Lisa Fitzhugh on Art and Health

What is the relationship between the arts and the health of that society that fosters them? If we define the arts as the people, projects, organizations, ideas and philosophies that cultivate creative expression, then I believe the relationship between the health of a society and its art is deeply correlated.

You probably want me to prove this statement in a quantifiable way – to demonstrate this correlation through historical trends, to show how increased investments or emphasis in the arts has produced vibrant,healthy cultures and how reductions in these investments have diminished the health of the same. But I’m not a scientist or a researcher: I am someone who works in the arts and I am someone who founded a project that brings teaching artists into low-income communities to work with young people. I want to come to this subject from a personal angle, from the angle of my own experience, from a particular point inside a particular society. I want to talk about what I see, because from my angle, it looks like we’ve failed to realize how important creativity really is to the health of our communities. We’ve gotten stuck in a worldview that’s too mechanistic for our own good: we’ve gotten into the habit of seeing the fruits of the scientific method as preeminent. Which also means that we’ve started to believe that anything we cannot see or touch simply does not exist. Emotions, in particular, we’ve learned to look on with deep suspicion. Many of us have forgotten how it feels to create something.

Though such a logical and Newtonian approach has of course had its positive uses, we should understand its negative affect as well. Being tied to a method-based way of seeing the world numbs our spirit and devalues our most powerful, albeit non-quantifiable, human experience – our emotions. We should remember that there is more than one way to find the truth. As Einstein said so well, “Everything that is counted, may not count. Everything that counts, can not be counted”. After all, being logical is not always the same thing as being creative. Being creative demands that a person pull from inside of him or herself to understand his or her unique response to the world. The things we create are the things that illuminate our core being, that bring out whatever truth inside us is still unencumbered by others’ ideas, biases, demands, hopes or projections. Creativity can help us peel back all the dulling layers that have been applied to us from the society around us, from all those external expectations and stresses and rules. Creativity can help us breathe again.

Elliot Eisner, a professor of Education and Art at Stanford University for almost 40 years, has written and researched extensively on the subject of how artistic creation relates to the shaping of our minds. Originally trained as a painter, Dr. Eisner‘s research and teaching centers on the ways in which
schools might be improved through incorporating the arts early on in their curriculum. In his essay Ten Lessons the Arts Teach, Eisner points out how art-making can teach us to explore the unexpected, to recognize that problems can havemore than one solution, and to make decisions in the absence of a rule. Creative acts can reveal that neither words nor numbers exhaust what we can learn through experience, and that language does not have to define the limits of our cognition.

As Eisner’s work suggests, creativity can give us more space to breathe, more room to move and to grow, and more confidence to connect with those around us. Creativity is part of our nature. Creative expression has been a driving force for eons, and it finds its outlet in the songs, poetry, architecture, designs and rituals of all the world’s cultures. In its most transcendent form, creativity connects us all and reminds us of our shared mythology as living beings on this planet. When this sort of creative expression is silenced or marginalized, violence and depression often take their place. As one of our students at ArtsCorps, Thomas Timmons, said, “if you don’t get out what’s inside, you’re gonna go boom one day.” And boom we go. Just look at the incredibly high tolerance of violence in the United States, our inability to deal with such fears, and our increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals to ease psychological illness.

I believe that our most powerful experiences are related to our soul and our spirit — not to our intellects alone. Nurturing our children, connecting with a stranger on the street, listening to a beautiful piece of music, falling in love – these experiences are what make a life precious; these experiences add texture to what would otherwise only be a matter of fulfilling our basic urges. It is the spiritual and soul-side of experience that requires us to be creative, to use something of our own to connect to the world outside of us in a unique way.

So why do we dismiss the creative side of ourselves so readily? Why do we not demand more support for initiatives that honor this fundamental human need, especially for our young people? Why should public education in the U.S. be limited only to cultivation of the left brain and not include a rich arts curriculum for the right brain as well? And why not in every public school? Why shouldn’t the study of the creative side of life be just as important in our early years as the study of the methodological?

We have to be careful not to succumb to someone else’s vision of the world and instead realize that we help to create that very same world ourselves. It is by imagining a new reality that a new reality finds its ability to exist. And to imagine anything, we have to be creative. It’s not always about providing a logical argument: sometimes its just about asking the obvious questions. We have to look inside and see what it is we want to ask, what it is that we need to feel whole, then we have go to outside and try to make that happen. To quote Einstein again: “The greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer.” Creativity is about just that sort of reconciliation.

Lisa Fitzhugh is founder and Executive Director of Arts Corps, an award-winning arts education program targeted at underserved communities in Seattle Washington. For more information about this project, visit


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