At a conference in Sydney last week, I was able to catch up a little on current thinking in arts and health, a field I’ve been interested in since the 1980s, though from a participatory arts perspective rather than a therapeutic one. Arts and health has become much more accepted over those years, partly because of cultural changes and partly because of a growing body of evidence of the arts’ effectiveness in supporting wellbeing – most recently described in the All Party Parliamentary Group Report.
Arts programmes are now quite common in health services, especially in community settings and public health. The Australian conference included fascinating presentations about arts on prescription, projects in mental health services and addiction, music in residential care, immunisation campaigns, theatre with veterans and much more. Speakers reported findings about the positive health outcomes of work they’d undertaken or researched, and there were some inspiring case studies.
Listening to those presentations, I found myself reflecting on a question that has long preoccupied me: what does an artist need to know about the people they are working with? In community contexts, where anyone is welcome to join in, the answer is straightforward: nothing. In such situations, everyone – including the artist – can share what they choose about themselves. But I’ve also worked in hospitals, prisons, schools, mental health services and residential care centres, and there the rules are much more complex. To take an obvious example, a dancer ought to be aware of physical conditions that might be exacerbated through movement. But is that more than professional competence? It is not necessary to have specific knowledge of individuals to devise a dance workshop suitable for people in their sixties – although such knowledge might be valuable in some circumstances.
None of this is simple. Some conference presenters, perhaps because their perspective was medical, seemed to expect that an artist should know as much as possible about the people with whom they’re working because that would enable them to devise appropriate interventions and keep people safe. I understand the reasoning and share it to some extent – especially if the work has a therapeutic intent. Still, I have two reservations, one human and the other philosophical.
The first is simply that creative disruption can be such a valuable outcome of a good artistic intervention. People who spend a lot of time together – teachers and children, care staff and residents, prison officers and inmates – often fall into mutually reinforcing patterns of behaviour. A child who is seen as shy can start to fulfil that expectation, and in doing so reinforce the view that she is shy. When an artist meeting her for the first time asks her to take centre stage, she may happily do so because there is a new expectation that she will. Through such human experiences, and the different doors opened by artistic work, people can discover unexpected capacities in themselves. Relationships that have become rigid with familiarity are recast and people liberated from patterns that no longer serve them well. It’s not that artists have special insights, though sometimes they do. It’s simply that, knowing nothing about the people they are working with other than what they find in the moment, they bring a gift of openness to everyone in the room. They create the possibility of not being yourself (whatever you think that is) for a while or, perhaps, for good.
When I worked regularly with prisoners or people with mental health problems, I wanted to be one of the few people they met who did not know their history. If they knew I did not know, we could both choose what to tell each other about ourselves. We were, within the limits of the situation itself, on a more or less equal footing.
And that is the other reason for my reluctance to know more about others than is absolutely necessary to act safely. It is very hard to achieve any real equality between people who have unequal knowledge of each other. When one person has been told personal, even private things about another, even with the best intentions, the relationship is changed. It is hard not to start thinking that you know what will be good for them – especially in a context determined by medical intervention. I don’t mean to rule out such therapeutic approaches: on the contrary, I’m certain that in the right circumstances they can be literally life-saving. But it is different to the rights-based approach to participatory art within which I have always tried to work. There, I need to know only what the other person wants to tell me.