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Robert Rock, art, justice, and medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Winter


One afternoon this past autumn, Robert Rock took a group of first-year medical students to the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), showed them a painting, and asked them what they saw. The students, all of whom were in their first days of medical school and were taking the two-week “Introduction to the Profession” course, stared at Paul Gauguin’s Whispered Words.

One student described a dog accompanying a group of women. “Be careful of jumping to conclusions! Do we know it’s a dog and those people are women?” Rock said. “Show me your data.” The student revised her comments. “An animal that appears to be domesticated is lying on the ground near a group of people.”

Rock, in his fourth year of medical school, wanted his tour group to examine the art with clinical objectivity—the same way physicians examine patients to form a diagnosis. This exercise asked students to override a natural tendency to make assumptions. On a deeper level, Rock said, students might understand how those assumptions may be based on biases that persist in society.

Over the past two years, Rock, a native of Queens, N.Y., who majored in art history at New York University, has conducted this three-hour tour for medical students and alumni at least 12 times. “When I was a first-year med student, I had no idea that I was going to use art in medicine,” said Rock. But a fascination with art, growing up in a family of Haitian immigrants, and natural leadership have led to Rock’s involvement with art and social awareness projects.

As a second-year student, he and classmate Tehreem Rehman, M.P.H., created an elective course, “U.S. Health Justice,” to bring educational content about domestic health disparities into the school’s curriculum. This past fall, he and second-year student Nientara Anderson curated an exhibition in the Levin Study Gallery of the YUAG called “Violence, Visibility, and Hierarchies of Power.” In addition to the curated works in the fourth-floor study gallery, they have organized a series of events given by public health and health justice experts and co-sponsored by YUAG and the medical school.

Yale Medicine caught up with Rock, who will graduate in 2018 after an extra year of research, to talk about art and medicine.

What is your favorite piece of art? That’s an impossible question. There are too many to name—too many have affected me in so many different ways. My favorite painting at the art gallery is Untitled by Kerry James Marshall. He’s a genius in the way he co-opts visual tradition and makes some very strong statements about power and identity, and who gets to tell the story. Some people say a picture’s worth a thousand words. This painting is a dissertation. It’s incredibly rich.

How did your art tours start? When I first came to Yale, I’d find myself in the art museum more often than not—it is my favorite place on campus. One semester, my classmates who were organizing Second Look Weekend asked me to give a tour to prospective students. I took them to see Untitled and was blown away by how effectively it created a space to have powerful, difficult conversations with strangers. The art tour is really about letting artists have their say in things they really care about.

What led you to medicine? When I was in high school, my grand-aunt, the matriarch of the family, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was originally from Haiti. She lived in this country for about 20 years and never learned to speak English. She never trusted Western medicine. Between the language barrier and the cultural barrier, and just feeling like she wasn’t in control, she decided to forego care, and I watched her die slowly over six months. At her funeral, I thought, “I’m smart enough to know the science and information of medicine—but I care enough to do it better.”

How does art make for better doctors? The subjectivity of human interaction influences everything we do in medicine. In our medical education, we often interact with a standardized patient. But “textbook conditions” can present in very different ways because of a patient’s lived experience. Recreating a circumstance in the classroom that might prompt a student’s strong emotion or bias can be challenging. Art creates a space for this and allows exploration.

Why did you decide to come to Yale for medical school? The Yale system of education allows students to take control of their education and make it their own. I took advantage of this to pursue my interests in social medicine and health justice. Right now I’ve just finished my third-year clerkships, and I’m taking a research year to study medical education for my thesis.

You’ve conducted a dozen in-depth observational art tours—what do you hope that students and others get from them? I want people to question everything. Look for alternate narratives, look for what is missing, and ask, “Whom is this for?” In terms of where I’d like for these tours to go, I’m really interested in making a safe space for people to talk about things. It is not necessarily a comfortable space, but a safe space. Whether we are using art, music, or theatre, I think it’s very important to explore the things about us that may be at odds with our desire to provide just care.

Watch a short interview with Robert Rock here.

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