The arts, the universe and everything

When philosophers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong took on the question "What is art for?" they knew it would be a bit shocking for the art world. That question, while it might seem pretty obvious, is one they say the art establishment has long avoided, portraying it as an uncouth sort of thing to ask - even a bit childish, perhaps.

When philosophers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong took on the question "What is art for?" they knew it would be a bit shocking for the art world. That question, while it might seem pretty obvious, is one they say the art establishment has long avoided, portraying it as an uncouth sort of thing to ask - even a bit childish, perhaps.

De Botton and Armstrong, though, give some of the answer to what art is for in the title of their new book, Art as Therapy. They say very sensibly - and clearly, without artspeak - that art ought to be a normal, therapeutic medium to help us become better versions of ourselves. It is for everyone, not just the arty, the well-educated or the fashionable.

While the book has been a hit and the Art as Therapy website has had more than a million visitors since it was set up a few weeks ago, the associated app for mobile phones has had some serious downloading: on it, we are exposed to specific artworks as a "cure" for thorny issues about self, love, work, politics, anxiety and the vexed question of how we use our time in our crazy-busy lives.

While most people would certainly rather look at a piece of art in person, this small engagement with art involves, first, actually doing something (activating the app and navigating through it). And, second, simply responding emotionally to the image.

It goes to the crux of how we think not just about the visual arts, but the arts more broadly, and the latest research confirms that participating in them has far-reaching benefits well beyond the arts themselves.

Likewise, de Botton and Armstrong argue that if the art establishment drops the gobbledegook and the pretence that art can only be truly understood by a scholarly few, we stand to reap great benefits: we get a better world where the big questions about love, hope, sorrow and the sheer difficulties of being human get centre-place.

Those who deploy impenetrable artspeak and like to keep art for themselves under a glass dome on a high shelf will shudder at these alarmingly democratic ideas. An example of that at work is the new children's gallery opening this month at the National Gallery of Victoria, where hordes of small ones will bubble not only through the new space dedicated to them, but also through the rest of the museum's two venues, where hands-on programs will start to roll out soon.

The idea is that children won't be observing in silence; they'll be engaged and excited and full of emotional responses to what they see. They'll most likely bring the art experience alive and be responding with both their hearts and their brains.

This is being driven by director Tony Ellwood and his deputy Andrew Clark (who, since 1998, helped pioneer a successful children's program at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art).

The NGV plan was recently boosted by a five-year, $1.95 million philanthropic grant for the new dedicated space and the money will be used for family-oriented interactive exhibitions, commissioned works by local and international artists, child-friendly publications and touring programs.

Cynics might think all this is only about boosting attendance figures and fostering a visitor base by getting them in and loyal from an early age. But Ellwood is sincere about the grander, altruistic ambition: to build a better society by more people being enabled to experience the wonders and consolations of art. He talks about his own first exposure to art and how important it was for him.

"We know from research and from our own community that the moment that generates that lifelong passion tends to come at a young age," he said recently. "I barely meet a person in the arts who hasn't had some incredible experience at a time when they were young and taken for a formal visit [to an arts venue]. This is taking it to that next degree."

As for Armstrong, speaking last week about Art as Therapy, he applauds this sort of approach with children. The British-born philosopher and art theorist, author of several other books about our connection with the visual arts who has been living in Australia since 2001, says the elitist idea that the "deep, beautiful, profound and grand" ought to be protected against the masses needs to be upended, firmly.

"The serious, noble and thoughtful can be popular and part of the everyday," he says. "Responding to art can be a normal and natural thing to do. We can all reach into our hearts."

Armstrong's career includes being philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne Business School and he is now an adviser to the University of Melbourne's vice-chancellor - both unconventional positions for a philosopher and art theorist. So it is little surprise this is a man who would like to see adults at art galleries doing the sorts of things children will be busy with in and beyond the new NGV children's gallery.

This will be especially true during the NGV's forthcoming Melbourne Now exhibition, when children will be playing the old-fashioned Melbourne-founded game Trugo in a huge installation of carpet-lined alleys; making shoes with artisan cobblers; populating a gallery landscape with 50,000 bird stickers; making songs in an "anti-music" editing suite using animal sounds; and climbing under a whacky 14-metre-long table so they can see the surrounding artworks from weird perspectives. Imagine how freeing it would be for adults to do all this in an art museum setting?

The art-as-therapy approach and these new children's programs are only the latest chapters in a larger developing story about the benefits and applications of art. The relationship between learning music and maths proficiency is well documented, while artists have been enjoying increasing dialogue with scientists - and vice-versa - for their projects in recent years.

And over the past decade in particular, academic research has shown that education in the arts is not only about enjoyment; actually participating in the arts has a direct correlation with success in science, mathematics and literacy, and a lot of bearing on general health, psychological balance and wellbeing.

Recent home-grown research, a joint study by the University of Sydney and the Australian Council for the Arts, found students had more motivation and engagement in school, better self-esteem, better academic outcomes and more life satisfaction and general wellbeing when they participated in dance, drama, music and visual arts at a high-quality level - rather than just watching them.

Professor Andrew Martin, who led the study of 643 students from 15 schools over a year, is from the university's faculty of education and social work; his field is psychology and statistics, he says, and he hasn't had much to do with the arts, so he came from an unbiased viewpoint. And the study, he explains, is unlike many done before elsewhere, which were based on case studies, anecdote and observation: this one was founded on statistical analysis so it could get a sense of the unique effects of arts participation on students, regardless of variants such as gender, age, parents' education or other influences.

"This was to lay an evidence-based foundation for a lot of claims that are thrown about that participation in the arts benefits you in a number of domains and, an even stronger claim, that the participation assists outcomes in non-arts domains," Martin says.

"For galleries, that has implications for how events are structured, especially ones for children and young people."

He said what was abundantly clear was getting children, young people and families actively involved should not be "an addendum to the main gig" but central to it. "If you want them to walk out better and richer than when they walk in, you have to get good resources of time, attention and expertise, to have active involvement in a high-quality engagement way."

These sorts of results also came up in an OECD report called Art for Art's Sake? released this year. While it found evidence that arts education had an impact on skills outside the arts, the report also made the point that this was not necessarily the most important justification for arts education.

"The arts have been in existence since the earliest humans, are parts of all cultures, and are a major domain of human experience, just like science, technology, mathematics, and humanities," it noted. "Because they are an arena without right and wrong answers, they free students to explore and experiment. They are also a place to introspect and find personal meaning."

Arts and non-arts benefits are taken as a given at the Royal Children's Hospital, where the new director of arts, Victoria Jones, is developing hospital-wide programs focused on participation. She says research demonstrates that creative activities in hospital environments not only reduce stress for child patients, but also their families and the staff around them.

"You then get reduced drug consumption and that affects the length of stay [in hospital]," she says. "It makes a significant improvement to the hospital experience for everyone involved, and it increases staff retention, job satisfaction and wellbeing."

Scotland-born Jones, who worked as an artist and in art gallery outreach programs before joining London's Great Ormond Street Hospital several years ago, where she started a successful children's arts program, said sick children in hospitals experience great isolation, lowered confidence and the effects of stress on themselves and their parents.

Art helps - and she says "it's not just about finger-painting". The programs she will be starting at the Royal Children's include live music performances, workshops for portrait-making (for children, families and staff), and a short-film project where children make documentaries about their visits to museums or galleries, which will then be shown within the hospital to children too ill to leave. One even brings together children, scientists and the infection control team, combining painting with learning about the importance of hand-washing.

"Being down is easy to do in hospital," she says. "Creativity makes learning more fun; the old school approach of memorising your times-tables doesn't work, especially in a hospital."

All this goes to the core of what de Botton and Armstrong are arguing in Art as Therapy: that art is for everyone and it is a tool to help us deal with our emotions, frailties and potential. They discuss key functions of art and how art reminds us what is important to us, how it might give us hope and tools to deal with sorrow, and how it can rebalance us in the heady stream of life. They also discuss how it leads us to understand ourselves, to grow emotionally and spiritually, and to hone our skills of appreciation - of ourselves, each other and our world.

The NGV children's gallery opens on November 22 at NGV International. Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, rrp $45 (Penguin).

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