The Arts Aren’t A Band-Aid

Links to a study examining the validity of claims about the efficacy of the arts in solving issues of health and well-being came across my Twitter feed today.  The study authors, Stephen Clift, Kate Phillips, and Stephen Pritchard, examined research conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and found there were problems with the methodology and relevance of previous studies that made claims about arts solving physical and mental health issues for different populations.

The authors cited earlier work by Munira Mirza and Eleonora Belfiore who in 2006 were skeptical about making claims about the instrumental benefits of the arts on health outcomes.

Among Belfiore’s concerns that the authors quote are:

Any form of participatory activity could have “an empowering effect, whether arts-based or not”.

Existing reviews have ignored details which suggest “negative” impacts from arts and cultural engagement. Lessons from experiences of “culture-led regeneration” suggest that “the arts can actually be socially divisive”.

Little attention given to whether cultural and arts initiatives “provide the most cost-effective means to tackling social exclusion, health problems” compared with “established practices within social and health services”.

Little attention to longer-term outcomes as opposed to short-term effects.

Little attention to the artistic or aesthetic quality of cultural and arts engagements in assessing outcomes.

A focus on the role of the arts and culture my serve “as a convenient means to divert attention from the real causes of today’s social problems and the tough solutions that might be needed to solve them”.

While these were criticisms of arts policy in the UK in 2006, the fact that the authors found nearly identical concerns in more recent research conducted both in the UK for DCMS and internationally by WHO, indicate that the problems are shared across borders.

I was particularly drawn to the discussion of the use of art as a band-aid to obfuscate the existence of larger problems. The authors cite businesses use of “art washing” projects to create goodwill and draw attention away from the business practices which create harm in the world. They also note that studies often credit arts programs for reducing anxiety and behavioral difficulties in children without fully recognizing the poverty, domestic abuse and violence in their lives. They suggest that by positioning arts programs as a fix for children’s behavior, the studies accept and normalize the terrible conditions responsible for these problems.

While it wasn’t a central topic of their research, the authors made reference to two studies from 2020, one which states Culture is bad for you, based on the way current practices and manifestations reinforce social inequities; and another that asks, “Can Music Make You Sick,” examining the price musicians pay to pursue their careers. This was actually a theme Drew McManus pursued across a number of podcast discussions with various stakeholders in music organizations.

Long time readers will know that for years now I have been concerned about various claims being made about the instrumental benefits/value of the arts to rectify every ill – health, social, economic, education, etc., as more research occurs debunking these claims, the arts community will be in a difficult place trying to justify their existence in these terms. Which is why it is important to change the narrative away from the arts as prescriptions for whatever ails you.

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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