Wellbeing without art

January 17, 2012 by
Filed under: Arts and Society, Social Brain 

Wellbeing has become a hot political issue. Now it’s going to be measured, so that the nation’s wellbeing can be tracked along with more traditional economic measures of how society is doing. The Office for National Statistics is in charge of working out how best to measure it, which is no mean feat.

A set of proposed domains has been put together by the ONS and as part of a consultation exercise we all have the opportunity to respond. Yesterday, I received two emails from former colleagues who are heavily involved in arts for wellbeing, drawing attention to the fact that the proposed domains make no mention of the arts or creativity.  This is clearly a huge oversight, and leaves me slightly tempted to make dreadfully judgemental assumptions about the worldview of statisticians, but that would be short-sighted of me.

Art is the most important vehicle we have as a society to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and our place in the world.

Personally, I’ve always known, in an intuitive, guttural way, that the arts matter. Art is the most important vehicle we have as a society to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and our place in the world. Moments of celebration, bewilderment or desperation often only really make sense and come to take on their full meaning because we can connect to an artistic expression of what’s happening in our lives. Art brings things to the surface that nothing else can, whether it’s being moved to tears by a perfectly played piano, feeling the real meaning of war by looking at a painting, or laughing with liberated abandon when we recognise our own foibles in another’s artistic utterance.

Certainly, art helps us through. But that’s not to say it’s just a luxury. In my view it is a necessity. We need art in order to pose questions and propose solutions to them, to challenge, protest and defend. At the peak of an impassioned chat about what’s wrong with the world, a good friend of mine once said to me that ‘the true test of everything is the arts’. In these times of multiple crises, we need the arts more than ever, to help us understand problems and come up with solutions. It’s not just about wellbeing, it’s about survival.

We need art in order to pose questions and propose solutions to them, to challenge, protest and defend.

So, of course arts and creativity should be included in the ONS wellbeing domains. But, even assuming enough people say so in the consultation, we need to be clear that these new measures are only ever going to be capable of sketching the vaguest picture of where we are on the wellbeing spectrum.

I quite frequently get my knickers in a twist about the inherent problems of measuring things. If you ask people questions, they answer them, but there are lots of reasons why the answers often don’t really mean much: desirability bias (saying what you think you should say rather than what you really think), suggestivity (ask someone if something is dangerous and you’ve planted the seed that it might be) and reductiveness (with complex things like attitudes, or wellbeing, the answer is often ‘it depends’, which can’t be captured by the bipolar response scales favoured by statisticians).

One of the huge challenges facing the arts is the obsession our society has recently developed with having an evidence base for everything. You can only fund your interactive art workshop for, say, young people in care, if you can prove that it ‘works’, according to one arbitrarily defined ‘outcome measure’ or another. I passionately believe that we should take steps to ensure that the things we do with and for people are effective ways of doing what we’re trying to do, and in that sense I am a firm believer in evidence based practice. But, what constitutes good evidence is a crucial political question. In the case of what ‘counts’ as an indicator of wellbeing, the exclusion of the arts is one example of the injurious ways in which we can easily get it wrong.

Comments

  • Jonathanrowson

    Reminded me of Einstein’s quote: “Not everything that can be counted, counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” (or something like that)…Iain McGilchrist’s work hints at this kind of development becoming the norm- the need to make explicit, measurable etc….and what a disaster that is for the things that really matter to us.

  • Boz

    Measuring the immeasurable to fit humanity into boxes! Good to see game theory is alive an well…