate studies, she became interested in how illness affects a community of people, while her grandfather was struggling with cancer.
“A lot of my work is based on human experiences — my times of struggles with my own body and family illnesses,” she said. “And that has kind of led to working with the community.”
Five years ago, Mondro, alongside her students and artist Katy Bergman Cassell, fashioned a brilliant triptych mural entitled “The Dragon of Wishes, Hopes and Dreams” for the University Gifts of Art program. The mural still sits in the University Hospital’s Taubman Center lobby today. Across from the hallowed faces of the University Hospital directors the dragon regally stands, its fanned, Italian paper scales saturated with mica-flecked blues, golds, greens and reds. Every one of dragon’s 1,700 shining scales has been drawn, colored and cut by the hospital’s patients, caregivers and staff — from the head of the hospital to the youngest bedside patient.
“My vision was that we (would) have something that was kind of imbued with power and magic but not necessarily visible,” Sims said.
Science initially entered this world as something more akin to philosophy. Bohr conceived his quantum model of the atom while studying cubist paintings. Pythagoras found that the most consonant musical intervals were the ones with smaller mathematical ratios. As it has become embedded in the University’s Medical School curriculum, Art & Design classes and hospital programs, the healing arts return the scientific field back to its original humanistic setting — an intersection between the rational and sensual that proves the two aren’t in conflict after all.
“I always have this mantra when it comes to explaining art in a hospital: Art always as a job to do, it can’t just sit on the wall looking pretty,” Sims said. “Really, it’s like a workhorse. It has to stand the test of time; it has to engage people; it has to grab you.”