Adults, arts, escapism and instruction – finding the balance

By Dr Emma Durden

Many people working in the applied arts – and particularly those working in arts for health, feel that they are pulled in either one direction or another: are they artists or are they health promoters? Can you be both? Where does the main responsibility lie?

One might argue that all arts aimed at adults are essentially a health-promoting activity. Play theory asserts that entertainment and pleasure are legitimate pastimes that allow for individual growth and learning through interaction with others. Both Freud and Jung recognise the therapeutic benefits of engaging with the arts, in terms of relaxation, reflection and recreation, but how often does the working age adult get a chance to indulge in this?

Identifying the working age population is complex: the age range varies, the daily routine may be one of going to work, seeking work, facing unemployment, taking care of elderly parents or young children; the responsibilities for many adults are such that play and recreation are seen as a priority for children but not for themselves. Adult recreation or art appreciating is squeezed into weekends for some and not at all for others. So if adults are not going to the theatre, to art exhibitions or films or concerts, where else are they exposed to art?

PST Project

In southern Africa the answer is most often in the workplace. Workplace theatre is recognised as an effective strategy to disseminate new information and to keep health and safety issues top-of-mind among a workforce that is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds, language groups and educational levels.

African art has been instructional for as long as we have record of it; from the image of grandparents telling folktales around the fire to wedding dances; each story, dance and song has a message, often with strong moral overtones, and almost always as a way of ensuring that the status quo is maintained amongst the group.

This oral traditional has meant that theatre in the workplace is well accepted by both the managers who programme it and the workers who watch it. It has also, however, resulted in a view of theatre as a vehicle for top-down communication, and much of the created work lacks the very elements of art that we acknowledge as the most powerful.

Recognising that art has the ability to provoke, to cause emotional reactions, to unify or to divide, why do we avoid all of these by presenting what is essentially propaganda that reminds workers to wear their earplugs or buckle up their safety boots? Where is the conflict and the catharsis? How can we get back to the essence of art for adults beyond its instructional ability?

When we have the privilege of creating art for any group, we need to find ways to ensure that we are acknowledging the myriad possibilities of the form, rather than focusing solely on the function. How do we transport people out of the ordinary and into the art of the matter?

Is there a way for art to disrupt the patterns that we as adults all fall into, whether this is in the workplace or outside of it? Is art for adults an escape designed to help us recapture the often-overrated “innocence of youth” or can it make us think more acutely as adults about our world and our impact on it?

Being part of an arts-based experience can influence an audience’s view of the world, and encourage them to give voice to their understanding of the world and their place in it. In this way, theatre encourages engagement and analysis, and may develop creativity and critical thinking skills. Beyond the content and the form of the work; surely arts for adults should be driven by the desire to incite more critical and creative thought about the world we live in and how to change it? Isn’t this the only road to health for us all?

PST Project
PST Project

Dr Emma Durden works in the field of health communications, with a particular focus on theatre and public health in Southern Africa. She is a consultant to a number of organisations on health programming and messaging; is a partner in the industrial theatre outfit, the PST Project; manages the non-profit organisation Twist Theatre Development Projects and is an academic research advisor at the University of Zimbabwe and at the AFDA University of film and theatre in Durban, South Africa.

Visit and to learn more about her work.

The author is writing in a personal capacity. The views contained in this article do not necessarily reflect those of LAHF or the organisations described therein. Copyright is retained by the author. 

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