Tag Archives: visual art

Is a liberal arts education good preparation for being a doctor?

Dr. Joel AngI’ve written before about doctors and the arts. In 1980 the cultural historian G. S. Rousseau, citing the techo-scientific nature of modern medicine, claimed that doctors no longer maintained the rich tradition of physicians as humanists. “Until recently, physicians in Western European countries received broad, liberal educations, read languages and literature, studied the arts, were good musicians and amateur painters; by virtue of their financial privilege and class prominence they interacted with statesmen and high-ranking professionals, and continued in these activities through their careers.”

Contemporary evidence contradicts Rousseau’s claim that physicians are no longer practitioners and connoisseurs of the arts. We may not personally encounter a doctor with her cello or recognize one painting en plein air in the little free time doctors have these days, but doctors write books that ascend the best-seller list, and many more write thoughtful, provocative blog posts. The poetry of doctors is published in medical journals and is available online in modest chapbooks. Nearly every major city throughout the world has an orchestra staffed by the medical profession. And the American Physicians Art Association encourages and assists physicians with art organizations and exhibits.

Is a liberal arts education valuable to physicians?

I have many unanswered questions about doctors as practitioners of the arts. I’d particularly like to know if the long-standing tradition of physicians as humanists has changed over the past half century. Higher education has definitely changed since the mid-20th century. In particular, there’s less emphasis on the value of a liberal arts education. (On this, see the excellent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, by Martha Nussbaum.) Has this affected physicians, either in their satisfaction with their careers or in their understanding of patients? Read more


The physician as humanist

Still life with porcelain bowl and plums Ladislaus Rath BergerI have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

— William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams is part of an honorable tradition in the history of medicine — the physician/poet. He followed the example set by previous physician/poets, such as John Keats, Friedrich Schiller, and Oliver Wendell Holmes (of “Chambered Nautilus” fame). Physicians have also been writers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and – since the 19th century – photographers.

Yet in 1980 the historian G.S. Rousseau expressed concern that modern physicians no longer embodied the humanist tradition of their predecessors. Now that medicine had overwhelmingly become a science and not an art, he claimed, the interests and accomplishments of physicians had narrowed. (emphasis added)

In our century nothing has influenced the physician’s profile more profoundly than the loss of his or her identity as the last of the humanists. Until recently, physicians in Western European countries received broad, liberal educations, read languages and literature, studied the arts, were good musicians and amateur painters; by virtue of their financial privilege and class prominence they interacted with statesmen and high-ranking professionals, and continued in these activities through their careers. It was not uncommon, for Victorian and Edwardian doctors, for example, to write prolifically throughout their careers: medical memoirs and auto-biographies, biographies of other doctors, social analyses of their own times, imaginative literature of all types.

In twentieth-century America, the pattern has changed; only the most imaginative physicians can hope for this artistic lifestyle as a consequence of the economic constraints and housekeeping demands placed upon the doctor …. [T]he diminution of ‘humanist’ content in the training of physicians has lent an impression – perhaps falsely so but nevertheless pervasively – that medics are technicians, anything but humanists. As a by-product, it has nurtured a myth (already old by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment) that medicine is predominantly a science rather than an art. Both notions require adjustment if physicians hope to return to their earlier enriched, and probably healthier, role.

Rousseau’s comment on constraints (for “housekeeping demands” substitute “dealing with insurance”) is even more true today, especially for primary care physicians. A liberal education that values the humanist tradition is also in danger. See, for example, Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, where she writes that contemporary education favors profitable, market-driven, career-oriented skills and devalues imagination, creativity, and critical thinking – qualities essential to the art and science of medicine.

But Rousseau’s assessment that physicians lack artistic interests is simply not true. Physicians continue to be prolific in their contributions to the ‘humanist’ tradition, most visibly as writers.

A plethora of physician/writers

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Estranged species

I find these drawings by Jason Whitman, with their accompanying statements, strangely moving. The words are so tender. The animals express their complaints and their wonder about living in a post-modern world.


Rabbit with skeleton by Jason Whitman

I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t think we should talk anymore. I’ve gotten to point where there is no point. I think everything is fine until you throw the past before me like some small animal braving a highway. Do I swerve? Do I close my eyes and hope for the better? Oh, man if I do hit it, please please let me go ahead and help cross to whatever is on the other side.

What were we even talking about? When all is said and done I’m left shaking and unable to make sense of what you just said. I just know someone has been hurt. I’m not so certain as to why.

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Carl Jung's Red Book, an illustrated chronicle of horror and madness

Carl Jung The Red Book-cover

Source: Amazon

Anyone who has an interest in Carl Jung will want to read this New York Times article on the upcoming publication of Jung’s The Red Book. For most of the last century, the very existence of this work has been only a rumor.
Jung wrote this illustrated journal between the ages of 39 and 55 and kept it locked in a cupboard. The controversial nature of the subject matter prompted his descendants to keep it there after he died in 1961 at age 85. It was transferred to a safe deposit box in the underground vault of a Swiss bank in 1984 and remained there for another 23 years. Jung’s relatives allowed almost no one to view the book. Jung himself commented: “To the superficial observer it will appear like madness.”

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Why is it so hard to reform health care? The issues are complex

One reason it’s so hard to make progress on health care reform is that it’s an extremely complex problem. Although President Obama does an excellent job of articulating the issues simply and clearly, it appears his message is not getting through clearly enough.

Dan Roam, a business consultant and the author of The Back of the Napkin, believes in visual thinking as a way to understand and communicate complex ideas. His basic argument is that if you can identify the specifics of a problem and communicate them clearly, then you can get the response you need to fund the solution to that problem.

For example, if you say “Global warming is a momentous, important problem,” that may be true, but it may not inspire action. On the other hand, If you draw simple illustrations and say “Making all roofs and streets white would give us a onetime energy savings equivalent to removing all cars for 18 years,” you may find investors who can relate to that image.

Here’s what Dan Roam comes up with when he applies his visualization technique to the problem of health care reform.

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Skateboard art: From Adam and Eve to modern medicine

 Skateboard art by James Jean

Source: Process Recess

Anatomical skateboard art by James Jean. Jean’s statement, which explains skating as the inspiration for his image, is pure poetry.

Skating has always seemed to me a courageous activity, and what is courage but an absence of shame. Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, pitiful in their nakedness, shameful in their new knowledge. However, the rise of science made man and nature transparent, naked again under a microscope and scalpel. We adorn ourselves with knowledge, hiding our private selves under a crimson web, until a bad fall shreds it to the bone.

Thanks yet again to Street Anatomy for the link.