I’ve gone many random places for art, but I never thought I would end up surrounded by lab-coat-wearing doctors and other medical professionals in a lecture hall at the Queens Hospital Center listening to Russian expat artist Alexander Melamid speak about the benefits of art healing. As a volunteer in the Queens Hospital Partial Patient Program, Melamid is clearly adored by the hospital staff that attended the lecture, despite his fairly unique theories and practices related to the curing power of artistic masterpieces.
Before opening his Art Healing Ministry, first in Soho and now near Chelsea, Melamid was best known for his work with his former collaborator, Vitaly Komar; the pair mocked socialist realism and propaganda in the Sots Arts movement, the Soviet answer to Western Pop Art. After immigrating to America, splitting with Komar and working solo for many years, which included creating portraits of rappers such as Snoop Dogg and working with elephants, Melamid began to interrogate his practice, asking questions like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ and ‘What good does art do?’
He started to look at the power of art in history and its similarity to a religion. As he described:
The belief in art for art’s sake started in the 19th century. Art became an autonomous system in itself with no more reference to higher gods or religion. The holiness moved inside. Art for art’s sake appeared around the same time all these new religions were also created. Art is another one of these religions.
Understanding art as a religion that we put our faith in, Melamid then wondered whether great art couldn’t heal people, much like prayer has done. He opened the Art Healing Ministry, putting into practice his unquestionably odd yet hilarious treatments, which include projecting images of masterpieces from artists like Van Gogh and Jasper Johns onto patients and giving people art water, a take on flavored water or vodka that has images of artworks in the inside of the bottle. One particularly amusing slide Melamid showed during the lecture was a map of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on which he had diagrammed various illnesses that could be cured by the artists inside the rooms.
In his work at the Queens Hospital, Melamid chooses a few art reproductions for each session and tells patients to put one in their medicine cabinet near their pills, in order to use it as a treatment in itself. His reasoning is that the patients need to “Switch your mind. Close your mind and open your eyes.” Many of the patients have severe psychological disorders, and Melamid, the doctors and some patients themselves have noticed improvements in their thinking, since the art takes them outside their own internal and often repetitive thoughts.
Still, while Melamid’s ideas and his proposal for a study in art healing were certainly supported by the Queens Hospital doctors, it was difficult to parse his humor from his actual success in helping patients. I kept wondering if his art healing theories could be understood as a Fluxus-style performance.
Speaking to Melamid after his lecture, I asked him if the Art Healing Ministry and his work at the hospital were intended as an art piece. He answered:
Everything is art, especially now. I’m an artist, therefore … But real people are coming to the Art Healing Ministry. Is it a clinic, or is it a quack? It’s certainly a quack, but art is a quack. It’s interesting to work outside [the art world], since everyone complains about the system. So why are you in the system? What’s the big deal? Why don’t you want to change the system? Or they make alternative art space. What’s the difference? So do something else. Some people do, of course. There is a resentment, but people don’t do anything.
Melamid admitted that his move towards art healing was in part a rejection of the art world. He explained:
The first half of an artistic life you want to be part of it, and the second you want to be outside, because you understand the limitations. But now, everyone complains. Artists are the most timid and tamed part of the society. Art has never been more restricted than at any time.
Leaving the hall, having seen doctors sign off on research into art healing, I began to question my own thoughts on the power of art to heal. In the end, I decided to agree with a comment Melamid made in the lecture: “Art may be a placebo, but in the end, what does it matter?”
I better go take some Monet for my hay fever.