This morning a tantalising preview of a report on the role of the arts in supporting global health drops into my twitter feed; work that has been undertaken by Daisy Fancourt with the World Health Organisation European Region. It’s going to be published in November and covers findings from 3000 studies. The taster pages contain a table that maps out components, responses and outcomes that produce improved mental and physical wellbeing.
The list of components includes aesthetic engagement, involvement of the imagination, cognitive stimulation, social interaction, physical activity, sensory activation, vocation of emotion, interaction with heath care settings and engagement with themes of health.
All of these were more than fully present in last Tuesday’s 21st Century Tea Dance, staged on a grand scale as the launch event for Lewisham’s Age Against the Machine Festival. The event kicked off with a street procession, led by residents from sheltered housing schemes across Lewisham, that meandered down the road between the local library and the local arts space, the Albany, pausing to dance, sing and exuberantly take ownership of the public realm.
Inside the Albany there was theatre and movies and huge mural canvasses to be painted; poetry, quadrille dance workshops, knitting and massage, a five piece Jazz band, gallons of tea and masses of cake. At times in the cafe cabaret space before the final performances in the theatre it felt as if the combined gathering of people would achieve what the urbanist Jane Jacobs called ‘spontaneous combustion’. The dementia friendly movie club from Downham in south Lewisham had subverted the open mic slot with a complete take-over by going wild on song.
Everyone was singing along and swaying to Doris Day’s:
Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be
And yet the spirit of the room belied the words of the song. This collection of people were not in the habit of shrugging their shoulders and abandoning themselves to fate. The alchemy of this creative chaos was supporting everyone to spin the phrase: “what will be come of me?” from a mantra of despair to to a question that held excitement and curiosity.
When people crowd people together informally, says Jane Jacobs, and they will collude, gossip, innovate. They will take agency. And that was what was happening here. You can’t help but sense that new futures, new possibilities are being staked out. That’s the beauty and the transformational power of collectively made art.
The outcomes in the World Health Organisation summary for improved mental and physical health and wellbeing included: prevention, promotion, management and treatment. In this arts space at the launch of our Age Against the Machine Festival we can clearly sense that the component parts of these include: hope, joy, wonder and love.