In her blog on cultural value, Ele Belfiore talks about “the value challenge”, and it seems to me that one of the biggest challenges facing artists, arts marketers, policymakers and academics (and indeed anyone interested in the true value of culture) is to decode, unpick and articulate the value of spiritual engagement in the arts. Mystical phenomena such as spirituality can arguably be qualified, but they certainly cannot be quantified, and politicians’ attempts, embraced by many cultural economists, to squeeze arts evaluation into reductive and instrumentalist toolkits designed for policy areas such as transport continue to prove fruitless. A good example of this is the recent Culture and Sport Evidence (CASE) programme, which attempted to calculate the wellbeing induced by participation in sport and culture through the contested ‘income generation approach’ and deduced that going to a concert at least once a week generates ‘Subjective Wellbeing’equivalent to a £9,000 increase in annual household income. I rest my case.
Belfiore rightly argues that we need to reclaim the cultural value debate from the ‘econocrats’ and champions an inter-disciplinary approach which bridges insights from the humanities and social sciences. One relevant insight from the latter is perhaps the Uneconomics movement, which is founded on the premise that economists have lost the respect and authority to describe truth and reality. Movements like this clearly reflect the loss of public trust in capitalism and economics, which is now so marked that economics and cultural value almost seem oxymoronic. It strikes me that as the humanist march continues apace, emboldened by the gradual abandonment of formalized religion and the growing realization of the dangerous limitations of capitalism, people will increasingly seek spiritual meaning and refuge elsewhere. And the arts are uniquely placed to provide the purpose and shelter people desire: as Bill Sharp argues in his book Economies of Life- Patterns of Health and Wealth, in this new economy of meaning, art is becoming an increasingly powerful currency.
In their study of drivers behind arts attendance, consultants Morris Hargreaves McIntyre found that 3% of museum visitors and 15% of gallery visitors were motivated by spiritual goals such as escapism, contemplation, awe and wonder, and they identified spirituality as the deepest form of engagement. This evidence of spiritual motivation supports previous work by Slater on ‘reverential motivation’, which found that museum and gallery visitors seek an escape from their everyday lives in places of fantasy and peace. It also, of course, echoes Victor Turner’s description of sacred space and time and his liminal concept of ‘communitas’.
Despite the dearth of literature on the role of spirituality in the performing arts, spiritual engagement is certainly not limited to museums and art galleries. Much of my own research is based on depth interviews with theatre audiences, exploring what motivates them to see plays and what immediate and cumulative impact this engagement has on them. These conversations have revealed the significant role that ritual can play in theatre-going; and for the most deeply engaged audiences, theatre can clearly be a profoundly spiritual experience. As one of my participants expressed it: “There is something beautiful about being in the room with other people, on stage and all around you, a communion. An audience goes in as individuals and goes out as a group… I love undergoing the communion thing – it’s more of a religious experience, it’s sacred to me.”
Like many forms of organized religion, theatre has its established rites and rituals, from ticket-tearing and red curtains to interval drinks and applause. It also has its own canon of mysterious terminology: where Catholicism can offer grace and forgiveness, theatre provides catharsis and resolution; where religion thrives on prayer and contemplation, theatre functions through flow and captivation; and where religions have their priests, theatres come alive through their actors. And the similarities don’t end there: both offer a means of communal meaning-making and both claim to be transformative.
There remains much work to be done on understanding and articulating the role of spirituality in arts consumption and engagement, and I for one believe that this avenue could provide an exit from the current impasse on articulating cultural value. It seems to me that ritual and spirituality offer a more authentic and fruitful avenue of enquiry into cultural value than economics ever can. Like religion, the arts resist, challenge and transcend financial values. No one tries to analyze the cost benefits of religion, so why do people persist in the futile attempt to quantify other forms of spiritual engagement?
 Slater, A. (2007). ‘Escaping to the Gallery’:Understanding the Motivations of Visitors to Galleries. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 12, pp.149-162.
 Walmsley, B. (2011) Why people go to the theatre: A qualitative study of audience motivation. Journal of Customer Behaviour. 10 (4), pp.335-351.