The Art of Complexity and Public Health


“Art is an intimation of the fundamental reconciliation of contradicting possibilities” – Joel Upton

Without contradiction, there is no art. Art itself is about juxtaposing ideas, tensions, concepts and working with form and space. The artist, whether consciously or not, is balancing contradictions in space, medium and form to challenge themselves and their audience to explore an idea, a feeling, concept or all three.

Engaging with art is about beholding. To behold requires focus, attention and some enthusiasm for the subject matter (knowledge doesn’t hurt much either). It requires time to contemplate the elements above and explore the contradictions and the perspective of the artist and the beholding audience. Health promotion and social change is full of contradictions. For example, how to promote freedom and self-determination while ensuring appropriate regulation to protect those who’s self-determined choices put others at risk? How do we create community and common space while respecting diversity and uniqueness — including those perspectives that don’t support commonly held values?

The list can go on. Art and the art of beholding can offer some ways to address this complexity through contemplative inquiry and learning about perspective and perspective taking.

Claude Monet in painting the Maintee sur la Siene did so from the river in his boat. By being on the river Monet was able to gain a perspective that is fundamentally different than had he painted from the shore, which he also did in other works. To behold Monet’s painting yields insights that cannot be gained by simply passing the image over.

Spending time before the work yields perspectives that cannot be obtained through mere casual observation. One is immune to the overlaying circles, the misty cornering of the Siene, or the fact that nearly all of the painting exists in reflection. When one looks at the painting in the context of others using the same angle and different colour shades, we see that this is a work that is distinct. Searching through the various forms of the work, one sees new layers of possibility and complexity emerge as the tones change, the textures shift and the intensity of the work alters. The version held at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where Professor Upton teaches, is particularly complex in how subtle the reflections and use of colour and texture are parlayed on the canvas.

Learning more about Monet at the time he did this painting, his life, the fact that it wasn’t like he painted it from the water, he DID paint it from the water.

But we might have known that had we not spent the time in contemplation of the painting. Got to know it, and understand it deeply. Submitted ourselves to the work with a level of intimacy that can only be obtained through the act of contemplation and engagement with the art. The longer one beholds the work and sees the various forms within it, the greater the complexity that emerges — qualities unknown or unknowable without the contemplation of the work in depth.

Monet knew that he had to survive, to produce a work of art that was in demand and could sell. He had to survive, but also did art to ensure that people were inspired and challenged. His wrestling with contradiction, his application of knowledge to a medium, and the expression of his creativity through both is what made him one of the most widely renowned impressionist painters who ever lived.

Health promotion is about contradiction. It deals with complexity all the time. How do we inspire change in others and still support self-determination? How can we change a system when that system has no single voice? How do we get individuals to do what we want, yet simultaneously respect what they want?

Health promotion also seeks to respect diversity, but at the same time, what does it do to truly understand this diversity? Do we take the time to get to know the communities it deals with. Really, truly know these communities. Do we give the time to be intimate with them?

My experience is sadly, no. In public health we use focus groups — which were initially designed to focus a research question, not serve as a means of research unto itself — to generalize from a group-think scenario to an entire community and then claim that we know them. Really? Is this beholding? Is this the kind of contemplative inquiry that makes sense for public health.

Could we learn more from artists? Our methods certainly could (see art of public health), but perhaps the way of the artist is also something we could learn more from.

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