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The healing power of art. By Theodore Dalrymple

Blog | By Theodore Dalrymple | Apr 14, 2023

Take twice daily: Leighton's Flaming June

My eye was caught recently by a small item in the British Medical Journal – ‘Art improves life.’

It referred to a Canadian study during the COVID lockdown. Elderly people who were socially isolated and living on their own benefited from weekly virtual tours round the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, compared with those who did not go on such tours.

Do we really need the BMJ to inform us that art improves life? Imagine a world in which there was no art and no possibility of there being any art: would anyone not understand that life in such a world would be deeply impoverished?

The study divided 106 isolated elderly people at random into two groups: those who were offered tours of the museum and those who were not.

For ethical reasons, they had to be told that they were taking part in an experiment and to consent to doing so. That considerably vitiated its scientific value, because it was impossible to disguise from them which group they were in, the experimental or the control.

Among the criteria for entry into the study was a certain level of income, used as a surrogate measure of educational attainment and probably of IQ – though of course it would be impossible to mention, let alone assert, this in polite circles.

The experimental subjects were taken by a guide via Zoom round the collections, interspersed with information provided by curators and art historians. The tours lasted for 45 minutes each, followed by 15 minutes of free discussion, or more if the participants wished.

At the end of three months, the subjects were compared by means of questionnaires, administered at the outset of the experiment and at its end.

Those who had attended the tours demonstrated an improvement in their scores by comparison with the controls (who, incidentally, had had to promise not to take part in any virtual cultural activities for the duration of the experiment).

There are many possible criticisms of the findings. I have already mentioned that the experimental and control groups could not be blinded as to which arm of the experiment they were in.

It was conducted only among the relatively well-educated, and the initial level of education may well have affected the result.

While the scores on the questionnaires were different, it cannot be assumed that the differences in those scores were significant in any but the statistical sense: in other words, that they represented anything other than a purely notional improvement.

Finally, of course, it might well have been that any social activity via Zoom – for example tours of zoos or learning how to play mah-jong – would have had the same effect. It was not art as such that was beneficial, but social activity in a context in which the possibilities of such social activity were greatly reduced.

For the specific benefits created by art, one would have to repeat the experiment with similar virtual activities devoted to, say, zoology or sport, as controls.

Moreover, a tour of the Montreal Museum might be less beneficial than one of, say, the Louvre or the Prado. More research is needed.

Clearly, the social isolation of elderly people is harmful. It is associated with – and probably causes – increased health problems, including mortality, quite apart from the inherent misery of it. Can anyone be in favour of social isolation, at least when it is involuntary?

But though this study had as many holes as a colander, I confess that I wanted to believe it.

I quite like art myself.