Arts for health vs. Health for artists?

The arts and creativity have a key role to play in improving health and well-being, strengthening communities, and relieving the pressures on the UK health and care service. That’s the message from this fantastic set of documents, podcasts, videos and illustrations, released today following a parliamentary inquiry. Readers of WordPress, this may not be your usual fodder. But it is well worth having a look at!

WiFappgarts
David Shrigley, brilliant as ever, illustrates the report.

Personally, I know that writing, doodling and dancing (badly) have been better for my mental health than meds or draining outpatients appointments. I have a family member with a disability who seemed the most well they’d been in years when they started attending an art class, and rediscovered a raw but real talent for painting.

It’s great to see this transformative power of creativity recognised in an official policy document, and I love the thought of a society where people are genuinely free and empowered to live as well as they possibly can, to create their own meaning, and find their own voice. To let everyone be an artist of sorts, with the right support to be healthy and happy.

But…

I’ve been interested in some of the reaction the report has received on Twitter. These go along the lines of: Yes, we all agree that art has an important role to play in health and well-being. But when we look at the people who are making great art, it’s rare that we see people who earn enough to keep themselves all that healthy. This obviously engenders a whole heap of inequality, as finding a professional life in the arts seems to involve scaling an impossible ivory tower.

Beyond health, the general message is that society doesn’t value art or creativity enough to pay for it, or even legitimise it as a worthwhile pursuit. I’m reminded of an article I read from a few months ago – Ditch the grammar and teach kids storytelling instead – which described how 11 year olds are clued up to the nines about grammatical terms I barely remember hearing at school, but breakdown in tears when they are asked to do something creative, like write a story.

Starting a choir for people in neuro-rehabilitation, providing art therapy for those in a mental health unit and getting art into hospitals should all be celebrated. But it’s one (important) tippy-toe on the first of many stepping stones towards a society which promotes well-being and creativity universally, for the people’s sake and because it is good in itself, not just when it has the potential to shave a couple of zeroes off of overly squeezed budgets. While public services are so stretched – as they have been in the UK following years of austerity – it’s hard to see these sorts of interventions being accompanied by the necessary fundamental changes to education, inequality, employment, etc..

Nevertheless, this new report has an admirable message and promotes the benefits of injecting the arts into public health policy from cradle to grave. I’m putting my pessimism about the UK aside for a second to imagine how great it would be to live there. Wanna join?

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