Sunday, 17 May 2015

…what's in a name change?

So what’s all this eh? A change to the advertised programme? Nothing to worry about - I assure you, but this North West Arts and Health Network is having a moment or so to reboot, get its house in order, evaluate where it’s at and clean out the cupboards. There’s been something rank in the air this past few weeks - fermenting for some time - and it’s time to examine just where things are in this arts and health cyberspace.

Last week I threw out a question about the future of this blog to anyone passing by this space, and of the 3480 visits of five minutes or more last week, 38 people responded to my call for help. Ahhh 1.09% of the readers - quality not quantity! Thank you - you know who you are. Now if this were an electoral system, I’ve no idea where I’d stand - but it’s not - so when I asked for opinions on polemic, funding and the like, a staggering 98% of those who responded were crying out for opinion, passion and just a little bile, (whilst keeping a modicum of utilitarian servicing for the communities needs)! So the die is cast. The fact that 1.09% of you made the effort to even email, thrills me. Thank you. 

So with our Manifesto for Arts & Health and thoughts from the Chaos & Comfort event firmly in mind, we move forward as a free-state of like-minded people, driven by a belief that the arts offer something more than a life-enhancing elixir for the drones of aesthetic consumerism. Inequalities are endemic and set to widen, and those with the least access to the arts, are more often than not the same people trapped by poverty, marketed the cheap salt/fat/sugar mix that’s branded as food, let down by systems set up to blame and shame them, all the while being told to spend-spend-spend. 

66% of the population turned out to vote in this years elections, compared to just under 84% in the period just after the Welfare State was formed. More people than ever are confused by the electoral system and whilst the governments new cabinet has been given a blue-rinse of ethnic and gender diversity, the signs for both culture and health, look bleak. Prepare to face challenging times! Cultural commentator Dave O’Brien, offers some considered words of caution, worryingly suggesting ‘...the more culture depends on markets and philanthropy the less any democratic political agendas can be influential.’ With the enviable cuts to arts spending however, he notes, ‘arts and health will be a crucial area of work for many regional cultural organisations, based on extra funding and the belief in the power of the arts to impact on wellbeing.’

The language of philanthropy, business and entrepreneurship surrounds us and is synonymous with the market, hell-bent on reducing our work even further, pursuing evidence solely in terms of financial worth. Politicians and the free-marketeers of arts/health seem divorced from any higher vision for culture and the arts in terms of civic society, connectivity and inclusivity. In terms of the social determinants of health and cultural engagement, the next five years are critical to us. Perhaps too, we should be more nuanced in our own understanding of health? In our rush to get any funding going, to prove our worth in terms of ambiguous notions of wellbeing, we may be missing the boat? After all, our work is about society - both locally and globally - and I hope, ensuring we all live by the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Culture and the arts are only one part of that bigger agenda, but a significant part, spanning ages, contexts, peoples and places. If our work engages people in some sense of civic society and the politics of the common good, and if we can engage people creatively in a range of democratic process’s from taking to the streets, to casting their votes, then maybe by 2020 and beyond, people may be more inclined to be politically engaged and take control of the future of education, health and culture. In a recent book review, playwright David Edgar describes how culture and the arts widen our horizons, expand our perceptions, they excite, thrill and horrify us, providing us with a collective experience that “increases mutual tolerance, encourages cooperation and engenders trust”.

The election special a few weeks ago on this blog, shared some aspirations for 2020, so I’m asking an artist to draw up those thoughts from Chaos & Comfort, and present them in a way we can almost look at as a Post-Manifesto action plan for SOCIETY 2020+, both through its shared vision and aspiration, and through ongoing proactive, collective endeavours. In some ways this is about our dear old North West Arts & Health Network, but in others, it’s building bridges with those who make up this international community and who aspire to being a springboard for political renewal. Grounded in solidarity, surely our free-state, or republic is all about cultural and social change?

(All the jobs, grants, events and other sundry items, will be here just as expected next week and onwards)

All images are by Peter Kennard whose work is on show at the Imperial War Museum.                      .    

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