Distilling The Arts Into A Healing Elixir

C4 Atlanta’s tweet of an Arts Professional UK story today made me growl in dissatisfaction.   (I got no beef with C4 Atlanta,that is just a long way of giving them a hat tip for the link)

The reason I growled was the outright instrumental positioning of the arts for medical outcomes. Author Christy Romer talks about the Arts Council of England’s (ACE) review of arts interventions where ACE regrets that arts organizations lack the funds to run randomised controlled trials and is therefore unable to justify the power of the arts to cure every mental and physical ailment under the sun.

Repeating Carter Gilles mantra — just because you have  method that measure something doesn’t mean the results you get have any relevance or relation to what you are measuring.

Yes, the article says,

It says there is a “growing recognition” among researchers that quantitative approaches like these “often fail to capture” the nuances of arts interventions, which become “lost in an overly narrow focus on data and measurements”.

Broadening the focus to include more qualitative and mixed method techniques could make it easier to improve practice and integrate arts interventions more deeply into the healthcare and justice systems, it suggests.

“The outcome that’s the easiest to measure is not necessarily the best thing to measure,” the report notes. “Is a different type of ‘gold standard’ possible?”

While it is good that there is a recognition that quantitative approach is too narrow and that the easiest measure is not the best, the fact is it appears they are still trying to figure out how to use the arts to fix things.

It is important that researchers be able to discover that people with dementia may be helped by singing because it employs important neural pathways. But that isn’t so much a value of art as the fact that singing requires you to use specific facilities in the same way movement helps circulation. Yes, singing a song from their youth helps people with dementia to solidify their memories. But that is more an argument that our lives should be filled with creative experiences as much as possible when we are young.

The same with the use of artistic expression to reduce recidivism among parolees. The article says “but says that because of the many factors involved, the “the challenge of demonstrating that a cultural intervention has had a measurable impact…remains daunting”.  The thing is, if prisoners/parolees aren’t committing crimes after participating in arts related activities, it can be as much the fact they had an opportunity to socialize and were provided the tools to express themselves.

There also may be other factors at work as well as they suggest, but if you think socialization and self expression are important elements in there, that is just more of an argument for people having the opportunity for creative expression when they are young. If you can’t clearly prove that opportunities for creative expression are reducing recidivism in a controlled trial study, are you going to take away their books and sketch pads?

The value of arts is difficult to measure and define in a qualitative way. Creative expression is nuanced and not every mode of expression has relevance for every individual which means the it is impossible to arrive at a uniform application of arts as a cure.

If people stop exhibiting violent tendencies after participating in a play, by all means try to figure out what elements of that experience may have contributed to it and try to provide those elements to others. Just realize you will never discover that 30 minutes of music every day will placate everybody’s anger. And you will never be able to identify every element that contributed to the decrease in anti-social behavior. For some it is the socialization, for others it is the opportunity to express, for others it is the kind word that someone said on the walk home that you never observed.

There is a lot in this story that does well in recognizing that the current methods of measure aren’t capturing all the important nuances in creative interactions. However, by trying to find a new gold standard to measure the value of the arts, it still sounds like they are trying to distill something out of the arts into an easily applied elixir.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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