A few years ago I was able to spend time with my grandmother right before she passed away. For grandma, it was a journey of several weeks, wavering between strength and weakness, until she left us. She’d been married for more than 60 years and had had five children and fourteen grandchildren.
Before grandma’s passing, I spent many hours with her inside of an old folk’s home and a hospital. As I stayed there with her, I became almost like a patient, sitting for hours in a single room, or running errands down long hallways. I'd never been at a care center for so long, and after a while, I began to notice what you're never supposed to notice at a clinic: the art.
Replicas of Renoir paintings decorated the hallways of the old folk’s home. It was an art directive scheme on the edge of well-done and gaudily over-done, and day after day of hanging out with Grandma, I couldn’t decide if I liked the paintings or not. I suppose I didn’t have to think too hard about them, as they were cheery and familiar.
Someone in their 80s or 90s probably would subliminally like paintings like these, or at least tolerate them. There was no friction in them. The children in the paintings could have been anyone’s children. I could sense the art director’s line of thought as I walked through those halls. Nothing is more lonely than an old folk’s home, so, why not populate it with paintings of beaming children and happy people? I thought this was the thinking behind it. Perhaps the art buyer for the home just chose a relatively rosy impressionist, and a collection, and went with it.
One afternoon at the home, grandma took a turn for the worse. She had to be rushed to the ER, where she lay for several hours. After that, she was in an ICU. I stayed with her for a while while she was on a ventilator, and I worried about her. It truly looked horrid.
I’d been awake for about 72 hours inside of this hospital in Houston, as if staying awake would keep my grandmother alive. Only a few people could be in the ICU at one time, so when my mom and aunts and uncles arrived to help grandma in her time of need, I was encouraged by the nurses to take a break.
Leaving my grandmother’s ICU, I emerged onto an entire ICU floor, where patients were being rushed around on gurneys. In the hallway of the ICU floor was a series of paintings, each abstract. They weren’t the bright, Renoir-replicate portraits of the old folks’ home, just large spans of color - blue, brown, taupe, and dark red. The walls themselves were a sallow orange, almost yellow, but not a happy yellow. The art didn’t look great on these walls, but, nothing would have looked great.
Shouldn’t there be something great?
I imagined what it would be like to be one of the people on the gurneys. They all looked pretty bad - each person in various states of half-consciousness. I realized that they, like my grandmother, may have had their last moments of cognizance while watching one of the paintings rush past.
It isn’t just this, the fact that art can be last thing for someone to see, but, the fact that art is nearby in times of suffering or general unwellness puts hospital art in an unexpected role. The art at the old folk's home could have been considered corny and maudlin, but, it fit. The art at the hospital had no chance of succeeding.
From time to time I still think about my late grandma and the people, doctors, and art that surrounded her in her final days. When patients are waiting for their doctor or nurse, what happens when they are surrounded by good or bad art? Patients will see art around them almost assuredly for a longer amount of time than they see a doctor. Time doesn’t matter so much for a good doctor to make a good diagnosis, but, anything with time attached to it contains influence.
What I have seen is clinics either try hard with art, or, they do not try at all. Art buyers and directors almost ask the right questions, but not quite. "Happy art or sad art?" People ask, dumping thousands of dollars into research. "What heals people or makes them feel better? Bright colors, or neutrals?" they say, lighting the giant pile of research money on fire.
The art in hospitals should be neither happy nor sad, it should merely be good, interesting, quality art. Nobody should presume that a patient wants to look at happy or sad art, as a patient could be at any stage in treatment. There has to be an evil irony in learning of a child's cancer diagnosis while surrounded by happy animal wall paintings. Similarly, maybe someone who has never smoked doesn't want or need to see paintings of smoking gravestones. Assumption shouldn't be there. Patients deserve quality art, fascinating, captivating art, and, the doctors and staff who spend 12+ hour shifts inside these buildings deserve the same.
Even if art is the last thing that people are thinking about in a crisis or during a checkup, it's still there. It's everywhere. It might as well be good.