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Art ‘Side Effects’: Health, Happiness and Quality of Life

Posted by Dr Jeremy Mayall on 31 May 2018

Art ‘Side Effects’ Health,  Happiness and Quality of Life
Tasked with tackling the big question of why art matters, Hamilton-based performer, educator, researcher and creative, Dr Jeremy Mayall, reveals the advantages of living an art-enriched life.
Tasked with tackling the big question of why art matters, Hamilton-based performer, educator, researcher and creative, Dr Jeremy Mayall, reveals the advantages of living an art-enriched life.

At The Combined Community Trust Conference held in May 2018, Mayall shared his own personal journey and detailed the way art affects our communities. “The arts function as the conscience of our society, and they show us that we make the world, rather than simply inherit it.”

Mayall believes arts funding is one of the most important duties and functions of our way of life, not merely a nice-to-have. He also examines the positive side effects of art in health and education, asserting that they are crucial to our quality of life. “The Arts has many social benefits – including being part of the treatment for mental health, as well as encouraging self-confidence and self esteem,” details Mayall.

Jeremy’s full speech, transcribed below, explores many more art ‘side effects’ and identifies art-making’s worth. 

“Hello everyone. 

My name is Dr. Jeremy Mayall and I am a composer, musician, artist, collaborator and lecturer based here in Hamilton. 

I have been given the task of talking to you about the perspective of the arts in New Zealand. This perspective is one that I am hugely passionate about, and is a fundamental element of my day-to-day life. 

Let me start by saying that I believe The Arts are a vital aspect of the lives of individuals and their communities. Arts and culture can illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world. The arts help us to define and express ourselves, as well as engage with each other in our communities. They are powerful levers for promoting positive social change. The Arts function as the conscience of our society, and they show us that we make the world rather than simply inherit it.

I have been involved in music, theatre and various other arts for the majority of my life – early on as a participatory activity through music lessons, school and community drama groups, and watching various performances, and now more recently as a creator of various arts experiences. The Arts is central to my daily life. But, when I left school, I enrolled to study law. It seemed a sensible thing to do… so, I was applying for a scholarship and had to write a page on why I wanted to be a lawyer – I stared at the paper for two weeks. Couldn’t even lie my way through it… this is when I realised that law wasn’t the path for me, and luckily I had had many positive Arts experiences in my childhood (and supportive parents!) so I changed path, enrolled in an arts degree, and it was through music and the arts that I would both find individual fulfillment, as well as a central purpose to be able to benefit my community in a meaningful way.

Later in this talk I will spend some time talking about a few of my personal experiences with art, but first – I want to start by talking about the arts in general, what they mean for society and our communities, and why we need to continue to support the arts and artists. One of the primary reasons we make both public and private investments in the arts is for the inherent value of culture. The arts can be life enhancing and entertaining, whilst also helping us to define our own identities. The arts have social and educational benefits as well as the various economic ones. 

Art and creativity are fundamental in building a healthier society. In fact, this view seems to be widely supported, and here in Aotearoa New Zealand research from Creative New Zealand (2014) shows that: - 82% of people believe that the arts help improve society; - 86% say they learn about different cultures through the arts; - 88% say that the arts are good for you; - 90% of New Zealanders are engaging in the arts; - and 74% of New Zealanders believe art contributes positively to our economy. And it is through continued philanthropic support that many of our young people and emerging artists are able to get their start in this vital field. Creativity can encourage civic engagement, build resiliency and contribute to quality of life. More and more studies are highlighting the positive outcomes that art and creativity can have on community and wellbeing. And it is exciting for me, as someone involved in the community, to see various artists and art groups creating opportunities for people to engage with the arts on this level, and that there is support for them, from people who recognise that the value of art is well beyond a price tag, and that engagement with art and art-making processes is vital. 

Arts engagement offers various social benefits – including being part of the treatment for mental health, as well as encouraging self-confidence and self esteem. In fact just the other day there was a report about a new programme in the UK called “Arts on Prescription” where GPs can prescribe Arts - This entails the patient having a meeting with a person knowledgeable about the local arts community and they discuss what is going on in their life, and an arts activity is prescribed. So far the trials have had remarkable success and it is being rolled out on a much wider scale. Arts engagement has even been shown increase teenagers' capacity to communicate and to learn, to relate to each other and to tolerate others, as well as making them more likely to vote. Increasingly, such benefits are presented not as happy by-products of artistic activity but as part of its very essence. A while ago the UK Arts Council facilitated a study around the Arts and what the purpose of the Arts is – this research produced a threefold definition: 

1. The Arts increase people’s capacity for life. In essence, this means that the arts help people to understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them. It enables people to express themselves creatively, and give form and meaning to emotions that might otherwise be difficult to comprehend. Art has a subtle power that can change one perception at a time. It asks you what you think, prompts you to ask questions, and can put things into doubt. The arts are a means of coping with complexity – they help people to make sense of life and navigate their way through. 

2. The Arts enrich people’s experiences. The arts bring colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives. They are an important source of pleasure, entertainment and relaxation. They can offer something unusual or surprising, which can lift people out of the day-to-day pressures and tedium of working life. 

3. The Arts provides powerful applications outside of the artistic experience. The Arts can contribute to overall health and emotional wellbeing. Participation in the Arts can build skills, confidence and self-esteem and should be an aspect of life-long learning. The Arts brings people together, and offers a safe place to explore difficult issues. The arts are seen to foster a sense of place, belonging and community identity and to stimulate pride and economic growth in the local environment.

So we see that Art can: - increase people's capacity for life - enrich people’s experiences - build their skills, self-esteem and community. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three. Art testifies to the power of the human imagination, the unique capacity that we have, to dream. Art tempts us to move beyond our perceived boundaries and limitations to explore a curious and creative new world of possibilities. I’m convinced that if more people engage with art, the world would be a much better place. People strive to be able to quantify the value of the arts – (which seems to be a terrifyingly urgent priority in our universities). But what it is important to remember is that the Arts are a service – rather than a product. 

Artists offer experiences and emotions and intellectual engagement with things that may confront our own ideas of self. This benefit is far-reaching and long lasting, but is hard to measure in terms of dollars and cents. So, back to my stories. Three of them. First the benefit of arts for a creative artist – it is hard for me to pick just one, but a recent memory was the experience of performing a nine-hour piece of music called “To Sleep”, overnight at the Hamilton Gardens – sharing that experience with over 100 people of all ages on a lawn under the stars as we performed, and they listened and slept, and we shared a unique communal experience- this was equally fulfilling and exhausting for me as an artist – a test of creativity and endurance, which has its own benefits. 

Second, as an educator, I have had the pleasure of being involved with arts education from early childhood through primary and secondary and tertiary education. One of my many highlights was working with a group of primary school kids at a small rural community school. We spent a day together writing and recording a song – I was able to share a new experience with them, and be a meaningful part of their change from doubt and trepidation at the beginning, to excitement and pride at the end as they finished with a proper recording of their new song! 

My third story is from an audience engagement perspective – I recently had an exhibition of immersive multi-sensory installations at the Wallace Gallery in Morrinsville. One of the works was called “We Began as Wanderers” and was a cloth tunnel with lights, projections, and multi-speaker soundtrack. We had a range of people of all ages through the exhibition over the month, but there is one particular story I wanted to share. A young Asian woman came into the gallery. She seemed quiet and just wanted to explore. She entered the tunnel work. Half an hour passed. Then an hour… the gallery assistants thought they should probably check what was happening. The woman was fine, but emerged with completely renewed spirit. She wanted to talk, and shared that she had been depressed and lonely for months, experiencing feelings of isolation in a small rural community, and after spending time in the installation, she said this was the most positive and relaxed she had felt in a long time. It is moments like that which make the effort in creating these types of experiences all worthwhile. To have had that kind of positive impact on a person’s life is one of the most brilliant ‘side-effects’ of art. The opportunity to create experiences like these is one of the greatest parts of being an artist – but these types of things are only possible with some quite substantial support. 

Having spaces to present work, having people to help make work, having access to materials and technology to craft work, and having audiences to engage with the work. All of these things are vital to help keep a functioning and beneficial artistic culture alive. Through the arts we are reminded of what more there is left to do in the world. Without the influence of the arts we would remove much of what is most pleasurable in life – and much that is educationally vital. This would take the memory from our museums; the music from our concerts (and our phones); the plays and dance from our theatres; no more television, streaming, festivals, literature and painting… we would loose all identity and pleasure in life. And while the arts do not provide core health and well-being services, we are beginning to understand what a difference the arts can make in a complementary role alongside such services. 

With continued support for the arts - artists and participants can continue to explore these fields, and to continue to positively impact the local and global communities. The arts inspire, challenge, and expand our minds. They engage our creativity and allow us to experience the world through someone else’s reality. From education, to well being, to quality of life, the arts are crucial to our success, health and happiness. Each generation has its own unique set of challenges, but it is through the arts that we learn compassion, curiosity, understanding and critical thinking skills that enable us to address these problems and find solutions. 

As we prepare the next generation to compete and lead in a global society, it is imperative that we continue to fund the arts. Some may say that arts funding is a waste - I completely disagree. Arts funding is one of the most important functions and duties of our society. It is through the arts where we grow, where we reach understanding, and where we find common ground in a rapidly changing complex world. Artistic imagination and creativity are not added bonuses for society, they’re not the icing on the cake, they are integral to the human spirit and to human aspirations – an essential part of what makes us human. Art thinks about the world in its current state, and it can reimagine the world as it could be. 

My name is Dr. Jeremy Mayall and I am an artist. 

Thank you.”

About the Author

Dr Jeremy Mayall

Dr Jeremy Mayall leads the creative practice research team at Wintec’s School of Media Arts. These researchers examine a rich range of applied media practice and theory. Mayall is currently researching multi-sensory art making through composing, art experiences and collaboration. He often travels to talk on his creative practice and other applications of art in wider contexts.

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