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Home > Research Articles > Art's potent healing qualities offer prescription for a better world

Joyce Morgan

Friday, January 31, 2003

By Joyce Morgan

January 30 2003

Society would be healthier if we spent more on arts and less on medical care. It sounds more like the plea of an impoverished arts company rattling the funding tin than a comment from the august British Medical Journal.

But its editor, Richard Smith, argues that every country in the developing world is increasing its expenditure on health care in an "unwinnable battle against death, pain and sickness".

"More and more of life's processes and difficulties - birth, death, sexuality, ageing, unhappiness, tiredness, loneliness, perceived imperfections in our bodies - are being medicalised," says Smith.

Medicine cannot solve these problems, and treatments may be poisonous and disfiguring, he writes in an editorial.

"Worst of all, people are diverted from what may be much better ways to adjust to their problems. This is where the arts can help."

Art can teach people something useful about their pain. Smith advocated diverting some of Britain's health-care budget into the arts.

"If health is about adaptation, understanding and acceptance, then the arts may be more potent than anything medicine has to offer," he says.

His argument received a mixed response from Australian health and arts professionals.

Ian Hickie, the head of the depression initiative beyondblue, agrees the solution to many health issues lies not in better health care but in social engagement, including in the arts.

"You don't just deal with the problems just with having more doctors or health-care professionals," Hickie says. "But the danger from a medical health point of view is of trivialising and dismissing mental health as anxiety and just a normal part of everyday life."

The arts has long had a role in communicating notions of mental stress and consciousness.

"People talk about recapturing their identity through artistic expression - and not always in words, in visual arts, theatre and music - which can encourage re-engagement with the world," says Hickie.

"The world of the arts is a world of perception, and perception is so much interfered with by mental health problems. So the arts have always had a strong relationship with mental health and that's a legitimate and ongoing issue."

He does not believe arts and medical funding should be an either-or argument.

The Sydney Festival director, Brett Sheehy, would like to see art used more readily as therapy by medical institutions.

"The healthiest body in the world is diminished if the spirit is impoverished," says Sheehy.

He does not believe the arts should be funded at the expense of health. "But I do wish government would acknowledge what arts can do for social health."

The Australia Council's Jennifer Bott says the arts funding organisation is increasingly focusing on non-traditional areas, including connections between the arts and health.

The approach goes beyond seeing art simply as therapy, she says.

"When people think health they think music therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy. But this is quite different. These are about ... the links between healthy individuals and healthy communities and what the arts can do."

Research has shown that participation in the arts increases a person's sense of identity and connection and breaks down social isolation.

The council has contributed financially to an international conference on arts and health in Sydney next week.

The conference convener, Marily Cintra, said the nexus between the arts and health was increasingly recognised by practitioners in both fields.

The sessions at the Synergy: Arts, Health and Design World Symposium, which opens at the University of NSW on Monday, include the role of art in working with dementia and the effects of visual and performing arts in health care.