Can Art Promote Well-Being?
Neuroaesthetics is a relatively new area of research that studies the way our brains respond to art. Harvard offers a course specifically about this topic, taught by Nancy L Etcoff. According to the class description, some of the questions that students consider are:
Why are people drawn to art that is neither conventionally beautiful nor entirely pleasurable?
Is art a vehicle for simulating experiences and understanding other minds?
What does it mean to "enjoy" sad music or chills and thrills in response to fiction or film?
Can art promote well-being?
The question here that interests me the most is the last one.
When I was in university in the UK, one of my favourite weekend activities was to take the train into London and wander through museums. In England, most galleries and museums are free to enter. There may be specific sections that require a ticket, but there is a lot to explore for free. So, all I had to do was pack a lunch and buy a train ticket to enjoy this activity. In fact, I had a specific route that I would take on these days out. I would take the train into London’s Victoria Station and take the tube (subway) over to Tower Bridge. I would make my way over to the Design Museum (which used to be located at Butler’s Warf but has since moved to Kensington High Street). The Design Museum was an interesting stop for me because it didn’t focus on paintings and sculptures, instead, there was a wide variety of contemporary design to take in, from architecture and fashion to graphics, product and industrial design.
Once I had wandered through the Design Museum, I would head toward the Tate Modern. If you aren’t aware, the Tate Modern used to be a power station, and I am as fascinated with the building as I am with the art that it holds. I love looking through the architecture, noticing the elements that are still there from its former life. Then, I would step out (weather permitting) and have my lunch while taking in the sights of London, and the hustle and bustle of all the people in a rush to get here, there or nowhere. Finally, I would walk along the River Thames and make my way to the London Eye and Waterloo station to take my train back home.
There were many reasons why I took this trip. It got me out of the small town where I lived. It gave me something to do. It was a way to see new things. It wasn’t expensive. I came home feeling refreshed. However, in hindsight, the biggest thing I got from these outings was inspiration. By seeing the creations of other creatives, I saw the world differently.
Whether an innovative design for a chair or a painting that made me wonder, “is this really art?”, or a sculptural piece that took up an entire room, there was always something for me to look at. To me, that is one of the first beneficial ways art can help well-being. While you are looking at a piece that gives you pause, you are not wrapped up in your piece of the world and any concerns you may have. You are giving your mind an opportunity to contemplate something else. In fact, there are several artists that have explored working monochromatically (in one colour). When faced with a painting that is entirely white, for example, you may find yourself questioning its value – I know I did. However, if you allow yourself to look at the piece with even more attention, you begin to notice the textures that are built into the piece. Now it looks less like something that a two year old could do if given only one colour of paint, and more like something that may have more deliberate thought behind it. In fact, sometimes the monochromatic pieces can be the most thought-provoking.
On the other hand, a piece such as well-being feels light and the colours have a childlike playfulness to them. Notice how you feel when you look at the piece. I can’t speak for you, but I couldn’t be sad when looking at this piece. That is another way that art can impact our wellbeing. Pieces can evoke emotions – sometimes based on the piece itself, and sometimes in ways the artist could not have predicted, for example, if we have a personal memory that is evoked by looking at the piece.
Roy Lichtenstein’s work evokes a sense of nostalgia for me, reminding me of being a kid and reading comic books under the covers, way past bedtime. As you can imagine, being reminded of a different time in our lives can definitely affect our well-being, in both positive and negative ways. For me, the association of reading comics past bedtime is a good one. However, for someone else, being reminded of comics may bring up memories of being bullied or scolded by a parent for reading comics instead of helping with chores.
Going back to the question “Can art promote well-being?” My experience tells me that the answer is a definitive yes, it most certainly can.