As a sort of thought experiment, pretend you had no idea what art – visual art – might be, and you tried to formulate some concept of it by reading "A Guide to Evidence-Based Art.” You would certainly come away with at least one salient idea, that visual art has content. The list of features that are most often repeated and specified in the field are described as “art content.” This conception tellingly passes over a middle term, that of the image. Artwork contains images, and those images may be pictures, depictions of persons, places, or things. Or they may not. To put it simply, visual art may be “representational” or “abstract.”
It doesn’t require a great deal of fluency in the language of art to point out shortcomings in this conception of art. When an artist in two dimensions - painting, drawings, photography, collage, printmaking - completes a work of art, they don’t tend to call it a “picture.” The Guide confounds artwork and pictures: art here is defined as a means of depiction. This is the root of the whole unnecessary abstract/representational dichotomy (and controversy), which we’ll explore further later. By definition, abstract art fails to offer a depiction of a subject.
The subject, in other words, is not line, color and value, rhythm, balance, gesture, texture, and the list goes on. These are the elements provided by the artist. They are the evidence that returns us to Steven Mithen’s cognitive definition of art, itself narrowly confined to the image:
the mental conception of an image, the intentional communication of this image, and the attribution of meaning to the image.
The current evidence-base, perhaps because of the questions formulated so far, can’t accommodate these ideas, and therefore may place limits on how designers, artists, and healthcare leaders understand the potential outcomes worth studying of healing visual art. By outlining a process that involves both the artist and the viewer, the cognitive definition stands entirely on human connection. Further, it leads to questions about how people actually use visual art in their environments.
It reminds us that visual art requires artists. Pictures, not necessarily so.