Are Hospitals More Important Than Art?

Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it (submit yours here).  With 35 votes, this week’s winner was “Are Hospitals More Important Than Art?” submitted by awesome reader Sara Vermeylen.

Questions like this are fun, even if absurd. Like Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts, it’s a kind of false dichotomy. But like the game Zobmando where you must decide between two ridiculous choices, you can have great intellectual fun in crafting arguments for one side or the other (or both).

Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa2If survival is at stake, I’d choose hospitals. A hospital, assuming it comes with smart doctors and fancy equipment, keeps a popular healthy, lengthens lifespans, improves the survival odds of reproduction, and provides a core public service everyone needs. If everyone is sick and dying, art has limited value, and of course it’s harder for sick and dying artists to make art than healthy ones.

But art is a critical part of what it is to be human. As miserable as conditions were for our ancestors 30,000 years ago, they took time to make elaborate cave paintings. If art were meaningless, why did they bother way back then? The answer is we are both social creatures and tool makers. Central to our survival has been the ability to communicate ideas, and art is one tool for developing the ability to imagine, observe, record and communicate thoughts. Art is also a tool of expression, a way to capture ideas, feelings, memories and dreams for others to see. Art, in the form of tattoos, face-paint, and even flags, has helped us throughout history to define our identity and remind us of shared connections. Music, books, paintings and movies are forms of art we depend on to help us understand who we are and how we want to live. We are aspirational creatures and a primary way we define what is possible for ourselves is through the art our artists makes for us.

What do you think?

12 Responses to “Are Hospitals More Important Than Art?”

  1. Slim

    What I’ve found in my work is that the act of making art can give us a “reason to keep living,” and so can the resonance, wonder, surprise, curiosity, inspiration, etc… you experience from an art work made by an other (assuming that you can find such an art work). And like you said, art is not limited by its form as it can be a painting, film, theatre, sculpture, music, concert, book, object, etc…

    Without those experiences, it’s not uncommon for people to lose any reason for “survival” and take their own lives.

    But then again, hospitals can be the very medium that helps people who’ve been unable to have such experiences have them. So like you said, it’s a false dichotomy. it’s not that one is more or less important, they’re part of the whole, the cycle of life.

    • Scott

      A few folks on twitter pointed out how every hospital they’ve been to has art in it. Clearly there’s a connection. Of course you can’t put a hospital inside a work of art (well, I suppose you *could* but I’ve yet to see that one), which might imply something about significance or scale.

  2. Lisa

    Maybe I’m prejudiced because I’m an artist, but I’d choose art over hospitals. I’ve been in a hospital once in my life (other than when I was born) but I need art every day to make living worthwhile.

    Besides, it seems that the more we find ways to cure ourselves of one thing, another pops up to take its place. I don’t know if hospitals are fixing or curing us more, or just fixing us of different things.

    • Scott

      I took the question to be about the planet at large, although a personal interpretation is interesting of course.

      In a metaphoric sense I agree that art can saves lives, but in a literal sense, a heart attack, a gun shot wound, there’s a primitive function hospitals serve that’s hard for most created works to match.

  3. Andrew Holloway

    I agree that art is, at the core, a form of communication. Today, it connotes the abstract, or the old. Things that are either beyond the reach of a layman, or belong in a museum. But our world is full of art.

    In a manner of thinking, our medical knowledge started as art. The study of the body done during the renaissance, for instance. But even simpler, how much early art was to communicate not only the flora and fauna, but what was safe, or what roots and herbs healed various diseases? And aren’t the epics of yore art? Storytelling is a form of art that not only communicates the history of a people, but also what’s good and bad, safe and dangerous.

    What good would a hospital be if there was no signage (art), writing (art), or doctors who learned from medical books with diagrams of the various organs (art)?

    Without art, would medicine have developed beyond folklore and superstition?

    • Scott

      That’s a great point. I remember reading about how Michelangelo had to sneak into the morgue at night to dissect the human body, which was a crime, since he wanted to more accurately draw and sculpt the human form.

      I tried to keep my definition of art narrow enough that it was things primarily not for a functional purpose (paintings, novels, fiction films, etc.) but there is an endless debate about what the word art means.

    • Scott

      Good to know. Next time I see you in need of medical attention I’ll just put some headphones on you with an iPod playing Tom Sawyer on repeat.

      • Phil Simon

        Well, while listening to Rush, I have never blown out my Achilles’ heels. :) Coincidence?

  4. Sean Crawford

    Not only does every hospital, linear and left brain, have art, but every hospital I know of has, tucked away where the public doesn’t notice, a nondenominational chapel… usually with pews and stained glass.

  5. Evan Wiener

    Art therapy is a perfect example of this being a false dichotomy.

    Children’s Hospitals especially need artists to brighten the spirits of patients, their families and the hospital staff and doctors serving their needs.

    • Slim

      :) Yes! Great insight Evan!

      Back when I was narrowly focused on design and technology I thought of art as “object,” but after going through visual and performing arts training, I’ve come to realize art is “experience.” Once you recognize that, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw boundaries using words.

      I recently gave a talk about art and empathy in a TEDx talk, you might find it interesting:


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