Do the study of art and the study of science belong in the same classroom?

Blurring the line

According to artist Anne Willieme, founder of ArtMed insight, they do. She has a drawing class going on now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art instructing would-be doctors how to observe, how to see more.

A 2018 study published in Academic Medicine showed that participants in Willieme’s classes gained statistically significant improvements in the skill of reflection.

Katie Grogan, associate director of the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine at NYU goes so far as to say that separating art and science is “artificial” and even “kind of dangerous.” (She didn’t say why).

But I can think of danger if the divide between art and science blurs, and the harm would come to both disciplines. I’m thinking of instances when doctors diagnose artworks as if they were their patients and art critics play doctors.

In the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. XIV, issued in April 1959, Dr. Kenneth D. Keele pronounced Mona pregnant.

He based his diagnoses on the thickness of her neck where he detected an enlargement of the thyroid gland, which enlarges slightly in pregnancy. Dr. Keele also saw her smile as a sign of maternal calm. Case closed.

Second opinion

But to hear neuroscientist Margaret Livingston at Harvard Medical School tell it to the New York Times in 2000, Mona Lisa’s smile isn’t really in the painting.

It’s all in our heads.

According to Dr. Livingston, we only think Mona Lisa is smiling because of the way our eyes and brains compute light and dark.

Looking at the painting with just our peripheral vision, shadows come into view from the cheeks. That’s what gives you the impression Mona is smiling, Dr. Livingston said. But if you look at her mouth directly, the expression isn’t there.

Both scientists’ theories are scientifically based. But is that how art appreciation works – rationally and objectively?

Then there’s the study reported in the 2019 edition of Scientific American magazine conducted by physicist Haroldo Ribeiro who said that the pixels in great paintings can reveal the mechanics of their greatness.

Dr. Ribeiro developed a computer program that deconstructs paintings into sets of numbers to assess trends in the evolution of the painter’s style. This digitization of paintings could help art historians detect previously unknown patterns, he said.

Such digitization leaves no room for individual reactions to a painting. Looking at pixels doesn’t get you to the personal place where art interpretation lives.

But wait, there’s a converse to the danger of making doctors art-smart: the danger of making art experts diagnosticians.

In 2017, the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones diagnosed Mona Lisa with syphilis. That’s why her smile isn’t wider, he said. She’s worried about her impending death.

Jones got the idea from a convent record in Florence saying she purchased snail water – the accepted remedy back in the day to fight the disease.

To back up his diagnoses, Jones noted that “pools of dark shadows spread across del Giocondo’s face,” signifying her sadness over her illness.

Look, I’m all for science. It got us the vaccines to control the spread of the Coronavirus. But it can’t help us understand art. That’s too personal to codify.

Art critics need to quit playing doctor, and doctors need to quit playing art critic.