Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Potter v Murdoch; the Numinous; Networking Event; Arts and Mental Health diary date; BBC Radio 4 and Open Public Services

Some of you may have heard me give a full version of my paper on the Big Society: Arts, Health and Well-being at the nalgao conference last year. In my presentation, I gave an account of the interview between the terminally-ill playwright Dennis Potter and Melvyn Bragg. I share this clip with you in light of the controversy over News Corp and the phone hacking ‘scandal’ (does it really surprise you?)and to remind us that Potter’s ideas are as relevant now as they were then.

Sveiki atvykę - mūsų skaitytojams Lietuvoje (Thanks to S)

A few months ago I heard the term numinous used in relation to nature and the arts; in particular as a way of describing that feeling we sometimes get when we’re moved by something that blows our minds, or in some way fills us full of awe. This sensation, which I’d suggest doesn’t happen often, when it does, is like really seeing something remarkable for the first time. It could be the beauty of a landscape that’s transformed by the right conditions (think: a giant silver ball of a moon; a cornfield gently swaying on the warmest of breezes; all the wonderful insect sounds of a mid-summers starry night, and the cool hand of someone you love in yours)1…or equally, that feeling of sheer exhilaration when you are immersed deeply in the climactic moment of a book, a film or a play when, oblivious to all others, a tear of pure tragedy or joy escapes your normally retentive eyes: symphonic bliss!

Sadly, this feeling escapes me all too often, and surrounded as I am by the trappings of consumerist superficiality, I frequently miss this temporal euphoria or sometimes, transient fear.2

In an engaging film of an un-moderated 2-hour discussion, Richard Dawkins and others debate, amongst other things, the possibility of differentiating the numinous from the supernatural and reclaiming it from its religious roots. This thing we feel, the sublime moment that exposes us to our sense of being, is typically seen as a gift from God. The twentieth century theologian Rudolf Otto divided the numinous into two parts: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.

Contemporary definitions define the numinous in relationship to a supernatural presence; the sublime; spiritual; sacred and transcendent. But if we are to understand the numinous in relation to the individual, isn’t it useful to separate the supernatural from the numinous? Is religion the only way of making sense of these rare and heightened moments?

Might it be that this experience is simply part of our neurology? –and if it is a heady mix of the social and the chemical, does removal of the supernatural diminish the meaning? I’m sure those of you who have dabbled in the illicit intoxicating world of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide may have an understanding of the chemically induced version of the numinous, as will those of you who have for other reasons, a fluctuation in your chemical balance. I think here, of our sometime giants of the arts world, who have been affected by precarious health and yet, have illuminated much of our thinking.

I’ve had the opportunity to share this notion of the numinous on my travels over the last few months, and responses to it have been varied, from dead-eyed incomprehension to complete recognition. For me, it’s useful for us to develop the ways in which we understand the reach of the arts and its occasional profound impact. Too often, the arts can be bland and prescriptive, offering mild distractions from our day-to-day reality, but once in a while, I’ll hear a story of an event, or moment that has had an overwhelming effect on an individual or group.

Last week, in what could have been a dull steering group meeting, a consultant in pediatric intensive care recounted the way in which the arts had rescued a young man from the darkest of suicidal thoughts, brought on by serious, life limiting disease. Through a moment of deep creative engagement, this young man had, had a lifeline thrown to him that had nothing to do with his illness; that transcended his frustration and fear, and illuminated the possibilities of life beyond the confines of sickness.

Did this young man have a numinous experience? – I have no doubt at all that he did. Do we have the evidence of this experience and its impact? – Of course not: that is the nature of our work. He wasn’t wired up to an EEG, ECG or a CT Scanner. Neither bloods, nor saliva were taken to scrutinize for raised levels of serotonin. And although a part of me would be thrilled to see those affirming areas of the brain sparkle and shine at moments of pure bliss, it would be an unnecessary health burden and entirely counter-intuitive.

Our semantics and the way we discuss the impact of the arts on health and wider society, means we should constantly explore what it is we believe and understand about our practice and its reach. By distinguishing the numinous from the supernatural, and articulating impact without making claims for miracles, we enrich our arts/health agenda.

1. Cheesy I know, but it is real and you do get the point?
2. Being driven by a friend across a desert the size of the UK in Central Australia, I woke from a slumber to whiteness as far as the eye could see. This vast, impossibly bright sand-scape was only punctuated by startling pillars of sand which rose high into the distant sky. I later learnt that these were part of a sand-storm heading in our direction. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating and the humbling product of the natural elements.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, the networking evening planned for next Thursday evening had been cancelled. Sorry for this, and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Thursday 20th October,
Manchester Metropolitan University, Oxford Road

This event is being planned between the Greater Manchester Arts and Health Network and Arts for Health at MMU and isn’t a day of passive listening day, but one of moving this agenda on through learning and action.
Confirmed speaker/facilitators include:

Psychologist, Dorothy Rowe on Depression and Imagination
Mark O’Neill (Glasgow Life) on Cultural attendance and Public Mental  Health

We are currently discussing Artists input and Early Years input for the event, and will provide details shortly.
Please put this date in your diary, but remember putting this in your diary doesn’t guarantee you a place.

Written and Presented by CHRISTIE DICKASON
An Episode of Something Understood
At 6:05 am and 11:30 pm 
(And for a week thereafter on BBC R4 'Listen Again' at any time!)
An intriguing exploration of the unexpected interactions of art and illness

White Paper published
The Government published its much anticipated Open Public Services White Paper this week which presses for radical changes to public services. New measures will see public services markets open up, users given more control, and the encouragement of innovation to drive better services for all, which will encourage a wider range of providers of many public services.

The paper has classified the delivery of public services into three categories: individual services, neighbourhood services and commissioned services, with power devolved to those levels, accordingly. Some of the main headlines so far include: proposals allowing communities to bid to run services, a legally enforceable “right to choose” services and proposals allowing for providers of some services to make profits for delivering results. The paper is extensive and covers a plethora of services across the country and, of course, forms part of the Government’s wider Big Society agenda.

In November the Government will set out how departments will put the principles into practice to open up public services over the parliament, including proposals for legislation. From April 2012 departments will publish regular progress reports on the steps taken to open public services.

There will be a listening period between July and September 2011. To add your voice click here. To read BBC coverage of the main proposals please click here
(Source: NCA News via Arts Development Ezine Issue 8)

‘To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by the Mind at Large – this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone…’
Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, 1954