Art & Observation

Looking is not as simple as it looks.
—Ad Reinhardt, artist1

Let not your conceptions of the manifestations of disease come from words heard in the lecture room or read from the books.
See, and then reason and compare.
But see first.
—William Osler 18902

Observation is a critical skill for professionals who work in medicine. Typically, the skills of observation are taught to physicians-in-training by clinicians modeling in clinical settings by seeing patients. Historically the transmission of observation skills, like other skills, are acquired experientially by the learner, following the medical education aphorism “see one, do one, teach one.” It is an apprenticeship model, in which the master clinician teaches by example to his trainees, and is a standard educational practice. Students are taught to “do” observation, without an understanding of “how to do” observation.

Observation is also a foundational skill for looking at works of art. With expertise acquired through academic training and teaching experience, museum educators guide visitors to approach works of art systematically, beginning with an inventory of observed details. To understand the artwork in its historical and cultural context information is gradually integrated into the discussion. This approach is the art museum equivalent of the aphorism: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The two educators posed two questions:

Could the visual arts provide students and clinicians in healthcare with a different way of looking at looking? Could a skill set borrowed from the discipline of the visual arts be transferable to a discipline like medicine?

1. Ad Reinhardt quoted in Barnet, S. (1985). A Short Guide to Writing About Art, 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, p. 21.

2. Thayer, W. S. (1919) “Osler the teacher,” Bulletin of Johns Hopkins Hospital 30, 198-200.