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Jane Shaw: Arts are vital to more than the economy

30 July 2021


Suspended, at St James’s, Piccadilly, in late 2017

Suspended, at St James’s, Piccadilly, in late 2017

THE announcement last week that the Government will cut funds for arts subjects (such as the visual arts, drama, and music) in universities is not good news. There is the economic argument: the arts are worth £111 billion a year to the UK economy. But there is also the immeasurable human argument. The arts nourish our spirit, and add to our quality of life. For Christians, the arts can pave the way for a glimpse of the glory of God — the transcendent breaking into the everyday.

The arts can also help us to understand each other better, introducing us to human experiences beyond our immediate context. They can powerfully affect our emotional understanding of a situation. In the 18th century, the philosopher Adam Smith called this understanding across difference “fellow feeling”. By the early 20th century, the word “empathy” had come into English. It’s about walking in another’s shoes, and making the leap to the other. It can lead to a change of heart.

At St James’s, Piccadilly, in late 2017 and early 2018, the installation Suspended by Arabella Dorman was made up of clothing discarded by refugees on the island of Lesbos (Features, 22 December 2017). Hanging high above the nave, it startled the viewer into facing the facts: one in every 113 persons around the world is forcibly displaced. The seven-metre replica of planet Earth hanging in Ely Cathedral this month reminds us that the fate of the planet is in our hands. St Mary’s, Kilburn, honouring Black women who have done a disproportionate amount of the work on the frontline during the pandemic, has commissioned a Black Madonna from the sculptor Kate Egawa.

It is vital that churches continue to be patrons of the arts, as they have been for so long. It’s a contribution and link to the wider community, especially to artists who have been hit badly by the pandemic.

Arts projects in churches do not need to be costly. A bit of unused space in the church could become an artist’s studio in return for engagement with the congregation on a shared creative project. Art pieces can be crowdfunded, as a beautiful new gravestone by Lois Anderson, at Hampstead Parish Church, giving proper recognition to the writer and mystic Evelyn Underhill, was this year (Faith, 11 June).

Art can break into our complacency, taking us beyond ourselves. It can help us to see the vastness of the world, so that we understand (even if only for a moment) that it isn’t all about us. It can motivate us to love our neighbour, welcome the stranger, and relieve the suffering of others. In short, art can be an effective vehicle for God’s grace.

The Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Principal of Harris Manchester College, Professor of the History of Religion, and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

Angela Tilby is away.

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