Tuesday, January 25, 2011

...towards a m a n i f e s t o

Some thoughts on happiness...

Hedonic well-being?
Let Sunshine Win the Day
or Cynicism: it’s healthy and it makes me happy

The North West m a n i f e s t o events came about as a response to societal changes and as a way of artists and health allies expressing their frustrations and articulating shared passion. As a piece of work, it’s less about strategising and more about connecting and moving forward, and very much in the tradition of artist’s manifestos: its about shouting from the roof-tops.

Last week’s event in Liverpool was planned to give voice to practitioners across Merseyside to come together and exchange ideas and vision to inform the manifesto and celebrate some of the unfolding activity across the area. So, as part of a series of events, exploring shared aspirations for the field, this was a bit of a hybrid event, and with over fifty people in the room was vocal, buoyant and inspiring.

I introduced the session by framing our practice in relation to wider national and regional activity and placing the arts at the heart of society, both in reflection and reaction.

Artistic Director of FACT, Mike Stubbs went on to give a Liverpool context, painting a picture of a thriving and engaged cultural sector and challenging us to think about how we evidence our impact.

Punctuated with artist’s interventions, the session drew some significant thoughts and insight from participants that can be found on the dedicated m a n i f e s t o /merseyside blog pages (only available to that sessions participants, but all the m a n i f e s t o sessions will be drawn together leading up to June 2011).

The only off-note, was in Nic Marks’ rounding-up of the morning. Marks, of the new economics foundation (nef), mistakenly forgot he was at an arts event and not a happiness forum, missing, as he did the cynicism, experience and discontent in the room, (and perhaps wider society).

Whilst many of the people in the session had eloquently described how the arts are, by their very nature political, and I’d opened the session by expressing frustration at societal acceptance of blame for government mismanagement and the crimes of the bankers, Marks focused on what he saw as ‘cheap shots’ at the happiness agenda.1

Now I may be mistaken, but at all the m a n i f e s t o events, I’m mindful of ensuring a couple of things; keeping what I say as consistent as possible, for parity’s sake across the region, and focusing on the long (and rather obvious) history of the arts being more than little baubles and trinkets to pacify people, but as exciting, provocative, subversive and again, political.

By suggesting that cynical politicians may just be hijacking the happiness agenda and arguing our work wasn’t just about making people happy, I apparently blinded Marks to why he was there: to look at the arts in relation to well-being.

And the Five Ways to Well-being by nef are pretty much accepted as good, common-sense ways of looking at day-to-day actions to promote well-being. By connecting with people: being active: taking notice of things beyond our day to day: keeping learning and giving. So no argument there, in fact this ‘latest scientific evidence’ is blindingly obvious.

That’s why we asked Marks to round things off; we thought that all these actions might in fact, contribute towards more fully engaged members of society who connect with others and actively debate and question the status quo: take more than a passing interest in the sound-bites of the popular press and see the potential of shared voices and practice as being part of something bigger: contributing to wider civic society.

Surely then, the result of being a fully engaged citizen might just lead to a more cynical and less superficially ‘happy’ society. Describing my comment about our work not just being about making people happy, as being a ‘cheap-shot’ typical of the media, and for a ‘quick laugh’ Marks risked skewing the whole flavour of the session and devaluing the contributions made.2

I doubt that anyone taking part in the session would question the impact of the arts on well-being, that’s why we’re all involved, we weren’t there to explore the damage we can inflict on each other with our practice.

The point is, that the arts offer so much more than hedonic gratification, and through participation give voice to frustration, anger and cynicism; in other words, art is more than the blind pursuit of happiness (whatever that is) that we’re all told we must aspire to.

Like flat-screen TVs, 4x4 cars or celebrity spray-on tan, it seems happiness is being peddled on the consumerist must-have shopping list. Well, with 2.5 million people unemployed and counting, it looks like the only quick-fire state route to happiness will be through prescription drugs, no doubt on offer through our local National Health Franchise.

Whilst we’re on our way to understanding well-being, (and I’d suggest that the arts and cultural engagement play a big part in that journey), I find it increasingly difficult to imagine how subjective happiness can be identified let alone measured.

And yet as far back as the 2006 Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron has muted the idea of a happiness index, commenting, ‘Let optimism beat pessimism, let sunshine win the day..." Five years later, the NHS, Education and Cultural sectors are undergoing fundamental changes and the banking crisis has thrown the global economy into turmoil. Under the instruction of Cameron, a happiness index is being prepared as I type.

Clive Parkinson
Blue Monday: January 24th 2011

1. In his summing up, Marks said that Cameron and the Government don’t talk about happiness, whereas in reality, there is a wealth of coalition rhetoric on the subject.
2. Rounding off the event and from the lectern, Nic Marks looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, ‘Isn’t happiness the most important thing for our children?’ (Like Ricky Gervais, but without the irony). I wanted to scream, ‘Of course it is, you twerp!’ but I applauded politely thinking, ‘I’d like my children to have a healthy degree of cynicism too; oh and food and shelter, oh and education and love...’