Beware the Rattlesnake King​

As politicians line up to sell their oily wares through political manifestos to a jaundiced public, whilst those of us in the arts and health community get excited at the prospect of the next international conference in a few weeks, this blogger remembers one of many furtive conversations he had with Mike White, who died two years ago in June 2015, and dreams of a future where the arts are provocative and exciting, and part of everyday life, and not just the fodder of that chattering middle ground.
Mike wrote what I’d describe as the seminal book in arts and health, Arts Development in Community Health: A Social Tonic. This was not a tool kit, or something claiming to be the exhaustive account of this nuanced field of inquiry, Mike simply got it, he’d done the work, knew the scene and had no pretensions. His approach to the evaluation of projects, and larger scale research, was borne of experience; his work becoming more illuminating with time. No, this wasn’t a text book of methodologies attempting to cover every angle possible, reducing the participants of culture into subjects to be done to, but an exploration of equals, informing processes, aspirations and aesthetics. No pseudo bio-medical model here.
There is something to be said for a maturation in arts/health, which Mike’s work most certainly illustrates, you see he wasn’t in a rush with it all; it had momentum, but it was evolving and it had subtle shades. I do believe that he was probably ‘doing’ co-design before it became just another part of the arts and health lexicon. 
But the furtive conversation I have in mind can’t be reproduced here, because like all good gossip, it was scandalous and contained many expletives formulated through his rich observations!  So, I’m left to allude to it. In 2011, with the contributions of over a thousand people across the North West, I put together a Manifesto for Arts & Health. At one of the workshops where I facilitated developing this shared statement of principles, Mike strayed over the border from the North East to the North West, and he was very much active in animated group discussions about what we might call the ‘neo-liberal’ forces swooping into the arts and health field, or as Mike succinctly put it – opportunist bastards. It was during this session that we developed our bleak thinking around what we called ‘snake-oil salesmen’ and the hype and self aggrandisement that surround them.

The Manifesto railed against ‘slavish instrumentalism’ and ‘elitism’, suggesting that there was no explicit formula, and that the arts and their potential in all our lives couldn’t simply be standardised and kite-marked. So in memory of Mike and the very last email I had from him, here’s a picture of the ‘Rattlesnake King’.

In 1917 the United States Government successfully prosecuted one Clark Stanley for fraudulently marketing his patented Stanley’s Snake Oil, which he claimed was “a wonderful pain destroying compound {…and…} the strongest and best liniment known for the cure of all pain and lameness.”

Rattlesnake PeteAt the ‘first’  World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, dressed in his cowboy regalia, he slaughtered hundreds of rattlesnakes, which he then claimed to process into his cure-all. Following years of bravado and large sales, in 1917 the federal government seized a quantity of the liniment and found it to contain:
mineral oil
1% fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat)
red pepper
turpentine
camphor
There was zero content of snake venom or any other snake parts! Thus the snake oil salesmen became synonymous with charlatans. Whilst perhaps not as exotic as his predecessor Rattlesnake Pete, who, in his best snakeskin jacket, we’ll keep for another day, we must keep our eye’s peeled for snake oil salesmen (or women) in both politics and our arts and health community. The good thing however, is you can smell them from a mile – if only you can ignore the hyperbole and offers of cash – and focus on your olfactory senses. I am thankful to Prof. Jeff Lorimor et al, at Iowa State University for their extensive research in this area. The modern vulgarian has some very potent chemical characteristics which make it easy to identify.
Nitrogen (N)
Ammonical Nitrogen  (NH4-N)
Phosphorus (P2O5)
Potassium (K2O)
So – here’s to the artist at the heart of arts and health – and here’s to the work and memory of Mike White – someone with great integrity who believed our work should be values based and not led by the snake-oil sellers.
Clive Parkinson is the Director of Arts for Health, which celebrates its 30th year in 2017. He is Reader in Arts, Health & Social Justice at The Manchester School of Art and a member of the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing. At the Culture, Health and Wellbeing International Conference 2017 he will co-present ongoing work with the Australian artist Vic McEwan exploring the artist’s responses to a residency at Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust. 
Footnote
I write this modest blog entry in the shadow of a terrible moment in Manchester; of pop music and death. There’s nothing I can add, but there is a need to acknowledge it. Cause and effect.
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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