Marina Tsaplina, October 2018

Provocation for Creating Healthy Communities: Arts & Public Health in America


I would like to open up rigorous discussion about the nature and substance of the artistic inquiry we are discussing and what we mean, exactly when we make a link and call for evidence between Art, well-being and public health.  I hope the following story will help to illuminate the question I’d like for us to grapple with:

Like my mother, Colin Huggins is a classical pianist. Unlike my mother, since 2007 he rolls his baby grand piano out into Washington Square Park in Manhattan every day to play for whomever it is that is in the public square. In a facebook post a couple of years ago, he observed how different pieces of music land on the people in the park. He was playing a composition that held a lot of turbulence and tension in its movements. Several people came up to him, asking and even demanding that he play something else, something lighter. It seemed they were somehow offended to hear  music that held shades of human experience that are not all sunlight and roses. But at the finish of the long piece, someone approached him who had been listening the whole time. They expressed to Colin how much that music spoke to them and shared an experience of prolonged illness that either they or their loved one had lived with for many years. The testimony of the music had found a life to which it testfied. But what about those people in the park who, for whatever reason, did not want to receive this music?

Now, if we were to give an evaluation following this musical experience to the people in the park with a likert scale, we might predict that there would be a big gap in response between the different people who approached Colin. Yet that is not a reflection of the quality of the testimony of the music.

I understand my Artist task on this earth to be to feel into every corner of darkness and light, to be open to receive the beauty and the terror that is alive within me, and to attempt, again and again and again, through discipline and exasperation to give it form- so that others may see and feel it too.

All Art is a testimony to the depths and heights of the experience of being human, capturing that which plain language cannot. And this testimony serves other human beings by aiding them to see their own reality anew because we are not transparent to ourselves.

But as we have seen in the courts this week, testimony is not easy to receive. It implies the presence of a witness who will bear responsibility to the account. Artistic work summons us to acknowledge our great capacity for beauty but also for destruction, and an acknowledgement thereof would mean we are now responsible for both.
Isn’t this why artistic inquiry, just as the voice of lived human experience, is often the most fragile, getting lost – or purposefully suppressed – by policies and systems?

The best definition of health that I have found comes from a book written by the great peacebuilder John Paul Lederach who works in areas of deeply entrenched generational violence. He asks what enables for genuine processes of social healing to begin in communities that have had decades of entrenched violence? And he writes the following:


“Imagine health as the capacity to acknowledge and artistically mobilize
memory and hope as ongoing features of the unique qualities of being human. The journey of health requires a capacity to create meaning from a chaotic past while bringing forward the image of a hoped-for future.”

Artistic work is testimony that delivers voice of experience inexpressible in regular language and it calls upon the human heart to open and receive its own self so that it can be rooted in empathetic engagement and human reciprocity. Yet Art can not guarantee that its testimony will be received, because receiving Arts’ testimony calls forth facing with honesty ones own capacity for beauty and terror.

Into Colin Huggins piano is carved in print block letters: “this machine kills fascists.” Certainly, he doesn’t mean that his piano transforms into a tank that shoots bullets. And Toni Cade Bambara asked, “are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

So my question is, how can we shape our understanding of well-being and evidence to reflect and capture the true processes of social healing that artistic inquiry engages by delivering the testimony of the voice of communities, to people who do not always want to receive them?