Why Art?

Words by Dr Jon Hall, senior lecturer at the Open University and CDBU’s Company Secretary.

“Accessing our creativity is a fantastic way to top up our resilience.”

Chief Operating Officer, North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust 

Resilience means being able to bounce back after a blow, after a tragedy, after a crisis. With reserves sufficient going into a bad time, resilience allows your MVP* to see the other side. And the same is as true of a country and it is of a person. That’s one reason resilience is recognised by the Government as an important national characteristic worthy of research. 

The headline focus of that research is ‘to develop government science capability and the external evidence base to support policy development.’ As a scientist, I Feel that this is an incomplete focus. My sense is that science is surely necessary, but is by no means sufficient to ensure resilience. As evidence, I cite the words of the North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust’s Chief Operating Officer, quoted above, that relate creativity and resilience. 

The context of the quote is the North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust’s palliative care team. They’re a team of consultants, specialist nurses and doctors, physio- and occupational therapists, therapy technicians and many others whose work together supports adults with life-limiting illnesses. Their care gives the best quality at the end of life in the most difficult of circumstances for a patient, their families and their carers. 

Across the country, palliative teams just like North Tees & Hartlepool’s have been under significant pressure working on the front line during the COVID-19 crisis. With palliative care needs at an all time high, the personal impact of this tough work on their (and other front line workers’) mental wellness has been well documented in the press and the academic literature. 

And yet, at least in the North Tees & Hartlepool NHS palliative team, their resilience has seen them through, as highlighted by their Chief Operating Officer, with creativity ‘topping it up.’ 

The Open University, which has revolutionised HE in its 50 year existence (who knew a university education was for Rita, eh?), still has an Arts department whose research and teaching is valued highly by their colleagues and throughout the wider academic community. So no-one was surprised by the fantastic results of working with the North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust’s palliative care team to top up their resilience by developing their creative writing skills during the pandemic. 

Let me be clear, I’ve no evidence other than the Trust’s COO’s anecdote to back this up. Even as a scientist, I’ve conducted no scientific study that might determine that creativity is correlated with increased resilience. I am certain science could do sterling work in testing this hypothesis. If the hypothesis holds, then science could say to politicians ‘roll out the creative writing courses, they’re a worthwhile investment (p < 0.05)!’ 

But science is about developing and deepening understanding of something that exists, not bringing into existence something that doesn’t. Science observes and relates; it could not create, ab initio, the creative writing course that boosts the resilience of a palliative care team. To do that takes expertise in creative writing, expertise that is rapidly losing its academic habitat, as Arts and Humanities departments close. 

The historic impact of university-based arts and humanities is broad and pervasive though often missed by those whose focus is short term. Its future impact can only be guessed at, such is the nature of the future. What is certain, however, is that although science will be able to measure the impact of their loss to society, it will not be able to replace them.

*Most Valuable Player