Alison Jack, University of Edinburgh

Researching Art as More than Pleasure

What if what we bring into the experience of art influences us more than the art itself?

What if spiritual takeaways from art experiences don’t always happen in the moment?

What if religions understood more about how art helps us grow spiritually?

Grant Title
Investigating Art and the Sacred at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Practice-based Research with Theological Reflection
Legal Organization
University of Edinburgh
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 April 2021
End Date: 30 November 2022
Grant Amount

Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, annually features thousands of free-spirited, often quirky theater, music and comedy shows. It’s a huge attraction for people from all over the world who come to experience the pleasures and entertainment value of art in many forms.

In contrast, the Edinburgh Sacred Arts Festival, which occurs concurrently, focuses exclusively and explicitly on art that has a religious context and subject matter. It celebrates the potential of art to prompt an experience that goes beyond pleasure and pastime: the growth of knowledge and understanding of spiritual realities.

Theologians and philosophers have asserted for years that it’s reasonable to expect this phenomenon occurs. But does that assumption hold true when put to the test of real-life experiences?

What stood out was that these experiences had as much to do — if not more to do — with elements external to the artworks.
Alison Jack

A research team at the University of Edinburgh determined the Sacred Arts Festival could be a rich opportunity to probe into this challenge. In an effort coordinated by Alison Jack, Ph.D., professor of Bible and literature at Edinburgh, and Caleb Froehlich Ph.D. and funded by Templeton Religion Trust, researchers delved into the experiences of artists and audiences at the 2021 and 2022 Festivals. Their hope was to discover glimmers of insight into complex questions, such as:

The project proved to be a real eye-opener, reports Jack.

“What stood out was that these experiences had as much to do — if not more to do — with elements external to the artworks as with the artworks themselves. It was also interesting that these elements external to the artworks were also instrumental in preventing meaningful spiritual engagement,” she notes.

Younger participants tended to talk about the spiritual as something separate from religion.
Alison Jack

An Empirical & Theological Study

The research team devised a three-pronged methodology:

The intent was to combine and deepen empirical work with philosophical and theological reflection, Jack explains.

From the interviews and surveys, several key themes emerged:

Another striking observation noted by Froehlich was generational differences in the ways participants talked about the spiritual. “Older participants tended to equate the spiritual with religion, particularly Christian beliefs and practices. Younger participants tended to talk about the spiritual as something separate from religion but may include it. For them, it is more about cultivating one’s personal life and its relationships.”

Surprises in the Data

When trying to understand the relationship between art and spirituality, philosophers and researchers tend to focus on the artwork. What spiritual qualities or meaning does it have? Is it superficial or profound? Engaging or a turn-off? Beautiful or not? If the art embodies a spiritual dimension, they say, shouldn’t it deliver that universally to all who experience it?

This research showed that something different occurs.

“During the interviews, participants used several different words to express the effects of artworks on their understanding of the spiritual – words like ‘remind,’ ‘reconfirm,’ ‘build upon,’ ‘change,’ ‘enrich,’ ‘illuminate.’ These observations reveal the slippery nature of pinning down the cognitive effects of any engagement with an artwork, religious or otherwise,” says Jack. “They also seem to go against a description of artwork as possessing certain cognitive functions or spiritual meanings, as if these things are inherent within the artwork itself. Instead, it seems, these meanings are, in the end, manifestly determined by the backgrounds, histories, capacities, needs, and desires of the participant.”

This idea that artists do only half of the work of their creations is often referred to as the “beholder’s share.” It was popularized by art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) and has continued to be examined since.

We found that art is a means not an end.
Alison Jack

“We believe our work has shown that the concept of the ‘beholder’s share’ is not just psychological but also social and material,” says Jack. “The resources audience members bring to their interpretation of an artwork are both internal, such as backgrounds and desires, and external, such as elements of their environment. The immediate context of a sacred arts festival, including the setting in sacred places, has a powerful contribution to the experience of the sacred of audience members, positively and negatively. Their phenomenal knowledge is enhanced in the way the experience of sacred art deepens their ability to grasp the connections between things they hadn’t considered before, including contextual aspects such as stained glass and other material aspects of a sacred setting. Their cognitive abilities are also heightened by these contexts and their responses to them, refining their previous understandings of religious concepts and understandings.

“Overall, we found that art is a means not an end and the contribution to an understanding of spiritual reality comes not from the artwork alone, but in the wider social, material and psychological background and context of the members of the audience. In a sacred arts festival, the religious setting has a heightened role to play in this.”

Reflecting on Art in New Ways

The project has already generated presentations and publications by symposium participants that examine related and relevant topics, including:

In addition, several artists have created new works as an output of their experiences as symposium participants.

“The project can enhance the wider promotion of church engagement with the arts,” concludes Jack. “Our hope is that churches in and beyond Edinburgh will be encouraged in their promotion of sacred art.”


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