What the doctor ordered

after your water break, time for 20 Goyas, you can do it!Doctors will be able to prescribe visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art for their patients, reports the Gazette:

Doctors will each be able to assign up to 50 museum prescriptions over the course of the pilot project. Each prescription will allow entry for up to two adults and two children age 17 or under.

“There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health,” said Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada and the head of the family medicine group at the CLSC St-Louis-du-Parc. “It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being. People tend to think this is only good for mental-health issues. That it’s for people who’re depressed or who have psychological problems. But that’s not the case. It’s good for patients with diabetes, for patients in palliative care, for people with chronic illness. Since the ’80s we’ve been prescribing exercise for our patients because we know exercise increases exactly the same hormones. But when I have patients who’re over 80, it’s not obvious that I can prescribe exercise for them.”

“In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” said MMFA director general Nathalie Bondil.

I do not think Ms Bondil is correct, nor is there any evidence anywhere that visits to the museum or attending a concert is a substitute for regular physical exercise, save maybe, as the doctor notes, for patients over 80. They are all good things, but they are good things in very different ways. Going to the museum might well be good for your health, but there’s no need to explain how going for a run or swimming laps or doing yoga regularly affects your health to a very different magnitude.

My problem with these sorts of stories, though, is not just the hyperbole. It’s about what it says about “art”. The story has not one single mention of any work of art these doctors’ patients might encounter at the MMFA (save for a photo indicating there is a Calder retrospective currently on exhibition). The actual works have no importance, it’s just “art”, or, as they say, whatever. The museum is a place with hallways and rooms that have framed pieces of canvas with paint on them hung from the walls.

And we can see why this is the approach, for what if we did pay attention to what art? What happens if researchers discover (as we know they ultimately will) that impressionist works increase the viewers’ levels of cortisol and serotonin more than do works of post-expressionism? That landscapes generate more hormone secretion than abstract works? Will doctors then start to advise the museum on its curatorial policies? Will the arts council?

Arts advocacy through making claims about instrumental benefits – to our health, our sociability, our empathy, our labor productivity – neglects that if the arguments were actually highly persuasive, it’s a very short step to evaluating different genres or individual works of art on that basis. “Some Bach would do you good; avoid the Shostakovich, especially right before bed.” A part of the hidden, evil genius of “economic impact” studies was to embed the claim right from the start that the actual art itself doesn’t matter at all, so long as money is spent on it. But I don’t see how advocacy on health benefits, or empathy, or entrepreneurial creativity, would be able to get away with that. If, “In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century”, artists and curators will need to mind how they go, as they may one day regret ever opening this box.

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  1. These approaches that instrumentalize art only appear in the English-speaking world. They seem to stem from Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism which was expanded upon by other English-speaking philosophers including John Stuart Mill. The philosophy found fertile ground in American pragmatism and the country’s concepts of a relatively unmitigated capitalism where the arts must be situated in the marketplace. Anyway, just a thought.