abstract art, a systems view

Do the arts make us better?

with 14 comments

In the chapter entitled Do the Arts Make us Better? from John Carey’s book What Good are the Arts, he answers his own question with a resounding no. Apparently the arts do not make us better. “Better in comparison to what?” I hear you say. Well, here he has in mind mostly ‘moral betterment’. I am interested in the question with a therapeutic meaning: do the arts make us better i.e. heal us, or at least make us feel better (than we did before looking at the art)? More specifically I am interested in the ability (or otherwise) of visual art to do this.

I saw a blog post at air about an evaluation of their arts programme in Derby Hospitals carried out by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham in 2010. It concluded that visual art in this environment implied, for many, a taking of pride in creating a high standard of care, that artworks also acted as a distraction from health issues and as a therapeutic aid to well-being as well as providing a practical means of “wayfinding” within the hospital.

I recall that about a year ago I was at Sandwell Hospital, accompanying my son who was having an operation, and what a stressful experience it was. The paintings on the wall (many really good ones) certainly acted as a distraction for me and as a kind of therapy. I wasn’t the patient but I was in need of cheering up and I got that from the paintings. Clearly, not everyone did, I was already interested in seeing paintings, and much of the ‘therapy’ may have been simply the pleasant surprise of seeing good art in this environment. I would much rather be in a gallery than a hospital after all! Nevertheless I have no doubt about the positive effect it had on me.

I am also connecting the qualitative study by the University of Nottingham, my experience of wellbeing, and an upcoming talk I am looking forward to hearing on 27 May 2012, at the Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno by Jane Raymond PhD, Professor of Visual Cognition Psychology, Bangor University and University of Birmingham, entitled From Seeing to Feeling: what does the human brain do when it looks at paintings? A gallery talk specifically with the paintings of Mali Morris in mind (and in view).

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

14 Responses

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  1. Well it makes me feel better when I look at it, and also when I do it. Even a jolly good rage at some awful pretentious art cheers me up enormously – grumpy old sod that I am!

    Dave Whatt

    May 19, 2012 at 8:37 am

  2. “Better in comparison to what?” I am better with art (looking at, doing, or whatever) in comparison to what I would be like without art. Simples!

    notes to the milkman

    May 19, 2012 at 7:53 pm

  3. Reblogged this on notes to the milkman and commented:
    This guy has some interesting thoughts about art.

    notes to the milkman

    May 19, 2012 at 8:00 pm

  4. What Dave said. The paintings are mighty fine.

    Richard Guest

    May 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

  5. I read Carey’s book when it was first published. I came across it recently clearing out a book shelf — all I remembered of it was that I thought it was mostly hogwash. Can’t remember one salient point from it now! Caught the end of a report on television the other day about a US hospital that has an extensive art collection in the patient ward (sorry don’t remember the hospital or the program) and the story seemed to suggest that there is evidence that it helps in healing. Will have to see if I can find the story reference.

    Anne Camille

    May 20, 2012 at 1:30 am

    • thanks Anne for commenting, I would be very interested in following that up. Let me know if you find the reference.

      Andy Parkinson

      May 23, 2012 at 5:56 am

  6. I pErfeCtlY agree with Dave!

    This Carey, John must be a sort of e-strange-d fellow. Bah.


    May 20, 2012 at 10:26 am

  7. Thank you all for your comments. You all seem to come down clearly on the side of “yes art does make us better!”

    Andy Parkinson

    May 23, 2012 at 5:55 am

  8. Oh my goodness!! This last year I was recovering from cancer operation and radiation. Art SAVED me! I did little sketches everyday. It was a distraction but also I left my sick body and entered the real self inside me zone. I left the world and painted.When one looks at art they leave behind issues like war, financial problems social problems. They go to a new place for awhile reacting to the piece of art.

    Carla Saunders

    May 24, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    • Hi Carla, thank you for commenting about your personal experience that is so pertinent to this subject.

      Andy Parkinson

      May 25, 2012 at 7:24 am

      • This web interaction is so good. We find there are other people out there pretty much just like ourselves.

        Carla Saunders

        May 26, 2012 at 12:17 am

  9. I use creating/viewing art as a form of mindfulness meditation: fMRI studies are now confirming it only takes 90 seconds of thought to change us physiologically. What does ten minutes per day do? What will research confirm in the next ten years?

    It’s okay Carey was skeptical but I think his is a dying theory. If we must quantify what several of us already know to be true, at least our medical instruments are are getting better at measuring.


    May 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm

  10. (Carey could argue the individual mightfeel better but does not morally act better. It has also been my experience that knowing thyself produces greater morality—but I have no research to back that one. …now wouldn’t that be a fun research study?)


    May 25, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    • Thank you melanie-pearl for your insightful comments and link to a really interesting post on “interpersonal neurobiology” at an Esalen alumni site. I connect here a lot to Gregory Bateson, who was at Esalen himself for a time.

      Andy Parkinson

      May 26, 2012 at 6:25 am

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