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Director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University, Clive Parkinson describes the political thinking that led to and is embodied in the UK’s first Manifesto for Arts and Health.

A Love-Filled Slap: A Manifesto for Arts and Health

In 2007, I’d just completed a three-year research project across the North West of England. It was a rich piece of work and harvested much more than we expected, but more than the gathering of data, it nurtured relationships – and in a period where the field was largely concerned with clinical environments – it made significant connections with public health. Over that same year, the Department of Health and Arts Council England published their joint Prospectus for Arts and Health – the beginning of a golden age perhaps?

But this was the year of the ‘global financial crisis’ and it was inevitable that in the face of failed market models based on high risk and greed, that our heroic politicians would turn away from imaginative ways of thinking about health. Those newly nurtured relationships however, became the North West Arts and Health Network and responded to what people said they wanted: getting together and sharing research and practice.

With the unhappy birth of a coalition government in 2010, ‘deficit reduction’ became de rigueur, and in this unlikely political climate, the idea of an arts and health ‘strategy’ for the region was muted. Given the climate of ‘austerity’, what real benefit would another glossy strategy add? People in the network made it clear that they wanted to express themselves beyond simplified ‘case studies’ and the idea of developing a manifesto, based on shared vision and aspiration, was born. Over 2010/11, I worked with over 1000 people sharing a process that gathered people together to give voice to our collective agenda. With something of the Margaret Mead mantra, we felt a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

A significant part of these conversations focused on inevitable frustration at the political status quo, and an exploration of artists’ manifestos and artists’ practice helped shape the exchange. The work of Jeremy Deller, Julia Darling and the Futurists inspired and enraged us.

Discussions around inequalities were explored through Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay, A Modest Proposal (1729) in which Swift in the guise of a well-meaning economist, suggests a vicious solution to attitudes towards poverty and the ‘cure-all’ solutions of governments – the poor can sell their children to nourish the wealthy and provide a range of leather goods. This work highlighted for those of us discussing the arts within the current ‘fiscal climate’, that regarding people as commodities and the reduction of all aspects of life to dispassionate statistics – was abhorrent.

So, we worked together, argued a little bit, reached some common ground and published our Manifesto for Arts and Health. And the responses were exciting, from poets and politicians, to activists and artists, people way beyond our region were keen to respond. From a young doctor in Mexico City to a street artist in Kabul, messages of support painted a global picture that echoed the political within the arts and health agenda, suggesting that both public health and the arts are inextricably bound up in politics, albeit with a smallish ‘p’.

From a policy perspective, Deputy Director for Equality and Heath Inequalities, NHS England, Ruth Passman, suggested that, ‘the manifesto supports us as policy makers and practitioners in exploring groundbreaking concepts of both ‘wellbeing’ and  ‘being ill better’. Former Chief Executive of Mersey Care NHS Trust, Alan Yates put it more succinctly proposing; ‘if the arts hadn’t been invented, we would now do so as a front line health service.’

Perhaps of all the feedback to the Manifesto, it was that of the artistic director of Australian community arts project KickStart Arts that best summed up what it was all about. Jami Bladel described it as ‘a love filled slap in the face of consumerist society. {…} It’s about Social justice, about joined up thinking, it’s about a courage we fear might not happen in our lifetime. {…} It is at once bleak and hopeful, a troubled text searching for answers, asking questions and promising nothing if we don’t start working (creatively) together. It is a starting point. It faces us towards the global revolution we simply can’t afford not to have.’

The Manifesto started a conversation that’s still continuing, and a conversation that doesn’t shy away from politics. Recently the network revisited the Manifesto, and there’s a maturation taking place. It feels like we’re breaking away from the traditional idea of arts and health – less focused on clinical settings, illness and disease and ‘happy-clappy’ evangelism – and more intellectually, viscerally and practically engaged in the inequalities agenda.

To counter age-old inequities, our aspirations includes an increased focus on children’s education and access to the arts, alongside health literacy – nurtured through passion and imagination. We lambasted the reductivist nature of much research in the field that continues to slavishly instrumentalise the arts in terms of its impact on disease and morbidity, and as a counter-blast, suggesting that pessimism may be an alternative to the cult of happiness, and is an appropriate healthy response to injustice.

Wellbeing needs to be understood in terms beyond selfish individualism and superficial happiness. Is our contemporary idea of wellness opposed to deep thinking and have we been hoodwinked to justify culture and the arts in the language of science and economics? Might our arts and health agenda just become a subservient tool of creeping political ideology? To avoid this, we need brave thinkers to step forward and challenge the status quo. Without placing democracy at the heart of our agenda, how can we reframe thinking around social, cultural and health inequalities? More than that, if we know that engagement in the arts has an influence on health – and we do know this – shouldn’t our priority be to ensure that the most profound and engaging art forms are available to the majority of people?

Public health is as much about imagination as evidence and the arts, in and of themselves, offer up responses to injustice and inequality, giving voice to people. The Manifesto for Arts and Health isn’t about quick fixes, or market-driven cost-effectiveness. It’s a manifestation of solidarity between those of us who see culture and the arts as being central to fulfilling our fundamental human rights and who believe that things can be different.

Clive Parkinson is the Director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University, a specialist research unit that explores the relationship between creativity, culture, the arts and public health. He works with partners in Italy, Lithuania, Turkey and the USA on a broad range of projects and since 2009 has supported the development of practice and research in Australia. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council he is working with colleagues across the UK on an interdisciplinary ‘Connected Communities’ research project, exploring the relationship between the visual arts and dementia friendly communities. Working with health professionals, artists and free thinkers, he has recently developed a Recoverist Manifesto with people in recovery from substance misuse and regularly blogs at http://artsforhealthmmu.blogspot.co.uk 


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Image shown: Clive Parkinson (shadow)

It feels like we’re breaking away from the traditional idea of arts and health – less focused on clinical settings, illness and disease and ‘happy-clappy’ evangelism - and more intellectually, viscerally and practically engaged in the inequalities agenda.


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