Art for arts' sake

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on the wider benefits of creativity for education, health and well-being

When Maria Miller made her first major speech on the arts recently she concentrated on the economic benefits which could accrue to the nation from our arts community. She was quoted as saying that the arts should “demonstrate the healthy dividends that our investment continues to pay”. In other words, they have to keep making a profit. 

Labour of course, has long recognised the economic contribution that art and culture can make, and the very phrase ‘creative industries’ was first adopted in 1997, by the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith, to highlight this fact.

There is flawed thinking at the heart of Maria Miller’s thinking. If we start from a position that we will only invest in arts that are guaranteed to make a profit, we will damage the very innovation and creativity that underpins our global reputation for excellence. This is why I have initiated a debate on the arts in the Lords (taking place later today). I want to highlight the wider contribution the arts make not only to our education, health and emotional wellbeing but to our wider civilisation. 

Ultimately, art should be valued for its own sake.

At a time of economic depression this is a harder argument to make, but no less valid. We have to be more imaginative about how we measure the impact that the arts has on our lives as individuals and as a society.

That challenge is already being taken up. The National Alliance for Arts Health and Wellbeing, supported by the Arts Council, is drawing together the evidence of the positive effects of the arts on health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, there is research showing, for example, that singing affects the hormones that facilitate emotional balance; music provided in cardiovascular units leads to improved blood pressure and heart rate; and patients given access to art and music on trauma wards stayed in hospital a day less.

A recent large scale study in Norway also showed that visits to the theatre, concerts, art galleries and museums resulted in better health and wellbeing. The more often people participated, the greater the health benefits.

Similar benefits have been identified in education. The Henley Review of Cultural Education showed that young people involved in the arts at school also performed better in other subjects. It also quoted a major US survey which concluded that ‘Students with high involvement in the arts, including minority and low income students, performed better in school, and stayed on longer, than students with low involvement’.  This is why there is continued frustration at Michael Gove’s failure to embrace the value of an arts rich curriculum. Increasingly, it seems his strategy is to take creative learning out of mainstream education and focus it on extra curricula activities instead.

So, despite the increasing evidence of the wider benefits of the arts and creativity, we find ourselves forced to keep making the case for its impact on our quality of life, improved health outcomes and contribution to our success as a nation. Ultimately one thing is clear, if we follow Maria Miller’s advice and are always looking over our shoulder at balance sheets to justify arts expenditure we risk losing the essence of what makes the UK such a special place to live. 

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Labour Peer, and a member of the Shadow DCMS and Education teams

Published 25th July 2013

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