The Arts and Religion – Shared Predicaments

I have spent quite a bit of my time in recent years – whether in the BBC or at Welsh National Opera or the Arts Council – making evangelical statements about the value of the arts in Welsh life. It went with the job. Often it was a question of preaching to the converted, cheering up artists and arts organisations as they clung to their artistic ambitions in the face of philistine authorities and inadequate funding. At other times, it was a question of making the case to those very same authorities, national and local – the leader of the worst of them once described to me as ‘a philistine with a capital F’.

In either case, there was usually little to be gained by under-statement, even if hard evidence was in short supply – a crucial deficiency in an age where measurement is worshipped in too many spheres. One supportive but provocative analyst of the arts, John Knell, had warned us all of the profound weakness of arguments for the instrumental power of the arts: “nothing serious”, he said, “just the complete absence of theoretical and empirical causality.” But it was a reminder of how many of one’s arguments rested on a faith in the arts – an inner certainty – and of the way in which art and religion not only share a similar space in the mind, but also share so many similar features and obstacles in connecting with people today.

It has become clichéd to ask whether the arts constitute a new secular religion, prompting one art historian to dismiss the posited substitution of art for religion as a ‘romantic middle class penchant’ and another to describe it as ‘leftist clap-trap’. But the idea has history.

Writing in 1880, just 21 years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, Matthew Arnold famously wrote “There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve… More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry our science will appear incomplete, and most of what passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”

This itself was but an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche, writing only two years earlier: “Growing enlightenment has shaken the dogmas of religion and generated a thorough mistrust of it; therefore feeling, forced out of the religious sphere by enlightenment, throws itself into art.”

Whatever you think of the pessimism of an Arnold or Nietzsche about religion, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that the arts, if not a substitute for religion, seem now to constitute a new secular creed, that sits very comfortably with the other secular creed of environmentalism, with which it has a powerful relationship.

Art and religion have both been seen at different times and in different places as hallmarks of civilisation. Civilisations were often defined by their religions – Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Confucian. Those outside were lesser mortals. The contrasting of Christian with pagan now has a dated ring, just like the use of pejorative terms – such as infidel and kafir – to describe those outside the self-drawn boundaries of Christianity or Islam.

In the past, kings, princes or prince bishops built cathedrals, today their sober-suited successors build opera houses, and art galleries and vie to be capitals of culture. The pilgrimage culture of the past has been replaced by cultural tourism – the long trudge to Rome or Canterbury replaced by the cheap flight to London, Bilbao, Sydney or New York.

In the past the parish church was the hallmark of the community – it defined the place, y llan – witness the 1,430 buildings of the Church in Wales alone, let alone the profusion of nonconformist chapels. Today the map of Wales is studded with new arts venues, the result of one of the biggest programmes of communal architecture since the chapel-building of the nineteenth century –

Galeri in Caernarfon, the new Craft Centre in Ruthin, Theatr Clwyd in Mold, Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon, Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan, the Riverfront Theatre in Newport, the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, the Taliesin Centre in Swansea, Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno, the Davies Gallery in Newtown, Oriel y Parc in St. Davids, and, of course, the Wales Millennium Centre. Others, of course, are the result of the conversion of some of those self same chapels – The Gate, a Christian arts centre from the Plasnewydd Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, the Welsh MOMA gallery from Machynlleth’s Tabernacle, or the Valleys Kids centre from the Soar chapel at Penygraig in the Rhondda.

I have had the good fortune to attend numerous openings of these buildings and have seen many a builder, who like John Ormond’s Cathedral Builders[1], had

‘climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,….

and later

…stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration,

envied the fat bishop his warm boots,

cocked a squint eye aloft,

and said, “I bloody did that.”

I have sometimes been tempted to compare this profusion of arts centres with another epoch of dominant buildings – Edward I’s chain of Welsh castles. But the difference is that our new arts centres are not only of more modest scale, but they have grown out of our own culture and imagination and our love towards it, rather than standing as a brutal expression of alien force. Of course, these centres do not need to be as numerous as our churches and chapels, since catchment areas are rigorously calculated in the age of the car, but there is a hierarchy even in these buildings: some serving localities; others, wider regions; others, the whole nation.

Most arts centres, like cathedrals, have been built by believers, people who feel the vocation of the arts: people who have not only dreamed dreams but also found the necessary determination, persistence, enterprise, patience and obstinacy and, of course, patronage – often over long periods, although rather less time than it took to build most of the cathedrals in western Europe.

And what of the function of these centres? Are they preaching to the converted, or attempting to spread an art gospel, hoping against hope that they will reel in enough doubters, or claim enough conversions to be posted in newspaper league tables as in the 1904 revival, or, these days, in performance reports to an Arts Council or local authority? Are they indicative of a groundswell of support or just small islands of hope in a sea of indifference?

Here again there are uncanny similarities between the situation of the arts and the situation of religion. Supporters vastly outnumber believers or attenders, much as enthusiasts for the existence of BBC Radio 3 vastly outnumber the number of its actual listeners. Art and religion are valued public goods, and both seem to be subject to the 80-20 rule.

In Scotland, 82% believe that central government has a responsibility to support the arts and culture. In England 79% take the same view. In Wales three quarters of the population believe that the arts and culture make Wales a better place to live in, while 80% believed that taking part in arts and cultural activity helps people build their confidence. In much the same vein, in the 2001 Census 78% of respondents said they had a religion, and a later Home Office survey confirmed an almost identical figure, although with a distinct difference between men and women: 83% of women claimed to have a religion, against 74% for men.

But the upbeat advocacy that such figures tend to encourage, in both churches and arts organisations, has its dangers. I note that in the official report of the Home Office survey, the statements of general religious affiliation, broken down into religious groupings, are translated in both the tables and the commentary into faith communities, perhaps giving the appearance of something more solid than our daily experience suggests.

Arts protagonists, too, are prone to look too much on the bright side. A huge Arts Council of Wales survey in 2005 – a sample of 7,000 in Wales alone – saw 76% claiming to attend an arts event once a year or more, but by the definitions used this could have involved simply taking your grandchild to the cinema. A fifth of the sample claimed to have participated in at least one arts activity once a year or more, but this could have been the local carnival. I wouldn’t for a moment underestimate the worth of taking your grandchildren to the cinema, or the individual pleasure or community value of dressing up for a carnival, but arts advocates and religionists have always to beware of over-claiming.

Unfortunately, we do not have the data to make a direct comparison of total attendances for both the arts and the churches. On one measure it may be that the arts and religion are not that far apart. In the arts you would have to combine figures for attendances at the subsidised arts, at professional and amateur performances and even cinema attendances. And, of course, skirt around contentious distinctions between the arts and commercial entertainment.

In 2001 a survey for the Arts Council identified 87 arts venues in Wales, presenting 5,898 performances, and attended by a total of 1,763,235 people. This figure has certainly risen, largely owing to the opening of the many new centres that I have referred to. For instance, since its move into the Wales Millennium Centre, WNO has managed to more than double the audience to opera in Cardiff. The investment of £2million a year, from 2005 onwards, in arts venues outside Cardiff – a conscious balancing of the investment in the Wales Millennium Centre – will have increased both the number and quality of performances as well as the investment in marketing. I would now estimate a total attendance figure of on or above two million. And this leaves out of account any performances at venues not supported by the Arts Council, such as attendance at arts events in chapels, churches and community halls.

The 2008 data for the Church in Wales suggests a total attendance of 2,326,509 for that church alone. Total mass attendances for the Roman Catholic dioceses in Wales would add another 1.8 million – bringing the cumulative attendances to more than four million for both churches together across the year. To that you would have to add guesses for attendances for nonconformist denominations – that some would describe as near terminal – and the more upbeat figures from some charismatic congregations.

But these totals for the arts and for the churches are misleading without some sense of how many separate individuals they represent. It is like the common mistake of measuring the success of websites by the total hits rather than the number of unique users. For instance, for 2008 the Church in Wales put its average weekly attendance of people over the age 18 at 37,681 across 1,179 churches used weekly – that is an average of 32 people per church per week. It is a fair assumption that a significant part of that congregation will show some consistency of attendance, in sharp contrast to, say, attendance at an opera performance, where WNO has calculated that, on average, people attend one of its productions only once every three years.

This, maybe, is how one can reconcile the figures for total attendances with other data that show the Church in Wales’s electoral roll at around 66,000 or 2% of the population, or that claims that only 6% of the population attend church in any year while, in contrast, 76% claim to attend some kind of arts event.

I should that stress that these comparisons are based on very disparate sets of data. However, their most striking feature is not the absolute comparisons – after all, we are comparing quite different things involving personal commitments that are qualitatively different. Neither is it a competition. No, the crucial difference is the trajectory – arts attendances in Wales showing a significant increase of around 40% between 1993 and 2005, while church attendances – for all denominations, taken as a whole – have more than halved over the last quarter of a century. The interesting debate is about whether these trends are related, whether they are simply reflecting shifting sands on the same shore of continuing spiritual need.

One of the difficulties in answering these questions is that there is an astonishing dearth of attitudinal research on religion in Wales. Because, unlike the churches, so much of the arts relies on public funding, the sector has had to develop at least the foundations of an evidence base to bolster its case to Government. The Arts Council of Wales carries out regular research on attitudes to the arts, attempting to pin down motivations and barriers. Individual arts organisations are also currently shoring up their defences against public expenditure cuts by commissioning economic impact studies.

By contrast, I have been unable to unearth anything comparable from any of the churches – who enjoy the advantages and disadvantages of financial independence – or from academia.

Professor Densil Morgan’s fascinating narrative on the Christian religion and Society in the 20th century[2] was published more than ten years ago and is, as he acknowledges in his introduction, written from the top down rather than from the bottom up, as well as giving much space to doctrinal developments. It is a history by a theologian not a sociologist. I state that, not as criticism but as fact. Such data as it uses harks back to the 1980s or even earlier. A single interesting attitudinal survey of the congregation of one chapel dates from 1955 – a distant continent on today’s mental map.

Surely, there is ample scope now for a major academic research project that would give us a more accurate map of faith communities in Wales as well as a more detailed picture of current Welsh attitudes to spirituality, religion and religious practice, and their relationship to other issues such as culture, language and environment. This could deliver something of real value in terms that would be of use to the churches, government and wider civil society. And could it not be framed in such a way as to attract funding from the appropriate research council, rather than have its cost fall on the churches themselves?

In the course of preparing this talk Archbishop Barry Morgan sent me an extremely informative advocacy document published by the Church in Wales[3]. It is a very effective little booklet, but I was immediately struck by its similarity, in both style and substance, to a publication by the Arts Council of Wales. Both concentrate on selling the case, not for the intrinsic value of arts or of the Christian faith, but for their instrumental benefits – the social, educational and community outreach, commitments to volunteering and sustainability. The emphasis in both reflects not only a generalised political requirement, but also the difficulty of finding acceptable language to make the intrinsic case to either the public or politicians in a more utilitarian and secular climate.

At one level the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have a more powerful instrumental case to make than the arts, since together they are such an important part of our education system – supporting no less than 260 primary and secondary schools across Wales[4]. They are also involved in the provision of social housing. The arts in contrast are struggling to hold their place in the education system, against the pressures of over-prescriptive curricula – helped in Wales only by the beneficial influence of the Urdd and its eisteddfod. Wales has not made the same investment in arts and music education in our schools that has been seen in England and Scotland.

The language of advocacy has also been a problem for the arts. One influential cultural commentator, John Holden, at the time the Head of Culture at the think tank Demos, drew attention to the difficult triangular conversation between arts, professionals, politicians and the public.[5] Politicians are more comfortable dealing with the instrumental arguments, although the emphasis on the instrumental benefits of the arts has still not led to a fundamental repositioning of the arts and culture in spending priorities.

The public and the professionals, on the other hand, are more concerned with intrinsic values, although each may interpret that differently – for most people perhaps just ‘a good night out’ or even ‘a spiritually moving experience’. But the language of arts professionals can often be uncomfortable for a substantial portion of the public. Holden concluded that the result of these divergent concerns was ‘that the relationships between the public, politicians and professionals has become a closed ill-tempered conversation between professionals and politicians, while the news pages of the media play a destructive role between politics and the public.’

Does a similar problematic triangle now exist in the field of religion, although playing out in a different way? Is there here a bigger gap between the professionals – the organised churches – and the public, with an ambivalent political class willing to recognise the institutional value of religion in underpinning accepted moral codes, (although seemingly, not all religions to the same degree) but running scared of  media that are more generally sceptical of all religious conviction, and where religion, race, security and national identity are often carelessly entangled?

There is then the question of vocabulary. A more recent piece of research on the arts and public engagement, carried out for the Arts Council of Wales[6], suggested that the terminology of arts promotion and development is critical and that the term ‘arts’ has an alienating effect for a significant proportion of the public. The term ‘creativity’, on the other hand, had greater resonance and, apparently, ‘facilitated consideration of a wider range of activities’. Note that the Scottish Arts Council has been re-christened Creative Scotland.

This unexceptional research finding simply confirms that particular vocabulary can serve as either positive or negative triggers. And in a world where even some of our poets grieve at the ‘severing of the link between the English language and Christian iconography’ regretting ‘the loss of a shared symbolic language’[7], it is probable that these positive and negative triggers exist in the religious field too.

Creativity, yes – arts, no. In recent times in Wales we have heard opera house, no/Millennium Centre, yes. But is it also a case of – spiritual, yes/religious, no; meditation, yes/prayer, no; or perhaps, prayer, yes/worship, no; more problematic still God, yes/Christ, no? Of course, while the arts can choose to adjust its terminology, that choice is not available to a whole system of belief. A religion cannot be defined by focus group. In any case, this concern for the ‘right’ terminology is the result of a misguided obsession with accessibility as a democratic requirement, that has, in the arts, on many occasions led to a self-defeating dilution of artistic ambition and conviction. I am sure that these issues have had parallels in the debates on liturgical reform, in the task of marrying doctrine and comprehension without losing a necessary poetry. I confess that I am one of those who regrets the loss of some of the surging cadences that propelled forward the old communion service.

Much debate on the arts and religion has centred on their separation – now regarded as extreme – following a slow divorce between the two that began with the Renaissance. Music’s shift from the church to the concert hall. Painting’s shift not only to the gallery but also to the auction house. The American Gordon Graham, in his Stanton lectures at Cambridge, adopted an adversarial pitch arguing that ‘the abandonment of religion, it seems, must mean the permanent disenchantment of the world, and any ambition on the part of art to remedy this is doomed to failure’.[8] Another American, James Elkins, of the Art Institute of Chicago, in a breezily written book, The strange place of religion in contemporary art, comments on the almost total exclusion of religion from the discourse on contemporary art. Though perplexed by this, he argues that ‘it is impossible to talk sensibly about religion and at the same time address art in an informed and intelligent manner’. But he adds that ‘it is also irresponsible not to keep trying’.

A more heartfelt cri de coeur has come from the Scottish composer, James Macmillan, and the poet and librettist, Michael Symmons Roberts. Both are committed Christians, and collaborated to create a new opera for WNO – The Sacrifice, based on the story of Branwen from the Mabinogion. It premiered in 2007 after more than five years of work. Both men have complained about the marginalisation of religion in art, especially by media commentators and critics.

While sharing David Jones’s grief at ‘the loss of shared symbolic language’, expressed by him as far back as 1952, Roberts argued that poetry should look to new metaphors in science – and that ‘far from being opposites, science and religion are at heart concerned with truth and falsehood, both are grounded in narratives and both searching for meaning in the world”. The attraction of science for poets seems to be increasing, and is particularly evident not only in Roberts’ own work but also in that of Wales’s first national poet, Gwyneth Lewis, not least in her recent epic open, A Hospital Odyssey[9].

Macmillan sees himself fighting a situation where ‘a smug ignorance, a gross simplification and caricature that serves as an analytical understanding of religion, is the common intellectual currency’[10].

But he does re-affirm music’s ‘veritable umbilical link with the sacred’. Citing Gorecki, Part, Schnittke, Schoenberg, Britten, and Taverner he contends  that ‘far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant, animating principle in modern music and continues to promise much for the future’. However, I would have to say that it is not easy to make the same claim in the music scene in Wales or, for that matter today in the realm of Welsh literature or art, despite the shadow of R.S.Thomas, or the happy coincidence of two successive highly literate archbishops.

Only today the Guardian carried a column by its drama critic, Michael Billington, arguing that while sex and politics permeates the theatre, religion rarely gets a look in, again a condition that also applies to drama in Wales, with singular exception of Aled Jones Williams, an Anglican priest writing in the Welsh language.

Billington ends his column with this plea: “Where is the modern equivalent of Brecht’s Gailileo, which pits science against religion? Or of Shaw’s St. Joan, which both puts the case for its heroine’s direct access to God and explains the need for her political extinction? No-one can write masterpieces to order, but since we are confronted by the tensions in organised religion and the vacuum created by unalloyed materialism, isn’t it time faith made a comeback as a subject fit for drama.” A mighty challenge.

But what, in general, do the coming years hold? Thankfully, in the arts, the pendulum is beginning to swing back from the instrumental obsession, although I fear more slowly in Wales then elsewhere in the UK. It was a report for the DCMS[11] in England, by Brian McMaster, a former General Director of Welsh National Opera, that began to redirect us back to valuing the arts for their intrinsic qualities, which undoubtedly includes the spiritual. (Indeed, some would argue that the spiritual value of art is central to its having any significant value as art.)

Only this week the new Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, after listing some of his recent cultural experiences, made the bald statement, “I wasn’t thinking of creative exports or leveraged investment. I was enjoying artistic excellence. Arts for art’s sake. That is my starting point as secretary of state for culture,”

In Wales we have been rather slower, both in the political sphere and within the arts sector as a whole to grapple with this dilemma. The political class still seems hooked on the instrumental agenda, perhaps failing to understand that in many senses the devolution project is a cultural project. The one cultural strategy that articulated a deeper purpose for the arts in our society was published in 2002[12], and seems now to be gathering dust on a shelf in Cardiff Bay. Its author, Jenny Randerson, the first Culture Minister, has this week announced that she will be standing down at the next National Assembly election in 2011.

Given the extreme pressure on public spending in the coming years, there is every possibility that the arts sector in Wales will, once again, have its back to the wall. I believe that that is something that should concern the churches. Like religion, the arts and culture will be especially relevant in tough times. It is in times of intense economic difficulty that we will need to support all those forces that contribute to social cohesion, not least in a small country often divided by geography and inequality. We will need the forces that work on the human spirit, that comfort, inspire and challenge, that give meaning to lives, that emphasise the equal worth of us all, and keep our minds open to the unknown.


[1] Cathedral Builders and other poems, John Ormond. Gwasg Gregynog, 1991

[2] The Span of the Cross: Christian Religion and Society in Wales 1914-2000, D Densil Morgan, University of Wales Press. 1999

[3] The Church in Wales: A small guide to a big picture, February 2009

[4] ibid. p14, and data from Directory and Year Book  2010, Catholic Province of Cardiff, Wales and Herefordshire.

[5] Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy, John Holden. Demos, 2006.

[6] Arts and public engagement: patterns, processes and levers for change, Dave Adamson, Penny Byrne, Neil Caldwell, Anne England, Hamish Fyfe. ACW, March 2008.

[7] Poetry in a post-secular age, Michael Symmons Roberts. Poetry Review, Winter 2008. See also preface to The Anathemata, David Jones, Faber and Faber 1952.

[8] The re-enchantment of the world: art versus religion, Gordon Graham. Oxford, 2007

[9] A Hospital Odyssey, Gwyneth Lewis. Bloodaxe Books, 2010.

[10] The Divine Spark of Music, James Macmillan. Sandford St. Martin 30th Anniversary Lecture, October 2008

[11] Supporting excellence in the arts: from measurement to judgment, Sir Brian McMaster, DCMS, January 2008

[12] Creative Future – a cultural strategy for Wales, Welsh Assembly Government, January 2002.

Geraint Talfan Davies is chair of the IWA

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