How the light gets in: arts in health

Victoria Hume, Chair of the London Arts in Health Forum and EHE Team member, gives us her perspective on the language of art and its importance in health care settings.

This is a rich moment for the arts in health. The NHS is undergoing one of the biggest upheavals in decades and – whilst we don't yet fully understand the impact this will have on care – we must seize this as a chance to demonstrate that health is something bigger than the diagnoses affecting our mind and body.

Health is about society – about our capacity to create and sustain communities, our capacity to communicate our joys and sorrows and our capacity to care for each other. This is where the arts have such a vital role to play. We automatically turn to the arts at the big moments in our lives. Poetry is read at weddings and memorial services – because we understand that something must be communicated for which normal language, the language of forms, medicine, directions – in short the language which surrounds us in health care – simply does not do. We need a language which carries in it the promise that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

In terms of hospitals and health care buildings, it is not about creating high-powered hotels, with a certain kind of luxurious anonymity written into their fabric, but about creating unusual places, places with personality, with objects and activities in them that we like, or don't like, but that we can talk about, that sustain us, challenge us, give us hope by reconnecting us to what makes us us.

The noted art historian Richard Cork has just published The Healing Presence of Art, a fascinating and beautiful book tracing the history of the visual arts in European hospitals back to the 15th century. In an accompanying lecture, part of the first London Creativity and Wellbeing Week, he touched on the use of visual art not as a pacifier, but specifically to address suffering – to demonstrate that people are not alone in apparently isolating effects of crises of mental and physical health.

For hundreds of years hospitals commissioned the very best artists of their day to depict stories of hurt and healing. Whilst the religious context has shifted, there is a courage in the choice of subject which one imagines might be more helpful than our tendency to commission the innocuous – and there is a lesson in the hospitals' willingness to bring the best into spaces which people understood intuitively to require the best.

The real sea change in arts in health in the last few years has been the astonishing explosion of participatory work – work facilitated by experts – artists and art therapists of all kinds – but created by and for people who will benefit from this new access to their creativity. But whether you set up ceramics workshops or exhibitions, whether you commission a sculpture or create a tapestry with hundreds of participants, the point is to give people the space and means to access their own imagination when they most need the strength this will confer.

The arts in health care buildings offer us a chance to connect with people on a very personal level – to offer empathy, escape, or even argument. This works best when those commissioning and delivering the work invest it with their own passion, and courageously risk something unusual, experimental, new. It should be a little bit of anarchy in the system. 

In the words of Leonard Cohen:

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

A new body – the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing – will launch this September. The alliance is made up of nine partner organisations representing regions across England, and aims to support arts in health activity by providing an effective and coherent voice for arts in health; a voice which will bring together research, evaluation, common sense and the imagination to make the case to policy-makers and commissioners, and to support those already working in this field or seeking a means of doing so.

To find out more, please visit the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing website