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Here at the AMH during the Covid-19 pandemic people have been busy learning new skills and differently deploying old ones.

Bridget's Masks

Dr Bridget MacDonald, Treasurer and council member has been selecting a range of interesting and colourful, (sometimes recycled) using left-over and upcycled fabrics to create masks with a stylish identity all of their own, mainly for her support staff at the hospital where she works as a consultant neurologist. Bridget’s masks are fully washable and a selection is shown here:


Incidentally, some may remember Bridget’s chapter on “Masking and Emotional Labour: Unexpected consequences of good communication” in the Body Talk in Medical Humanities book I edited with Francia Kinchington that was published last November. Indeed reflecting on masking behaviours and the wide range of cultural and social meanings of masks and their uses will, of course never be quite the same after this time. During Covid-19 the issues of protection and for whom, the lack of PPE provision for those on the frontline, the need to don PPE for much longer periods of time generated a lot of discussion. We have had conversations about which countries have made mask-wearing mandatory and who is and is not wearing masks, where and when and what this signifies.

Meanwhile Paula who works with the database and backs up our admin, has a background in fashion and design. She has been busy researching a prototype that is more “ear friendly” and looks stylish using insider knowledge of medical friends in A&E departments, but for wearing outside of hospital. Ear pulling taking a toll is something to be considered, especially for all faced with wearing masks outside of work. Other comfort considerations including moldable to nose, absorbing sweat, and beard friendly as well as health considerations (virus unfriendly) have led to: no seams on front; double cotton layer; unbleached cotton inner; washable filters; and on the practical side being fully washable. Paula is shown here in red, wearing a spotted mask.


All of this makes me wonder whether mask making could be considered an art or a craft. Differentiating the two is a long running argument that frequently involves aspects of outdated gender bias and depends in part upon point of view. Female artists are today still paid very much less than male ones and while the values of crafting have risen and many artists work to blur the boundaries; craft is (completely) undervalued. The suggestion that something useful could also be beautiful goes to the heart of the UK Arts and Crafts Movement that came into being towards the mid 19th century to combat industrial production. In today’s material world, beautiful and utilitarian objects produced by the movement are highly valued antiques and many were home produced.

There is a further concern about the plastics in mask waste and gloves. I have recently been researching the medicalization and sanitisation of women’s bodies through menstrual hygiene management and suggest that menstruation pads look remarkably similar to disposable masks in their layers of plastic and paper. One of the major issues in play is how disposal of menstrual pads and the plastics they contain contributes hugely to ocean and environmental damage. The carbon footprint of PPE is one matter but another that is important is disposal. It is desirable for everyone for whom wearing a disposable mask is not a necessity therefore to wear one that can be set aside, re-worn and washed when necessary. So the recycling of materials in both types of mask on this post is a good thing, although not viable in all circumstances. My question is now, are these objects beautiful? And what does beautiful mean?

Ethics and aesthetics form part of the study of values. In the material culture of the affluent North we tend to assume that value means something financial or economic but value has many meanings. Interestingly, the word eco-nomy comes from Ancient Greek for household management (I understand this refers to behaviours in ordering an estate rather than an urban home, so perhaps the duties of a land agent or manager might offer a some sort of parallel). Economy is also related to the word oikos, again referencing household, which in Euripedes play Medea, is where Medea does her screaming, off stage, in the ‘home’. Here she can be a woman (and scream) whereas onstage she is a prince who as a prince in a play where order need to be restablished, famously kills her children to prevent a worse fate. Eco-logy comes inpart from the same root as eco-nomy; the logos part being about the study/written words or knowledge of the lived environment.

In contrast to nomie, Durkheim, the French sociologist, uses the word ‘anomie’ to describe a lack of ethical and social behaviours So for some time ‘eco-anomie’ has been my made up name to describe human environmental behaviours such as how the oceans have become so full of waste and plastics. Both Bridget’s and Paula’s masks therefore have both economic and aesthetic attributes and they can therefore be argued to have artistic value. Beauty is, of course subjective and in the eye of the beholder; it depends upon interaction and judgment.

Within a visual culture that has always been culturally biased, judgements on beauty have and still reflect the endemic ableist, gendered and racist values with which Western culture is loaded. The Black Lives Matter movement has rightly highlighted bias in police stop and search, attitudes in particular to young black men. A child of 13 cycling for charity with his dad recently suffered from racial profiling that has left him with facial lacerations and unable to sleep alone at night. So it is not surprising that cultural monuments have different meanings for different members of our community. In Ireland we still talk of Peel’s brimstone. The meaning of things is not fixed: it is different for different individuals and groups and it varies over time. The Medical Humanities has a wide range of tools that helps unpack the past, critique and support how we experience the present and most importantly dream the future into being. And of course the study of aesthetics through artifacts (such as books, masks, paintings, music, performances, writings) and products that embody different individual cultural and sensory experiences, enables a nuancing of ethics, supports differencing and facilitates reflection on cultural understandings.

And in this respect I would like to refer you to the aesthetic experience presented in a forthcoming blog post from The Aseemkala Initiative on Sati’s Surgery.

The question I would like to ask next is about surgery in consideration of historical and contemporary contexts and values. Is it an art or a craft?

Jennifer Patterson July 2020



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