"Why Art?" is an essay that I composed for a medical periodical. It shares what I learned from art as my teacher while helping to care for my friend with a terminal illness (glioblastoma multiforme).
Why Art?By David Schwartz, Ph.D.
June 16, 2022
Exposure to the arts makes us better people. I can remember being told this throughout grade school and high school. Often the message came in the form of a stern reprimand, such as from the language arts teacher pushing us to do our poetry homework. Now, as adults, we find that message most frequently conveyed by arts organizations appealing for donations. Experiencing museum walls lined with Matisse and Renoir, concert halls ringing out Mozart and Brahms, theaters echoing Shakespeare and Ibsen, along with endless volumes of works by Emerson, Longfellow, Mark Twain and Fitzgerald, somehow contributes to our overall well-being, and adds value and quality to us as individuals. It is supposed to make us better individuals and our society better as a whole. Exposure to the arts is supposed to do this.
I have been an artist most of my life and it never made sense to me. How does exposure to great works of art make me anything other than an informed conversationalist? I love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor, and no matter how many times I listen to it, I have never felt like a better person for it. I have spent countless hours completely transfixed by some of the great masterpieces of human culture. Inspired by them, I have spent countless hours trying to create my own works of musical or literary art. But I didn’t truly understand how profoundly the art I had enjoyed had so greatly influenced me until recently when I helped care for my friend who had terminal cancer. And art’s lesson wouldn’t be anything I anticipated.
Richard del Val was a dear friend and a brilliant musician who, in January 2019, was diagnosed with brain cancer, a glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM. As I would learn, GBM is as virulent and as fatal as cancer gets. That January his prognosis was fewer than six months.
I spent as much time with Richard as his remaining days allowed, both as his friend and as a care giver. I helped him to and from five weeks of radiation therapy treatments and I also helped his sister, who was his primary care giver, with his moment to moment needs until the end. Richard spent the last few weeks of his life in my home, where he died August 21, 2019, around 7pm. He was 56 years old.
We have all been told that music comforts. It didn’t soothe Richard. As the weeks went by, Richard slept increasingly. And when he was awake, the growing brain tumor didn’t allow his mind to function well enough for him to keep his balance to walk, let alone comprehend music, or reflect on complex works of art from any medium. In his broken brain, music became a jumbled and irritating noise. At home during the final three months of Richard’s life, no music was played. It was particularly quiet during his last few weeks. I watched as music disappeared and became irrelevant for Richard, one of the most gifted musicians I will ever know. I think I had imagined, or hoped, that we would be able to share music’s gift and comfort during his illness and that hadn’t happened. It made me, a musician, an artist, struggle with questions about whether music is really nothing more than a temporary diversion for the senses, and that it has no inherent value outside of that.
Two nights before Richard died, the rapidly growing mass in his brain was creating tremendous pressure in his head. His left eye had started to become distended, and his discomfort was increasing palpably. The next morning, with the supervision of Hospice, we began to administer liquid morphine orally to Richard. His last word was “OK’ when his sister gave him the first drops of the liquid and, cupping his cheek with her hand, assured him that it would help him sleep. Every hour after that, his sister and I took turns giving Richard morphine for his pain.
At 2am on the day that Richard died it was my turn to administer the morphine. I walked through the dark and very quiet house to the kitchen. There I filled the eye dropper with the prescribed amount of the clear liquid. In the room next to the kitchen Richard was unconscious and breathing slowly and deeply. I leaned in and slid the eye dropper into the right side of his mouth, between his cheek and his teeth, and carefully pushed the morphine into his mouth.
As Richard breathed and the liquid slid into his throat, I heard gurgling. It is peculiar what we think, sometimes, in difficult situations. For a moment I was panicked that he was choking on the liquid and that it might kill him. But, when the gurgling didn’t stop and it continued with each breath, from somewhere in my past a book, or poem, or play I had read once reached out to me and steadied me. I was hearing the so called “death rattle”, that now anonymous work of literature reminded me. What I was witnessing firsthand, I had before witnessed vicariously through literature. I knew what I was experiencing and that provided me with a tremendous amount of comfort. At that moment it was the one thing I needed above all, alone, next to my dying friend who was struggling to breathe.
Later that evening after Richard died, I watched the color of his incredibly virtuosic hands change, as the blood settled, and the warmth left him. They had become white, like marble. And watching this transformation in my dead friend, I was reminded of Michelangelo’s Pieta and the hands on that dead body, held close in the arms of his grief-stricken mother. Again, I found comfort from that Renaissance sculpture in a situation I had never experienced, as my mind superimposed those marble hands over Richard’s.
In the days following Richard’s death I couldn’t help but to reflect on the death rattle and the marble hands. And it prompted a fountain of reflections about things that had happened over the course of Richard’s illness. There are a lot of awful memories that are part of caring for a terminal patient. Among other things, you watch as your loved one tries to maintain their dignity while their body stops working. It is heart wrenching. I wondered how I had been able to maintain my composure in the face of so many unfamiliar and quite terrible experiences. It was during this process of reflection that I came to realize how the arts had been the messenger and had prepared the way for, in no small part, those difficult and emotional days.
Art provides us with experiences. Great works of art lead us to temporarily immerse ourselves in thoughts and emotions and situations, both real and imagined. And by doing this, the arts give us practice for encountering similar instances in our own lives. It is easy to imagine the thoughts of that desperate father on horseback rushing his sick and hallucinating child for medical attention when we listen to Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” We can all relate to the futility in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, where an anguished man desperately seeks the knowledge and understanding to assuage his inconsolable grief over the loss of his beloved. Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” puts us in the operating room, with those physicians, and with the patient’s disconsolate wife. We have all been It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, questioning the value of our lives. We have shared existential anguish with Edvard Munch’s The Scream. We have looked through eyes, Vincent van Gogh’s eyes, filled with abject hopelessness and gazing out at the Wheatfield with Crows. As these artists have been inspired from their experiences, both sensorily and psychologically, so too have they conveyed elements of those experiences through their work. And if we let them, we can immerse ourselves in what they are sharing with us. We can hear what these artists are saying and feel what they are feeling, and we can learn. These temporary immersions can inform us, prepare us, and help to strengthen and shape us as feeling and thinking beings.
The transition from being a caregiver to the ‘after’, is abrupt. For 8 months we cared for Richard and anticipated his death. Our lives revolved around the practice of caring for him and that morbid anticipation. All other human and daily endeavors became insignificant during this time. And then suddenly, he is gone, and it is over, and life returns to normal, sort of. I found myself in a bit of a fog. Looking for my own understanding about what I had experienced, I found myself pouring through my old philosophy books, books about aesthetics, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, and YouTube. I was reminded that commentaries advocating the necessity for art in our daily lives is nearly as old as art itself.
Nearly every major philosopher has addressed the need for art in our daily lives. For example, Aristotle viewed art as a catharsis and that attending theater can help us ‘release’ unwanted emotions, keeping us psychologically balanced. Immanuel Kant believed that art helps us develop and cultivate our minds, allowing us to be more expressive and effective communicators. William James asserted that art could provide moral instruction. Indeed, views on the need for art are as diverse as the art world itself.
This article’s contribution to the arguments advocating the importance of the arts is not novel. But what I do hope to contribute is a reminder that art is not simply a pastime for embracing aesthetic pleasure. It can play an enormous role in our development as strong and empathetic individuals. Quite simply, art allows us to practice being human, safely. Just as Socrates initiated the discussion with a question, so too does art begin the dialogue with us, with a question. And as those works pose their questions and engage us in their dialogues, we experience, and we think, and we learn.
As one last parting thought, I was fascinated to learn that there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that medical students who take art appreciation classes tend to be better diagnosticians than those who do not. This is without question the efficacy of the arts as teacher, of the arts as experience, and of the arts as virtual reality. I am grateful for all the artists from each of the fields of art that have touched me. They have shared life stories with me, and they have bettered me as a person, and when it came time to act and help my friend Richard del Val transition from life to death, I didn’t realize that the world of art had been training me throughout my life for such a thing. For me, and I can say this without any reservations, the arts have given me a gift that I didn’t realize I was receiving. Throughout my lifelong relationship with the arts, the arts were quietly giving me experiences that would serve me during as difficult an episode as I may ever know.
 For the purposes of this article, ‘art’ and the ‘arts’ refers to but is not limited to the visual arts – including painting and sculpture; the dramatic arts – including theater and cinema; the literary arts – including poetry and fiction; music, and dance.
 My father’s Journal of the American Medical Association included cover art and an accompanying essay about the featured painting that I found fascinating from an early age.