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Art and Beauty, Access and Wellness

artwork: Naomi Gennery

2019 was probably my worst year to date. I was doing a lot of painful personal growth, dealing with general stress at university and family issues, and my ulcerative colitis got so bad that I had to be hospitalised. My mental, emotional and physical health was falling apart, but I was still able to get through it all because to me, my bedroom was beautiful. With vintage posters, high ceilings, lavender bed sheets, incense and tear-outs from old fashion books on the walls, it wasn’t just a room, but a curated space.

That year, I realised how important my understanding of beauty and art was to my mental health. I am not talking about definitions of art and beauty that adhere to elitist and eurocentric ideals. My understanding of beauty is the desire to be in curated spaces, to own things and decorate myself in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and makes me feel beautiful. My understanding of art is the combination of aesthetic, expression and communication.

The therapeutic and healing nature of art and beauty really highlighted during the pandemic; particularly in the first lockdown in March 2020. A surge of art resources and beauty content suddenly became accessible to the masses. The National Theatre launched their ‘National Theatre at Home’ initiative as an initial response to COVID, offering free streaming on Youtube and gaining a global audience of over 12 million people. Music artists put on free ‘quarantine concerts’. People coped through dance challenges, taking their beauty routines to another level and singing songs from balconies.

Despite this, the UK government made recent plans to cut funding for arts subjects at universities by 50%. This is not unusual. In 2018, secondary schools felt the pressure to cut art subjects. In 2019, museums outside of London took a hit, and in 2020 cultural workers protested again about the lack of arts education. Now we are here, with another disappointing but unsurprising update that the government are trivialising the arts.

Reduced funding towards the arts and exclusive attitudes within the beauty industry demonstrates an apathetic attitude towards the general public and working-class folk attaining them. What the government values is linked to ‘labour market needs’. With the government pulling funding, these two essentialities become privatised and something only the privileged get to enjoy.

‘BAME’ schemes and competitions for queer and working-class folk do not remedy anything either. Instead, they demonstrate the lack of funding and intersectionality at the core of these systems.

Now, marginalised people have historically used art and beauty as a form of survival and expression. However, the ability to attain art and access the tools, information and spaces to create is difficult. For example, being excluded from dance or music lessons because funding for all types of ‘flesh coloured tights’ aren’t readily available, or the only place that sells products catered for you is deemed as ‘non-essential’.

‘BAME’ schemes and competitions for queer and working-class folk do not remedy anything either. Instead, they demonstrate the lack of funding and intersectionality at the core of these systems. They monitor the number of marginalised voices considered and expose the difficulty in accessing creative and beautifying practices. Privileged people then determine the needs and standards of marginalised people, perpetuate ‘-ism’ sentiments, and decide whether art and beauty are ‘essential’ for them, despite studies showing how necessary they are to a person’s mental health and wellbeing.

Regarding solutions, it’s important to appreciate the different parts that create inaccessibility. One issue is money. More money needs to be put into arts education, and the government needs to support the arts, beauty and cultural industries with the same energy they have for STEM. Those of us who are privileged enough to be able to spend more should support brands and organisations created by marginalised people.

Another issue is the lack of visibility of arts and beauty in discussions about therapy and how ‘-ism’ sentiments exclude marginalised people from art and beauty spaces. The true way to make it accessible is not through schemes, but by actively dismantling these spaces, and building new ones governed by intersectional theories and practices.

One of the most powerful things we can do is validate those who use art and beauty for therapy and pleasure. I will ignore rhetoric that shames marginalised people for ‘being ungrateful’ for a shack to live in, whilst they spend hours deciding between a brilliant white or a magnolia, and continue curating a beautiful and poetic life for myself. I encourage all marginalised people to keep creating and striving to attain and implement art and beauty when reimagining spaces that are nuanced enough for them to flourish.


Image credit (Tumblr)

Written by Melody Triumph

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