As Russian artist Alexander Melamid opened the storefront to his Art Healing Ministry in SoHo New York one morning in late May, I handed him a business card for my New York City psychiatry practice, where I have been developing my own version of art healing. His eyes reflected the humor in my own as I revealed our parallel forays into art healing, and he immediately invited me for a nosh at a nearby café. Co-founder with Vitaly Komar of the Sots Art movement in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Alex is now a sixty-five-year-old New Yorker with hair like Einstein's, known for teaching elephants to paint in Thailand and, more recently, for his portraits of rap stars Kanye West, 50 Cent, and others.
While seated at the café, we talked about art's capacity to heal and the power of the placebo effect. Immediately I began to wonder if what we had independently called art healing might be a modern-day meme--a twenty-first-century thought form whose time had come.
I first learned of the connection between Alex's work and my own while reading about his ministry in a New York Times article entitled "Can a Picasso Cure You?" From the article, I understood the practice he named art healing to be a humorous, faux-therapeutic treatment in the form of exaggerated interactions with artwork. Examples of Alex's tongue-in-cheek therapy included asking a patient to view a Jackson Pollock action painting to rid them of ulcerative colitis, having a patient stare at the bust of a woman's head to cure urinary retention, and projecting various artworks onto a patient's body to effect overall healing.
Through these and other proposed treatments he is asking us to rethink what we accept as reason and truth and to examine how great an impact our own expectations can have on the results of our inquiries.
Back at his storefront clinic, Alex had me wearing a device he called an Art Blocker, a heavy black square that sits behind the head and is held in place by a strap around the forehead. This square prevents putative art particles he called "creatons" from passing through a viewer's head like radioactivity, and instead directs them to the viewer's heart, where they can be fully absorbed and assimilated for greater healing.
Alex took pictures of me laughing uproariously while wearing the Art Blocker and paying eye-crossingly close attention to a Roy Lichtenstein work of pop art on his wall.
Before leaving, I agreed that consideration of all these principles was worth attention. But I had to push myself to be receptive to Alex's admittedly absurd treatments and oddly conceived mechanisms of action.
Having practiced art healing as a part of my psychiatric work for years I have observed how interacting with art catalyzes emotional healing and, in tandem with other treatments, helps sustain freedom from depression, anxieties, compulsions, and other potentially life-destroying behaviors. So initially I worried that as a result of Alex's antics art healing might be relegated to a snarky, if clever, joke about our collective rush to purchase health through tonics, elixirs, doctors, antidoctors, superfoods, and alternative treatments. Worse, I balked at Alex's suggestion that a great deal of belief is required to uncover truth, including when it comes to the scientific method.
Even so, I enjoyed meeting with him and am beginning to see that there is indeed something to this lighthearted version of art healing, after all. Wishing I had more occasions to laugh as heartily as I did at Alex's clinic, I will return to further explore and expand our shared interest in art healing and to cultivate our friendship.
Enjoying the ride of joyful synchronicity, I am certain the therapeutic power of art can emerge from different angles on its trajectory to genuine healing.