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Unmedicated Art

Posted on October 5, 2011, 11:21 AM

La Chaise 2008 30 x 24 inches oil on linen.jpgBy Anne Sherwood Pundyk

“Poets understand that there is nothing of value without death.  Without death there are no lessons, without death there is no dark for the diamond to shine from.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Women Who Run With the Wolves

In addition to being an artist, I am also a breast and lung cancer patient in complete remission (I never smoked.) Traditionally, within the healthcare setting, the physical body is the primary focus.  During my experience as a patient, however, I have come to appreciate that much of what happens is within the subjective or non-physical realm.  Doctors, nurses, and other staff are comfortable when addressing physical procedures and needs, but can be woefully inadequate in areas of the psyche.  After my lung surgery, for example, I woke up with at least twelve tubes in various places.  When my surgeon appeared to examine me and I made a rye comment about my situation. He didn’t laugh, but instead checked my medication levels. Perhaps his assumption was that my light sarcasm was delusional, but it made me wonder what else he might be missing.  More recently, a doctor overlooked my emotional shock at hearing the news of a potential cancer recurrence.  Eager to get my signature on a form granting my permission to test tissue scheduled to be removed from my body, he failed to notice the ghost-like look on my face. I remind myself now, before going to every check up and procedure, that my doctors may not be attuned to my subjective experience and it will be up to me to defend myself.  I try not to be concerned if I appear to be making too many emotional demands because I know that any denial of my feelings is really a form of refusal to engage with mortality.

Comfort,” a group art exhibition, is opening this month at narrative series, which refers to an image of a 17th century side chair from Versailles. (The other is a related video “100% Real Painting, Versailles” addressing a mother’s wish for her daughter to live fearlessly.) While I’m pleased to have the gallery’s audience for my work, based on my recent time in hospitals, I have a whiff of suspicion that the facility’s curators might have selected the painting for the wrong reason.  It contains the recognizable image of something French and decorative and I wonder if I should be concerned that I may be party to an institutional practice that I don’t believe in:  the artwork I’ve seen over the last two years in waiting and treatment rooms has been predominately painted or photographed images of trees and water or pink flowers - all things vaguely French Impressionistic.  I correlate this work with healthcare service that treats the body, but sometimes ignores the whole person. Like the seemingly Xanax-inspired hospital artworks that abound, doctors who are unable to express empathy with the full spectrum of emotions elicited in their patients by a cancer diagnosis - especially facing down death - cannot provide real comfort to their patients. 

What is lost in this emotionally numb approach to patient care? Getting a diagnosis of cancer causes disruption to every facet of one’s life: physical, emotional, social and more. By denying a patient’s most profound emotional response, key resources creating routes to important problem solving abilities are blocked. Montaigne wrote an essay called “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die,” which contemporary philosopher Havi Carel, interprets as showing that the benefit of trying to understand how we feel about death “...can help us live well by teaching us that life is finite and help us to cultivate appropriate attitudes toward our finitude.” Fear and anxiety become forms of mental and emotional captivity. They impede our ability to tap into life enhancing forces such as curiosity and creativity and assert them to respond and adapt.  Art that reflects the profound disruptions that come with illness can open possibilities for authentic audience responses. I have the highest ideal for the function of art in our lives; I am an artist, not because it is “relaxing” or “personally therapeutic” to make art, but because I believe art to be the keeper of our souls. Instead of avoiding the difficulty of life-threatening experience by hanging pictures of pink, sugar-coated cherry blossoms, artwork that “shows the diamonds against the black” will better serve patient’s… just as will a doctor capable of taking into account a patients anxiety and fear.  Ultimately, I know that despite its superficial similarities to generic hospital art, my painting “La Chaise” embodies a displaced physical presence intended to evoke not medicate.


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