Tuesday, 23 March 2010

‘The Agnew Clinic’ – Thomas Eakins


Two great artists focus on the essentials of medicine. Eakins’s ‘Agnew Clinic’ (above) is of a piece with his earlier ‘Gross Clinic’ – two portrayals that “clearly take the relation of hand and mind as their subject. Mind is vividly represented in both

    “Eakins chooses to depict Gross and Agnew not in their studies as thinkers, but very much at work as doers. As surgeons and teachers in the midst of an operation, surrounded by hordes of others with various claims on their attention, they are in the middle of the most complex course of actions imaginable. This is a world in which action counts as much as thought–or, to put it more accurately, a world in which action can't be separated from thought..
   “The point of both paintings is precisely the ways that [he surgeons] Gross and Agnew bridge the realms of thinking and doing. Eakins brings the point home to us through a series of contrasts in which the meaningful connection of the two realms–of being with doing, of mental impulses to manual expressions–is flawed or absent in various ways. There are dozens of arms and hands visible (and invisible) in both paintings, and their sheer number and prominence draw our attention to them, but one of the things we slowly realize is that there are only a few in which hand and mind are linked in a disciplined, productive relationship–one in which mind informs hand and hand informs mind…” [Ray Carney, “Forming the hand of the mind”]

And why, to highlight that relationship, would Eakins choose a surgeon as his subject? Let another great artist offer you a very timely answer from her greatest novel.  The novel’s protagonist has just asked the “Dr Agnew’ of his day why he resigned:

    _quote ‘I quit when medicine was placed under State control, some years ago,’ said Dr. Hendricks. ‘Do you know what it takes to perform a brain operation? Do you know the kind of skill it demands, and the years of passionate, merciless, excruciating devotion that go to acquire that skill? That was what I would not place at the disposal of men whose sole qualification to rule me was their capacity to spout the fraudulent generalities that got them elected to the privilege of enforcing their wishes at the point of a gun. I would not let them dictate the purpose for which my years of study had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward.
    “ ‘I observed that in all the discussions that preceded the enslavement of medicine, men discussed everything—except the desires of the doctors. Men considered only the 'welfare' of the patients, with no thought for those who were to provide it. That a doctor should have any right, desire or choice in the matter, was regarded as irrelevant selfishness; his is not to choose, they said, only 'to serve.'
    “ ‘That a man who's willing to work under compulsion is too dangerous a brute to entrust with a job in the stockyards—never occurred to those who proposed to help the sick by making life impossible for the healthy. I have often wondered at the smugness with which people assert their right to enslave me, to control my work, to force my will, to violate my conscience, to stifle my mind—yet what is it that they expect to depend on, when they lie on an operating table under my hands? Their moral code has taught them to believe that it is safe to rely on the virtue of their victims. Well, that is the virtue I have withdrawn. Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce. Let them discover, in their operating rooms and hospital wards, that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man whose life they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of man who resents it—and still less safe, if he is the sort who doesn't.’ "
             - Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged 

Goodnight America.

NB: Three articles that make the necessary further points:

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece. Quite correct.

    I know a surgeon who gave up and went into real estate for exactly those reasons. He was at the top of the profession at the time and his departure caused some big ructions in NZ. Shortly after another top surgeon at Ak Hosp (in paediatrics) threw in the towel and told the faceless ones to go whistle. He ended up doing very well o'seas.


    I like the painting. Glad they do it slightly different now though!



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