As Farmboy Fine Arts continues to develop concept-to-fulfillment art and SRD brand programs for the North American senior living residence industry, there are all kinds of questions we continue to ask ourselves in order to maintain an informed sensitivity and understanding of seniors’ emotional and environmental needs.
One question we are preoccupied with is what effect art can have on residents to help them create meaningful emotional connections to their new home, and to provide personal enrichment for them, their extended family, and their community of seniors.
In a fascinating panel discussion at the 2013 World Science Festival presented in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a group of neuroscientists and art historians reveal that our relationships to art, and the mechanisms that enable us to appreciate artworks, are actually just as complicated as we have always thought them to be. The reasons why one person is moved by an artwork, and another person is not, really does vary greatly.
That’s why these researchers have began to map the areas of the brain that show sensitivity to aesthetic appreciation when viewing art—to gain a better understanding of what universal activities may be taking place in our minds. As they’ve discovered, there are actually multiple systems that mediate our appreciation for art, including regions of the brain that are associated with sensory and semantic analysis, emotion, as well as self-referential thought. So it is true, then, that external objects such as artworks can trigger personally relevant responses based on our own individual experiences and sense of understanding of the world.
How then do you select artwork for a public space that is shared by a diversity of people who have lived long, unique, full lives as in a senior living residence? The answer might lay somewhere more simple—in the mere movement depicted in the art. Physical gestures represented in art, for example, have been found to give the viewer a greater sense of their bodily self and can cause motor responses. For example, you might feel your body is reacting to the movement in the image or you might even feel compelled to emulate that gesture. Not only does this give rise to thoughts about the possible benefits for seniors working through mobility issues, but those movements, if they are expressed with emotion, might even activate an empathetic response in the viewer, as if they are experiencing that feeling for themselves.
This is the transcendent effect of art; you don’t necessarily need to have any context in order to be moved by it. The strokes of a brush in a painting, and the gestural action of creating them, is enough to translate a painting into some kind of emotional response or personal relevance to a person.
What is fascinating about this discovery is that it contradicts the conventional thinking that representational and figurative works of art, depicting familiar scenes of people and nature, are the only styles of artwork appropriate for healthcare-related spaces. In fact, because the tools we have to analyze the world around us are determined by our age, our life experience and our culture, these might actually be limiting factors in our ability to appreciate artworks. In which case, abstract art might prove to offer more places for individuals to find some universals between them, or at least might encourage a greater level of engagement with the piece.
The researchers in the panel say that looking at art is a process of looking at oneself, and that pleasure can be derived in many ways beyond the obvious, like conventional beauty and colour. Pleasure also comes from contemplating the artwork and in forming judgements about it. This means that an artwork that is unfamiliar or disagreeable to us at first can still result in an outcome of appreciation, even if the emotional systems that led us to this conclusion were not wholly pleasurable. In that way, our relationship to an artwork can also evolve and change over time, the more we consider it.
Thus, it would seem that in a senior living environment, artworks with a higher level of complexity, that can have multiple interpretations, like abstract works, might actually be more enduring. Because residents are living with these artworks every day, what’s perhaps more important than the subject matter, is the deep, emotional connections the residents can forge with the artworks over time. And while neuroscience may not be able to tell us precisely how to achieve that, the mystery of art will certainly stand in to fill that gap.