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The Work of Art

A Documentary About Arts Programming in Healthcare Settings

Medical technologies render the human body seemingly transparent. Complete blood counts (CBCs) determine amounts of red and white blood cells. Bone marrow aspirations remove cells for biopsy. Lumbar punctures collect fluid surrounding the spinal cord. Collectively these technologies detect the presence of abnormalities and infections. Even so, the human experience of illness cannot be fully grasped through pathology reports. Artful encounters (1) enlarge the scope of medicine to acknowledge a patient’s shifting life-story; and, (2) encourage participants to “imagine new normals” when tragedy disrupts their lives. Artists do not eliminate the uncertainties surrounding illness. Even so, they answer suffering in ways that lie beyond the traditional reach of biomedicine. The Work of Art is an educational documentary that will offer the medical community and public at-large a glimpse of creative programming that integrates artful encounters in healthcare settings.

The Work of Art is timely and relevant. According to the State of the Field Report published by the Society for Arts in Healthcare (2009), nearly half of healthcare institutions in the U.S. report having arts programming. The report suggests an extraordinary range of clinical possibilities for creative programming with applications for diverse health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, oncology, developmental disabilities, and neurological disorders. What are the goals of creative programming in healthcare contexts? How is healing understood from the perspective of the artist? How do participants make sense of physical and social changes through artful encounters? How do artful encounters help individuals to “imagine new normals” in the midst of profound change and vulnerability? These questions guide this project.

The Work of Art profiles three initiatives, their founders, and patients/clients they serve: (1) the Arts in Medicine Program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, (2) DooR to DooR, and (3) Collaborative Art International. These initiatives differ in size, scope, and location, yet each program realizes in practice what several philosophers have endorsed: Artful encounters can develop fuller and richer relational, institutional, and communal life. Importantly, not all creative programming needs to be interactive. There are times when participants may benefit from just listening, being present, or “taking in” an artful performance. Patient and family participation in the featured programs ranges from the role of audience member to that of artist. Roles are shaped by the physical capacities of patients as well as the nature of the modalities used by visiting artists (e.g., painting, drawing, singing). Collectively, Arts in Medicine, DooR to DooR, and Collaborative Art International offer participants opportunities to express themselves, to connect with others, and to transcend or transform their social and physical realities.