There is a wealth of data, strategy documents and rhetoric out there which make the case that participating in, or experiencing, arts practice, is good for one’s health and wellbeing. This ‘good’ is frequently expressed in psychological terms, in social terms and of course with the usual economic justifications somewhere, sotto voce, off-stage. It seems that there’s nothing that a good dose of arts workshop, performance, practice or building can’t fix – or at least ameliorate – these days.
But is there a risk that in promoting this all-encompassing goodness of the arts that we risk exaggerating and glorifying what effects they can achieve? Our ever-increasing instrumentalisation of the arts might be good for the arts economy but is it good for the arts? And actually is it all that good for us?
Lets face it, if we break a leg, we go to hospital, we don’t go to see the local choreographer and ask them to repair the bones and ligaments. If we need come root canal work done, chances are we’d rather have an injection of some rather powerful lignocaine in our gums rather than opt for the opportunity to sing away the pain.
Perhaps the best we can say is that the arts don’t actually do us any harm and that after a broken leg or that excruciating root canal work the best thing we can do is read some poetry or listen to some Beethoven whilst we keep taking the Neurofen.
But perhaps not. Perhaps there’s a possibility that drama work we so fond of might actually be damaging our mental health. Perhaps learning the guitar is tantamount to smoking 5 cigarettes a day. Perhaps the choir we joined is actually increasing infection rates of airborne diseases by factors which we can only wildly guess at the moment.
These are possibly quite preposterous suggestions and the evidence, strategies and rhetoric will flatten them in the matter of seconds. But perhaps not: there might well be a nasty surprise in the middle of all that goodness which will come out to bite us when we’re least expecting it.