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Recognizing Imperfections

By Lauren E. Claus, Contributing Writer

A few weeks ago, Swiss artist Shahryar Nashat installed an exhibition on the first floor of the Carpenter Center and an “intervention” in Gallery 1510 of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. In the case of the latter, the intervening work changes the focus of the room from the ideal to the flawed—not because Nashat's work is lacking, but because many of his pieces thematically revolve around the weaknesses within the concept of perfection. That ideal is embodied by the beauty of Renée Sintenis’ statue “Daphne,” a pre-existing and perhaps antagonistic piece within Gallery 1510.

Although this intervention is fascinating on its own, it also calls attention to Nashat’s larger exhibit “Shahryar Nashat: Skins and Stand-ins” in the Carpenter Center. This exhibit largely focuses on prosthesis, making for a poignant reminder of the physical imperfection inherent in the human body and a powerful metaphor for people’s attempts to take care of themselves. The intervention’s title, “Private Practice,” not only alludes to the imperfection and inexact repetitions of the human body but also indirectly poses a question: How does this concept of imperfection apply to the practice of medicine?

In recent years, physicians have offered various perspectives on this question and explained its relevance to the field of medicine. In his 2003 book “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science,” surgeon Atul Gawande writes, “[Medicine] is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals, and at the same time lives on the line.” Unfortunately, however, medicine is often structured around an expectation of perfection. As physician Danielle Ofri explains in her TedMed 2014 talk, “The current culture of medicine today is zero tolerance of medical error.” However, more nuanced dedication to understanding and analyzing failures could likely help healthcare providers improve their treatment of patients in the future.

Recognizing the inevitability of imperfection might also be a more realistic approach. As Nashat’s exhibit reminds us, mistakes are unfortunately intrinsic to human endeavors; to use Ofri’s words, “Error is intrinsic to normal human functioning.” It is impossible to repeat human actions without any adjustment or unconscious variation, as Nashat illustrates in his video “Hustle in Hand.” In the video, characters engage in repetitive activities, such as exchanging dollar bills or eating pieces of chicken. Another object, the dodecahedron, similarly remains constant throughout the video. This object particularly epitomizes the perfection of static objects because it is a Platonic solid, a shape whose symmetry has preoccupied mathematicians for centuries. By juxtaposing such a shape with instances of human repetition, Nashat reminds us of the ways in which human actions in general fail to line up neatly according to expectation. Error in medical practice is only one manifestation of human fallibility.

Yet Nashat’s exhibition speaks to the importance of imperfections, which, particularly within medicine, are relevant for patients, family members, and friends, as well as health care practitioners. Ofri says, “The expectation—by doctors, by patients, by society at large—is perfection.” No single group is culpable for the perception that medicine is a perfect science, and many people are affected by the existence of medical error. Perhaps if patients and families more fully recognize how and why health care practitioners make mistakes, then they can become more active agents in preventing the consequences. We are all implicitly invested in the process of illuminating and analyzing medical errors.

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