As a teenager I used to have a poster on my wall which said, in big, purple letters, ‘Imagine a world without the Arts’. To the right of the heading and below it lay a smattering of other words, a kaleidoscope of fonts spelling out opera, drama, portrait…soul.
The poster hung right above my desk, and my eyes invariably strayed to it as I pored over endless calculus, physics and chemistry. Back then, I was on a path to engineering (or medicine, or dentistry or anything else that my parents deemed to lead to a ‘proper’ job). I’d read the purple words, and try to imagine, and know that I couldn’t. At the time, the ‘real, important subjects’ got my attention; I was never really encouraged to see art or literature as anything more than a hobby. But then I found myself on an interschool art camp in the Pilbara and, upon my return, the lure of the poster won: I ended up enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts course.
Admittedly, the majors which eventually constituted my degree – Psychology and Economics – could just vaguely be tagged as ‘humanities’. To actually place them into the category of Arts would take some argument, possibly even one assisted by the sweet smelling substance so prevalent around the Arts buildings at uni. Still, I am an Arts lover, and it is the Arts, not reason, which saw me through the difficult times in my life.
There was a period, several years ago, when my husband was very ill and needed to spend much time in hospital. Around the same time, my eldest son had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and commenced intensive therapy. For me, this meant a lot of time waiting; waiting for appointments, waiting for results, waiting for one or another treatment session to start or to finish. Reading was always a wonderful diversion, but it could only go that far, so I decided to try and make a quilt instead. And I did – a beautiful quilt, covered by extensive appliqué which took a full year to complete. It now hangs in my hallway, covered by a multitude of dirty handprints, a precious item I can never see myself getting rid of.
It was the quilt that made me realise that it’s impossible to have dark thoughts when engaged in the creative process. Neuroscientists can no doubt explain the particular sort of alchemy that takes place inside one’s head when creativity takes hold. I am not sure if I need an explanation though. For me, art is simply good for the soul. There is something inherently positive, relaxing and life-affirming about art-making, in all its various forms, even if the final product represents a negative experience. I would imagine that this is at least part of the reason why art therapy works.
There is a growing body of research which suggests that engagement in creative and cultural activities has a positive and long lasting effect both on whole communities and on individuals, in particular those who fall into some of the marginalised groups, such as dementia patients, the disabled, or child and adult victims of abuse.
Alas, the very same cultural activities are rarely truly free, whether one wishes to participate or spectate. Public Arts programs are often the first to get the chop during budget reviews, and dance classes, music lessons, art materials and theatre tickets can add up to serious dollars. What’s more, enabling the disadvantaged members of our society access to Arts activities is a task which often befalls their community carers – carers who are often already under-funded, over-tired and over-extended. They simply lack the time, money and energy to help others participate, let alone participate themselves.
It is sobering to think that for so many, theatre, concerts and exhibitions are a rare treat. What a shame that, while some of us sit back and imagine a world without the Arts, others are living it. And how very, very sad, that those are the people who may well need Arts the most.