Van Huut has come to the conclusion that it is not so much the image that moves him, but the way in which suffering is dealt with, the processing of it. Mayhem is a hazily rendered, pastel-coloured paint gun brawl, with paint guns and small walls that resemble foam candy. Tuymans painted this canvas after 9/11; Van Huut saw it after hearing the news that his mother had become seriously ill. That association moves him. He says: “The experience of art can, by virtue of being indirect, help us to be open to everything that life has to offer.”
Anyone who opens themselves up to experiences is capable of letting themselves be moved, become emotional. They learn to deal with feelings, but also to reflect on the outside world. Whoever has learned to do that sees the art of the world in all its glory. But those who do not open their minds shackle their emotional world. It doesn’t take much: a touch of trauma here, a bit of obstinacy there. The emotional world as a festering, sequestered sphere, with all the ensuing consequences.
Art as broccoli
So, art is therapy. Art is therapy? One pill of art, please!
That may sound corny, but there is a grain of truth in it. For example, the MCHOPIN study by the Music as Medicine research group examines the effect of music under anaesthesia on postoperative outcome variables. The assumption is, in brief, that hearing music while under narcosis leads to lower stress hormones. Or take Eric Scherder, the brain doctor, who tirelessly tours Hilversum’s podiums like a man on a mission to tell us about the influence of music on the brain. Art is scaled down to a synapse.
There is nothing wrong with the well-intentioned researchers or speaker. But the problem is that this is the prevalent way of thinking about art within the realm of medicine. Art is seen as a tool. It is a part of patient-based lifestyle healthcare. Visiting a museum is equivalent to eating a whole broccoli and a half. Good on you, patient!
Art as a pattern
What lies behind this urge to scale things down so much? I think it is a product of the current neoliberal zeitgeist in which everything must be controllable, optimisable and quantifiable. Substance gives way to reproducibility.
This neoliberal culture is also painfully represented in universities. Non-STEM studies are being cut back; they are accused of having no relevance in a market-driven society. Even the person most well-placed to champion these interests, outgoing Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven, is not willing to get her fingers burned. Students are shifting to STEM studies, which are currently being scaled up massively. To achieve a good turnover of graduates, education is becoming ever-more narrowly defined, broken down into more and more modules, and increasingly more rehashed.
This makes the student population extremely homogeneous, and all the more so because we egg each other on so much. Every Rotterdam medical student takes on a side job in their second year to make sure their CV does not have any glaring gaps. How should we deal with such competition? Persevere or roll over? The plea by Marijn Houwert in Medisch Contact not to collectively jump ship is all well and good, but it downgrades the problem.
Do you recognize the pattern?
Art as a paradox
It could be grimmer. Diminishing art this way can also mean recognising its importance without having to allow yourself to open up or be vulnerable. On the one hand, mainstream art is deified, whereas other art is simply ignored. We applaud the fact that the Night Watch is temporarily being exhibited at Erasmus MC. But, even though its Dutch title De Verwoeste Stad is a Rotterdam idiom, few students know that The Destroyed City is by Zadkine. And, no, I’m not referring to MBO vocational students.
As such, art becomes a somewhat perverse and paradoxical self-serving ploy. Case in point: Take Thierry Baudet, who wants to replace the art that is in the Dutch House of Representatives.
A real discourse on art is lacking. In his essay, Van Huut quotes sociologist Hartmut Rosa. He states that if you are open to it, art can evoke an emotionally affective reaction known as resonance. That contact changes you, opens you up to ideas and teaches you to be empathetic. A core quality of the modern doctor, you could say!
Art as a solution
Therefore, this is a societal problem that has ramifications for universities and for medicine. What can be done about it? In my opinion: No backroom politics, no revolution. No committees, no polder discussions and no policy-making either. Most doctors are not concerned with art or existential philosophy. A full integration of art would also take the spirit out of it.
No; what is needed are candid conversations. Discourse. For those who feel like it, of course. Opportunities inside and outside the medical curriculum, opinion makers who are aware of the importance of art, more scope for civic reflection. In other words: It starts with yourself. You have to dare to be open.
Dino Gacevic is a medical student and founder of Music in Care (MindZ), a student initiative that wants to connect medicine and music (and other arts). Are you interested? Send them an e-mail: [email protected].