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Spend (slightly) less on health and more on the arts

October 17, 200517 October 2005

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This editorial in the British Medical Journal provides a valuable argument from outside the arts community to support the claim that the arts improve health. The editorial suggests that a diversion of 0.5% of the UK’s health budget to the arts would probably increase the health of UK citizens. Since the amount would be a relative drop in the bucket for the health sector, but a very significant infusion of cash to the cultural sector, the idea is certainly tempting.

In this time of apparent health budget crises, the author immediately recognizes the unpopularity of this approach. However, Richard Smith also recognizes that the arts can help where medicine cannot – with life’s processes and problems such as ageing, loneliness or unhappiness. “If health is about adaptation, understanding and acceptance, then the arts may be more potent than anything that medicine has to offer.” Smith even invokes George Bernard Shaw who, in The Doctor’s Dilemma, wrote that “the only possible teacher except torture is fine art.”

Smith is certainly correct when he argues that “there is more to health than physical completeness and an absence of pain.” It is not entirely clear, however, that a simple transfer of funding would actually improve health outcomes. What is certain is that, in the context of current public opinion, this proposal will never fly. Maybe this article will help shift a few of those opinions.

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