I’d been reading medieval Japanese literature for a few weeks (ah, the joys of going back to school) and really didn’t have time to pick up a novel, but it was a bit of an emotional and social necessity. So I walked down to the library on a warm summer evening a few weeks ago and looked for a copy of That Hideous Strength, the third and final book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I own a copy of my own, but most of my books are in a storage unit until I can finally live somewhere that allows me to have furniture. It vexes. But I digress.
I fear the connection here may seem tenuous. Lewis is not, after all, a Mormon author, as much as we’d long to appropriate him. But neither was the art exhibition I had looked forward to actually Mormon art. Come to think of it, the only Mormon factor in this entire train of thought is me. Let’s see how far-fetched we can get.
The most recent exhibition to open at the BYU Museum of Art is quite a departure from their previous featured exhibitions. Beholding Salvation was a collection so doctrine-centric that it seemed to pay no heed to any sort of artistic cohesion. Not that I’m criticizing – there is room for this unique curatorial approach, especially in the peculiarly insular Utah art scene. It was extremely popular with the viewing public, even (especially?) those who don’t usually consider themselves part of the Art Elite. Last year, they featured Pageants in Paint, a huge retrospective of Minerva Teichert’s work. Again – clearly Mormon art – but it was an exhibition that featured wonderful scholarship and a thematic cohesion that’s nice to see at the MoA. Last week, their newest exhibit opened: Turning Point: The Demise of Modernism and the Rebirth of Meaning in American Art. This exhibit makes no claims to be Mormon, nor does it take into consideration at all the doctrinal or even cultural foundations of Mormonism. It just happens to be in Utah. And it’s fairly successful, for what it is. It makes a clean, concise, didactic little statement about what happened to the Art Establishment in the 60s. It re-hashes Clement Greenberg. They even managed to get a Frank Stella piece on loan and it’s awful pretty. The exhibition as a whole is every bit as thought-provoking as minimalist statements and cultureless attempts at conceptual art tend to be. Which is, to say, it is entirely bankrupt of meaning and soul and it casts a dramatic spotlight across the gulf that separates Mormonism as a worldview from the secular fine art establishment.
It’s hard to argue the place of Modernism and Postmodernism in Mormon Art. (It’s not as important to distinguish between the two as one might imagine. Vern Swanson of the Springville Musuem insists that Postmodernism is simply another offshoot of Modernism, and I’m inclined to agree with him.) It’s hard even to pin down where and what the various movements actually are. But as I wandered through the surprisingly small exhibition, the garbled schools of Modernists and Postmodernists began to congeal a bit for me, and it was all thanks to my recent re-introduction to Belbury.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis depicts a fictional but believable university in a small town called Edgestowe in rural England. The protagonist is a new fellow at Bracton College and is preoccupied with the politics of the school and becoming part of the “inner circle” of the college’s “progressive element.” This eventually leads him into getting caught up into the intrigue and conspiracies of the N.I.C.E. at their institute at nearby Belbury – a national scientific organization that turns out to be a den of plots and aspirations and loosely aligned wicked people whose main work is something akin to the destruction of humankind. The first time I read the space trilogy, I’m not sure I fully understood all that was involved, and kept looking for parallels with St. John’s Revelation. But upon re-reading it, I realized it was much more involved with the beginning of the end of the world than with the actual end. I noticed specific prescient observations of how diabolical things seem to organize themselves in latter-day society. And art movements started to make a lot more sense.
There were beautiful things to come out of Modernism. Minerva Teichert was a Modernist. So was Monet. In its beginnings, Modernism was simply an exercise in the way we view the artistic creation itself. It’s not a varnished portrait to be worshipped, a goddess in itself – it’s just a sheet of canvas with some paint on it! It also attacked the art establishment and their strict control of who was and wasn’t considered an artist. They began by holding their own salons – across the street from those of the Academy – but ended by breaking into the establishment, “modernizing” the notion of what it means to be an artist. It was about talent, not heredity. And this is the 20th century world we were born into; and not only in the arts.
This is where we begin – in Bracton College, in the Modern world. It’s the Oxford where Lewis lived; it’s the pre-war mid-20th century. But then we slowly start to watch things unravel, and it all begins with the overturning of traditional authority.
The Postmodern movement, BYU MoA reminds us, was born out of the last dregs of Modernism – the New York School. These were the abstract expressionists, the Jackson Pollocks and Mark Rothkos and Clement Greenbergs. They’re like the “progressive element” at Bracton College, and they proved its downfall. They were right at the cusp of the old authority. They still played by the rules of galleries and critics and museums, but they were biding their time.
The critical point comes in art and in culture and in That Hideous Strength when the old authority is thrown down and the “new order” arises. This works well in theory, but upon meeting everyone in the new order, you realize there is no order. It’s anarchy. It’s anarchy with a nice acronym for a name and it still manages to show up in the reputable museums.
After the abstract expressionists, the art world and the exhibition move on – we have the Minimalists, we have the Conceptual Artists, we have installation art. Similarly, Lewis’s protagonist meets the “inner circle” upon his arrival at Belbury. The Deputy Director Wither, the charismatic Lord Feverstone, the militant police chief Fairy Hardcastle, and others who keep confiding to him that they’ll help him out, pointing the way and telling him who to avoid.
And, following Lewis’s train of prediction, we get to see where it ends. There IS no inner circle. There is no order. The bigwigs run themselves into the ground because we know that, in the end, Satan does not support his followers.
Now, in no way am I calling Postmodern art diabolical. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing insidious waiting in the new BYU exhibition that’s going to jump out and steal your soul. But it is heartbreaking to see where art ends when the goal for the past 50 years has been to divest it of meaning, to kill everything organic that was growing on it, to shrivel and bully its soul.
The enemy of what we know to be right and true is sometimes that which is evil and menacing and immediate, but all too often it is merely the negative space – the absence of anything good and worthwhile that is most damaging. It’s not the occasional reactionary person who yells at you and tells you not to push your religion on him – it’s the huge mass of smiling, happy people who simply wave you away in apathy because they don’t care. That’s what really makes your soul weep.
That’s what Belbury tried to do to the human race. It was the cold, calculating Dr. Frost who proved to be the real threat. His vision of humanity was one of organic pollution. It wasn’t until we were freed from our emotions and cultures and chemical reactions that we would finally be fully evolved. And that’s what Postmodern movements have tried to do with art.
I can’t decide why the MoA decided to subtitle the exhibition “The Demise of Modernism and the Rebirth of Meaning in American Art.” There is no Meaning in any of the movements presented – especially not in the Minimalism that takes up so much of the floor space. The Minimalists purposely sought for years to strip art of any cultural connection, any inherent meaning, to the point where it was distilled to pure geometric forms. Conceptual art is about “Meaning” in the way that an empty refrigerator is about food. It was in this era that artists decided that they didn’t need to supply the meaning – they needed to confront the viewer with a giant mirror and let everyone “bring his own experience to the art.” Installation artists later began the fascinating Postmodern practice of muttering nonsense to themselves and charging us to attend.
Granted, some of these approaches are innovative. In the hands of some artists, they are interesting. Installation art can be at least provocative. Again, I can’t fault them for their motives. But they are ultimately empty, and they don’t suit themselves to the ultimate, if at times too large to be comprehensible, Meaning that is inherent in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The resolution of That Hideous Strength lies in humanity and in animals, in love and reproduction and warm buttered bread. It is organic, earthy, but it stands in awe of the incomprehensible Gods who stream down from the heavens. The redeemed man stands with his feet in the mud and his face heavenward. This is the beauty of Lewis’s art, and a good indication of where we should take our Mormon Arts.
We stand in a muddy, verdant spring grove with a glorious light streaming down from above. We are a sect who didn’t buy the gnostic gospels – we live in our bloody, lithe bodies and we know that God lives in His glorified body. We have cultures and languages and visual symbols and we use them to paint our polyglot pictures of His words, or the remnants of them we still have. Most importantly, we know that behind our varied human experiences, there is one, unified, ultimate source of light and Meaning. We know that there is an authority – a final accountability. And though we approach it from different backgrounds and holding different pens, we are writing and drawing and painting in the same direction, with our eyes single to the Center that holds.