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Why we need to recognise the full value of the arts and prioritise creativity

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Creative expression is food for the soul

What makes you feel alive? If you’re naturally creative, whether you’re an artist, an actor, musician, dancer, designer or writer, the need to create will undoubtedly be an integral part of your sense of self. Creativity is a form of self-expression, exploration and a powerful communication tool. The act of creation is freeing, it calms the mind and promotes positive wellbeing and as a result it can be a healthy means of escapism too.

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) report, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, investigated this topic; the findings showed that the arts can contribute to promoting positive mental health, whilst mitigating health inequalities, supporting the self-management of chronic and long-term conditions and healthy ageing too. The World Health Organization also published another report which confirmed that art and culture play an important role in nurturing mental health and wellbeing, during all stages of life. As the pandemic unfolded, this became even more apparent, on a global scale.

Artist at work
Artist at work

COVID-19 offered a deeper insight into how the arts support wellbeing

The lockdown during the pandemic gave us a much deeper insight into how the arts help individuals to cope, to heal and to remain positive during challenging times. Spirits were lifted during lockdown as creatives responded to the challenge by finding ways to keep people connected, during a period of uncertainty whilst families and friends were kept apart. Whilst the global population remained in isolation, many were inspired to get creative and participated in the likes of Grayson Perry’s Artclub, couch choirs, knitting and even baking, the need to create was no longer considered a luxury, it had become a necessity. In the U.K., children painted rainbows and posted their creations in the windows of their home as a sign of hope. Inspiring murals were painted by artists within local communities and many creatives used their talent to raise funds for NHS charities.

The pandemic also changed our ways of working practically overnight and our physical work location quickly merged with the spaces in which we ate, socialised and slept. Back to back video calls became the norm and it wasn’t long before ‘Zoom fatigue’ set in. During this always-on mode where the boundaries between our private and professional lives began to blur, creative expression also offered many people an opportunity to unwind. It’s no coincidence that the explosion in sales of mindful colouring books for adults in recent years coincided with the constant demands of the technological revolution and a workforce in pursuit of a digital detox.

COVID-19 accelerated the digital revolution and catapulted the national workforce into the future; as a result, the lockdown was also an opportunity for many to re-evaluate what is meaningful to them. As the pandemic unfolded, the focus of individuals shifted to look more closely at our basic needs; many people began to identify and focus on what adds true value to their lives and what is needed to live well. A recent YouGov poll indicated that the majority of the public in the U.K. want ministers to focus on improving health and wellbeing over economic growth. This has also been a collective goal on a global scale for some time, as the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were formulated under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs are the world’s most comprehensive way to achieve global sustainable development. Goal 3 of the SDGs is ‘good health and wellbeing’ and it was adopted to ensure healthy lives at all ages and promote wellbeing for all; since the start of the pandemic, the importance of SDG3 has intensified, as it will play a significant role in the global recovery from COVID-19. Whilst crises invariably prompt deep shifts, it became increasingly apparent that if we’re to build back better post-pandemic, protecting our physical and mental health needs to be at the forefront; creative expression plays a fundamental role in improving health and wellbeing, so shouldn’t be overlooked.

Pottery painting
Pottery painting

Building back better after the pandemic; should we prioritise wellbeing over GDP?

The negative impact on mental health following the COVID-19 lockdown has been widely documented. There’s undoubtedly an opportunity to reassess and rethink our conventional approaches and access to mental health services and consider how the arts could be used more frequently to enable people to manage their emotional wellbeing, by developing necessary coping skills.

Could we learn from the approach that other countries have adopted? Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, has long been a passionate advocate of the role of wellbeing through the arts. New Zealand was also the first western country to design its budget so that wellbeing was the central focus. In the wake of COVID-19, the New Zealand government increased its investment in its ‘Creatives in Schools’ programme, where experienced artists and creatives work with school children, to teach them how to express themselves creatively, with a clear focus on enhancing students’ wellbeing whilst improving their creative thinking, communication and collaboration skills.

“Arts and culture are central to the wellbeing of our communities.” Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Other countries are also starting to look at ways and means of building back better by ensuring that wellbeing is central. The Netherlands have embraced the notion that when you design society with health in mind, by shifting the focus from constant growth to balance and wellbeing, communities thrive. Post pandemic, Amsterdam will be the first city on the planet to commit to adopting the ‘doughnut economics model’. Designed by Oxford University economist Kate Raworth, the framework is a powerful tool that aims to create a fully circular economy, by meeting the core human needs of all people and supporting their wellbeing, whilst staying within and respecting our planetary boundaries. Whilst the doughnut model is comprised of many elements, the focus on transforming health and wellbeing can only be a positive move forward.

Looking ahead, creativity was recently ranked by the World Economic Forum as the third most important skill for the workplace. As technology such as artificial intelligence increasingly replaces manual labour, we need to foster creativity more than ever, as it differentiates human from machine and the creation of jobs to support our future workforce will also have an impact on our collective wellbeing in addition to supporting economic development.

We need to think differently, post-pandemic

If the arts are such a collective force for good to support our everyday wellbeing, then why do the arts continue to be viewed as a luxury, rather than a necessity? Should we be looking more deeply at the role that the arts can play in society and question where our focus lies, so the full value of the arts can be recognised? The arts and culture sector have undoubtedly faced the most challenging of times. It’s time to recognise that the arts have a powerful role to play in improving health and wellbeing, and it’s vital that we support the sector so that it can come back stronger than ever.

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