A Diagnostic Question: The Art of the Public Consultation

In his 2003 Felts Lecture Art and the Art of Medicine, Dr Irwin Braverman, Professor in Dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, argued that 30 years ago the title ‘diagnostician’ was the highest accolade a physician could receive. Braverman was lamenting the decline of the interpersonal diagnosis as doctors increasingly rely on technological advancements in digital imaging and spend less time in conversation with patients. Drawing an analogy between the clinical eye and the artistic one, Braverman’s remedy was to introduce a collaborative programme with curators at the Yale Centre for British Art, teaching first year medical students about the importance of observational skills through the visual analysis of artworks. Braverman urged every physician to imagine his or her patient as a painting in a frame, paying attention to every detail of appearance in the composition of a diagnosis. In this encounter between art and medicine, between sign and symptom, the whole person’s image is evaluated as equivalent to a work of art.

In John Newling’s project for Wellcome Collection, the artistic and clinical eye are brought together in the composition of a diagnostic question, What do you do to make yourself feel better? As with many of Newling’s artworks the question is conceived as an instrument of cultural investigation, generating research, data, narrative and material practice all at once. Newling’s diagnostic questions are carefully designed to open up new creative spaces, in which our existing diagnostic tools may not be able to provide all the answers. The question for Newling is a form of uncertainty. In questioning we re-negotiate the terms and conditions of our lives, we reflect on past experience and conceive of new possibilities. Newling’s art of diagnosis continues a long aesthetic tradition in its proximity to the time honoured philosophical question; How to live?

In formulating the question, What do you do to make yourself feel better? Newling extends the frame of the artwork into the social and historical situation. In keeping with Professor Braverman’s clinical eye, Newling’s art of looking, places our accumulated cultural understanding of ‘feeling better’ under careful observation. We are literally brought to our senses in the artist’s diagnostic question, which immediately situates a creative engagement with the art of living. This cultural convergence of the aesthetic and the restorative is influenced by the artwork of Joseph Beuy’s (1921-86), whose belief in the healing potential of art and regenerative power of human creativity led to the development of his ‘social sculptures’. In shifting the parameters of the artwork, Newling sidesteps the gallery and takes to the street where the contemporary practice of social sculpture emerges on the artist’s participatory canvas.

What do you do to make yourself feel better? The question produces an artistic survey that re-frames the ritual of the market research questionnaire, but instead of asking after our internet service provider or current mobile phone contract, a different channel of communication is established. In taking up the question and entering into the survey the consumer of the artwork immediately becomes its contributor. The conversation becomes the event of the artist’s mobile surgery, the question of well- being yielding a whole spectrum of self-diagnosis. In recounting their ‘well situations’ the participants bring private actions into the public domain, each self-portrait of well-being forming a collective case study in what it means to feel well.

Here lies the difference between the market survey and the artistic audit. One extracts an economic value and converts it into profit, the other creates a cultural value and translates into well-being. In Newling’s statistical breakdown of the survey there emerges a new aesthetic value in the accumulation of health, a cultural account of wellness expressed in individual thoughts, actions and reflections. The responses connect personal experience to social situation, revealing how our perception of wellness and the possibilities for its attainment are culturally determined. The difference between being alive and flourishing may reside in our ability to picture new states of well-being beyond our everyday frame of reference, to accumulate health as we have accumulated wealth in creative reproductions of the social, historical and cultural condition. The proverb I am because we are implies a space that exists between personal and social experience, and it is in this space that Newling materializes what we might consider to be the vital signs of modern life.

Chatham Vines and The Preston Market Mystery Project are two recent artworks in which Newling redraws the conventions of public space, by questioning how we define boundaries between personal and social life. Commissioned by Medway Renaissance, Chatham Vines forms part of a public regeneration scheme called the Thames Gateway. Newling conceived a deceptively simple artwork for the commission by growing vines along the isle of St John’s Church in Chatham, a living sculpture as testimony to the rejuvenating power of creativity. There was no precedent for growing vines in this way, as local people were invited to visit the site throughout the duration of the work. After harvesting the grapes the vines were dispersed among the wider community, and a proportion of the wine was used for the Easter Liturgy of the Eucharist at Rochester Cathedral in 2006. The project revitalised the life of the church and the surrounding community as if the building became a public greenhouse, the care and attention invested in tending to the vines a metaphor for how we could look after both ourselves, and our environment. In opening up the artwork to a whole network of local histories, rituals and traditions, its materiality was joined to a complex social fabric, giving lasting substance to the all too familiar clichés of ‘regeneration and renewal’.

In The Preston Market Mystery Project people were asked about inexplicable events in their lives and were invited to record the details for the artist. In return they received a certificate ‘insuring them against the loss of mystery’. As with the question What do you do to make yourself feel better? the re-collection causes the individual to stand outside of routine experience and reflect on the exceptional event, in this case the unknowable sense of mystery giving rise to feelings of wonder and fascination. In posing a question without a definitive answer Newling enables the very substance of mystery to infuse a whole architecture of experience; setting up a mystery insurance stall at Preston’s covered market and at later date voicing the mysteries around the central axis of the market place. In charging the atmosphere with a feeling of mystery the conventions of a public space that we readily associate with economic exchange are redrawn.  In recognising the traditional covered market as an important point of social interaction, central to the life of the community, Newling undercuts the consumer ethos with a new set of values. In the conversation between sign and substance we witness how meaning is material in the crucible of social exchange, as complex and inexplicable a thing as the artwork itself. As Newling observes, ‘these things can go on for years if you let them’, although on this occasion the artwork culminates in The Knowledge Meal, where those who recounted the most unique mysteries were invited to a public dinner in the market place. As with Chatham Vines a whole series of encounters unfold from the carefully posed question, in which the vital signs of individual and social experience take on a life of their own as the currency of our modern way of life.

The question What do you do to make yourself feel better? locates the vital sign in a complex of everyday actions, which cannot be extracted from the intricacies of the social whole. The etymology of ‘health’ can be traced to the Old English ‘haelth’ of ancient Germanic origin meaning whole. The source of ‘whole’ comes from an adjacent Germanic root ‘khailaz’, meaning undamaged, unsullied, perfect or complete, a necessary feature of things regarded as sacred, hence the affinity with objects considered holy. The connections trace a complex of meanings and values consistent with Newling’s aesthetic treatment of the whole disposition, which in this case sees the artist working as a type of cultural physician. Newling’s question of well–being generates a new frame of diagnostic reference, one that could be interpreted as an open surgery; a psychological vent and creative council for devising new prescriptions and remembering old ones. ‘To drink’, ‘to eat’, ‘to listen’ ‘to talk’ some of the most frequent actions in Newling’s break down of the well situations recall objects and events charged with the ritual significance of cultural traditions. The Knowledge Meal brought a similar set of actions together in a public celebration of mystery as that which cannot be explained. The well situation brings new form and content to the idea of the ‘public consultation’, realised in a creative exchange of symptoms and remedies.

What do you do to make yourself feel better? In formulating a question of well-being Newling draws upon knowledge from a range of disciplines: medicine, science, psychology, sociology, ethnography and art. The question brings together a portfolio of practices and at the same time provides an aesthetic aggregate for the material production of the artwork. In the statistical breakdown of the well situations there emerges a new recipe for well-being, re-composed by the artist in the art of data capture. Newling’s public rendition of the data-space generates a subtle movement between statistics and aesthetics, a poetic sculpting of information, which brings new meaning to the Renaissance technique of the artist’s study. In What do you do to make yourself feel better? an inventory of actions are meticulously collected, recorded, analysed and re-arranged as raw material for the re-design of experience. The artwork as both text and texture is perceived and produced as the very substance of well-being.

In the question of well-being, Newling develops the enterprise of making new perspectives on our existing knowledge and experience. The intelligent question positions the individual in a unique relationship to everyday experience, opening up a reflective space in which a form of self-assessment is realised. The place of the new perspective was central to developments in the Renaissance, not only in painting, architecture and design, but also in the involvement of citizens at all levels of the emerging social and cultural horizon. In modern life the task of rendering public knowledge has been taken over by the ‘think tank’ or ‘research centre’, giving rise to so-called evidence based policy. Organisations who present us with ‘the facts’ undoubtedly provide useful frameworks for thinking about how we might live and work, but to what extent do they connect with people at a grass roots level? In the aesthetic survey Newling’s think tank engages the public in the artistic mediation of social policy. What do you do to make yourself feel better? is a partnership of  creative research and public participation, in which a unique sense of well-being grows out of the data as both personal and collective in character; greater than the sum of its parts it cannot be reduced to the facts, and is not consistent with any specific rationale. Knowledge, perspective and experience are no longer partitioned along the lines of the expert, but are joined together in an expertise that makes for a restoration of the public encounter. Newling’s conversation in well-being is a reminder that occasionally we should bracket our overly rational selves and open up to an art of understanding that is at once palliative and intuitive in essence. This contemporary aesthetic of care also revives art’s therapeutic capacity as an instrument of cultural diagnosis, bringing the transformative aspects of creativity to the fore as a remarkable social substance.

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