Friday, December 18, 2009

Stop Measuring and Start Thinking

Stop Measuring and Start Thinking

I recently wrote a paper suggesting that the arts might just offer us the most potent means of questioning the grotesque market-driven society that we live in, a society that insists on measuring everything in terms of cost-benefit-analysis.

In this paper that will be published shortly, I suggested that the arts not only offer us a means of questioning the world, and imposing some sort of order on the chaos that surrounds us; but that popular culture too, offers a potent part to play in the arts/health agenda. For those of you interested in popular culture and public health I’d like to recommend the writing of Mark Burns and his Sex and Drugs and Rock and Health, which can be found at

Since the global downturn, lots of economists have been talking of creative approaches to their work; whatever that might mean. To be honest; it makes me slightly nervous. Consumerism, to which we’re all in some way addicted, has infected all aspects of society. In the art world itself, the hyper-inflated egos and prices associated particularly with ‘Brit Art’ reflects elitism, consumerism and our obsession with celebrity culture.

Over the past thirty years, market forces have been the governing philosophy of how we live our lives, and over the last 12 months we’ve seen how imposing market values on all elements of human life has terrible consequences. The impact of mental illness in dominant, unequal societies offer some stark financial facts, with doctors in England in 2005 writing 29 million prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs, costing over £400 million to the NHS 1 and in 2003, the USA spent more than $100 billion on mental health treatments. 2

Across the North West I’ve experienced some amazing practice in the arts and seen the impact participating can have on people and yet I’m constantly asked for hard unequivocal evidence as to its value. In his Reith Lectures for the BBC this year Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of Government, invites us to think of ourselves, less as consumers and more as citizens, and argues for politics of the common good where commodities of community, solidarity and trust are not commodities that deplete with use, like our finite environmental or economic resources, but are more like muscles, that grow stronger with exercise. These wonderful and relevant lectures can be listened to at

So, do we really need to weigh, measure and count everything we do to justify the arts?

After recently giving the paper in which I expanded on these themes, there followed a discussion that turned to the work I’m supporting around a National Forum for Arts and Health. This was about ‘strategy’ and ‘manifestos’ and I could feel the delegates’ eyes beginning to glaze.

Whatever statements and strategies we develop around the arts in relation to society and well-being, they’re going to date and stagnate on a thousand groaning shelves.

As a student, I always loved the pompous and extreme nature of artists’ manifestos (think Marinetti)…we have been discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing.’3

Perhaps when we look to manifestos and pamphleteering, we should take a slightly more provocative stance. I’d like to recommend two pieces of art that I put forward as manifestos in their own right.

The first is Jonathon Swift and his Modest Proposal,4 written in 1729. This was a stinging satire in the form of a pamphlet. In the guise of a well-intentioned economist, Swift proposed a solution to the poverty and inequity of the time, by suggesting the rich purchase and eat the children of the poor. Monstrous and politically loaded, this is as biting and as powerful as the written word gets. A manifesto? Perhaps not, but an artist at the height of his powers exploiting popular culture (pamphleteering) to attack and question the norms.

As a counter-blast to Swift’s, Modest Proposal, I’d like to offer Sam Taylor-Wood’s, Still Life5 , a 3 minute 44 second film. This film of a bowl of fruit slowly decomposing is very much in the lines of an elegant still life typical of 16th and 17th century painting of the Netherlands. As the fruit slowly transforms to a mass, a cheap and throwaway, plastic ballpoint pen in the foreground, remains static and unchanged

I urge you to try and see this work. There are 6 of them out there including one at Tate Modern. Of course youtube have a few, but they don’t do it justice. I shall leave you to form your own opinion of what the work’s about and what relevance it might have to our practice and the issues facing society. For me, this work speaks far more loudly than any strategy or conscious manifesto.

1. Hansard. Written answers to questions, (2005) 439:22 Nov. 2005: Column 1798w

2. Mark, T.L et al. Mental Health Treatment Expenditure Trends, 1986 – 2003, Psychiatric Services (2007) 58 (8): 1041 – 8.

3. F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909

4. A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.

5. Sam Taylor-Wood, Still Life, 2001, Edition of 6, 35 mm Film/DVD