Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



February 2009

"[Federico Garcìa] Lorca uses the word duende…as a term for the obscure power and penetrating inspiration of art. He described it, quoting Goethe on Paganini, as 'a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains.'"


Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration.

What Art Can Do for You

Before I begin this month's blog, I am happy to announce that Reciprocity: An Artist's Book is now available on Go to BOOKS, type in the title to search, click on the cover image and scroll down for details. Voilà! Or you can order it through this website by returning to the home page and clicking on the title.

What can art do for you? An article in the February 2009 issue of Prevention magazine offered some new evidence of its power. Julian Kesner reported in "The Art of Pain Relief" that researchers at the University of Bari, Italy had twelve subjects evaluate several paintings according to their beauty, blandness or ugliness.

Researchers asked two questions: What happens to subjects' pain levels when they were shown a pleasing image, and when faced with an unpleasant one, would their pain became more intense? Stinging laser sensations were delivered to subjects' skins. They reported feeling less pain when they looked at beautiful images than when they looked at ugly ones. In fact, they reported that their pain increased when shown artwork they did not like.

Hooray for art and beauty! It made me think about ways in which this knowledge might be applied. Doctors offices and hospital waiting rooms came to mind immediately. We have all spent hours there, filling out pages of information. Could there also be a set of images for us to rate? While undergoing or recovering from medical procedures, could virtual reality headgear be programmed with our preferred pleasing images? Think about it: less moaning with Monets, cries of ecstasy with each Escher, medical merriness with a myriad of Miros. More art, less pain. Is this not a wonderful idea?

If taken seriously, this research could be a boon to both chronic pain sufferers and art sellers. If there were a program designed to identify aesthetic sensibilities, entire homes could be loaded with beautiful images to relieve pain and alter moods. The marketing possibilities seem endless. Philosophers and poets would not be the only ones struggling to answer the big WHAT IS BEAUTY question. A computer programmer would help everyone develop their individual answers, all in the name of enjoying decreased pain levels.

The problem is that I am not sure if I want the development of my aesthetic sensibilities in the hands of another person, even if the programmer might also be a respectable art historian. I want to do the work of exploring what is beautiful and being shocked or disgusted by what is ugly. I want to find my own images.

If physical pain could be exacerbated with one's selection of beautiful art, couldn't emotional pain be helped, too? I would be the perfect subject for that study. If I am feeling depressed and not too paralyzed to get out of the house, I can go to a museum. It never fails: within ten minutes, my depression is gone. My problems have not disappeared, but my sadness has. I think, "Whew, at least, I got through that spell." If I can't get to a museum, I find an art book. I look and try not to read. Art heals. It makes me strong enough to get to the next phase, whatever that will be.

Reading "The Art of Pain Relief" made me feel better about the world. Medical science is reaching to art for answers (hooray for the Italians). It has already happened in poetry: read Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process, Richard M. Berlin, MD, editor.

It makes sense that each of us must decide if we need to carve a larger and more serious space for art in our lives. Art can matter. There is a tee shirt in my drawer that says, "Art can't hurt you." I stopped wearing it because I disagreed with the premise. Even if art can hurt you, this study suggests that at least it can help ease the pain.

What do you think? Contact me: