This past Thursday, I was more than happy to brave our first real winter rain; I was headed to attend a talk on one of the new exhibitions at the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition, States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing, explores the visualization of health and healing in art forms from ancient Maya figurines to a modern, colorful screenprint from the early ‘90s. Veronica White, curator of academic programs, explained that the fundamental interdisciplinary nature of the exhibit allows the wide range of works to touch on a wide range of experiences: disparities in healthcare, the invisibility of the sick, the wellbeing of the artist, and more.
After she took us on an engaging journey of the objects that the exhibition has to offer, I left the talk feeling re-inspired to emphasize creative and self-reflective approaches to medicine and care. Indeed, I was initially drawn to this talk because I have, in the past year, become incredibly interested in studying health from a sociological and policy perspective. I find that I easily become upset when confronted with the reality of health care-related disparities and ignorance. Whether discussing Serena Williams’s almost fatal birth experience or unequal access to healthy foods based on socio-economic status, all signs seem to point to the fact that medicine, healthcare, and our perceptions of illness need to be reassessed. The ways in which Veronica White explored how this exhibition is itself a reassessment of current approaches to medicine was therefore absolutely fascinating. A few of the exhibition’s artworks jumped out to me in particular, and when reviewing my notes after the talk, I realized why: they spoke to two main, compelling themes. The first I noticed most prominently in a painting titled The Pestilence of 1656, an overwhelmingly morbid and gloomy painting by Carlo Coppola. The piece is a brilliant summary of the Great Plague of medieval Europe, showcasing a scene in which the sick lay dead or dying and the healthy attempt to clear the wreckage. White mentioned that the scene evokes a battlefield due to how the deceased bodies are haphazardly strewn about, which leads us to understand the illness of the plague as an attacker and the Black Death as an all-consuming war. This is reinforced by the dark gray and dense look of the air on the battlefield: Coppola, following the scientific tradition of the time, assumed that the disease spread by dirty air, making the Plague an invisible and thus deadly enemy.
I realized that The Pestilence of 1656 shows us just how effectively art can be a window into our understanding of science. Not to mention, the painting highlights the forceful influence of art; perhaps Coppola’s 17th-century audience took the battlefield scene as an affirmation of their grasp of the scientific underpinnings of the Plague, thus institutionalizing that notion of “science” (we of course know today that plagues do not spread through polluted air).
I noticed another captivating theme in Mario Moore’s Stay Woke. This silverpoint piece is a documentation of Moore’s mental state after he underwent brain surgery. Moore lays awake in bed, fully clothed and armed, beneath a poster of Fred Hampton, a murdered Black Panther. As Veronica White discussed, Moore’s home setting gives us insight into the unfortunate but nonetheless legitimate expectation Black men have for themselves to always remain ready and alert. Several pieces in the exhibition touch on the themes brought up by Moore, specifically the role of art in healing the artist. We usually think of recovery as something inherently medical, whether we envision an extended stay in the hospital or a figure reclining on the psychiatrist’s couch. Yet healing is extremely personal, and these works show us how art can help people in recovery to explore and grapple with their current and changing state of health. Not to mention, I spotted Moore in the audience at the conclusion of White’s talk, which reminded me how lucky we are to have the Princeton University Art Museum as an accessible resource.
At the beginning of her talk, Veronica White briefly dove into the influence of Susan Sontag’s explorations of the ways in which we use metaphors for illness, such as invasion, pollution, and darkness, that stigmatize the unhealthy. Yet White also mentioned that Sontag never considered how visual art can contribute to this stigmatization or reject it. The two themes that I found most interesting, how art helps us to understand medicine and how it also helps us to understand our own ever-shifting journey of health, allow the exhibition to fill in the gaps left by Sontag’s work. As White argued during her talk, this exhibition is crucial in our understanding of art’s role as making our perceptions of health and disease concrete, therefore effectively demonstrating lived experiences in ways that language often cannot do. Indeed, this exhibition implores us to fundamentally shift the ways in which we conceptualize medicalization of health and healing: we need a more personal approach, one that takes into account how strongly art and science are intertwined.