Resilience Empowerment Art Project (REAP)

My colleagues and I explore the relationship of art to empowering resilience throughout the life cycle. Resilience is vital, be it resilience from the unexpected as in massive psychic trauma or resilience from the expected traumas of entropy and loss that mark the life cycle’s vicissitudes. History has had its share of massive psychic trauma as illustrated in such masterpieces as J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship and Hyman Bloom’s post-Shoah homage Seascape III.

When communities are subject to catastrophes ranging from slavery to genocide, the effects of demoralization are transgenerational.  Such traumatic effects are compounded when the perpetrators continue even today to actively deny agency as in the genocide of the Armenian population in Turkey.

Aesthetics fuels morale which allows us to make and persevere in our moral judgments against all odds. In ethical healthcare, tragic choices are inevitable and can lead to moral fatigue. When faced with demoralization, resilient art such as Bloom’s Rabbi paintings can empower us to draw strength from our shared history to make wise and humane choices. This was the focus of Dr. Harold Bursztajn’s Vanderbilt Medical School Flexner Deans Lecture “From Hell to Here: Moral Courage and Vulnerability from the Shoah (1939-1945) to Today” where a Bloom Rabbi painting is used to illustrate the discussion at 11:15 in the video.

When Catastrophes such as the COVID-19 Pandemic devastate biopsychosocial fabric of our lives, bioethically informed decision-making under conditions of uncertainty becomes more vital than ever.  How to avoid toxic resilience and empower bioethical resilience is a question which needs to be asked in a safe space where there is neither blind fear, despair, nor conviction.  Asking not only “How do we not die,” but also “How and why do we live,” is not to be obscured by fear-driven tunnel vision.  Aesthetics, what is beautiful helps us ask the other two vital questions, “What is true,” and “What is good?”  As per the title of the philosopher Hilary Putnam’s book, it promotes realism with a human face.  Two recent presentations by Dr. Bursztajn for the Psychiatric Times and the other for the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics address these questions on a national and international level.

An illustration on the relationship between art and moral resilience is a gallery talk at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston given by our President, Dr. Harold Bursztajn, MD, on Henryk Ross’s photographs of the Lodz Ghetto. Dr. Bursztajn has a long-standing interest in the relationship of art and the artist to the representation of massive psychic trauma as explored in his article in the Psychiatric Times, “The Healing Power of Photographs.” Ross captured the dignity, beauty, resistance, and resilience of the Ghetto’s inhabitants. These artful portrayals of hope in the midst of suffering, life in the midst of death, love in the midst of hate, vitality in the midst of entropy, move this exhibition from photojournalism to art in the tradition of Rembrandt, Turner, Goya, and Bloom.

To learn more about Dr. Bursztajn’s family’s Lodz Ghetto story in this interview with WBUR’s Bob Oakes.

What is seen clearly in catastrophic situations can also be discerned in the course of reflection on our everyday transient lives. Our associate director, Jason Huffman, is also a classical composer. His contribution to our project is to work on large scale composition both in scope and instrumentation based on three paintings of Hyman Bloom. These three paintings reflect the dread and beauty which accompanies life in the midst of death and death in the midst of life: Melting from 1974, The Cauldron and The Hull, both from 1952.

This piece will further develop Huffman’s compositional work first explored in his music based on Bloom’s Christmas Tree paintings.

REAP also sponsors the Boston Area ISPS-US study group meetings on Sundays 10:30-noon in Cambridge, MA. Upcoming events include:

  • June 23, 2019: Stanley Sagov, MD – Therapy and All that Jazz: the art of improvisation
    This session of the Boston Area Study Group of the ISPS-US is dedicated to the memory of a founding member, K. Lowenthal.
  • September 15, 2019: Terry Bard PhD  The Art of Resilience
  • November 17, 2019: Arthur Kleinman, MD – Author of “The Soul of Care: The Moral Education of a Husband and Doctor”

For more information please contact Harold Bursztajn, MD.

Tax deductible donations to the REAP Project can be made by check payable to “American Unit of the International Network of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics” and REAP written in the Memo and mailed to:

Harold Bursztajn, MD, President
American Unit of the International Network of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics
96 Larchwood Drive
Cambridge, MA 02138

or through Paypal (please type REAP in the special instructions to the seller):

You will receive a receipt for your tax deductible donation to our 501(c).