Global public health expert Michael Marmot warned recently that the pandemic will make health inequalities worse. If this is the case, then how can we ensure that the arts become part of the solution? The 2017 Creative Health report outlined the extensive range of ways in which the arts supports health outcomes, yet the report conceded that only a “small modicum” of the potential contribution of the arts is currently being realised. So why are we failing to grasp the full potential of the arts in contributing to good health?
The WHO Health Evidence Network’s first Scoping Review on Arts, Health and Wellbeing synthesized evidence from over 3,000 studies. It identified “a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan”.
But, despite progress, the fundamental processes underpinning the relationship between the arts and health are not yet well understood. Moreover, narrow, and often circular, definitions of the ‘arts’, limit awareness of their potential in this sphere, and often reinforce democratic deficits in access to publicly funded culture.
Yet the pandemic appears to have transcended this, as we see everyday creativity being played out in real time. Thousands of people have developed and showcased their creative skills in a huge variety of symbolic and productive forms, helping themselves through the stresses of lockdown. It’s this concept – of everyday creativity – that we need to focus on defining, in readily understandable terms.
These are extremely challenging times for the arts sector, but there are great opportunities too. If we can grasp the nettle of what David Jubb calls “fundamental structural change” and put the nurturing of creativity in people’s homes, communities and work environments at the heart of cultural policy, the rewards could be considerable.
It’s not clear what appetite there is for such a radical change, but do we know that times of great stress can lead to shifts in the paradigm. As we begin to shape an unknown ‘new normal’, we need a big debate, drawing in perspectives from across research disciplines, policymakers and wider society.
The initial goal should be to reach a shared, science-based understanding of the central importance of everyday creativity in our lives. Beyond that, we need to map out a Whole-of-Government approach, designed to place everyday creativity at the heart of a resilient, sustainable, caring society that supports, protects and nurtures the health and wellbeing of all its citizens.
Nick Ewbank is the Chair of the ISR External Advisory Group. He runs the cultural regeneration consultancy Nick Ewbank Associates.