Mormon Art and Architecture, Installment 1: Symbolism

Rusty - August 18, 2004

What happened to visual symbolism in the Church? Does it even exist anymore? Aside from the few examples in the temple ceremonies, I have a hard time coming up with examples of any visual symbols that we recognize as church members (Sorry, but a CTR ring is an acronym, not a symbol). Yes, I understand that there is symbolism in the way we live our lives according to the covenants that we make. But that begs the question: why don’t we portray it visually? (and I’m not talking about a Greg Olsen painting of a deacon passing the sacrament…)

Let’s take architecture for example. The Salt Lake Temple. Almost every decision on that building contains a symbolic meaning: from the number of levels of windows, to the sun, Saturn, Earth, moon, and star stones, to the direction it is facing, to the ascension from one room to the next, etc. The building is drenched in symbolism. What purpose did this serve? Because it looked nice?

What do we have now? Nice buildings in which symbolic ideas are presented and symbolic acts are performed. Hey, what we do inside is what’s important, right? Of course that’s right, but why the shift? Was Brigham Young just a bit overzealous? Is visual symbolism something of the past? Is it too hard or too expensive to do nowdays or does the Church purposefully avoid it? I know there have been attempts, but I’m sorry, the [Statue of Liberty] torch doorhandles inside the Manhattan temple just don’t cut it for me.

Another example: Greg Olsen, Robert Barrett, Del Parson, Arnold Friberg paintings. If I were to assess the Church based on the art it spoonfeeds to the public, I would think that the Church’s stance on the Book of Mormon is that it’s a bunch of stories about strong, Anglo men. The policy of the Ensign magazine is that there is no conceptual art allowed. Are we chuchmembers not smart enough to understand symbolism?

When Picasso abstracted his paintings he didn’t do it because he didn’t know how to paint (boy could he paint! At age 15 his paintings rivalled Rafael!), but rather because there were deeper insights he was trying to communicate. One of my favorite paintings of all time, and one of the most touching paintings for me is Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (to see a photo click here, I don’t know how to add photos yet).

I don’t necessarily mind the paintings of those Mormon painters, to visualize a narrative, but I have a very difficult time extracting gospel insight or meaning from a single one. Shouldn’t that be the role of our art? To give meaning and insight to our lives as we try to live the Gospel? Art as narrative plays that role by proxy. It might give meaning, but only because we know the story behind the painting, not because the symbolism of the piece inspired us.

1 Comment »

  1. Rusty, can you just give me a little hint about interpreting the black square?
    Ryan | Email | Homepage | 08.25.04 – 12:46 pm | #

    Of course.

    Kasimir Malevich was maybe the most important person in what is known as the Suprematism movement. This is was the creation of art that conveyed a pure feeling, not something that represents a feeling (like Michaelangelo’s David). He said:

    The black square on the white field was the first form in which nonobjective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling.

    Yet the general public saw in the nonobjectivity of the representation the demise of art and failed to grasp the evident fact that feeling had here assumed external form.
    Rusty Clifton | Email | Homepage | 08.25.04 – 11:13 pm | #

    Malevich struggled with this painting, as is evident of many layers of colored paint below the black. Also, the square has spiritual significance (the mathematical and geometrical implications, it’s long symbolic history, and its practicality).

    What is most touching to me, however, is how he displayed it. In Russian Orthodox tradition, the religious icons are placed near the ceiling in the corner of the room. Malevich placed this painting near the ceiling in the corner of his installation of the gallery. He wasn’t replacing God, rather he was putting a feeling there rather than an object associated with a feeling.
    Rusty Clifton | Email | Homepage | 08.25.04 – 11:13 pm | #

    I find that similar to what we do when we hang our Greg Olsen paintings in our living rooms (whose paintings I find embarrasing and objectionable, but that is another post…).

    Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that the above-stated LDS artists are bad or are doing a wicked work, I just think that there is SOOOO much better to be found. The Gospel is SOOOO much deeper than the stories through which we learn it.

    Yes, I know we might not understand a painting like that immediately. But how much greater is the appreciation and understanding when WE are the ones to connect the dots? When we are not spoonfed the problem and the answer, but rather come up with the answer ourselves? To me, it’s much more rewarding.
    Rusty Clifton | Email | Homepage | 08.25.04 – 11:13 pm | #

    Rusty,
    Philosophically speaking, is their any relationship between “Black Square” and existential nihilism? If so, how does the artist’s assertion related to Mormon theology?
    rg
    rg | Email | Homepage | 05.08.05 – 7:33 pm | #

    Words and language are a form of symbolism. If a person creates their own unique language, they shouldn’t be surprised if others are not speaking it. Especially when their uniquely created language comes with virtually no grammer, dictionaries, etc.
    Some of what passes for profoundity in the visual arts of the 20th century (and 21st century), are really poor communication skills, a poverty of significant messages, and a desire to separate themselves from others. I find it rather sad that after artists have worked very hard to isolate themselves, that they then complain that they are isolated from their culture the the world is not beating a path to their door.

    Symbolism communicates and connects. Successful symbolism communicates and connects well and with lots of people. Perhaps a more useful model than “Black Square,”" for symbolism in the Church, would be the beehive (check out the Conference Center pulpit as well as much of the hardware on many new temples).
    rg | Email | Homepage | 05.09.05 – 10:59 am | #

    Comment by Comment Restore — November 28, 2005 @ 12:30 am

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