Speech given at Go Arts annual gathering, Antigonish, 2015

Arts & Health

Art and health— a subject that has been dear to my heart for 25 years. I may be preaching to the choir, but does anyone here seriously doubt that art is good for you? Now, Minoli has given me 6 minutes to talk about this, so what I’m not going to do is deluge you with data. Suffice to say, I wrote this book, “Illness and the art of Creative Self-Expression”, 15 years ago and back then there was already a ton of data showing that art – in any form and whether pursued passively or, better, actively, is good for your health.

And I mean both qualitative and quantitative data; quantitative being that time-honoured tool of our medical profession, the RCT—the randomized controlled trial. I’m a great believer in numbers—statistics that tell us one drug is better than another or than no drug.

But, as Einstein said, not everything that counts can be counted. And I’m glad to report that there’s a fast-growing recognition of the importance of qualitative—better, arts-based—research in exploring the use of art in the setting of all kinds of illnesses and disabilities. But the mission of Arts Health Antigonish (AHA!) is to foster creative expression for community health. Note we stress health, and community. I believe art can lead the way to creating not just healthier individuals but healthier communities.

The easiest way to think about quantitative and qualitative evidence is to recognize there is scientific, statistically measurable knowledge, and there is aesthetic and experiential knowledge. And that these are two complementary epistemologies, they don’t represent an either-or dichotomy.

Thinking of the balance between art and science, so essential I believe in our modern culture, Mi’Kmaq Elders, Murdena and Albert Marshall, who have received honorary doctorates at Cape Breton University for their work, put it this way. They developed the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing: “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing… and learning to use both these eyes together.

We are hard wired to make art. From the moment of our birth, perhaps before. Having spent 40 years of my professional life around children, I feel like I learned everything I know from them; children, as Anna Freud said, can survive any amount of training. Developmental anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake speaks of the multimedia duet that takes place spontaneously between mother and newborn infant, a instinctive aesthetic mix of talk and song and dance. Picasso asserted that every child is an artist, but the problem is how to stay an artist when you grow up.

Self-expression and story-telling are human universals, as another anthropologist, Donal Brown, has shown. Every culture throughout history has made art. 100%—a pretty compelling statistic, don’t you think, for humanity’s recognition of its vital importance to our health. It’s a basic human need—the need to create symbols and rituals, to communicate and express ourselves across cultures. Art-making not only helps us feel better, it helps us think better, more clearly, more effectively. Such a crying shame it plays such a small part in our education system.

John Stone, the late cardiologist and poet wrote the poem, “Gaudeamus Igitur” (Let us therefore rejoice), which he liked to use at medical student commencements. It contains these lines: “For there will be the arts and some will call them soft data whereas in fact they are the hard data by which our lives are lived.”

For me, these are indeed words to live by. As Dostoevsky said, beauty will save the world. And he was echoing the words of the 12th century Sufi poet Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”