The Ebor Lectures 2021 (15th series)
The Arts and Culture in 'The New Normal'
‘The Arts’ and ‘Culture’ enable individuals, communities, and societies to tell stories, to provoke ideas, to entertain, and to creatively express beliefs about humanity’s place in the universe. Hence many people have turned to the Arts and Culture during the ‘New Normal’ of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of us have immersed ourselves in reading fiction or taken to writing poetry. Some have learned new skills such as painting, photography, or culinary arts. Others have binge-watched television dramas or dancing competitions. Whilst the National Theatre’s broadcasts drew large audiences, most cinemas, opera houses, and live music venues have had to close. The 2020 Turner Prize for the visual arts was replaced with a fund for struggling artists. Technology has given rise to ingenious new ways of sharing performances, yet a government advert suggesting that ballet dancers retrain in IT was branded barbaric. For some in lockdown, ‘culture’ seemed a luxury that had to give way to ‘the art of survival’ and ‘the art of the possible’.
The pandemic has had huge economic and social effects, not only on performing artists and others involved in culture, but also on the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of all of us.
Covid’s impact on the Arts has been felt in York and the region: delaying the restoration of the Minster’s great organ; prompting the closure of museums and galleries; cancelling festivals and concerts.
But the crisis has also inspired innovative creative outlets, with York’s Mystery Plays being broadcast on the radio, and thousands of children adorning windows with paintings of rainbows.
In 2020 the pandemic coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining huge momentum. The significance of public art was highlighted with the toppling of colonialist statues, and museums gathering protest placards for posterity.
As the Ebor Lectures in Theology and Public Life enters its fifteenth series, a ‘New Normal’ (itself a debatable term) is emerging in society that might be transitory or more permanent. What, then, is the role of the Arts and Culture at this time? What might Theology – the study of the divine and religious belief – have to contribute to the conversation?
The creative arts have been intimately involved in the sustenance of life’s spiritual dimensions since time immemorial, through religious music, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, stained glass, drama, and literature. Some religious traditions have embraced and patronised the Arts, whilst others have been suspicious of human creativity straying into the realms of idolatry.
Pope Francis, critiquing our times in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, uses the language of Arts and Culture metaphorically for issues touching on human solidarity. He writes of ‘the art and architecture of peace’, life as ‘the art of encounter’, and advocates ‘social dialogue for a new culture’ that can overcome the problems and divisions exposed by the pandemic.
In the current situation the Ebor Lectures themselves have had to be reimagined in terms of their mode of delivery. Since restrictions on gathering physically are likely to be in place for some time, the 2021 series will take place digitally through live webinars.
Following our highly successful 2020 Vision(s) series of short video reflections on YouTube, we’re also encouraging members of the public to submit short video reflections on The Arts and Culture in ‘The New Normal’, thus enabling the conversation to continue in a broad participatory way.
Whatever our religious or spiritual worldview might be, what have the pandemic and other recent events taught us about the significance of the Arts in our lives? As we negotiate our way together in the current reality, has Culture been irreparably damaged, or might it be part of a new Renaissance that benefits not only the Arts but society as a whole? The Ebor Lectures will help us formulate pertinent questions and articulate some answers.