The Arts are not really doing dementia any favours. Some high quality work, for sure, but less than might be expected. And certainly far less than there should be.

There have been a number of surveys of the arts and dementia of which Nicci Gerrard’s survey in the Guardian is instructive.

She restricts herself mostly to how well art depicts dementia. She places the Arts directly in the context of real lived experience. She sees the emotional authenticity in the way the artist captures dementia as the hallmark of good work. This skews what she covers towards fiction and stage, with no real room for visual art and sound, for example. The tone is also uncritical but there is real value in looking at how art from different genres stacks up side-by-side.

Most valuable in the Guardian article is its focus on the quality of work. How refreshing to see a national piece which avoids the agenda set by therapeutic industry. What normally dominates writing on the arts and dementia is a narrative about uplifting mood-change and the promise of hope from access to the arts and from participation. The funding criteria used by many funders are largely to blame for this narrowing of what is meant by the arts where dementia is concerned. It stifles the real potential for what art could mean for our insight into dementia from many more perspectives.

So the Guardian piece is welcome but it still feels too literal. Art which engages with dementia has to declare itself as literally about dementia to be included here. I propose we should go much further than this. We need to see support given to art which stimulates challenges and on occasion even makes a profound difference to how we see, feel and think about issues relevant to dementia. Much of such art is unlikely to signal it is about dementia, putting dementia in some sort of safe artistic ghetto. It will transcend such boundaries. It will be first and foremost powerful art.

In the last couple of years the Diametric blog has been exploring how to open this wider and more critical approach to the Arts and dementia. Two recent pieces have looked at a couple of blockbuster installations which would not normally be seen as being “about dementia”. In neither case has the artist themselves mentioned dementia. But each work, which undeniably is regarded as international quality work, engages profoundly with issues relevant to us and dementia.

You can read the piece on Amish Kapoor’s Descension here.

The blog on Bill Viola is here.

The Dementia Festival of Ideas is about taking this sort of challenge further. How to overcome the implications of literalism will be explored at the Master Class which the Festival of Ideas is holding during the Edinburgh Festival.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see an arts festival in future which is about a wide range of work where literal representation of dementia is set aside and profound art takes centre stage?


Mark Butler

Director, Dementia Festival of Ideas

This article is adapted from an original publication funded in August 2015 by the Dementia Services Development Trust.