I have never been a great appreciator of visual art. Like many who spend their times in the lab rather than the gallery, I haven’t had the exposure to intellectually appreciate visual art. Very little art has the ability to appeal directly to human aesthetics; rather it is often our understanding of art’s principles, circumstances and history that make it pleasurable. And I have little understanding.
The drive to live an “intellectual life” is a powerful one that can be accomplished in a number of different ways, and I always knew that my way would not involve visual arts. In 1873, Philip Gilbert Hamerton voiced our current understanding of The Intellectual Life in his book of the same name. He writes,
It is strictly true that the three intellectual pursuits – literature, science, and the fine arts – are all of them strong stimulants, and that men are attracted to them by the stimulus they give,. But these occupations are morally much nearer to the common level of other occupations than you suppose. There is no doubt a certain intoxication in poetry and painting; but I have seen a tradesman find a fully equivalent intoxication in an addition of figures showing a delightful balance at his bankers.
I think about this quotation every time C’s eyes brighten at the thought of medicine – an article in the NYT about a new device, beautiful immunostaining in a Nature Medicine paper, free surgery videos on the internet. And I think about this the few times I was memorably brought to tears by listening to Abraham Verghese speak, or Pauline Chen write about their emotional encounters with patients.
Yet, I used to laugh at C and pity him for his narrow minded love of only medicine.
I’d had the luxury of parents who valued variety in my education, and who had the monetary resources to provide such an education; I took 10 years of violin lessons, joined 3 orchestras, spent one year on voice lessons and one on piano, and three summers on music history and composition courses. I learned to swim at the level just under certified lifeguards (with lifesaving and CPR certifications that didn’t expire until last year). I learned to skate (sort of), and spent one afternoon a week in high school in extra French classes (kind of – couldn’t say I was always present mentally). I volunteered at the local hospital when I was 16, and interned at a nuclear research facility at 17. I got to go to camp in the Canadian wilderness for one glorious summer (yes, it was science camp), and learned how to canoe. I took drawing lessons for long enough to learn how to sketch with pencils, and to draw human faces; the latter accomplishment so impressed my 8th grade art teacher that I basically did nothing else all year and still got raving report cards, and so I never learned to paint or do any other kind of art (except I’m oddly handy with making diagrams and figures using Microsoft Office products).
Armed with this diverse education that allowed me to enjoy bits of all kinds of intellectual pursuits, I pitied people like C who were intellectually narrow minded. But Hamerton tells me that our pleasures are equal. And perhaps I was wasting my time during some of my own endeavors. I never liked skating, and I forgot quickly how to after I finished my 4 levels of certification (I am an embarrassment of a Canadian, I know). Maybe people like C could get as much or more pleasure out of their one thing, as I could out of trying a dozen interests.
More and more, I realize that it is difficult and futile to fight my inner nature, a realization that I think constitutes a part of my evolving maturity. I think I will grow to love medicine, perhaps as much as C because I’m no longer trying to fight it these days. I’m not embarrassed at being seen as “a stereotypical premed” and in fact I am proud. Maybe it helps that I am in my senior year, and wanting to go to medical school doesn’t seem as trite and naive as it sounded when I voiced this in my freshman year.
In the future, however, I’ll have a bit of money (god and medical specialty-willing) to own a little bit of art to decorate the rooms of my house. I used to think that I would want beautiful, historic pieces in my house. My parents decorated theirs in the colors dark green and brown – lush furniture pieces in an Italian style against an eggshell white carpet. I had always thought that’s what I would want too.
But, C would definitely protest and I think that I’m beginning to see that so would I. The older me would want art that I could relate to in an intellectual way, and if I do not understand fine art then so be it. Art can be an “intellectual pursuit” and a pleasure if I see it as such, and for this to be true I had better understand it.
Forget Picasso or da Vinci or Dali or even Warhol prints. I’ll splurge on items like some of those below, or if I’m broke – cough* academic medicine – we can always just blow up and frame a few of those breathtaking covers from Nature Medicine. My kids will have the dubious intellectual pleasure of growing up in a house filled with nerdy art. Hope it doesn’t mess them up too much.