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.

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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.

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