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Covid, Creativity

Arts and culture in a ‘new normal’

Helen Johnson considers how psychologists can foster a relationship with the arts that nourishes all.

16 June 2020

A wealth of evidence underscores the positive impact that arts and culture can have on our health, our individual and collective wellbeing, and our ability to live rich, meaningful lives. These affordances have come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, with myriad arts and culture interventions that speak to wide-ranging aims, including helping children and adults respond adaptively to trauma, enhancing community cohesion, and supporting children's home school education. These offerings range from the grassroots to the commercial – everything from virtual museum tours, to live-streamed music sets, to online resources for home-based arts activities.

But are these interventions really accessible to all? Do they reach those who are marginalised and thus most at risk from the pandemic and its effects? To what extent do arts and culture provision during the pandemic replicate the 'participation gap,' which describes how arts engagement is concentrated within a small sector of the population, and to what extent do they challenge this? How can we use our position as psychologists to ensure that arts provision in and beyond the pandemic nourishes all, and not just a select few?

Supporting health and wellbeing across the lifespan

Meta-analyses and reviews, including a recent scoping review for the World Health Organisation by psychologists Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn, have assembled a wealth of evidence that the arts and culture impact wellbeing and healthy development throughout the lifespan. Artistic and cultural engagement can reduce medication use and GP visits; moderate symptoms in chronic health conditions, including diabetes, dementia, stroke and respiratory disease; decrease mortality rates; reduce pain and fatigue; and increase healthy behaviours. Arts and culture can improve our sense of self-worth, self-confidence, self-esteem and positive emotional expression/regulation, and reduce incidences/severity of depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness and suicidal ideation, enhancing wellbeing across a range of dimensions. The arts can thus be considered to be a social determinant of health.

Beyond basic mental and physical health, arts and culture can enable us to flourish, providing meaning, purpose and joy (see the 2015 report Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth). In the introduction to a 2017 report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, the artist Grayson Perry declares: 'Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious. A world without art is an inhuman world. Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane. Art, like science and religion, helps us make meaning from our lives, and to make meaning is to make us feel better.'  

Research from youth music theatre, youth slam and spoken word, group music, art therapy and beyond also shows that arts and culture can promote health and wellbeing in the context of trauma. In the words of Fancourt and Finn, art engagement has been found to promote social cohesion and conflict resolution 'through developing cognitive, emotional and social skills for constructive engagement with conflict, and by supporting empathy, trust, social engagement, collaboration and transformative learning'. The arts have been used to support children and adults experiencing trauma and persecution in the face of war, to help prevent the development of depression, withdrawal and attention deficits in children dealing with maltreatment and poverty, and to help grieving families come to terms with death. This indicates that the arts have an important role to play in supporting us to deal with trauma and disruption around the pandemic, and to adjust to a 'new normal' once this crisis has passed.

Inequalities in access to the arts

Access to the arts is not equal across all social groups, however. Instead there is a widely acknowledged 'participation gap,' where people in lower socio-economic status groups, living in economically deprived areas, with lower educational levels, with disabilities, and from minority ethnic backgrounds are reported to be less likely to engage in arts and cultural activities. The 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission for the Future of Cultural Value throws this disparity into stark relief, noting that between 2012 and 2015 the most wealthy, most highly educated and least ethnically diverse 8 per cent of the population accounted for at least 28 per cent of theatre visits, 44 per cent of attendance at live music events and 28 per cent of visits to visual art exhibits. This gap is only increasing with the impact of austerity measures.

This participation gap is particularly poignant since those groups who engage with the arts and culture least are also those who stand to gain most from their health and wellbeing impacts. As well as being under-served by psychological services, these groups are also disproportionately affected by poor mental and physical health. Children from lower socio-economic status groups, for example, have reduced life expectancy, and greater incidences of mental health diagnoses, respiratory diseases, stroke, obesity and heart disease. Indeed, the 2010 Marmot Review, commissioned by the Secretary of State for Health, noted gaps between rich and poor of an average of 7 years in life expectancy and 17 years disability-free life expectancy.  

Evidence suggests that these health inequalities have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. These impacts are both direct, with data indicating that people from deprived areas and many marginalised communities show greater incidences of the disease and greater symptom severity than those from more privileged groups, and indirect, with greater risk to mental and physical health resulting from over-work, cramped conditions, income insecurity and other factors, many of which (according to the ONS, Institute for Fiscal Studies and more) seem likely to outlast the pandemic itself. In the face of these inequalities, it seems more than justified to follow the Warwick Commission in arguing that access to arts and culture should be considered a universal human right.

The arts and Covid-19

Community arts thrive in times of social upheaval, and the present situation is no exception.  Arts innovation and participation have been flourishing during the pandemic. Many of these innovations have an explicit focus on health, wellbeing and/or community cohesion. Te Rito Toi, for example, is a New Zealand-based organisation that helps children return to school after experiencing trauma. They have created extensive online, arts-based resources (see which are being used by teachers around the world to help children settle back into school in the pandemic's aftermath. This work is grounded in research which demonstrates that the arts can help children heal after trauma by reducing stress, enabling children to make meaning from their experiences and rebuilding hope for the future.

Other offerings, less explicitly embedded in academic research, nonetheless speak to this same belief that the arts can help us to heal and rebuild. The international rainbow movement, for example, supported by hashtags (#chasetherainbow #rainbowtrail #rainbowsfornightingale) and Facebook pages (e.g. Rainbow Trail), has inspired thousands of families around the world to create rainbows to display from their homes. These rainbows are often adorned with messages of hope, togetherness, and support for core workers like doctors and nurses.

Movements such as this speak to research indicating that arts engagement can support community wellbeing, cohesion and development, reducing isolation, strengthening social relationships, and forging a sense of belonging. This is particularly poignant given the increased isolation, separation, uncertainty and fragmentation, and decreased sense of self-efficacy, which is characteristic of so many of our experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

What does this mean for the arts 'Participation Gap'?

On the one hand, examples like the rainbow movement seem to contradict claims that arts engagement is an elite pursuit, indicating that people from a wide spectrum of different backgrounds, abilities, incomes and educational levels do engage with and appreciate the arts. These chalked, coloured and collaged rainbows might not be lauded by cultural institutions, funders or authoritative arts experts, but they do appear to be greatly valued by those who produce and consume them. Similarly, television programmes like Grayson's Art Club and Countryfile have responded to the lockdown by soliciting artworks from their audiences, and these segments have fast become viewer favourites.

This suggestion of more widespread engagement in the arts is supported by evidence from community arts work and research on health/wellbeing interventions and by my own research in arts inclusivity. In a recent study conducted with residents in the Hangleton and Knoll area of Brighton, for example, I found that people in this economically deprived neighbourhood engaged in a wide range of different arts activities, from rock painting, to comic drawing, to amateur dramatics (see This study also found, however, a thirst to engage in higher status (often publicly-funded) provision, which was thwarted by a lack of resources, including money and childcare.  

There are thus two key issues behind the participation gap. The first is a failure to acknowledge the widespread engagement amongst marginalised and deprived communities with under-valued, low status arts (and crafts). The second is that social and structural inequalities prevent many people from accessing the arts. As argued earlier, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of these inequities. Inequalities, such as the 'digital divide,' for example, which challenge the idea that online resources (arts-based and otherwise) are readily available to all, have become ever more salient during the pandemic (e.g. see

It is thus arguable that, despite the increase in arts visibility and grassroots-led arts movements during the pandemic, the arts have become more, not less, inaccessible to many of those who are most in need of them. There are kernels of hope here too, however, with community initiatives like the rainbow movement, and shows like 'Grayson's Art Club,' going someway towards enabling and validating artistic creation that falls outside the bounds of elite, high status provision.  

What can psychologists do?

There is room for research that explores the extent to which these pandemic-provoked arts offerings are successful in closing the participation gap, changing perspectives on what art is and who art is for. More fundamentally, however, it's vital for psychologists to draw on the robust evidence available to facilitate arts provision that reaches marginalised and deprived communities. This includes community arts, art therapies, and health/wellbeing interventions that typically show much greater representation from these groups than 'high status' arts offerings. It includes too arts education in schools, which has been repeatedly pushed to the margins in recent years. We should agitate for funding and local government policy/action that supports this provision.

It is important, however, that we do not seek to use the arts as a mere 'sticking plaster' for trauma and inequality. Art can be disruptive and unsettling, and should not always or only be about improving short-term wellbeing. Instead, we should harness the power of the arts to promote a 'critical' or 'social justice-based' resilience, which works towards systemic social change, targeting the underlying inequalities that limit both the health and art access of marginalised groups. We can incorporate this into our research through participatory and arts-based methods that work with and for local communities, such as the 'collaborative poetics' approach I have used in previous work.

Let us take this moment, then, as an opportunity to push for a new normal, which places the arts and culture at its centre; where we can all – regardless of socio-economic status, wealth, educational level, gender, ethnic background or disability – flourish spiritually, emotionally, cognitively and socially; one where inequalities in both arts engagement and in health/wellbeing are rendered the arcane artefacts of a less-enlightened era.

- Helen Johnson is a Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton, specialising in arts-based research methods, creativity, and critical community psychology. [email protected]

- Artwork: Meditation in colour by Praveetha Patalay


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