5 Reasons why X-Rays are art

22 August 2017

As a doctor specialising in trauma and orthopaedics I encounter X-Rays virtually everyday in my working career. They are an essential tool in the diagnosis and management of a large proportion of trauma and orthopaedic practice and their constant visual presence was what drew me to the specialty. Few specialties in medicine allow us to “see” a problem or diagnosis with greater ease, clarity and availability than the humble X-Ray first invented over 100 years ago.

A question was recently posed to me as to whether there was any cross over between painting and orthopaedic surgery. On the surface it would seem fairly obvious that there would be little to no cross-over. What on earth could cutting into somebody’s femur (thigh bone) have with painting a canvas or looking at a beautiful work by Monet? As I considered this question I myself thought about X-Rays and how the process of understanding and reading an X-Ray is very similar with that of studying a work of art and here are my reasons:

X-Ray of a forearm and hand

1. They are visual

The most obvious example why X-Rays should be considered art is that they are visual. They are a visual representation of an anatomical structure, disease process, or trauma focusing on the bones within the human body. Unlike a blood test which can possibly tell you a disease process with a number, or a stethoscope where you are reliant on sound to tease out the problem, X-Rays communicate with the viewer visually and its process of production is probably most closely aligned to photography – another great visual art that I thoroughly enjoy!

“X-Rays communicate with a viewer visually and can inspire a multitude of emotional responses”

2. They are beautiful

It is often quoted that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and with X-Rays I would argue that holds true. Paintings themselves are considered beautiful but everyone has their own versions of beauty. For me, seeing an X-Ray of a fixed ankle next to the same ankle, previously broken is beautiful.

Anatomical drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, c.1510-1511. Prior to X-Rays being invented Da Vinci relied on cadavers to draw the anatomy of the human skeleton.

3. They are studied intensely

In trauma and orthopaedic units across the world, the morning trauma meeting usually at 08:30am brings together the entire trauma and orthopaedic team and the X-Rays are viewed. Here they are scrutinised, analysed, and debated. Substitute the X-Ray for a painting and substitute the surgeons for art historians and you will be struck by the similarities of heated debate.

4. They are figurative

X-Rays are a pure expression of the human figurative form, narrowed down to a specific area. True, they may only make out the bones however often when taking X-Rays the figure has to be manipulated in order to get the X-Ray in the correct orientation. Radiographers – the individual responsible for creating the X-Ray – act like artists, directing the patient like a photographer would direct a model.

5. They’re emotionally powerful

The X-Ray often demonstrates a disease process like arthritis or the end result of an injury. In that lies great emotional power and history. There is a patient behind each X-Ray and a story that goes with it. Whether it’s the 75-year old crippled with arthritic hip pain and struggling to manage, or the 25-year old who just fell off a bike and landed on his wrist. X-Rays demonstrate a story that, at the heart is deeply emotional for the patient. They can also inspire a number of feelings from the viewer: horror, pain, fear, joy just to name a few. Following on from point 3, they can stimulate highly charged debates from the team regarding optimal management and can cause anger, frustration, joy, sadness, shock etc. Art can inspire similar emotional responses.

Should X-Rays be considered art? It depends what you define as art and that in itself is subjective. A quick google search defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination typically in a visual form… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”

I would argue that the X-Ray fits this criteria quite handsomely. It was human ingenuity and imagination that allowed us to see inside the body without needing to cut it up every time; that an X-Ray is a visual form that can represent beauty and underlying each is story with great emotional power.

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