Art as cure

By Edwin van Meerkerk


With all the fuss about the creative industries and 21st-century skills, it seems to have escaped our attention that the real revolution In the arts is taking place elsewhere: in the world of healthcare. The arts have subtly, to some even unconsciously, changed their slogan. Arts are good for you: they make you happy and healthy, they stimulate your social life and keep you sober, help you overcome your fears and keep you focused. The arts are therapy. And all of this keeps the arts funded – which is more than just a side effect.

Art Therapy was at its peak in the seventies. Theatre groups, like the Dutch Werkteater, staged plays in hospitals and penitentiary institutions with the aim to reform both theatre and society. The belief in the transforming power of the arts seemed unlimited. The dream did not last and from the late 1980s onwards, quality and management became the new standards in the arts world. Recently, however, the tide has changed. This paradigm shift was heralded by philosopher Alain de Botton in his exhibition ‘Art is Therapy’ at the Rijksmuseum (April-September 2014) and the accompanying book Art as Therapy, co-written by art historian John Armstrong – note the difference (is/as) in the titles.

While de Botton is unable to escape the 1970’s Freudian frame of the arts as the expression of the unconscious, a growing number of arts organisations have re-discovered the arts as a hard core medicine, for instance in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, or in the treatment of autistic children. Starting from the development of community arts and the proof of the effects of music on intelligence in primary education, the arts are now embracing their effects on social, cognitive, as well as physical health as their principal proof of their relevance to society.

While cuts to art subsidies seem to threaten specialised disability arts organisations the ‘able’ arts organisations are more than anxious to enter the domain of (mental) health care in reaction to the same budget cuts. In a desperate leap forward, arts organisations are claiming the therapeutic effects of the arts (art as therapy), just to keep the money coming. In reality, healthcare is itself the treatment for art’s own disease: poverty. Meanwhile, arts organisations risk changing the very nature of the essence of the arts from distant critic of politics to practical tool for society (art is therapy).

Image credits: ‘Unlimited Traineeship’, Ian Johnston -Dancer, Unlimited Festival 2014. Photographer: Niall Walker.