AHSW's Director, Trustees, and Members reflect on various aspects of arts, health and wellbeing.

Sustenance of the Soul, Science and the Imagination

This blog entry from Alex is adapted from a short introduction to an event on partnership working at Tacchi-Morris on February 4th 2015.

For those of us working in the arts and cultural sectors, interested in forging new partnerships, there may already be many divides between us to bridge: interests and expertise in different artforms; different motives and missions; different priorities and areas of focus. The world of the arts and culture is by no means homogenous or even harmonious. But there is an even greater divide, perceived or real, between the so-called Two Cultures, the name, of course, of CP Snow’s famous Rede Lecture in 1959.

Although an artist and art historian by training, and a practising artist until my 30s, I have worked within and with the NHS and health providers for the last twenty years. I have often felt myself in a space between those two cultures, trying to find a language to make sense of the differences and to explore shared territory. But somewhere along the way I was rather seduced by a scientific view of the world. I have never stopped valuing the arts and creativity but did begin to subscribe to the belief that a scientific perspective provides a more real truth, something we should rely on, something outside ourselves. Science and technology have come to dominate systems, and perhaps values, in our western world, I think that is indisputable, and medicine is one of the areas of life where science is most dominant. We medicalise birth: 1 in 4 births is now by caesarian section; we medicalise death: 80% of deaths occur in hospitals or institutional settings.
Those statistics come from Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. He is a brilliant storyteller, as well as a cancer surgeon and Harvard Professor of Medicine, who gave the Reith Lectures in 2014. The book is about ageing and how we cope with our ageing populations, an urgent concern for many of us, either in our personal lives or in our work, or both. He says that: ‘the problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have almost no view at all. Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet – and this is the painful paradox – we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days.’
One of the stories in Being Mortal is about a doctor whose primary passion is living as a self-sufficient farmer, and who took on a new day job running a nursing home. He saw how miserable the residents were and decided to radically challenge the dominant medical paradigm where health – and safety – takes precedence over quality of life and soul. Overnight he brought in dogs, cats and a100 parakeets. The skepticism from the staff was quickly dispelled by the visible joy of the residents, whose daily lives were transformed by having creatures to care for.

It brought to my mind Equal Arts’ HENPOWER Project, which takes hens into care homes. It has been remarkably successful in encouraging residents, particularly men, to engage with looking after them. It has captured the imagination of funders and the press and is spreading around the country. But is it art and does that matter? It is certainly imaginative, a little risky and a creative solution to a problem. When we get it right perhaps popular appeal overcomes anxiety about what is art and questions of quality.

Marc Steene, Executive Director of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, who founded the Outside In programme, asks the question what is art and who decides? His lifelong passion to support artists who are excluded from the establishment art world began soon after leaving art school, when he was working in a day centre for adults with learning difficulties. He was astounded at the quality of the artwork produced by people attending the centre and was in the process of setting up an exhibition in a local venue when he discovered that the staff routinely destroyed the artworks because they considered them to be of no value, the result of a time-filling activity. His challenge to himself, since then, has been how we, as a society, enable audiences and the sector, to realize the talent of people who do not conform to our idea of an artist and the value of the work they create. Some of you may have heard his impassioned talk on this subject at our annual conference in November.

Who decides what is good art and how do our perceptions of normality impact on our judgement of work? This brings me back to the Two Cultures theme. Our sense of what is healthy normality in mind and body is related to medicine of course. I have recently been exploring ageing artists and creativity and the ageing brain and illness – visiting Late Turner at Tate Britain; Rembrandt the Late Works, at the National Gallery; and interviewing Natsu Nakajima, the Japanese Butoh dancer who still performs at 73.  We value Turner’s late works highly; they look ‘modern’ to us, although they were dismissed in his own day. Does the fact that as an old man he had a tremor in his hand make any difference? Was Rembrandt’s eyesight failing and does that have anything to do with the subtlety of his extraordinary late portraits? Or is it more important that a lifetime of studying the human face graces his work with profound humanity? Do the changes brought about by ageing actually allow for new creative possibilities to emerge? Natsu Nakajima would say yes, that her ability to ‘dance time’ is only possible with the limitations of an ageing body.

At a recent event on Music and the Brain I heard about neuroscience and new research on left brain versus right brain; and about autism and extreme musical skill. But what about mental ill-health and creativity? Last week I went to a panel discussion on William Blake and his visions, as part of a Blake Festival programmed alongside the exhibition at the Ashmolean. The panelists were a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Biblical Studies, a Buddhist poet and a literature academic specializing in Blake’s poetry. The academic said Blake would have hated neuroscience; he railed against the influence of Newton; against the ‘material world’; he believed the imagination and unfettered thought was the route to understanding. The theologian said that it was through imaginative inspiration that Blake’s political critique emerged. Blake was immersed in the culture and politics of his time, his work is littered with references. His visual imagery could be said to be very derivative and yet the world view he evokes still seems radical and surprising; the confusing nature of his vision and his ‘difficult’ poetry is an expression of the inherent contradictions he perceived everywhere and an insistence on resisting definitions and certainty. His visions were wholly real to him, tangible and important. He was labeled mildly mad in his own time.

We must remember that it is the human brain that creates science, not some outside authority, just as the brain is the source of imagination and creativity. We all know that other societies and cultures, indigenous populations around the developing world, and ancient civilizations have had and have extraordinary insight into the natural world outside our scientific framework. Imaginative and creative processes reach deep into the well of our subconscious, drawing on influences and images and words absorbed from all around us and allowing them to emerge with new insight and poetic meaning. Imagine a world where intuition, inspiration and imagination were lauded and legitimized in public life, over and above rational, logical thought and reasoning. Perhaps it is a frightening prospect: how would decisions be made; how would you audit them; how would you ensure things were fair and reasonable?

Can we, as arts managers, artists and creative entrepreneurs, play a role in shaping a future in which imagination can challenge and shift a scientific perspective which is based on logic and reason? Gawande says: ‘there are people in the world that change imagination’.

I can already feel myself challenging what I am saying because I have long argued that what we, in the arts, need to do is step into other people’s shoes; see the world from a health professional’s perspective; try to understand health commissioners priorities; talk their language; understand what evidence based practice is; and gather evidence that is robust and will meet their standards. Partnership working is about an empathetic approach to understanding other people’s perspectives – otherwise they will just turn away. But through that process we can discover exciting new ideas and challenges; and if we don’t lose sight of the power of imaginative and ‘other’ ways of seeing the world we can slowly but surely infiltrate perceptions and change those around us, through demonstrating the transformative potential of re-imagining the world through the arts.


Alexandra Coulter

Director, Arts & Health South West

February 2015

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