Hospital patients expect that the medicine doctors give them will improve their health. But it’s possible that the nondescript painting of a country house, or an idyllic landscape hanging on a nearby wall, may also be part of the prescription.
When it comes to what style of art should be shown in hospitals, psychologists have suggested that figurative works are more beneficial to patients than abstract ones. But recently, this preference for figurative art in hospitals was challenged by researcher Stine Maria Louring Nielsen and professor Michael Finbarr Mullins of Aalborg University in Denmark. Their research
found that, despite what has previously been thought, abstract art also has positive effects on wellbeing, and inspires meaningful personal contemplation.
Figurative art has been favored in hospitals in the past due to several psychological theories suggesting that patients should be thinking about anything other than being in a hospital. Distraction, for example, is believed to limit one’s experience of pain. Humans are also known to exhibit “biophilia,” an innate disposition for natural images, which are on short supply in a clinical hospital space. Additionally, a theory known as “emotional congruence” suggests that hospitalized individuals will interpret and react to art through a lens of stress or anxiety, unless guided by a positive image.
So, it makes sense why a person curating the art for a hospital might opt for a bright, figurative work of the countryside, for example. The image serves as a distraction from the hospital setting and reminds patients they are connected to an outside world. And it is a picture that can’t easily be interpreted negatively through the understandably gloomy disposition of an ill or injured individual. Previous research has contended that abstract art is much more open-ended and, in a bleak scenario, could lead to negative thoughts.
Nielsen’s findings suggest that the reality is more complicated. An anthropologist, Nielsen wanted to apply more ethnographic methods to explore “what actually happens” in hospitals, as she put it. To that end, she conducted her research in hospitals rather than a lab, speaking with patients to get a sense of how they perceive the presence of art around them.
In one case study, conducted in 2015, Nielsen began by asking roughly 100 patients to rank 20 artworks of differing styles, which were predominantly figurative. The four most-liked works and the one least-liked work were borrowed from a museum and hung in five separate hospital “dayrooms” (a communal recreational space) in different wards.
Nielsen and her team first interviewed patients about their feelings about the dayrooms while no art was on the walls, and then again when one of the works was put on view. She asked patients how they felt about the rooms, what they do there, who they speak with, and other similar questions. The study found that the artwork impacted how people experienced the room. If the work was bright, for example, people had more positive feelings about the space, Nielsen said.