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Impact case study

Art and Belief

Unit(s) of assessment: Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory

School: School of Art & Design


NTU's research on art and belief is at the centre of changing approaches to the relationship between contemporary art and religious institutions by helping a variety of faith communities to reflect on their practices and by influencing public attitudes. The work of artists John Newling and Ben Judd and art historian Richard Davey has had an impact on the practice and understanding in three areas where belief and cultural life intersect:

  • the relationship between nature and spirituality
  • the spiritual wellbeing of individuals
  • how performance and temporary works of art increase understanding of religious communities and sacred spaces.

For example, by making the practices and beliefs of paganism more visible to a wider audience, Judd's work has helped to remove some of the prejudices and misunderstandings that can contribute to discrimination and bias. These impacts are particularly significant in the context of a new UK legal framework placing religious belief among the protected characteristics of equality and diversity.

The research findings have been used by:

Research background

The research of Judd, Newling and Davey has been disseminated in public performances, exhibitions, books and exhibition catalogues.


Judd's practice (Observance 2009) has helped the Wiccan community to find new ways to reconnect with nature through performance. Newling has since worked with plants to illustrate humans' reliance on natural resources and stimulate debate about our ideas of nature. This work was brought together in a retrospective, Ecologies of Value, and has included collaboration with the ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics at Lancaster University.

Newling's works such as Preston Market Mystery, Westonbirt Wishes and Make a Piano in Spain are created through direct engagement with members of the public. They introduce reflection on beliefs about happiness and mystery, leading individuals to consider how these beliefs impact on their wellbeing.

These works reflect psychiatry's understanding of the potential for spirituality to foster wellbeing and are distinct from art practice that focuses on an artist's experience in that they are all about the experience of members of the public.

Ritual, performance and temporary works of art

Both Newling and Judd have used performance and ritualised actions to help specific religious communities consider their beliefs and activities, as well as helping members of the public to discover these communities. This respectful use of art in Observance, Chatham Vines, Stamping Uncertainty and Concerning the Difference Between the Delights of Pleasure and True Happiness has helped religious organisations reflect on their own practices and their use of spaces.

Chatham Vines (2004) had a direct impact on liturgy, causing a number of people from the art world who were unfamiliar with the Easter liturgy and the Christian Eucharist to experience it for the first time. The result for many, reported in verbal feedback to the artist, was a change in attitudes that not only saw them deeply moved, but caused them to re-evaluate former prejudices.

Newling and Judd's work has been referred to in wider literature on the function of temporary works of art in churches to allow new insights to emerge into practice and belief. Davey's close collaboration with Newling and other artists disseminated through his writing (for example in Spinning and Adrian Wiszniewski: A New Heaven and a New Earth) has also raised awareness of the impact that contemporary art as a temporary installation might have on religious practice. This impact is evidenced in Commissioning New Art for Churches: A Guide for Parishes and Artists, the advisory report published by the Church of England for which Davey acted as an expert witness.


Testimonial letters

  • Interview with curator of the Swedenborg Society, on 19 April 2013

"Judd's work helped positively change the relationship between the public and the Society – it helped the public see us in a new way. After the exhibition, the Society is being viewed much more as a place of cultural exchange, where ideas to do with Swedenborg are no longer restricted to the realm of a dry academic discourse. There has been an explosion of new types of discourse, such as performance. Judd's work opened up new ways of viewing Swedenborg's work and the building itself."

  • Chair of the working party for The New Commissioning Guidelines

"Richard provided a particularly insightful response to the question of how churches can be encouraged to think beyond the obvious traditional object-based categories to a broader interaction with creative artists. He was also a very useful balance in unapologetically arguing for robust theology alongside the market-led forces of turning to avowedly successful secularist artists."

  • Interview with Vice-President of the Pagan Federation, 18 April 2013

"Because it took place at the Barbican, an established international gallery with extensive publicity reach, it brought Paganism, which often exists on the fringes of society, into the mainstream. I believe that because Judd's work was seen by a mainstream audience it has been a contributing factor to society thinking of Paganism as a useful and beneficial religion, which is environmentally concerned, and a serious spiritual path."

Media coverage

Preston market mystery project

Ecologies of Value




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