By: John M. Cline
Painter and Adjunct Professor of Art at East Tennessee State University
The 6th International Art Compeitition, conducted by the Museum of Church History and Art in 2003, has just been reproduced in the Ensign and is available on the Musem’s website as well. Except for a few stunning pieces, the work was disappointing. It is safe to say that cliché is alive and well in the Mormon art world. In fact, it is even celebrated.
The artists have basically given the Mormon public EXACTLY what they want to see. They’ve dangled the worm in front of our faces and many of us are biting hard. And this is what worries me. We have reduced our marvelous religion, which can boast of (in my opinion) the only internally consistent, Christian explanation of our existence, to a series of signs and markers which are supposed to “turn on“ certain emotional reactions. “Oh,” we say to ourselves, “there is that picture of Christ looking upon Jerusalem. I am supposed to be feeling his sorrow now.” Or, “Ahhhhh, look! Christ is playing with a songbird in a courtyard. How kind he is.”
The critic Roger Kimball, in his book, Art’s Prospect, quoted philosopher Karsten Harries as saying, “…religious Kitsch seeks to elicit religious emotion without an encounter with God (italics added).” That perfectly summarizes Mormon art. Much of the work in this show can toy with your emotions if you let it. But it won’t give you a true encounter with the Divine.
The reason for this is that most of it is the great-grandchild of the Italian Renaissance. Any picture which attempts to portray things naturalistically, as we “really see them,” has its origins in 15th and16th Century Italy. The Baroque style would not have existed without Masaccio, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The same, ultimately, can be said for 19th Century Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism, all of which are the most direct ancestors of the various strains of popular Mormon art. We need to remember that the Renaissance was a secular movement, not a spiritual one. In the art world during this time, artists turned their backs on Medieval spiritual abstraction and embraced ancient Greek and Roman (pagan) humanism. It was an interest in humanity that led artists to portray figures with anatomical accuracy previously unseen, except maybe in Greece and Rome. Of course, much Renaissance art is Christian, but it is seen through the lens of humanism.
The Medieval artists used symbols to portray the divine. They were not concerned with anatomy and naturalism. Portraying such would prevent the viewer’s mind from ascending above these base aspects of mortality. It was symbolism, allegory, and geometry that would best represent the divine. Looking at Medieval art in the correct frame of mind, one can feel the inexplicable stirring of something deep, lasting, and profound. One isn’t excited emotionally to tears. If tears do come, they come because the viewer is persuaded to weep by the remembrance of home, our true home, far away from the cares and worries of mortality.
Of course, Medieval Europe was Catholic and Orthodox. Both embrace creeds which Mormons cannot accept. But the art of this time period could show Mormon artists new roads. The only challenge would be getting the Mormon public to come along for the ride.