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WSJ Magazine: Is Looking at Art a Path to Mental Well-Being?

Written by Christina Cacouris and published in Wall Street Journal Magazine on January 5, 2022

With new research suggesting that viewing art might improve mental health, some doctors are prescribing museum visits. Is art really a shortcut to happiness?

During a dark period in his youth, Bill Murray thought about killing himself while wandering the streets of Chicago. “I was ready to die,” the actor said at a press conference several years ago. That day he decided to visit the Art Institute and found himself in front of Jules Breton’s 1884 painting The Song of the Lark, which depicts a young woman looking skyward, sickle in hand, a violent orange sunrise behind her. Suddenly, Murray felt hope. “I just thought, Well, there’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance at it,” he said. “That gave me some sort of feeling that I too am a person, and get another chance every day the sun comes up.” Murray credits the painting with saving his life.

“Though making art has long been regarded as a form of therapy through self-expression, recently, the passive participation—the looking at art—is now being assessed as a different way of improving mental health. ​​“We know that for a lot of people, making art can be very therapeutic,” says Tim A. Shaw, artist and co-founder of the arts and mental health charity Hospital Rooms. “But also, making art isn’t usually an easy, relaxing thing for artists; it’s an uncomfortable pleasure.””