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Inequality and Social Anxiety

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

5th February 2017

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson are Professors of Epidemiology who have collaborated for several years to investigate data relating to inequality. Their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which explored the effects of greater inequality within societies, became a surprise success and initiated a debate that has grown more pertinent as nations have struggled to recover from the global financial crisis. Their talk to Hebden Bridge Lit & Sci expanded on their research.

There was a time when it was felt that eliminating absolute poverty was key to improving society, but the overwhelming evidence is that it is the extent of inequality, the size of the difference between the incomes of the richest and the rest, that is at the root of failing societies. Our relative place in society gives us our sense of importance and status, and if we are low down in the hierarchy we are subject to more anxiety, stress and a sense of shame. Our sense of our own worth can effect cognitive ability – test participants who had to reveal their low caste status performed significantly worse than when this information was not made public. And the physiological effects of social anxiety have also been measured in non-human primates, where the animals lower in status had furred-up arteries and all the consequent health problems.

But it is the effects of inequality on nations that have been the main focus of the work of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. These have been measured in various ways, and the overwhelming evidence is that more unequal countries have worse outcomes across a range of areas. For example, the well-being of children is greater in societies which are more equal; there is more violent crime and higher imprisonment rates in countries which are more unequal; life expectancy is better in more equal countries, and drug and alcohol problems greater in those which are more unequal. Inequality was described as a social pollution whose effects none of us can escape from. A steeper hierarchical pyramid means a less cohesive society, where the stress effects of social anxiety can lead to a lack of trust in others and a decline in communal life, such as volunteering and caring. A society of barred gates, guards and razor wire is not a happy one.

It might be obviously in everyone’s interest to reduce these huge disparities so that we can all live in a better society, but it seems a difficult task to complete. Redistribution of wealth through taxation is one method, but one government’s decisions can easily be overturned by the next. What seems to be missing is what Professor Wilkinson described as a disciplining force against the prevailing direction of inequality – he felt this might come from a mass movement, and perhaps more workers on boards controlling remuneration, as happens in Germany. There is also the possibility of embedding measures of success other than growth in GDP – we could look for other values, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which have been internationally agreed and can be monitored.

And on an individual level, we can seek to avoid the pressures of status consumerism by cultivating friendship – proved to be one of the biggest health benefits.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

Dr Nicholas Cullinan: Picasso’s Portraits

12th November 2016

With an artist as prolific as Picasso there are always new ways to approach his work, perhaps as many ways of looking and thinking as he found ways of portraying. Dr Nicholas Cullinan is the recently appointed Director of the National Portrait Gallery and returned to his home town of Hebden Bridge to talk about the current exhibition of Picasso’s Portraits.

A packed Waterfront Hall had the fantastic treat of seeing images of the portraits in the exhibition, coming from major public and private collections across the world, with many never before placed on public view. Dr Cullinan hinted at the persuasion and arm twisting involved in getting galleries and private owners to agree to lending their prized Picassos. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that an impecunious young Picasso couldn’t afford the best materials, so many of the early works are becoming very fragile. Nevertheless the range of portraits in all media that have been brought together gives a strong sense of the development of Picasso’s art of portraiture.

Picasso never painted portraits as commissions – those he portrayed are friends, wives, lovers and children, so he wasn’t seeking to please someone else. His style was adapted to the subject – different women for example are portrayed in diametrically different ways, and convey his changing emotions, from tender classical drawings, to massive statuesque figures and the disruption of cubism, all capture something essential about the relationship between artist, subject, medium and style.

Picasso doesn’t only engage with the subject, in his painting he is also engaging with conventions of portraiture and art; the work of the great masters of history and his admired contemporaries are also part of the make up of his art. Dr Cullinan’s comments and descriptions added pertinently to the images that we could see. It was fascinating for example that while a beautiful classical study of his wife Olga was taken from a photograph while a complex cubist portrait of his dealer Ambroise Vollard was made from life. Even the most seemingly abstract of Picasso’s portraits are imbued with the life of the subject, especially when he is painting his lovers and his children.

A constant for Picasso, as for many great artists, was the self portrait. There was an early self portrait drawing made when he was fourteen which showed extraordinary mastery. At other times he portrayed himself as in various characters and roles, or simplified into a symbol, with the trademark blue striped sweater. Whatever the style it his dark eyes that draw you … both literally and metaphorically. All this art is about ways of looking, and after such a stimulating introduction from Dr Cullinan, many in the audience will surely be finding their way to the National Portrait Gallery to see for themselves.

This talk was another exceptional opportunity brought to Hebden Bridge by the Literary & Scientific Society. Two more talks follow in 2017. On February 4th there will be a chance to hear Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, co-authors of the book ‘The Spirit Level’ speak about ‘Inequality and Social Anxiety’ and on March 18th Professor Angie Hobbs will speak about ‘Philosophy and the Public Good.’ Tickets are priced at £10 with £8 for concessions and are available from the Town Hall.

Thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

‘Are conductors really necessary?

Sir Mark Elder,

Music Director of the Hallé Orchestra

1st October 2016

One of the oldest cultural societies in Hebden Bridge is undergoing something of a renaissance. The Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society was founded in 1905, but grew directly from the aspirations of local Co-operative Society members and their links with Oxford University in the previous century. The Lit & Sci was the ground in which grew the Little Theatre, the Camera Club, the Local History Society and the Astronomy Group. In recent years, while these groups have thrived, the Lit & Sci itself has held events only intermittently. Now the committee are hoping to see it successfully resurrected with a series of lectures by people with international recognition in their fields.

The inaugural talk at the Waterfront Hall, Hebden Bridge saw Sir Mark Elder, Music Director of the Hallé Orchestra, consider the question ‘Are conductors really necessary?’ He immediately charmed the audience by relating how, before taking to the conductor’s podium at Bridgewater Hall, he habitually gives a pat to a small elephant purchased from a Hebden Bridge antique shop. What emerged strongly was his power as a communicator. This is a quality essential to a conductor, who, as he explained, has to be true to the music he hears with his inner ear. The communication process could be seen as intellectual, but the method is intensely physical, with the tiniest inflections and gestures conveying something of the musical quality he is seeking.

Sir Mark spoke eloquently of his experiences as a conductor of orchestras all over the world. It was a rare privilege to hear from someone so passionately involved in his art and craft, communicating so directly with an audience largely consisting of non-musicians. The role of conductor is one curiously balanced between power and vulnerability, summed up powerfully in Sir Mark’s image of needing to wear a protective coat of armour but always willingly exposing an open heart.

Hebden Bridge can now look forward to three other lectures in this winter season. On Saturday 12th November, Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, will be speaking about ‘Picasso’s Portraits’. An exhibition of these portraits is currently at the National Portrait Gallery. Described in the national press as a visionary and exciting new talent, Dr. Nicholas Cullinan has already enjoyed a stellar career at the Tate Gallery, London, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has close family links to Hebden Bridge, and indeed has spoken at the Waterfront Hall before, about Matisse and his Cut-Outs.

The Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society is set to bring more top class speakers to the town. On February 4th 2017 there will be a chance to hear Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, co-authors of the book ‘The Spirit Level’ speak about ‘Inequality and Social Anxiety’ and on March 18th Professor Angie Hobbs will speak about ‘Philosophy and the Public Good.’ Tickets are priced at £10 with £8 for concessions and are available from the Town Hall, Hebden Bridge.

It seems that the Lit & Sci is set to go from strength to strength.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report