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2021/01/13

The future of arts and culture-driven well-being

Associate Professor at Waseda University, School of Culture, Media and Society since 2017
Dominique Chen

Series: The future of arts and culture-driven well-being
“Well-being” refers to a positive state in terms of mind, body, and society.
Under the supervision of Dominique Chen, we present a three-part special edition on arts and culture-driven well-being in the era of life under coronavirus.


In 2020, as the menace of COVID-19 enveloped the globe, the world of arts and culture saw considerable upheaval. From an industry point of view, the very existence of many arts-related roles is now threatened, with events such as concerts and theatrical performances that mobilize large audiences, as well as art exhibitions, forced into being downsized, canceled or postponed. The industry has explored various methods of performance and exhibition online, but issues such as a drastic reduction in revenue and lost employment opportunities have become apparent; and with infection rates still worsening, the situation continues to be unpredictable.

With arts and culture in a broad sense forced to undergo structural change in order to survive, it seems important to support those employed in the arts and culture sector, from artists to facility employees, not just financially but also emotionally. Without being limited to exhibitions and performance facilities, many people who make a living from work labeled “unnecessary and non-urgent” by official organizations have to also contend with the social pressure of being asked to justify their own existence.
I myself work mainly as a university faculty member and researcher, but I can’t say with confidence that I am managing to provide a proper learning environment for my students, having run classes online only for almost a year. As a researcher too, I’m not conducting research with any “immediate effect” and I sometimes wonder how much social significance my work really has.

Even among my students, there is a definite increase in those who are suffering from loneliness and a feeling of helplessness. I think much of the meaning of university life lies in meeting and being inspired by diverse people rather than in the lessons provided by teachers, and it is difficult to have a successful sense of interaction with other people through screen-based communication that is merely intermittent.

Even so, experiencing works of fine literature and artistic expression and continuing to proactively engage in creation during this time certainly appears to provide just enough energy and enthusiasm to live positively within this depressing situation. In that sense, ironically, I think that the “social benefits” of arts and culture have been brought into even more relief than before the pandemic. The concept of well-being provides a path for thinking about this.

Well-being research to date

Well-being is a central concept in positive psychology which explores the factors generating psychological fulfillment. It is often compared to happiness, but happiness is an integrated feeling, while well-being is concerned with looking at numerous factors that satisfy the heart and mind and analyzing the correlation between these factors. In terms of how to understand well-being, in addition to the medical perspective of mental health treatment, some study focuses on factors in short-term pleasure such as enjoyment and comfort, and some on long-term factors like a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and a sense of achievement.

Twentieth-century research on well-being has looked principally at the correlation between economic conditions and well-being from the perspective of social psychology and behavioral economics. There was found to be a certain correlation between household income and well-being around the world, but at the same time it was discovered that when income exceeded a certain level well-being did not increase any further. In other words, it was suggested that, although a minimum level of income is required for maintaining physical and mental health, well-being does not continue to show linear improvement even if income exceeds a certain level. It was also found that in some parts of the world this correlation did not apply at all. Studies analyzing data from Japan during the post-war period of rapid economic growth suggest that the well-being of the Japanese people remained flat even when GDP was soaring from the 1950s through the 1980s, while data from poorer Central and South American countries found that people’s well-being was higher than in Western countries even without money. Into the 21st century, with collecting and sharing data made easy on the Internet, the study of well-being has accelerated, enabling all kinds of factors to be investigated including weather and climate, the presence or absence of a natural environment, the degree of urbanization, family structure, social justice, and political corruption *1.

*1: Diener, Ed & Oishi, Shigehiro & Tay, Louis. (2018). Advances in subjective well-being research. Nature Human Behaviour. 10.1038/s41562-018-0307-6.

In addition to conducting research myself into the positive and negative impact of information technology on well-being *2, I have also investigated the cultural differences surrounding the concept of well-being with co-researchers. In short, the study of many conventional well-being theories has concentrated on Europe and the US, but the non-Western countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East have shown a variety of different characteristics. Strictly speaking, cultural values in Asia cannot be lumped together as they differ depending on the country, and even the single country of Japan has ways of thinking that differ depending on the region. From the perspective of cultural relativism, you could say that the idea of what is necessary for well-being ultimately differs depending on the community to which the individual belongs. Therefore, instead of applying data to existing theories, we ask the individual to define their own well-being factors and proceed with our research on the basis of analyzing these. What is then highlighted is not an isolated view of the individual but a intersubjective perspective which captures the relationship of the individual with others *3.

*2: Rafael A. Calvo, Dorian Peters “Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential” (The MIT Press, 2014)(the Japanese translation was published by BNN, inc. in 2017 (translation supervisors: Junji Watanabe, Dominique Chen)
*3: Junji Watanabe, Dominique Chen (Supervisors/Writers/Editors) Hideyuki Ando, Kyosuke Sakakura, Aiko Murata (Writers/Editors) “To Create Our Wellbeing Together: Philosophy, Practice and Technology (BNN, Inc. 2020)

Art and Well-being

Fumiko Shimano, a student in my seminars, has conducted a study of the relationship between arts practice and intersubjective well-being *4, and in it she summarized her own experimental proposal and a survey of basic trends. The principal background to the study is the publication in 2019 of a World Health Organization (WHO) report “What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being?” *5. The report includes a meta-review of 900 papers and over 3,000 studies published between 2000 and 2019, which covers areas ranging from performing arts, visual arts, literature and participation in events at cultural institutions, to online and digital forms of expression. The report states four areas where arts practice is thought to have a positive impact: the prevention of illness and the promotion of well-being, in terms of promoting awareness of issues like social inequality, supporting child development, preventing mental health problems, and supporting caregiving; and the management and treatment of conditions across the life cycle from mental health problems to terminal care. It is not possible for me to elaborate on the report’s conclusions here, so I am merely outlining them; but based on this accumulation of scientific evidence, the report recommends that more nations formulate public policies and measures to assist and encourage the arts with health and well-being in mind. If you look at research trends like this, you can see that the arts are not “unnecessary and non-urgent” but rather play an active role in combatting various life challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, nations must not seek recompense by taking advantage of artists for national marketing purposes or by conflating creative behavior with medical “efficacy.” We must never forget the premise of free and autonomous expression by the individual.

*4: Fumiko Shimano “Proposal for a workshop aiming for the realization of well-being through creative activities”
2020 Seminar Paper (to be published online in March 2021), Study of Media, Body and Image, School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University
*5: Fancourt, D., & Finn, S. (2019)“What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being?”

In addition, it is important to note that in the WHO report, “arts practice” is collectively taken to mean both exhibition and performance by professional artists and acts of creative expression by unknown non-professionals like children and students. However, at the same time is it not important to regard both as a contiguous spectrum rather than being in opposition? Shimano whom I mentioned previously conducted an experiment in which she asked participants to freely assemble “works” which they could put together however they liked from materials with different textures, so they could experience them tactilely as well as visually. The works were then sent out to all participants who physically handled their fellow participants’ works and then shared their feedback online. In this part of the experiment the act of creation was closed to every participant, but you can clearly see the antithetical aspect of the experiment: it was set up as one in which participants communicated with each other while physically handling each other’s works, yet all types of interaction are restricted to the online environment under our remote life. Though a small-scale experiment, participants reported a sense of accomplishment in terms of receiving online feedback about their creations from others in the form of communication based on actual touch.

Towards expression of well-being created with others

I myself have unexpectedly engaged in activities dealing with the relationship between creative expression and communication under the coronavirus pandemic. In the ongoing special exhibition “traNslatioNs – Understanding Misunderstanding” at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT (held since October 2020 until June 2021) for which I have served as director since mid-2019, translation is presented as a process involving assorted acts of expression and communication. A wide variety of professionals have exhibited their work, including a psychologist creating a database of untranslatable words, a bilingual speaker who travels back and forth between the worlds of sign language and natural language, a designer who translates unspoken emotions into graphics, and an artist exploring possibility for sexual affections with more than human species. The overall exhibition does not especially espouse well-being, but is based on the concept that communication, rather than being something aimed at perfect mutual understanding, is a process in which meaning inevitably falls through the cracks, and the concept that one’s global perception changes by concentrating on mutually incomprehensible elements.

Our screen time has increased as we shut ourselves up at home due to the coronavirus. Critical research has been undertaken into the effect of the machine learning technology behind social media, in the way it is able to capture the attention of the individual and drive the individual’s interest to an excessive level by continuously presenting information designed to stimulate. If opportunities to encounter people who are physically present decrease, and we continue to immerse ourselves in information that brings momentary pleasure, it will become difficult to encounter different values and broaden our awareness. For me, literature and art provide a way of escaping myself through contact with the lives of others in a vicarious experience; I become another person, so to speak. As an information studies researcher, I would like to continue thinking about designing social media and information systems based on these values but to that end, I think we need to reaffirm the well-being factors that arts and culture has encompassed since ancient times and share them with society.


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Series: The future of arts and culture-driven well-being