What Can Art Do For Us?

-- Rohit Chandra

The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote that “any great art work … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world - the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”

Philosopher Alain de Botton noted that three of the major psychological functions of art are offering hope, re-balancing our overly negative perspectives and allowing us to forget ourselves for a few moments. Art can remind us that we were happier before and can be again, giving us hope for the future. It can also transport us to other times and places such that we forget our shared predicament. For these reasons, going to a museum to gaze at paintings and sculptures is prized; viewing digital images can have a similar effect.

Personally, above and beyond being transfixed by images of great art, I find they provoke a sense of wonder or awe at their accuracy and/or beauty. How could someone be so skilled with a paintbrush? I am laughed at when playing Pictionary because my drawing of a dog looks like a horse. I can only draw a stick figure to represent a person. However, not only do great artists sketch and paint a recognizable human figure, they can render it jaw-droppingly photographic. Like gods on earth, they can invest their creations with emotions or, like expert psychologists, suggest the character or personality of a portrait sitter.

Paintings of nature, likewise, can be rendered with such realistic detail that one feels like one is in the picture, gazing at a real grove of trees or the actual waves of the sea, or transported to and admiring a mountainous vista. The Turing-like test for Realist art is experiencing confusion about whether what you’re gazing at is a color photograph or a painting.

The color in great paintings can, additionally, stimulate our emotions, while their beauty can move us beyond words, offering a spiritual experience. I feel grateful to art and artists for offering fresh perspectives on nature (“nobody sees a flower, really-it is so small; to see takes time,” wrote Georgia O’Keeffe), re-animating long-gone historical figures, and surprising us with startlingly original reinterpretations of reality.

In the linked to Dropbox folder , I provide examples of paintings which mesmerize, awe, depict photographically, stimulate, and help us experience beauty. In our community, two painters of note are Gopika Narula, who doubles as an art teacher, and Poppy Charnalia, who also excels at poetry.

-- Rohit M Chandra
Rohit Chandra is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at MGH Chelsea who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is active in SETU.

Below image: Pietro Rotari - Young Woman with a Book