Prescribing art

“Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane. Art, like science and religion, helps us make meaning from our lives, and to make meaning is to make us feel better.”

That the arts can be benefitting for our health, has been known for ages, in fact: in Antiquity this was already common understanding. Now, a report in the UK has offered some more concrete evidence:

The danger with these sort of reports is that art is being evaluated on the basis of its functional possibilities, that its meaning is in the first place therapeutic. Indeed art can be therapeutic but it is supposed to be much more. It is a bit like the instrumentalization of classical music for social engeneering, which is supposing a much too direct trajectory from the work of art to the social problem in the real world. There is a difference between experiencing existing art and practicing it yourself, and the latter is much dependent upon talent and skills, it is not an easy thing to do if it is supposed to go a little bit beyond what children do with water colour and clay. Exposure to works of art will have the best chances of having a benefitting effect upon people suffering from health problems, as long as the choices are carefully made.

But then: which art is therapeutic? Andy Warhol’s ‘Brillo Boxes’? Or the cut corpses in formaldehyde of Damien Hirst? Or the pulverizing sound scapes of Xenakis, or the Boulezbian plinky-plonk?  Depressed people letting themselves in for the music theatre piece ‘Neither’ by composer Morton Feldman on a poem by Samuel Beckett, will leave the theatre on hands and feet afterwards and reach for the suicide pill. But it is aspirational art, which both resonates with the inborn human need for order and harmony, including recognition of life’s struggles, which can be therapeutic. This means that medical staff would need a thorough course in art aesthetics before they prescribe cultural experience to their patients.

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