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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Not Having Sex in the Victorian Period

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Sarah Green joined the project in October 2017. Her work looks at sexual continence in the literature of the British Aesthetic and Decadent Movements.

If you don’t have sex, you will be better at something else.

My research is not, of course, concerned with the truth (or otherwise) of this premise (no, woman I sat next to on a train, I don’t know quite how one would ‘prove’ it, and no, man in the coffee queue, it isn’t how I wrote my doctoral thesis). I’m interested in its wide and continuing popularity as an idea; in the very different models of bodily function that have been used to justified it, in the range of political agendas that it has been made to serve, and in the surprisingly numerous groups that have adopted it in so many times and places, from athletes to yogis, psychoanalysts, and pornography addicts, to name just a few.

In the nineteenth century, this idea could be found in a wide variety of writing that dealt, however tangentially, with sexual health and well-being. My current work looks at its perhaps unexpected presence in Aesthetic and Decadent writing about the artistic or aesthetic life, and especially its association there with anxieties about how to be healthy and productive in an increasingly challenging modern environment, one full of distinctly un-artistic and potentially unhealthy dirt, noise, crowding, hurry, pressure and degeneration.

In the astonishingly varied and often contradictory world of Victorian sexual health, the question of whether not having sex was good or bad for you was especially fraught. There were plenty of voices ready to claim that celibacy was damaging to both physical and mental health, with grisly consequences like atrophy of the sexual organs and permanent impotence.

But proponents of the opposite view often drew on centuries of thinking about the body to claim that not having sex was not only harmless, but could actually be actively good for you. Their reasons were not always compatible or consistent: some stuck to the ancient Greek belief that semen (both male and female), if not evacuated, would be reabsorbed by the body and become nourishing, while others thought that the energy taken to make more semen took vital energy from other bodily functions. Still others pointed, as the Greeks had also, to the stress on nerves and the brain caused by orgasm.

Whatever the ostensible reason, the underlying logic was the same, that not having sex allowed one to reserve resources for some other purpose, whether simple physical health or more mental functions such as scholarly or artistic work. And formal medical writing was not the only place that this idea could be found. Towards the end of the century it could be found in quack pamphlets and adverts, advice books for young men, feminist writing, and literature of all kinds. It was an idea that popped up in the most surprising of places, like the training regimes of Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate rowers.

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In the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge rowers are said to have included sexual abstinence as part of their training regime.

When, for example, sexologist Havelock Ellis claims that ‘a high degree of energy, whether in athletics or in intellect or in sexual activity, is unfavourable to the display of energy in other directions’; when Baden-Powell says that a man’s retained semen ‘gives the vigour of manhood to his frame, and it builds up his nerves and courage’; and when Walter Pater writes that ‘a passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible world comes to one with a reinforced brilliance and relief’, they share a structure of thought even while their understandings of bodily function vary.

And it certainly hasn’t disappeared now, either; think of Dr Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, and his strange obsession with ‘precious bodily fluids’ and ‘loss of essence’. In today’s world, not having sex is as contentious as ever, as abstinence-only sex education, virginity pledges and purity rings rub shoulders with a growing recognition of asexuality as a sexual orientation. It is increasingly important that the history of not having sex is shown to be as variegated, rich, and complex as the history of having it.