Monthly Archives: March 2012

Are the Arts good for our health? Are we wired for Culture from birth?


The winner of BBC’s ‘I’d Do Anything’, Jodie Prenger, has just joined the cast of ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ -she said it could quite easily be prescribed by the NHS to people who just need to be able to have a good laugh.  I don’t disagree with her.

One Man Two Guvnors

Historically, health deals with prescribing drugs.  The ‘arts and health’ is still seen as ‘fluff’, which is is very unfortunate – since the problems in today’s society cannot be cured with just drugs.  At the recent LSE Literary Festival, there was a fantastic talk on this very issue.  Author Jeanette Winterson commented that all too often we measure how people react to things with the wrong tools.  Randomised Controlled Trials do not tackle everything within a human person – they will be able to measure some things such as the effect of smoking but they will not measure how a person’s well being is improved by listening to music, playing an instrument, reading a poem, watching a play, and so forth – and these are things that genuinely give people pleasure, comfort, strength…many things.  The trouble with the arts is that they are generally dismissed as a luxury – hence they are being taken away from school teaching timetables.  And yet there is enough evidence around to show that the arts are in fact a necessity now more than ever.

Winterson goes on to say that the self is an unfolding story – not a fact.  We are a fiction evolving and unfixed.  It is a complex world that we live in and we need complex tools (the arts, not randomised controlled trials) to try and come to terms with ourselves.  Creativity is the capacity in us to save us because it works with us.  Some scientific institutions do not disagree with this – the Wellcome Trust fully supports it.  Jane Davies, Founder and Director of the Reader Organisation, talks of how countless people have come to her reading group and have been endlessly changed and supported by poems and stories such as the lady who had a breakdown and ended up on the streets but had held on to the poem ‘I Am’ by John Clare which was the only thing that had kept her going.  Its words were the only thing that kept her alive – no one else spoke to her.  The words of this poem spoke to her and reminded her that “she still was”.  She was a self, even though no one knew but her – and the words of the poem became the other voice of affirming this – when all else was in the negative.  She existed, and the poem tells her this.  No randomised controlled trial could have shown the result of this.  The fact is, our problems are complicated – the mind is not easily understood, and language is one of the complex tools which can be used to tackle the problems we do have.  Language understands the soul – there is little else that does.  Language is the constant, when all else is passing through…

But why are we surprised for goodness sake that the arts do help us?  Children will take the first opportunity to dance, sing, draw, scribble and make a noise – we take all this away from them and wonder why as adults they have problems.  Professor Mark Pagel in his book ‘Wired for Culture’ points out that humans are usually seen as differing from other animals because of our inherent traits of consciousness, language and intelligence, but many of these things would not exist without our propensity for culture.  Our cultures, although an accident of birth, have outstripped our genes in determining who we are.  Likewise, Director Katie Mitchell says we don’t ‘do’ arts, they are already in us.  What happens when we read, sing, paint etc, is a transaction with our being.

The trouble is, it is not easy to find and present evidence that the arts do and have helped people suffering from dementia, or children suffering with behaviour and learning difficulties, and so on.  We live in an evidence ruled society which wants results in a black and white fashion from problems which are grey and ambiguous.  It is like using ingredients to make chocolate cake and expecting to get a rice pudding when it comes out the oven.

We are our own worse enemy – as Professor Pagel points out, we are the so called best species at communication because we have language, but we are better at starting wars with each other and ourselves.  We sideline one of the best ways of communication – the arts – from our lives.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins states that the mind has mountains – these can be faced, often from within, from a genre such as poetry, which already knows our problems.