We know that art moves us emotionally. That’s its only purpose, really. But why do some of us respond to a piece of art in a positive way (“I love it!!), while others respond to the same artwork in a negative way (“….yuk…”)? Is it the artwork that makes us respond so differently, or is it something in us? The short answer is “yes.”

Let’s start with a story. Two boys are standing at a busy intersection with cars and busses zooming by. One of them stands at the curb edge, toes literally hanging over the curb, relishing the rush of turbulence as the vehicles pass.  The other is ten steps back from the curb, subconsciously placing hands over his eyes, anxious and afraid to move an inch, eagerly waiting for the traffic light to demand that the chaos cease.

Such it is in life:  some of us relish stress/adventure; some of us hate it and will avoid it at all costs. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the range, but it’s safe to say that most of us treat excessive stress as something we’d rather avoid than embrace. It’s not healthy to be stressed out all the time.

I worked in the healthcare industry for over 40 years, so I have a fair sense for the misery of disease and the ecstasy of healing. For years I’ve been intrigued by the research into the effects of art therapy (the act of making art) and art intervention (the act of viewing art) to speed recovery in patients suffering from a wide range of temporary illnesses and severe stress.

The beginnings of modern art-related healthcare goes back to Florence Nightingale, who is credited with the movement that led to placing artwork in hospitals as a way to improve healing. Nightingale wrote in her 1860 Notes for Nursing that  “the beneficial effects of art was not only on the mind, but on the body as well.” Her beliefs have since been proven time and again in a number of scientific studies.

One consequence of those studies is something we see every day in our modern hospitals and medical clinics. What do you remember about your last visit to the doctor’s office? Do you remember the color of the walls and carpet, or do you remember the abundance of art on the walls? Most likely, it’s the art you remember.

We decorate our hospitals and clinics with art for a reason. Research shows that art improves not only mental but also physical well-being. It reduces length of hospital stays, reduces the need for certain medications like painkillers, reduces blood pressure, improves patients’ satisfaction with their treatment, and  reduces the cost of healthcare. Being sick is very stressful, and art helps reduce the stress, which restores health.

Not all art is beneficial in reducing stress, however. Research has shown that some art reduces stress while other art actually enhances stress.

Different art styles and subjects generally evoke different feelings. A 2003 medical study by Ulrich and Gilpin showed that art having easily recognizable subjects (i.e., representational art) from nature tended to restore health in patients faster. Restorative art subjects include calm or slowly moving water, verdant foliage, flowers, landscapes having foreground openness, warming park-like scenes having sparse trees and grassy undercover, nonthreatening animals like birds and pastorals, and natural scenes having nostalgic cultural artifacts.

“Carter Shields Cabin” by J. Riley Stewart. A nostalgic homestead at the edge of a verdant forest and bathed in warming light.

Restorative subjects may appeal to those of us who are more like the kid standing well away from the busy curb, or who want to use art to create a space having calming, stress-free influences.

Just as some art calms and restores us, there are other styles of art that does just the opposite.  Healthcare research suggests that patients exposed to non-representational images and images having negative icons responded negatively to treatment.  Specifically, art that is ambiguous, surreal, or abstract tends to evoke strongly negative emotions in people already experiencing stress. Such art is more open to personal interpretation, and people who are already stressed tend to interpret the art as harmful, not helpful, to their states of health and mood.

Certain iconic shapes, forms, and tones can evoke fear, apprehension, and suspicion even if highly representational and realistic. For instance, images containing visual negative icons like dark, razor-sharp or jagged edges, or subjects that represent dangerous situations such as rapidly moving water, or fire, or cold icy scenes are often interpreted as ominous and even hair raising.

People whose nature it is to be more like the boy with his toes hanging over the edge of the curb, or those wishing to raise the level of excitement and tension in their favorite space might prefer artwork that is more abstract or visually ominous in style.

"Blackwater Falls at Full Force" by J. Riley Stewart. Torrential waters, deep shadows, and a heavy sense of gravity can emoke a sense of adventure and apprehension.
“Blackwater Falls at Full Force” by J. Riley Stewart. Abstract scenes having  torrential waters, deep shadows, and a heavy sense of gravity can evoke a sense of adventure and excitement.

As a final point, researchers claim that people very often react to the same art differently depending on their current mood or underlying nature.  We can expect stressed or stress-averse people to respond very positively to restorative, calming styles of art and negatively to abstract and visually ominous art. Expect people who are on a perpetual buzz and full of excitement to respond more positively to abstract art and visually ominous images.

So, are our responses to art due to the art itself or is it due to something in us? The answer is yes, it is both. Art is the original “interactive media,” and we should expect our responses to a certain style of art to change as our moods and natures change.

What we now know about art and how it affects our moods provides a compelling reason to consider how art might affect us in our own living and working spaces, doesn’t it? How do you feel about the art you have displayed in your favorite space?  Does it calm you when you’re stressed? Does it bore you when you need a bit of excitement? Or is it just right?  If not, perhaps you’ve changed.

Have a comment about this article or want to share  your own experiences? Please leave a note below!

I’ll leave you with this reference if you’d like to read more about art in healthcare:  https://www.healthdesign.org/chd/research/guide-evidence-based-art

Happy collecting!

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