More recently, a Western Australian study aimed to quantify the relationship between art and happiness in the general population. It concluded that people who had two hours a week of ‘arts engagement’ were much happier human beings, all other variables being taken into account. This two-hour period was called the ‘dose-response’ – in other words, the minimum ‘dose’ required for a positive effect.
‘It’s awesome,’ said Dr Christina Davies, who led the study. ‘If you break that down it’s only fifteen to twenty minutes a day. That is a colouring book. It’s easy to get that amount of art into your day.’ Art, she suggested, could be ‘prescribed’ to enhance the wellbeing of entire populations. So why not? Why not launch public health campaigns to make the population healthier by giving them more art? What is wrong with that?
There is, after all, a kernel of truth in this: art can be therapeutic. People who are engaged with art probably are happier. I’m all for everyone being happier. And I’ve seen how art can change lives – it opens worlds and possibilities, articulates difficult and complex truths, and liberates the mind from crushing social shackles.
But while it might be very restful to colour in pictures for fifteen minutes a day, that has as much to do with art as Soylent has to do with actual food. And art by ‘prescription’? That is one letter away from ‘proscription’. I worry about what might be made of this study, about the sidelining of art and artists into a substructure of the wellness industry. The disconsoling truth is that when art is absorbed into institutional structures, those aspects of it that matter the most tend to disappear altogether.
Look at the appropriation of ‘creativity’ by corporate culture. The ‘creative’ executive – according to Businessweek, the most desired quality in twenty-first-century business leaders – attends ‘creativity’ workshops to get in tune with his inner buzzwords. Often these are given cachet by museums or other arts organisations cashing in on the corporate dollar – in reality, it’s just How to Win Friends and Influence People with a new, grandiloquent vocabulary.
Corporate ‘creativity’ feeds parasitically on the perceived status of art – an aura of unconventional genius and inspiration – but refashions creativity itself to suit its own ends. Artists, after all, aren’t primarily interested in making money, but in making art. Arts practice, with its necessary failures and open exploration, is in fact completely antithetical to the aims of a corporation. This distorted notion of ‘creativity’ is then projected back on art itself. It’s depressing to see how artistic culture has embraced the language of the ‘artspreneur’, even as artists’ incomes wither on the vine.
From Alison Croggon’s “On art as therapy” in Overland.