Arts, Education, Health and Well-being

House of Lords special debate on the arts

Article from Clive Parkinson, Director of Arts for Health

at Manchester Metropolitan University from his blog

Arts: Contribution to Education, Health and Emotional Well-being

This is an edited version and my reflected highlights on a debate which took place in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, and not a critique of it. The full transcript is available here
Yesterday, the 25th July, in the House of Lords, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch asked Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the contribution of the arts to the nation’s education, health and emotional well-being.
She began the exchange by recapping an earlier debate in which the case had been made around the, ‘contribution of the creative industries to jobs, growth and tourism’, which echoed the recent Arts Council report that showed that there was a four-fold return on every pound invested in the arts.
But Baroness Jones wanted ‘to make a different case—the arts for their own sake, for what they provide to our civilisation and the benefits they impart to our well-being as a nation. This should be a sufficient reason to celebrate, to defend and to invest in our arts culture. It is why I share the concern expressed by many arts leaders that Maria Miller’s recent speech focused so heavily on the economic benefits that could accrue from our arts activities.’
She spoke eloquently about what she described as ‘flawed thinking. If we invest only in arts that are guaranteed to make a profit, we damage the very innovation and creativity that has generated our reputation for excellence in the first place.’

Culture, Health and Wellbeing

Talking about the Culture, Health and Wellbeing conference in Bristol and the ongoing work of the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, she framed the debate in a way that critically conjoined educational provision and the health and wellbeing of the whole population – on individuals and society. Opening up the debate to the House, she concluded that: ‘it would be a great shame if we had to put a price on all those benefits. Art funding should not just be about economic returns, but also the less tangible advantages: that it raises our quality of life, improves our sense of well-being and contributes to our future success as a nation. Ultimately, none of these issues matters as much as a belief in art and creativity for its own sake. However we choose to express it, art is what makes our nation civilised, it shapes our identity and it informs our heritage.If we are always looking over our shoulder at balance sheets to justify expenditure, we risk losing the essence of what makes the UK such a special place to live.’
Baroness (Joan) Bakewell described that earlier debate as being, ‘the economic, nuts-and-bolts argument for the arts, and today we deal with the real core, civilising values of the arts in our lives’, asking, ‘What is the price of joy?’
Speak of the more ‘profound rewards of the arts’, she described how the ‘arts teach us what it is to be human, to know ourselves and to know others’.
She described what I have referred to as the numinous experience of exposure to art and design, citing Wordsworth’s attempts to recall how he had been moved by Tintern Abbey when he had been there five years earlier,  “with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony … We see into the life of things”.
She used this idea to describe poetically, what exactly it is that the arts, in all their forms, do. ‘We see into the life of things’.
‘Empathy matters in the lives we live, one with another. Empathy is the understanding of the other. It is the attribute psychopaths lack—the capacity to understand others. Callousness, cruelty and murder follow. That is why, when the arts go into prison, they make a real difference. Acting companies take the plays of Shakespeare to prisoners and then stay to discuss with their audience, the inmates, what are human motives and what are the feelings of other people. That helps the prisoners grow to see their own lives. It helps them to see into the life of things.’

Critically, to me at least, she suggests that the arts and festivals offer, ‘places of ideas, opinions and cultural exchange’ and concluded her case to the Government on celebration, insight, empathy and intellectual exchange:

‘The arts lead us to see into the life of things. They deserve a higher place in the school curriculum than at present. As we know, dance scarcely figures and music is neglected. We want our children to see into the life of things.’

Lord Cormack reflected that ‘the arts are, in every possible sense, priceless. To equate them with commercial calculations is doing us all a disservice. You cannot quantify it; if you want to start quantifying it—I am sorry I could not take part in the debate of my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft—you can provide a very good justification. After all, the thousands of tourists who are flocking here this year…is to see our fine buildings, to go to our wonderful galleries, and to listen to the music at the Proms and other concerts. The arts bring in to this country enormous sums of money—a fact that no Government of any political persuasion have ever fully recognised.’
Lord (Robert) Winston explored the potency of music in humanity, describing it as ‘a basic civilising influence on our population’. Providing the House with a scientific framework for understanding the impact of music on the human brain, Winston disputed the myth that ‘musicians are born and not made, it turns out that this is not the case. Recent evidence in a beautiful German study clearly shows that pretty well anybody who is given enough time and practice can compete with the best opera singers, and that their brain can expand in the areas that are needed.’ His point here, that music education should be available to everyone throughout their lives.
Lord Rea, poignantly reminded us of the WHO definition of health, which considers it to be not only the “absence of disease” but also,“complete physical, mental and social well-being”— Citing Sir David Weatherall, when the regius professor of medicine at Oxford University more than a decade ago, explained how scientific medicine, which dominated the last century, changed the emphasis in healthcare from the whole patient and whole organs to diseases of molecules and cells.This caused many to feel that medicine had become reductionist and dehumanising. Although himself a molecular scientist, Professor Weatherall said that, “we will now start putting the bits … together again … The old skills of clinical practice, the ability to interact with people, will be as vital … as they have been in the past”.
Reflecting on events in Mid Staffs, Lord Rea emphasised the need to see the whole person and focused much of his contribution on the determinants of health and the importance of conjoining the ‘three components of health—physical, mental and social—are not separate entities.’
Importantly, Lord Rea stressed the importance of popular culture as well as the ‘fine’ arts and he placed an emphasis on the importance of design and architecture.
As an artist, the Earl of Clancarty began by suggesting that, ‘artists make and publicise their work as best they can and it is for others to draw conclusions about the wider social effects that work may have.’
He reminded the House of the recent speech by Scottish Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, on 5 June at Edinburgh University, in which she said: “It is our job … to create the conditions which enable artists to flourish … I don’t need or want the culture or heritage sector to make a new economic or social case to justify public support for their work. I know what these sectors can deliver because I see it in action. I visit hardworking artists and practitioners who are exploring new ways of working; and who are creating dynamic and exciting new ways of enjoying and sharing their work and the work of our ancestors”.
Pivotally, he suggested, that the ‘key thing here is the facilitation of artists, which I believe is a good in itself, whatever the specific effects may be, because the artist’s work is the contribution to society. The Government’s primary job in relation to the arts is—or should be—to do just that and must of course include encouraging the potential for creativity from all classes of society.’
Rather powerfully, he suggested that ‘from this, everything else should proceed. Indeed, in the short term, good art may not give a feeling of well-being at all but may be disturbing and highly critical of society, as much of our best post-war drama was. It is a healthy society which allows artists to have their say, encourages that criticism and, all importantly, offers spaces within which that can happen.’

Billy Elliot

Lord Sawyer used the emblem of Billy Elliot to talk about aspiration and the arts. How a miner’s son became a ballet dancer. Describing the film’s success, he suggested that this illustration of ‘the transforming power of art—in this case, dance—and its ability to bring joy and happiness, which have the power to actually change lives,’ is at the heart of the debate. Billy Elliott, he suggests, tells us about the power of community, of solidarity and art as activism. Stressing the importance of arts being at the heart of our communities, he warned, ‘If we slam the doors, we slam them not just on aspiration but also on knowledge, confidence, communication and language—and we are just not prepared to see those doors slammed. We are going to keep them open, and we shall have to fight to do that. That is our job, no matter what the funding issues are, no matter what the trials and tribulations of the Government of the day are. It is incumbent on all of us who care about future generations to keep those doors open and to keep fighting for our arts. We should work to protect the space, and we need to work hard to help people understand the benefits that they bring to all, and to our nation’s education, health and well-being.’

Staunch advocate of arts and health and keynote at the recent international conference in Bristol, Lord Howarth of Newport opened his contribution by suggesting that ‘the greatest contribution that the arts can make to education is to offer young people the opportunity of beauty, and an understanding of it, and to take them into new imaginative realms.’ He spoke of literature and its place in helping us explore how we live our lives and the value of the arts not being measurable; ‘it is over and beyond the utilitarian calculus.’ His speech stressed the importance of imagination,‘linguistic precision, authenticity and power…(as)…a preparation for their participation in democracy.’
He emphasised the good work across the country and highlighted, the ongoing work of the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and noted the work that is happening further afield internationally. He reflected on the rich research work underway across the field and echoing Lord Rea, expressed concern, ‘that orthodox, specialised medicine, based on clinical science, is insufficient. What he (citing Sir David Weatherall) calls “patch-up medicine” is “reductionist” and “dehumanised”. He also observes that it is prohibitively expensive and fails to address the causes of malaise.
He says we should do more to prevent people falling ill through promoting lives of well-being.’
Concluding that ‘the recognition that GDP is not a sufficient measure of national progress and that “getting and spending”, to quote Wordsworth again, is insufficient.’ He acknowledged The Office of National Statistics index of national well-being includes a new category under arts and culture.

Lord Storey added some pertinent reminded us that, ‘the great and the good can go to the opera, visit art galleries and hear symphony orchestras, but how do we make sure that children living in abject poverty on council estates also have the joy and benefits of the arts?’

He told about work in his own city of Liverpool, ‘where every primary school child—not just some, every single primary school child—learns a musical instrument. They form an orchestra, which has performed within the community, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and here at the Royal Festival Hall, and when they leave their primary school a second orchestra is formed at secondary school level. That has been hugely significant for those young people.’
Baroness Northover, concluded the debate, responding to the speeches that had been made, reflecting Lady Bakewell’s early comment, that ‘involvement in the arts is quite simply part of what makes us human.’
She commented that, ‘We fully recognise that engagement and participation in the arts generates a range of social benefits to individuals and society. It is not simply what makes us civilised. It goes beyond that; it is, indeed, what makes us human.’  She quoted Arts Council chairman, Sir Peter Bazalgette saying:
“The arts are a demonstrable source of health and happiness, no matter what age we are”.
She acknowledged the importance of mental health, commenting, ‘In addressing physical health, it is important to address mental health and that sense of well-being, which is why we emphasise that healthcare must be person-centered. We have given mental health a new priority, enshrining it in law for the first time as having equal importance with physical health.’

Again, she stressed the ongoing advocacy work of the National Alliance for Arts Health and Wellbeing and the recognition that Public Health England is looking closely at well-being, recognising ‘that arts activities can promote that well-being.’

This was a highly encouraging debate and I urge those of you interested in the arts and health agenda to take time to read or listen to this contribution to our expanding field and our growing movement. 

 

Clive Parkinson is a passionate advocate for culture and the arts.  

He is currently working to further understand the impact of the arts on public health and works in partnership with Arts Council England and the Department of Health amongst others. He is currently the chair of the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing.

He is currently looking to develop core elements of the work the department undertakes with specific focus on taught modules at under and post graduate level, bridging the space between research and the taught curriculum. He is currently developing an MA unit in Arts, Public Health and Wellbeing which will begin in autumn 2013 in the School of Art.

Working with colleagues in Finland, Estonia and Spain he is developing multi-professional approaches to arts and health teaching with a specific emphasis on collaboration between social work and the arts in relationship to children and young people at risk.

Between 2013 – 2016 he is working on an interdisciplinary AHRC funded Connected Communities research project, exploring the relationship between the visual arts and dementia friendly communities.