A Spotted Hankie and the Open Road – and Arts in Health in Australia

Mike White writes: I have just taken early retirement on health grounds and am leaving the Durham Centre for Medical Humanities, though I shall still post blogs here from the cerebral Bowling Green as I cope with the new realities of beige clothing and those staples of later life – cream crackers and lemon curd. I will retain the Durham e-mail address for a while longer thanks to my tenure as a research fellow at St. Chad’s. I have decided to take control of my time and decide each day what I would like to do. Arts in health will remain the grand passion and I am open to offers of middleweight duties and meaningful volunteering.

It is the open road for me and I am just back from the 6th Annual International Arts and Health Conference – The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing in Melbourne, amazed to see how far we have come in thirty years. The field now encompasses all tiers of healthcare and has the confidence that comes from a well-grounded practice which pushes through a complex and increasingly inter-disciplinary environment.

The emergent theme of the conference this year was ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, expressed through outback tales with indigenous communities, inner-city interventions with vulnerable migrants, and international initiatives to find common cause in the outpourings of the outcast. In the case of the latter, we now have a Recoverist Manifesto produced by Arts For Health at Manchester Metropolitan University with dispossessed addicts in three countries and featuring a powerful intro from gonzo journalist Will Self (himself a recovered addict) affirming that:

“Often it’s simply in the act of being heard that the individual recovers her sense of autonomy, and with it her sense of purpose – that’s what’s entailed by the Recoverist Manifesto; it isn’t intended to be militant or hectoring, but simply an expression of feeling; and if there’s one thing that the vicissitudes of addictive illness teaches us, it’s that in the last analysis what matters is not our circumstances or our experiences – let  alone our thoughts – but our feelings: we need to feel and be felt by other feeling people”.

As that cry of the twentieth century resonates into the twenty-first, I predict that empathy will become the driving force in art in health work, making it less focussed on the therapeutic effects and more on the relational values of the work. The elusiveness of empathy in vernacular medical practice, however, was explored in the conference address of Claire Hooker of Sydney University’s Medical Humanities unit, whilst in the same session an extraordinary account was given by a visually impaired artist Dr. Erica Tandori of how a creative response to her degenerative eye disease has enabled her to fuse both her practice and research, enabling audiences to slip into virtual recreations of her sight  Perhaps an ability to incite empathy is more in the preserve of the patient than the practitioner? Numerous examples came forward of the engagement of arts in health on an inclusion agenda – something I have long-felt to be the case in the UK too but which has been overlooked by policy directives going into the weft of the healthcare system rather than the frayed edges of the social fabric.

It was invigorating to step through an arts in health conference that is not obsessed with the evidence base for art as an ancillary treatment but rather offering resonant phenomenological accounts of loss and recovery. There was talk of keeping the conference in Melbourne for the next few years instead of rotating it around the cities in this vast country as has been the case so far.  That would be an opportunity to add to the multi-professional mix of delegates the first-hand accounts from on-going project work. The  state health promotion agency Vic Health supports arts at the forefront of its initiatives and the new Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and veteran programmes at the Footscray community arts hub in the suburbs offer in-depth practice informed by deep thoughts not cheer-up diversions.  There is also good progress on a national creative ageing programme and the advice of Janet Morrison of Baring Foundation at the conference was much appreciated. What appears to be missing, however, is  a focus on workforce development and the role of education in embedding arts in health through the life course. This is something Australia could learn from us.

I do not know quite what I am retiring to but I suspect it won’t be too sedentary.

2 thoughts on “A Spotted Hankie and the Open Road – and Arts in Health in Australia

  1. Good Luck, Mike, on the Open Road. We at EngAGE espouse retirement as a time of opportunity and if you ever get to Los Angeles I would love to show you what we do to promote that idea. May you experience good health again and travel far along the road!

    1. Thanks for those kind words. I had my retirement dinner last night with chums from Durham and beyond. I have been blessed in my working life to be able to wake up most mornings and think “what shall I do today?” – I hope retirement is just more of the same on a pension ‘payroll’. I will bear in mind what LA has to offer!

      Mike

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