Tracing health back to wholeness

Christopher Bailey, co-founder of the Jameel Arts & Health Lab, a collaboration between Community Jameel, WHO, NYU Steinhardt and CULTURUNNERS, said in an interview with Napkin Poetry Review: "WHO defines health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, but the attainment to the highest level of physical, mental, and social wellbeing. What's important about that definition from an arts context is oftentimes, people over-medicalise the arts and start focusing on measures that are based on deficits, the reduction of disease or symptoms. But the real power of the arts is the opposite: the true definition of health. It's raising your physical wellbeing to its highest degree, your mental wellbeing to its highest degree, your social wellbeing to its highest degree. It's a positive asset. It's not the lack of a deficit."

He adds, "Through the Jameel Arts & Health Lab, we’ve created a consortium of research centres around the world that are filling out the evidence base, developing robust studies to not only look at arts-based health interventions at the clinical or community level, but also at the fundamental bioscience and neuroscience foundational level. Why does this work? What do we understand about the mechanism?"


We often define health by a lack of disease. But drawing from his expansive career across arts and sciences, Christopher Bailey says, “To trace its etymology, the word health itself comes from an Anglo-Saxon root, which is a cognate to the word whole. Health is not about the absence of a weakness, but rather about being a complete person.” Now serving as the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, he creates and shares global initiatives for health and healing. His work, informed by his own experience of losing his sight, also inspires us to broaden our understandings of beauty and perception. Challenging the tendency to over-medicalize health, he says, “It's a positive asset. It's not the lack of a deficit.” And the arts, as you’ll read here, can help us reach that highest quality of being human and alive.

What was your journey to become a leading advocate for arts in health?

It’s funny looking back on it. If you were to describe my current work to me at any point in my life's journey, I would've laughed and said, no, that's not the plan. But fate had other ideas. As Nietzsche once said with his term amor fati, part of maturing is falling in love with your fate and saying, you know what? I didn't know I was going to be here. But every step of it made sense. Every step of it was leading me to this moment.

Throughout my life, I've toggled back and forth between the arts and the sciences. When I started getting too comfortable in one, I would begin to yearn for the other. When I was a professional actor in my twenties, I did a lot of interesting work, but I also did work that was not particularly compelling. And I just thought, what am I doing with my life? Similarly, when I would get more involved in the sciences, there were times when I felt I wasn’t doing anything for my soul. Unconsciously, I began to lean towards combinations of arts and health to navigate those two interests.

Napkin Poetry

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