Missing Museums: Why Art is a Necessity for Public Health
Veronica Esposito on What Is Lost When Our Institutions Close
Standing before Jay Defeo’s Incision—some 500 pounds of cracking, granite-like paint whose ten feet towered over me like a majestic, mute mystery—I felt absorbed by something so much grander than anything I had seen in months. I felt transfixed and transported, calmed and enlivened. I felt connected. These feelings grew to encompass my entire body, and right at that moment I realized something important. I had been missing art. I had been missing it very, very much. I hadn’t known it until just then, but I’d been sorely lacking exactly what Incision was giving to me. Because of COVID, because of the physical impossibility it imposed against standing in a museum to become absorbed in a work of art, my body hadn’t known this experience for at least a year. And now I was back, taking drink after bountiful drink from this oasis.
I was acutely aware of these things on the afternoon that I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Having my privilege of being inside a museum revoked—and then, very briefly, returned—had swept away enough of the mental sediment that had collected around my experience of art to make the whole museum visit feel new and unfamiliar. It felt enlivening and restorative, calming and stimulating, joyous and communal. I felt calm and at peace in a way I hadn’t in ages, and I could feel the pleasure of everyone around me, even though all were wearing masks and I couldn’t see their undoubtedly pleased facial expressions.
It perhaps says something about what we value as a culture that during COVID we have seen protests inside of malls and supermarkets, we have seen lawsuits over a person’s right to worship in church and to eat in a restaurant, but we have not seen outcries over an individual’s right to visit a museum. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that, just as art is construed as a luxury of the monetary and cultural elites—a luxury that may quickly and painlessly be jettisoned once crisis circumstances erupt into daily life—our temples of art are also seen as disposable in the face of more practical necessities. Currently in the State of California, I can purchase clothes, gadgets, and fast food within an indoor mall, but I cannot experience art inside of an indoor museum.
I find it unsettling to now know that individuals will show up to fight for their right to worship in person or to consume a hamburger in a restaurant or to shop for groceries without wearing a mask, but they will not raise an outcry over the art that has vanished from their lives. No one seems to have informed these individuals that scientific studies have demonstrated the great importance of museums to the health of our communities. Such studies have also linked the practice of visiting an art museum to a surprisingly diverse range of health benefits, some of which are: reduced stress, improved memory, relief from chronic pain, improvement in the outcomes of psychotherapy, a longer lifespan, increased vitality, a substantial and rapid decline in the stress hormone cortisol, decreased mortality from cancer, cognitive enhancement in individuals with dementia, and improved immune system function.
I do contend that the ability to enjoy art in-person, inside of a museum setting, is a very significant thing to lose. Beyond the practical, measurable benefits of art museums, science has also attempted to describe what is much less tangible: the unique sense of connection and well-being, of softening vision and falling into depths, of emotional plenty and mental engagement that one experiences while standing before an entrancing canvas. One study—titled “Move me, astonish me . . . delight my eyes and brain: The Vienna Integrated Model of top-down and bottom-up processes in Art Perception (VIMAP) and corresponding affective, evaluative, and neurophysiological correlates”—declares that:
Understanding this multifaceted “power” of art to affect viewers stands as a key pursuit for psychology. . . . [A]rt viewing is notable for its unique blending of bottom-up processing of artwork features (form, attractiveness) with top-down contributions of memory, personality, and context. These are further united with even higher-order, complex, and often effortful cognitions whereby we respond to our initial reactions, discover complex meanings, novelty, and make judgments. This also touches particularly profound reactions that are often recorded in belletristic accounts by art writers or museum visitors that sit at the fundament of psychology itself. Viewers recount powerful moments of awe, pleasure, insight, transformation, deep veneration, or anger to the point that art is even attacked. Art also delivers states of harmony, thrills, chills, tears, or compelling mixtures of reactions such as pleasure from negative or disgusting images, or, say, happiness with “sad” art.
This description of art makes me reflect that one would be hard-pressed to imagine any other single experience that could give rise to such a panoply of conflicting, overpowering, and complex reactions. If the VIMAP is correct, art grants us access to an immensely rich, complicated range of emotion and cognition, while also causing us to experience a sense of expansiveness regardless of if the art work is one of Jackson Pollock’s chaotic abstractions, Picasso’s disturbing Guernica, or a gorgeous Monet water lily.
At a moment when so much of our social fabric has been casually torn apart by public health authorities, art is a vital activity of connecting to another human mind. As Tolstoy puts it in What Is Art?, “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and [then] . . . to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.” Or, as Mark Rothko stated, “the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Art is also a public health intervention at a time when our physical health is seemingly at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
I lament that it has taken a once-in-a-lifetime crisis to clarify these beliefs for me, although, my lamentations are lessened by the knowledge that one purpose of crises is to help us recognize what we truly value. All around me, I see people reaching their own conclusions about their own deeply held values. Some of these conclusions seem sensible and laudatory, and others seem incomprehensible and deeply disturbing.