Art, Life and Hospitals

Art doesn’t always imitate life. Sometimes it illuminates it. Recently I had an experience that illustrates this idea.

I had gone to Baylor Hospital in Dallas to visit a member of my church who had been in a car accident. While I was there, I had to stop by a concierge desk in a waiting room. It was a nice room, as waiting rooms go — decorated with upholstered armchairs and stocked with myriad magazines.

This trip was on a Friday, my usual day off. When I left the hospital I had the rest of the afternoon to myself. I knew just how I wanted to spend it — at the Dallas Museum of Art. As is turned out, one of the installations I encountered there was called Dayroom. It’s a recreation of a hospital waiting room by William McKeown. The experience of visiting two waiting rooms — one real and one fake — within an hour of each other was dizzying. Here’s what I noticed:

Dayroom is frightfully fake; intentionally counterfeit. The installation is built like a room within the gallery room, so that it almost appears like a waiting room in miniature. It features fake windows — just holes framed into the walls with no glass installed. The paintings on the walls are fake, meant to look like discount department store prints. The inside of the room is painted bright yellow and lit amply with flat fluorescent bulbs. This fake lightness, set in a darkened museum gallery highlights the theme: it may be yellow and named dayroom, but it’s a place of darkness, where hospital attendants pump sunshine while patients and hope die down the hall.

Dayroom is also sterile, blank, impersonal. You wouldn’t expect anyone to learn someone’s name in this room. Like suffering, Dayroom is no respecter of persons.

And finally, there was a voyeuristic theme to the piece. Approaching from the outside, you walk past those fake windows inviting you to peek into the yellow room. What is our fascination with other people’s pain that slows traffic at accident sites and sells gossip magazines by the thousands?

It occurred to me that this fake waiting room may be more true than the upholstered and musaked version I visited at Baylor. At least, it is more true to the emotional experience of most waiting room inhabitants. It made me despair more for the church member I had gone to visit in the hospital. His situation seemed more dire. I prayed for him again.

I think this experience illustrates a point that is important to me, but hard to express. Art doesn’t just imitate life, it illuminates life. In this case, it brought perspective and objectivity that was covered over by upholstery in the real world. It called forth empathy. I was able to see reality more clearly by viewing the synthetic than by seeing the real.

This is part of all great art. Artists are prophets. They bring sight to those of us Jesus warned about having useless eyes. Hasn’t it always been so? Honest artists are always pointing out the emperor’s lack of clothing. And honest prophets are always creating fake things to illuminate the real. Isn’t that what Nathan did when he confronted David? His fake story about a sheep made the murderous king’s transgressions more real. Isn’t that what was happening with Isaiah’s streaking, Jeremiah’s yoke, Ezekiel’s luggage, and Hosea’s marriage?

How often do we dismiss important lessons — the kinds of lessons prophets deliver — with the phrase “It’s just a movie” or “I don’t see the point”?

Art tells the truth, not just the facts. And in that way it’s a part of God’s world that we should take very seriously. As seriously, in fact, as a hospital dayroom.