Taking a Visual Turn

Associate Editor Fiona Johnstone writes about being an art historian in the medical humanities, and proposes some future directions for increased visual engagement in the field.

As an art historian, I am often the sole representative of my discipline at Medical Humanities events. Sometimes I meet people who are politely puzzled by what an art historian might actually do: occasionally someone will let slip that they imagine us spending our days gazing at Old Masters paintings and pontificating on their relative aesthetic merits.

From my own perspective, the medical humanities can sometimes feel dominated by researchers based in departments of English Literature or History.  There are some well-established reasons for this: a quickly sketched genealogy of the field might identify the privileged role played by narrative in medical humanities scholarship, as well as the influence of the long-established sub-discipline of medical history.[1] Additionally, English departments in particular tend to be diverse in outlook and large in size, capable of absorbing other disciplines in their quest for interdisciplinarity.

Whilst the medical humanities have lately taken a ‘visual turn’, as I argued in a recent post for the BMJ’s Medical Humanities blog, the full potential of visual culture for the field has yet to be realised. There is now widespread acceptance of the benefits of using art in medical education, for improving communication with patients, and for enhancing wellbeing,[2] but there is rather less comprehension of how visual art can be actively and critically entangled with other areas of scholarship. When I speak with artists engaged in medical humanities research, they express concern that the value of their work is too-often misunderstood as primarily illustrative (for example, artists are sometimes invited onto academic projects to make difficult concepts more accessible for a broadly conceived ‘general public’) or instrumental (encapsulated in the popular belief that exposure to visual art can help make ‘better’, more empathetic doctors).

My current mission, both as an associate editor at The Polyphony, and as a researcher working on a number of projects, is to draw attention to the contribution that art historians, artists, curators, and other scholars of visual culture can make to the critical medical humanities. One of my first commissioned posts will be a conversation between three researchers working on medicine and visual culture across the modern period, Kat Rawling, Beatriz Pichel, and Harriet Palfreyman, exploring how photography can be used to challenge established narratives in medical history.

John Walter’s Alien Sex Club installed at the Wellcome Collection in 2018. © The Wellcome Collection

I will be actively inviting reviews of medical humanities exhibitions: watch out for two very different responses to The Heart of the Matter, part of a collaboration between artist Sophie Layton and bioengineer Giovanni Biglino, which investigates the human heart from both a clinical and metaphysical perspective. (The exhibition will be transferring to London soon – if you are London-based then don’t miss it!) And in the meantime you can read Theo Gordon’s thought-provoking review of John Water’s Alien Sex Club (installed at the Wellcome Collection in summer 2018), which interrogates assumptions about the use of art as a channel for disseminating medical knowledge.

I am equally keen to publish reviews of recent books that traverse medical humanities and art history / visual cultural studies – if you have a text in mind then do get in touch with either myself or Ryan Ross, The Polyphony’s book reviews editor.

Liz Orton, from the series Parallels for the Body #2. © Liz Orton.

Finally, I will be publishing a series of dialogues with visual artists working in the medical humanities, starting with Liz Orton, who is currently completing Digital Insides, a Wellcome Trust funded research project on medical imaging, that considers issues of evidence, ethics, consent and technology. Increasingly, Orton argues, to be a patient is to become an image; the image both precedes, enables and verifies every intervention in the body, and ultimately enables the absence of the body of the patient (who does not own their image, and may indeed never see it).[3] Orton also teaches at The Royal London Hospital, and will share her thoughts on the efficacy of visual art in medical education.

In her contribution to The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, artist Rachael Allen argues that “the visual arts should not be a means to an end of humanising medical practice, but be pioneering in the critical medical humanities by offering new ways of thinking about the body aesthetically, ethically, politically and globally, in life and death […] I insist on a place for visual arts – object-based, performance, new media – to be tools for research and experimentation for the wider community of academics and practitioners.”[4] I share Allen’s optimist vision.

[1]On the history of narrative medicine and its influence on medical humanities see Angela Woods, “The Limits of Narrative: Provocations for the Medical Humanities,” Med Humanities37 (2011): 73–78.

[2]All-Party Parlimentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, “Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing,” Inquiry Report, July 2017, http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/Publications/Creative_Health_Inquiry_Report_2017_-_Second_Edition.pdf.

[3]Liz Orton, Becoming Image: Medicine and the Algorithmic Gaze(London: Liz Orton, 2018), http://digitalinsides.org/text/becoming-image-medicine-and-the-algorithmic-gaze/.

[4]Rachael Allen, “The Body Beyond the Anatomy Lab: (Re)Addressing Arts Methodologies for the Critical Medical Humanities,” in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, ed. Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 189.

1 thought on “Taking a Visual Turn

  1. As a visual artist and a Nurse Ethicist, I have lived the intersection of the arts and the medical world. I agree with Rachael Allen’s idea that visual art can push people to think in different ways. The whole visual world is one that furthers knowledge and understanding. Consider the leap medicine has taken with contemporary imaging technology. As an artist, though, my own need for expression is best achieved through visual art and it is a means for maintaining emotional health apart from the human experiences of loss I have witnessed.

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