Artists creating portraits of NHS workers. Grayson Perry’s community arts project. That Italian youth choir singing Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Helplessly Hoping. In these and myriad other ways, the arts and culture have been vital to the world’s sanity and emotional survival through the Covid-19 pandemic, giving us ways to express ourselves and to connect with others.
That the arts and culture should be so popular right now is the bitterest of ironies, as bricks and mortar theatres go into administration, small publishers collapse, and arts companies of many shapes and sizes wonder how or even if they’ll survive (ditto many individual artists, in all fields). Private foundations, NGOs and statutory funders are doing what they can to provide financial lifelines, but these are necessarily limited and temporary. With venues, galleries, studios, workspaces and workplaces scaling back their offer or closing altogether, and with funders and audiences stretched financially, where will the work come from?
One answer is emerging. Even before the pandemic, the social value of the arts and culture was increasingly viewed through the lens of wellbeing. The arts are a key component of the NHS’ social prescribing scheme, which uses the arts to support mental health and recovery and plans to dramatically ramp up its reach over the next few years. Arts-for-wellbeing programmes have rapidly emerged alongside or within education and outreach as standard offers from many arts and culture organisations. This wellbeing focus reaches right to the roots of our arts ‘ecosystem’: many of the arts teachers I work with said that they’d been put in charge of their school’s wellbeing plans solely because they are arts teachers, with the tacit conclusion that ‘the arts should be about feeling good,’ as one teacher told me.
None of this is surprising. Moving and making can create essential space for healing, reflection and connection: working through the body and heart can powerfully and uniquely help to unpick what’s on our minds. The arts aren’t the only road to wellbeing, but they do offer a clear and easily accessible direction of travel.
Given the title of this essay, it might seem that I am averse to wellbeing through the arts. That isn’t the case. My own company, Nimble Fish, has long worked with teachers and creative professionals to explore how to use writing, making, movement and drama to unlock and explore challenging, sometimes emotional issues; to find greater balance, and in doing so greater creative connection to the world. Wellbeing, however defined, is and always will be a valid use of the arts. That’s not my issue.
Instead, this essay’s title grows from a concern about the future: that in the altered world that will necessarily emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, wellbeing will be framed as the primary value for the arts and culture, thereby largely extending the role the arts have played during lockdown. This masks a deeper concern: that the arts and culture will become increasingly synonymous with ‘feeling good’, thereby shrinking the space for the arts as an essential tool for sharper-edged societal reflection and challenge.
During the pandemic, there has been a notable absence of art of any kind that has challenged the status quo of pandemic policy and social behaviour. This in itself isn’t unusual: writing about the impact of the Spanish Flu on the arts, Allison Meier described an absence of meaningful artistic expression about that pandemic, noting this was ‘especially surprising when the arts were in such an experimental phase.’ Artistic greats who survived the Spanish Flu – Virginia Woolf and Edvard Munch among them – had surprisingly little to say about it in their work, even though the pandemic killed up to 100 million people worldwide and was, in many ways, as defining an event as the First World War.
Today’s arts and culture sector – relying as it does on grants, commissions and ticketed footfall – is more intertwined with the media and consumer society than a century ago. In a sector battered by Covid-19, larger arts organisations may well retain their ability to mount or stage challenging work. However, deeper into the arts and culture ecosystem, smaller organisations and individual artists are more affected by buffeting financial currents, and there lurks the danger. In order to survive, work will be increasingly tailored to perceptions of what people and society ‘need’. And increasingly, the message is that people need wellbeing.
We shouldn’t ignore that need, but we must ensure that wellbeing doesn’t overwhelm the space – the ecosystem – for artistic work that shakes us up, makes us uncomfortable or even angry, and spurs us to debate our experience as individuals and as a society. The AIDS epidemic gave us Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Angels in America; the 2008 financial crisis gave us Lucy Prebble’s Enron. Beyond the global Covid-19 experience itself – surely powerful fuel for powerful art – there remain ongoing crises of civilisation that haunt our time, not least climate change and mass migration. We need the next Grapes of Wrath at least as much as TikTok dance crazes.
My concern may be premature, and I dearly hope that educators, funders and society will continue to support the arts and culture as both comfort and challenge. Wellbeing through the arts, yes. But not at any cost.
Nimble Fish specialises in cultural producing and arts-led training and development. They work in theatres and festivals, in schools and community settings.