Creative Health; or, what would Vernon Lee have to say to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing?

This post is contributed by Sarah Green.

‘The time has come to recognise the powerful contribution the arts can make to our health and wellbeing.’

Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, Short Report (July 2017)

It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week, and I’ve been looking back at the July 2017 Inquiry Report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (#ArtsHealthWellbeing). The report makes two interesting claims: that the arts could make a significant positive impact on public health and wellbeing, and that this impact needed to be made now to counteract the circumstances (stress, loneliness, aging populations, increasing numbers of people living with long-term conditions) of modern life.

My first thoughts were ‘what would Vernon Lee have made of all this?’ Perhaps this wouldn’t have been everyone’s primary reaction, but for anyone working on the connections between aesthetics – the study of art and beauty – and health in the late Nineteenth Century, the similarities are initially striking. Many late nineteenth-century aesthetes would have wholeheartedly concurred in both of these conclusions, and none more than Vernon Lee. Once again, what is now being presented as the newest thinking has historical roots in the nineteenth century.

Screen Shot 2018-05-23 at 16.03.30.png

Portrait of Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) by John Singer Sargent (1881) and Vernon Lee and C. Anstruther-Thomson, Beauty and Ugliness (1912)

Vernon Lee (the penname of Violet Paget, 1856-1935) was a prolific writer on art and aesthetics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and had a life-long interest in the healthiness of art. Like many others she was convinced that all art had a distinct and, she increasingly felt, directly observable effect on the body, and that our aesthetic responses were traceable to this impact. Her 1912 book Beauty and Ugliness, written with Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, recorded their joint efforts to identify the precise nature of these bodily responses, from changes in breathing, stance and heart rhythm to less easily described effects. Her essays on aesthetics, morality, and social questions frequently dwelt on the impact of art on health and what we would now call wellbeing, especially in an increasingly pressured and over-civilized world.

The 2017 Inquiry report, entitled Creative Health (online here) similarly finds that the arts have a (to a certain extent) measurable influence on the body, and therefore on both physical and mental health. But it is less interested than Lee in determining precisely why this should be the case. Its focus is on the practical application of this knowledge in a National Health Service struggling under the pressures of an ever expanding and aging population that suffers from an increased level of long-term health issues, including stress. ‘The evidence we present’, it claims, ‘shows how arts-based approaches can help people to stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life. We also show how arts interventions can save money and help staff in their work’.[1] It recommends a range of interventions, from group art therapies to museums on prescription.

So what would Lee have made of this? While it is likely that she would have concurred with the report’s broader claims and ambitions, even its plans to use art as generalised therapy, she would almost certainly have been distressed by its generous definition of ‘the arts’. Under this heading the report includes ‘the visual and performing arts, crafts, dance, film, literature, music and singing’, as well as gardening, cooking, attending concert halls, museums, galleries, theatres, heritage sites and libraries (whatever they contain), and the importance of built environments. ‘In this report’, it says, “the arts” is used as shorthand for everyday human creativity, rather than referring to a lofty activity which requires some sort of superior cultural intelligence to access’.[2] Creating or experiencing the arts are treated as the same kind of activity, regardless of what is created or what is experienced.

Lee would be the last to object to the grouping together of so many activities under one banner (her theories of art also encompassed visual art, music, literature, and sense of place). But she would surely have considered the report’s disinclination to distinguish good art from bad to be a public hazard. For Lee, if art’s effect on the body could be restorative and health giving, it could equally be damaging and dangerous. Good art, she wrote, was ‘fresh and wholesome food’ for body and soul, but bad art was ‘mere highly flavoured, spicy or nauseous drug-stuff’ (Child in the Vatican).[3] Beauty, she says in Beauty and Ugliness, is rightly ‘associated with all our notions of order, of goodness, of health, and of more complete life’, and ugliness ‘with everything by which the life of body and soul is diminished and jeopardised’ (30).[4] Careful education was required in order to discriminate between the two.

Lee was motivated by very nineteenth century concerns, not least the relationship between physical and moral health. But her example throws up interesting questions concerning the boundaries of ‘art’ and its impact upon wellbeing. Does everyone receive the same benefit from creating or experiencing art? Are these two activities as healthy as each other? Is Wagner as beneficial as Metallica, or does this differ from person to person? Does that benefit increase or decrease based on the person’s ideas concerning art? Can anything be done to increase one’s susceptibility to art, and if so, what? If these questions are difficult, perhaps impossible to answer, nevertheless the Report’s findings show the necessity of asking them.

I like to think that, despite concerns, Lee would have been especially cheered by the Report’s generous sense of ‘wellbeing’ as something that goes beyond, and yet includes and is profoundly affected by bodily health; and encouraged by its feeling that this cannot be achieved, either now or in the future, without working together as a community. ‘There is no life’, she writes, ‘a man may lead with one or two others which does not spread and affect the life of all and every one’.[5] The short report of the Inquiry ends with an appeal: ‘we ask all those who believe in the value of the arts for health and wellbeing to speak up’.[6] It is an appeal that Lee surely would have applauded.

[1] The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, Short Report (July 2017), 1, http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry.

[2] Creative Health, 4, 19.

[3] Vernon Lee, ‘The Child in the Vatican’, in Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (London: W. Satchell & Co., 1881), 17-48; 23.

[4] Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, Beauty and Ugliness, and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics (London: John Lane, 1912), 30.

[5] Vernon Lee, Althea: Dialogues on Aspirations and Duties (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co, 1894), 234.

[6] Creative Health, 11.

Advertisements

Dracula and Modern Life

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown, Dr Hosanna Krienke, and Dr Sarah Green recently led a post-performance panel discussion for Creation Theatre’s production of Dracula, which was staged at Blackwell’s Bookshop, using only two actors and innovative audiovisual effects. Here they each offer their thoughts on the performance, the panel discussion and the role of the vampire in channeling fears about modernity.

IMG_20180326_213829551_LL

Entering Blackwell’s bookshop after hours and descending into a basement surrounded by rows and rows of books, felt like the perfect start to Creation Theatre’s adaptation of Dracula. We were greeted with soft lighting and the sounds of Postmodern Jukebox—a band who reimagine popular songs as jazz covers, a clever nod to the rich sociocultural interlude that would connect the original 1897 text to its new 1950s setting.

The Vampire, Science, and Technology – Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

As I watched the play unfold, I was struck by the clever use of technology, not only because it made it possible to tell such a complex story with a cast of just two, but also because it felt true to the original text in which technology takes centre stage. The phonograph, telegraph, and railway are important structures of communication in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, coupled as they are with letters, diary entries, interviews, and newspaper articles that together form the story. This is called an epistolary narrative, a form that while seeming to build a tale through physical evidence, actually relies on a large amount of subjectivity, calling into question the authenticity of its multiple narrators. In this play, silhouettes, hand-held projectors, flashing lights, and disembodied audio, allow the audience to really feel Dracula’s presence without ever setting eyes on him, and in the process highlight the blurring between evidence and memory in very interesting and visual ways.

Both versions of Dracula embody anxieties about truth and superstition—what is real? What can be proved? At the end of Stoker’s novel Jonathan Harker writes:

‘It was almost impossible to believe that the things that we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths […] we were struck by the fact that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document.’

Such a preoccupation with authenticity speaks to the novel’s historical moment in which medical science was branching into multiple specialisms, empiricism and experiment were thriving scientific methods, and psychiatry was a nascent, but visible field of study. From the mid-nineteenth century, practitioners were attempting to pin down the dynamics of disease causation: were diseases internal or external? How were they transmitted? The microscope was steadily revealing the role of parasites and bacteria in the aetiologies of human illnesses and the vampire became a prime metaphor for the contagiousness, not just of illness, but also of transgressive ideas and behaviours. This certainly comes to the fore in Creation’s adaption, which is set, perhaps significantly, in a decade in which Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Such a discovery gave new credence to the power of scientific knowledge to explain the world, especially following the global destabilisation of two world wars and their legacies for many of PTSD.

But what happens when scientific knowledge fails? In the post-show discussion, the audience were keen to discuss what is and is not knowable. The vampire, they decided, continues to hold power in the popular imagination because of its intrinsically metaphoric nature, able to represent both the real and the imagined.

Vampirism as Madness – Dr Hosanna Krienke

Renfield is a crucial character for understanding Dracula, particularly in this adaptation, which distills the story down to a few key players. While story seems to be set up as a clear clash between regular humans vs. supernatural vampires, Renfield is an uncanny double for both sides. On the one hand, his seeming insanity is based on his attempts to consume the life force of lesser beings (spiders and, in one memorable scene, a sparrow) in order to become immortal. So in a sense he acts exactly like a vampire, albeit an infinitely unsexy one. But on the other hand, Renfield’s diagnosis does not clearly separate him from the other human characters. Seward declares that Renfield is a “Zoophagous”—a fancy medical term that only means he eats animals. He is carnivorous, like a lot of other humans.

So if Renfield is a weird doppelgänger of both humans and vampires, why is he in this story at all? Renfield’s presence emphasizes a pattern across the play: the experience of encountering a vampire is constantly portrayed as a kind of madness. Lucy, Harker, and even Mina start to distrust their own motivations and memories. In this production, the audience too gets to experience a kind of fractured existence as scenes bleed into each other and the actors transform into multiple characters. Ultimately, like Mina and Harker, the audience also cannot always string together everything we’ve witnessed into a tidy, rational narrative.

Today, we are quite used to the idea of the sexy, attractive vampire who is relatively little threat to humans. But this production retains some of the danger of the vampire through its portrayal of Renfield. Though Christopher York portrays Renfield for most of the play, [spoiler!] in a climactic moment Sophie Greenham (who until now has played the resolutely rational Mina and the scientist Seward) slips on Renfield’s distinctive skull cap and assumes his persona. The implication is clear: no one is left free from the taint of the vampire’s touch. So while Harker and Mina think that they are liberated at the end of the play, the actors’ shared portrayal of Renfield hints at a possible future in which they do not become superhuman vampires, but instead are institutionalized as lunatics.

The Vampire and Sexuality – Dr Sarah Green

Dracula has always offered rich pickings to historians of sexuality. This adaptation was no exception. Unlike the novel it centred mainly on Jonathan and Mina, and particularly on the non-consummation of their marriage after Jonathan’s traumatic encounters with female vampires at Castle Dracula. But what was really interesting was the change of time period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s – and what that did to the sexualities in question.

More than anything, the change allowed the introduction of a major figure who was writing in the 1890s, but only started to influence mainstream British culture in the 1920s: Sigmund Freud. The majority of Victorian readers would have shared the belief that excessive sex could be dangerous to the health, though they may have disagreed widely on how much exactly was too much. Dracula can be (and often is) read as a novel about sexual self-control, and the forces of destruction that can so easily be unleashed if that control is relinquished. The characters of this 1950s Dracula, however, have surely been influenced by Freud’s contention that it was precisely controlled or ‘repressed’ sexuality that was the damaging force. Their decision to embrace their vampire natures in an orgiastic embrace concluded a narrative that was more about finding a way to express sexuality than to control it.

But can the vampire ever represent a purely positive sexuality? In the discussion after the show, audience members asked what part horror played in this, and why it is only recent years that have seen the advent of the self-controlled and self-hating vampire (see Twilight and True Blood), who strives to control his or her violent nature. If this is the vampire of our time, what does it tell us about how sexual anxieties have changed since the 1950s?