Friday, 18 December 2009

Stop Measuring and Start Thinking

Stop Measuring and Start Thinking

I recently wrote a paper suggesting that the arts might just offer us the most potent means of questioning the grotesque market-driven society that we live in, a society that insists on measuring everything in terms of cost-benefit-analysis.

In this paper that will be published shortly, I suggested that the arts not only offer us a means of questioning the world, and imposing some sort of order on the chaos that surrounds us; but that popular culture too, offers a potent part to play in the arts/health agenda. For those of you interested in popular culture and public health I’d like to recommend the writing of Mark Burns and his Sex and Drugs and Rock and Health, which can be found at

Since the global downturn, lots of economists have been talking of creative approaches to their work; whatever that might mean. To be honest; it makes me slightly nervous. Consumerism, to which we’re all in some way addicted, has infected all aspects of society. In the art world itself, the hyper-inflated egos and prices associated particularly with ‘Brit Art’ reflects elitism, consumerism and our obsession with celebrity culture.

Over the past thirty years, market forces have been the governing philosophy of how we live our lives, and over the last 12 months we’ve seen how imposing market values on all elements of human life has terrible consequences. The impact of mental illness in dominant, unequal societies offer some stark financial facts, with doctors in England in 2005 writing 29 million prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs, costing over £400 million to the NHS 1 and in 2003, the USA spent more than $100 billion on mental health treatments. 2

Across the North West I’ve experienced some amazing practice in the arts and seen the impact participating can have on people and yet I’m constantly asked for hard unequivocal evidence as to its value. In his Reith Lectures for the BBC this year Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of Government, invites us to think of ourselves, less as consumers and more as citizens, and argues for politics of the common good where commodities of community, solidarity and trust are not commodities that deplete with use, like our finite environmental or economic resources, but are more like muscles, that grow stronger with exercise. These wonderful and relevant lectures can be listened to at

So, do we really need to weigh, measure and count everything we do to justify the arts?

After recently giving the paper in which I expanded on these themes, there followed a discussion that turned to the work I’m supporting around a National Forum for Arts and Health. This was about ‘strategy’ and ‘manifestos’ and I could feel the delegates’ eyes beginning to glaze.

Whatever statements and strategies we develop around the arts in relation to society and well-being, they’re going to date and stagnate on a thousand groaning shelves.

As a student, I always loved the pompous and extreme nature of artists’ manifestos (think Marinetti)…we have been discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing.’3

Perhaps when we look to manifestos and pamphleteering, we should take a slightly more provocative stance. I’d like to recommend two pieces of art that I put forward as manifestos in their own right.

The first is Jonathon Swift and his Modest Proposal,4 written in 1729. This was a stinging satire in the form of a pamphlet. In the guise of a well-intentioned economist, Swift proposed a solution to the poverty and inequity of the time, by suggesting the rich purchase and eat the children of the poor. Monstrous and politically loaded, this is as biting and as powerful as the written word gets. A manifesto? Perhaps not, but an artist at the height of his powers exploiting popular culture (pamphleteering) to attack and question the norms.

As a counter-blast to Swift’s, Modest Proposal, I’d like to offer Sam Taylor-Wood’s, Still Life5 , a 3 minute 44 second film. This film of a bowl of fruit slowly decomposing is very much in the lines of an elegant still life typical of 16th and 17th century painting of the Netherlands. As the fruit slowly transforms to a mass, a cheap and throwaway, plastic ballpoint pen in the foreground, remains static and unchanged

I urge you to try and see this work. There are 6 of them out there including one at Tate Modern. Of course youtube have a few, but they don’t do it justice. I shall leave you to form your own opinion of what the work’s about and what relevance it might have to our practice and the issues facing society. For me, this work speaks far more loudly than any strategy or conscious manifesto.

1. Hansard. Written answers to questions, (2005) 439:22 Nov. 2005: Column 1798w

2. Mark, T.L et al. Mental Health Treatment Expenditure Trends, 1986 – 2003, Psychiatric Services (2007) 58 (8): 1041 – 8.

3. F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909

4. A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.

5. Sam Taylor-Wood, Still Life, 2001, Edition of 6, 35 mm Film/DVD


  1. Comment by Jim Aulich 17 hours ago

    Comment with apologies to Alex Danchev, biographer, writer on art and politics

    I’ve been delving into Alex Danchev’s most recent book on those most fashionable of subjects: art, war and terror. His observations on art struck me like an accidental meeting with an old and neglected friend. They raised the question of what we might set store in a school for art. The answers are age old but seem oddly pretentious in a climate where the discourses of art and design are drowned out by institutional discourses of finance, space and employability, for example. Danchev quotes from the 16th century essayist and statesman, Michel de Montaigne, to remind us that governments and their policies have long sat in a difficult relation with even more stubborn values that make us human and give us our humanity. Why else do we read books, look at art and listen to music? Is it just to be entertained or distracted? If we strive to be a school for art and to take art seriously then we are here to transcend the limitations of this diseased instrumentality through the imagination. What does art do? What is it for? I’m certain art did not and does not exist only as a preparation for the ‘real’ world of work where everything that we are, or can become, is determined by meagre market economics. The most technical of modernists began from the premise that art and design aimed for the improvement of life. The 20th century may have seen the end of the grand narratives of the enlightenment, but even in the 21st, it is a commonplace for successful artists of every complexion that imaginative transformation is the mechanism for understanding the world more fully and to grasp its complexities more strongly. Danchev uses the words redress and reconciliation in connection with a humanistic and traditional definition where art contains the promise of something better and simultaneously draws attention to human frailties, shortcomings and suffering. Through imagination art permits us to re-describe ourselves ethically, to make us more aware of who and what we are. Even in its uselessness, art has significance. it has an impact on our emotions, and plays with us affectively. Intellectually, it makes us think, re-imagine and revise our familiar positions. Art transgresses, transforms and transcends. In conspiratorial alliance poetic and practical knowledge produces vision and insight and by means of analysis, art and scholarship proceed hand in hand.

  2. Mike White says...

    Part 1 of two blog posts

    The single greatest determinate of health is the extent to which we are socially connected and the trouble with purely evidence based points of view are that they are looking at only assessing the efficacy of arts as a form of treatment. They are blind to a wider range of benefits. The Wanless review (2001) of future NHS spending determined that the overall impact of our clinical health services on all of the population amounts to at best one fifth. But public health needs significant levels of investment if we are going to achieve Government targets around the health of the population by 2020. What should be focusing our attention is the clear correlation between income inequality and health inequality. Societies that have a steep gradient between the rich and the poor also have high extremes in terms of the overall health profile of the population. I think that work addressing health inequalities has brought out the complexities inherent in how you attempt to do just that, and it has also accentuated the degree that income inequalities are the root of all of our problems. It is now getting to a point that certain people involved in health economics are arguing that actually all of our spending on our health services is doing nothing to turn around the overall health profile of our population. Unless we are dealing with the reality of poverty and income disparities we can do very little. There are also very interesting arguments that suggest that a lot of the ills of our society are generated within our culture and therefore we need to get into the culture and identify the benefits from cultural participation in order to change things around.

    I think the secret is to not look at arts as something delivered exclusively by an artist or by an arts organisation. It happens best when it comes out of a dialogue between different sectors and we need this hybrid way of working to develop. I think that the crucial connections are between the art, health, education and local government sectors and it is entirely through the partnerships of those sectors that we are going to get a form of practice articulated that is supportive of this work, helping it develop and also identifying what the best venues and situations are for the public as a whole to engage with the arts. Personally I would like to see what we would normally understand as a library, a health centre and an arts centre coexisting in the same building or space. Healthy living centres were a first attempt to try and articulate those kinds of relationships. We need to move away from the monolithic approach to health care spaces to looking at spaces which are much more hybrid and much more interconnected. I don't think that the arts are simply an add-on to healthcare. I think by the very nature of what they do they are in the business of public health and wellbeing. Arts participation can do a very significant thing - it can identify a problem and it can start to address it at the very same time. I can't think of other interventions that can quite do that - arts have that unique quality.

  3. Mike White continues...

    Part 2 of two blog posts

    The main focus in the next decade will be in the area of mental health. The World Health Organisation predicts that in ten years time mental ill health will be the second greatest cause of morbidity in populations within advanced economies, second only to heart disease. We have a growing epidemic of distress. The London School of Economics made the case to Government a few years ago that there should be ten thousand more trained cognitive therapists in the country. Depression affects one in three of the population at some time in their lives and yet only two percent of the national health budget is spent on interventions for depression. We have to start shifting the balance towards addressing these insidious and often invisible illnesses which impact upon our society. They impact upon our ability to be a well functioning society, on our economy through lost hours of work, and they raise serious moral questions as to whether we are heading in the right direction as a society. What is it that is causing increasing numbers of the population to succumb to stress? I think that the most significant statistic in the last ten years is that two years ago urban dwellers became the majority of the world's population. Here we are, piling ourselves into towns and cities, generating more heat, competing for resources and succumbing increasingly to the stress levels that that this places upon us. All of our problems are interconnected and I think that an important way of finding a solution to such complex interrelated problems is to look at what we can shift within our culture to help us to address this and live better lives that will impact on our relationships and on our environment. This is why increasingly I'm seeing arts in health as being a global phenomenon. I have had the opportunity in recent years to visit a number of countries across the world to see how this area of work is being articulated and developed and it's interesting that participants say very similar things about the perceived benefits. There is also a commonality in terms of identifying the key issues that aid or hinder the development. I think the more that the value of arts is perceived in looking at a whole range of social problems the better. My fear is that sometimes the larger agencies like the health sector or local government want to see the arts as instrumental solutions to problems - turning the arts in to 'social elastoplasts'. I think we have to recognise that these are medium to long term approaches that require the arts to be placed alongside and integrated with a range of other interventions. Don't just look to art alone to somehow have a magic solution as it would be foolish to think that it has. It would be even more foolish to try and prove it.

  4. "the crucial connections are between the art, health, education and local government sectors and it is entirely through the partnerships of those sectors that we are going to get a form of practice articulated that is supportive of this work, helping it develop and also identifying what the best venues and situations are for the public as a whole to engage with the arts"...
    sorry, mike, but i think this is complete nonsense. operating through these existing institutions is doomed to failure because all these organisations have been co-opted by corporate and government cultures which have a single vested interest in maintaining a status quo established so impressively over the last 50 years to maintain the population as unquestioning consumers. in health as in most other areas of human experience, art is one of the few genuinely subversive activities which Can threaten the hegemonic elites, but we should be operating in small effective groups independently of insitutions; the personal event can have a profound psychological impact in ways the application of policy cannot.

  5. I'm a 'do'-er not a policy maker and so my comments are based in the reality of seeing projects happen and grow at a local level ( my perception of the posts so far is of the more abstract, philosphical/policy based arguments). I wanted to disagree that art should not tangle with the institutions of education, health and government. Certainly at a ground level - where participation actually happens - its exactly those sort of links that take an excellent creative project out further into the world. the arts practice itself delivers the impact to the population thats directly involved; the links to health centres and local govt are the opportunities that lead to transforming health, education and social regeneration from the ground upwards. Bromley By Bow centre is an excellent example - they didn't wait around for someone to craft a govt policy to start their work - it was a meeting of community, church, GP's and artists. to subtract any of those elements from the extraordinary work their doing now would be to vastly reduce the impact of the work. I completely agree that being forced to justify the subjective, intangible and individual response to arts activity as a number, a value, a price is wrong, but continuiing to mark out some imaginary line between Art and the institutions that shape our community is to cut off opportunity. Surely the essence of being 'subversive' is to get to know something from the inside in order to expose it and create a change? If policy making is conducted in a stuffy, detatched enivronment, driven by number crunchers defending the public cheque book then yes it does fail. But get on side and prove that another way works and rewrite that policy. the role of the arts is not only to deliver the health improvement projects it needs to educate and expand the minds of people who are stuck, institutionalised and lacking in vision - part of that means getting to grips with the current framework and then demonstrating how it can bend, change shape and become something new.
    Perhaps what's missing from Mike's statement about " art, health, education and local government sectors " being the key partnerships is 'the public/people'. We must stop assuming that institutions are the ones to decide on our behalfs.

  6. Just to say to comments were in a two-part blog, and if you read the second part you'll see I added an important caveat for the development of multi-sectoral partnerships that I think shares some of your concern, though I still hold that we need interdisciplinary dialogue not subversion as a basis for effective practice.