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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Guest Post: New Directions (Hopefully) in Mormon Art » Guest Post: New Directions (Hopefully) in Mormon Art

Guest Post: New Directions (Hopefully) in Mormon Art

Rusty - March 7, 2006

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.

27 Comments

  1. 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.

    This assumes “the Mormon public” by and large is even an active consumer of art. I submit the vast majority of the LDS population doesn’t even pay attention to any of this at all. How many Mormons even knew there was a 6th Annual International Art Competition, beyond a vague recollection of something in an Ensign some time back with someting about paintings? Sure, a lot of the stuff is cliche, but it seems to me vast majority of the LDS population would fall into the “apathetic” and “nonplused” category when it comes to LDS themed or derived art. I know I dont pay it even the slighest bit of attention, not one single neuron, and I cannot ever even recall discussing LDS art, pro or con, at church or with a church member ever.

    Comment by Kurt — March 8, 2006 @ 6:53 am

  2. Lovely post, John. Could you find a website or two that feature good medieval religious art?

    Comment by Ronan — March 8, 2006 @ 7:31 am

  3. Where is this horrible artwork located? I can’t seem to find it on the website.

    Comment by jjohnsen — March 8, 2006 @ 9:10 am

  4. Linky linky!

    Unfortunately it shows up very small under firefox. Insert “model school” joke here.

    Comment by a random John — March 8, 2006 @ 10:33 am

  5. I have to agree with Kurt. I don’t give much thought to art, especially LDS art.

    On the other hand, I work for a place that does customer service for Sothebys (highbrow auction house), and they have publications of the things they are selling. There are several books that contain different kind of art that are for sale. Having looked through most of these books, the art that attracts me most is the Renaissance paintings.

    I don’t care much for a lot of the abstract art.

    Comment by Ian Cook — March 8, 2006 @ 11:57 am

  6. John, so what are you saying? Good art must be something abstract so our minds can imagine what it portrays? You don’t like Mormon art because it doesn’t do that.

    You say “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.”

    I think you’re right, that’s what Mormon art is, it isn’t Renaissance, or Baroque or whatever and will never be that kind of art.

    I’m just glad it’s not J.W. art, now that is really tacky!

    Comment by don — March 8, 2006 @ 1:19 pm

  7. The problem with this analysis is that during the Renaissance there was a lot of symbolism. Indeed the current revival of DaVincie in the popular mind is tied to this role of symbols in art. But even ignoring that one should note that much of what gave the Renaissance its breath was the rediscovery of the texts and symbols of late antiquity. Many of the Renaissance artists were simultaneously expressing a return to Plato over against the dryness of Aristotle. Thus there was essentially a double movement.

    Interestingly in the Medieval period while there were symbols, symbols were also distrusted and often driven underground. The “how” of the symbol was not given the place of its expression until the Renaissance. I’d also say that modern abstract art, such as one might find in Pollock or even the strong ironic art of late 20th century finds its core in the Renaissance. Both irony as well as “expressionist” instinct is manifest there but carefully embodied within a realistic tendency.

    What is lacking in modern LDS art is symbolism, but more importantly that embodiment of both emotion, mood and symbol and converged into one. That is the embodiment of symbols in a body.

    Instead we get bodies stripped of the soul that enlivens them. Likewise symbols stripped of what it is that motivates them. Their body and humanity or at least relevance for humanity.

    Comment by Clark Goble — March 8, 2006 @ 2:16 pm

  8. Good post. This LDS problem is generations old now. Breakthroughs in any field, including art, require pushing/breaking the envelop iconoclasm with abandonment of any fear of failure. Modern Mormonism stresses a bogus salvation by conformity and safe living with little tolerance for rebels. Face it, a free thinking LDS artist doing whatever they wanted, without regard to what other’s might think, would be taking a chance with their membership. And then there’s the pressure on homosexuals, who, let’s face it, are often very creative people, particularly in the arts. The odds of a great LDS artist emerging out of such a culture of strict conformity are very slim.

    Comment by Steve EM — March 8, 2006 @ 2:45 pm

  9. What exactly is the need for these the “Mormon art” that is being suggested? I think that if the membership were so keen on the alternitive art you are suggesting, then people would start creating it.

    Steve EM, you always crack me up when you start suggesting that people will loose their membership for rediculous things. You honestly feel that an artist will lose his membership for painting, say, abstract art?

    Comment by Ian Cook — March 8, 2006 @ 3:16 pm

  10. Ian,
    If an avant-garde LDS artist achieved wide spread notoriety for a series of art works depicting aspects of Mormon celestial glory, including graphic polygamous sexual encounters and illustrations of spiritual gestation and birth, I have to believe the Strengthening the Members committee would intervene.

    I would think even mild art of a speculative nature, such as a depiction of Jesus with a wife and children, would get crushed.

    You or I might have personal objections to those two examples, but if our artists don’t have unrestricted license to proceed unfettered in any direction, we’ll never have great ones.

    Comment by Steve EM — March 8, 2006 @ 5:10 pm

  11. Interesting thoughts. I agree with both sides of this argument, kinda. I do get tired of the same type of LDS paintings trying to draw out the same emotions and would love to see some symbolic/abstract stuff. However, I do like a few of what’s available and don’t think I’d line my walls with nothing but abstract/symbolic. A good, moderate mix would be fine by me.

    Comment by Bret — March 8, 2006 @ 5:15 pm

  12. I wonder what a Mormon “The Kiss” would look like?

    Comment by ed — March 8, 2006 @ 11:39 pm

  13. A prime example of this is the career of Walter Rane. Every piece of his I ever saw was like the slip of the Divine glowing through. Even a piece I didn’t see in person–of a woman peeling apples for canning–reproduced in the back cover of an Ensign–knocked my socks off.

    Now people are apparently loving his Book of Mormon paintings, and I appreciate he’s trying to portray well the stories we care about, and I’ve only seen them as reproductions in books, but I have no experience looking at them. Unless you can count–gee, she’s wearing a yellowish robe and those plants look appropriate to Costa Rica.

    Comment by just Johnna — March 9, 2006 @ 2:47 am

  14. Steve EM,

    I agree that if an LDS artist painted, say… porn, they would probably get excommunicated. I don’t have a problem with that.

    If there were LDS artists painting the Saviour with a wife, I really don’t see why they would get ex’d for it. Most likely the church wouldn’t buy it or anything, and would possibly not buy any of their paintings because of the churchs image, but I don’t quite see why they would question the individuals membership.

    Comment by Ian Cook — March 9, 2006 @ 11:54 am

  15. Rusty, I missed your work in the competition.

    Comment by cj douglass — March 9, 2006 @ 1:48 pm

  16. Ian,
    You’re making my point. As long as a faithful LDS artist has to worry what church leaders will think of his/her work, the odds of a great LDS artist emerging are pretty slim. Such self censorship is the antithesis of creative expression. BTW, I don’t think sex, even graphically portrayed, within a larger context is porn. That’s what makes porn somewhat comical, sex is depicted as some estranged outside-of-life experience.

    I didn’t mean to imply that a person depicting Jesus enjoying a family would necessarily lose membership. By crushed, I meant, if the person achieved notoriety, some BKP type would request they take their art in a different direction or suffer the consequences.

    Comment by Steve EM — March 9, 2006 @ 2:32 pm

  17. Ian,

    You say it isn’t JW art, and that makes you happy. But really, the visual differences between The Watchtower and the Ensign are slowly vanishing.

    John Cline

    Comment by John Cline — March 9, 2006 @ 2:57 pm

  18. Don,

    I should’ve been more clear. I didn’t say that Renaissance art is void of symbolism. I was arguing a different point, that Medieval art relied on symbol, geometry, and allegory to reveal the Divine. Renaissance art, while using symbols (don’t all artists?), focused more on naturalism. Even the symbols they did use were painted naturalistically (realistically painted lilies as representations of Mary’s virginity, the garment of skins in depictions of the baby John the Baptist are painted naturalistically, as is the baby). This realistic depiction of objects is not in Medieval art. Medieval symbolism ( and art)is far more complex and without an understanding of it, one will not be able to figure out Medieval art.

    However, even if you don’t know that the lily in the Renaissance painting means something, you can still understand what the rest of the painting is about as long as you know a few bible stories.

    I am sorry to say that I feel, perhaps, you have not looked at enough Medieval art because you say that “The ‘how’ of the symbol was not given the place of its expression until the Renaissance.”

    First, I can barely determine what exactly you mean by this. Secondly, if it means what I think it means, than I have to assume you are not familiar with extensive and consistent use of symbols in the Middle Ages.

    *the sun and moon over the arms of the cross in crucifixion scenes

    *the serpent under the cross

    *the four winged creatures representing the authors of the Gospels

    *the ‘disembodied’ hand coming out of clouds

    *the globe at the feet of a seated Christ (borrowed from classical art)

    And that is just a few that I can recall off the top of my head. In fact, the very materials used to create the work was symbolic, or at least alluded to higher, spiritual ideals. Fine jewels, gold leaf, ivory, parchment, etc,…all of this stuff had symbolic meaning. The parchment upon which was written the Word was considered a direct reference to the idea of the Word being made flesh. (Parchment is animal flesh, for those who don’t know.)This is just not the case in the Renaissance.

    In the Middle ages, art objects were just that….OBJECTs, worthy of devotion. ( Unless you were an iconoclast, in which case images were evil idols.) Starting in the late,late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, art started becoming “pictures.” Pictures that were illusions. Pictures that appeared so realistic that one felt he or she could walk into them. And that is exactly what kind of art rules the day for Mormons, basically. Nowadays, no one cares what the image is printed or painted on. Canvas, paper, panel—it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the image. But in the Middle Ages, the materials themselves could embody divine concepts and were an important part of the total piece of art.

    But that is another topic. Isn’t it?

    Comment by John Cline — March 9, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

  19. John,

    I like this further explanation you give. It helps me understand and appreciate the art more.

    One of the problems the church seems to have is that the membership worldwide is becoming increasingly (through conversions) uneducated. Obviously all is being done to curb this (GC talks, the PEF) but if the Ensign/Liahona is to influence the greatest amount of people it can, I don’t see them using much, if any, differing art. Although it would be a good teaching point…

    Also, the magazines are all made of paper, which makes it difficult to express different materials!:)

    Comment by Bret — March 9, 2006 @ 4:15 pm

  20. John,
    I think your critique, stating that Mormon art is finds its inspiration in naturalism, rings false (unless, of course, you meant Soviet Realism, in which case I might agree (but the women should be brawnier)). To my mind, most Mormon art finds its inspiration in advertising. The symptom you describe of one-note messages that are supposed to draw out a particular emotion definitely reads that way. Good art is complex, defying easy understanding. It is rare that anything in Mormon Art avoids the painfully obvious. As such, it just isn’t terribly engaging for me, although for propaganda purposes. This isn’t a symptom of naturalism per se; naturalism lends itself to propaganda easily, because both show a type of reality. Good naturalism attempts to show it as it is, without obvious commentary; propaganda, on the other hand, …

    Comment by John C. — March 9, 2006 @ 4:27 pm

  21. That should read “although for propaganda purposes it works”

    Comment by John C. — March 9, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

  22. Steve EM, I think I see your point. I think that any artist that tries to make it in the LDS world does have challenges because they need to stay within certain boundaries. These unwritten boundaries are put there not only by general authorities, but probably many members themselves.

    I mean, how many members are going to buy a depiction of “Mormon celestial glory, including graphic polygamous sexual encounters and illustrations of spiritual gestation and birth”.

    Also, do we really need a Mormon (insert great secular artist here)?

    Comment by Ian Cook — March 9, 2006 @ 7:31 pm

  23. Why do Mormon artists have to concern themselves with making it in the “LDS world?” Do Mormon doctors fret over whether or not their work is accepted by other Mormons? Does anyone in any other profession besides the arts worry about this?

    Mormon Art consists of too much “Mormon” and not enough “Art.” And that goes for the non-scriptural/theological literature, the music, the drama, and the visual arts. For non-members, they simply pass it off as sentimental religious art. For members, they either gush over it, ignore it, or are terribly bothered by it.

    Now, I am not talking about the art of all Mormons. Hoeft, Barsch, and Ostraff are a few painters who are doing great work. They all teach or taught at BYU, too. I am referring mostly to the likes of Olsen, Dewey, Knapp, Barrett, etc,… whose work is practically the face of the Ensign.

    Comment by john cline — March 10, 2006 @ 9:30 am

  24. Why do Mormon artists have to concern themselves with making it in the “LDS world?” Do Mormon doctors fret over whether or not their work is accepted by other Mormons? Does anyone in any other profession besides the arts worry about this?

    Mormon Art consists of too much “Mormon” and not enough “Art.” And that goes for the non-scriptural/theological literature, the music, the drama, and the visual arts. For non-members, they simply pass it off as sentimental religious art. For members, they either gush over it, ignore it, or are terribly bothered by it.

    Now, I am not talking about the art of all Mormons. Hoeft, Barsch, and Ostraff are a few painters who are doing great work. They all teach or taught at BYU, too. I am referring mostly to the likes of Olsen, Dewey, Knapp, Barrett, etc,… whose work is practically the face of the Ensign.

    Comment by john cline — March 10, 2006 @ 9:31 am

  25. JW art is hideous. You could draw that stuff with chalk on a sidewalk.

    So LDS artists are playing to uneducated hicks like me? Well, we’re the ones who are most likely going to buy their artwork. They probably do have to “dumb down” their work just to be noticed by the masses. I was just saying to Brittney, who lives in the trailer next to mine, that her framed print of Mary holding newborn Jesus on her shoulder was just precious.

    John, being an art professor, your opinion of what is great art is going to differ vastly from that of the average church member. While you pass off most of these contributions as cliche, the rest of us ARE being inspired. Is that bad?

    I enjoy the artists’ depictions of Christ, Mary, Joseph Smith, Church history events, etc. in the Ensign. Heck, I admire those who can actually draw a straight line without a ruler. Does that mean my opinion is worthless?

    Comment by Natalie — March 10, 2006 @ 11:55 am

  26. Every house on my street (except for mine), I am not kidding, has the Greg Olsen Jerusalem painting. Every single one.

    I don’t know what that means, but it’s probably something ominous.

    Comment by Sue — March 13, 2006 @ 1:10 am

  27. rawgvnh

    Comment by in3221 — October 23, 2008 @ 10:25 am