Mormon Art in Belbury

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.

16 thoughts on “Mormon Art in Belbury”

  1. .

    I find it curious to read arguments I both fully agree with and wholly reject. I do agree that much modern art is devoid of meaning and soul and is more about being in the cool-kids club than creating something of worth, but I don’t feel that way about all art so labeled.

    This ties in to our craft conversation in two ways.

    1. Some modern art rejects craft completely. Slap, slap your done. (But we need to be careful in assuming what appears slapdash is slapdash. Pollack’s paintings follow such a rigid mathematical logic that forgeries can be detected by feeding them into a computer.)

    2. Some seemingly simple work can be loaded with craft. Walk within an inch of some colored squares and the hours of effort become plain.

    Most of the art I’ve seen in museums lately (by which I mean the last two years) has been decidedly modern, often abstract.

    For example, the Il Lee exhibit I saw was intensely evocative. (Good luck getting that sense through jpgs though.) The awesome scope of his canvases is startling.

    I don’t want to read too much into what you’ve said, Ms Majors, but I don’t think we can call art empty because it isn’t representational or defined by centuries-old standards. I agree that the worship of NEW! is unhealthy, but that does not mean the new is impossible or not worth striving for.

  2. Ms. Majors,

    I enjoyed reading your post. It was smart and provocative.

    I do disagree with your basic premise. For example, you say that you do not mean to call Postmodernism diabolical, but that’s exactly what you do. You give an essentialist reading of art (with a Mormon transcendental signifier) that reduces art to a series of binaries–the most unhelpful of which is a Mormon/non-Mormon binary.

    It’s frustrating to begin a conversation about postmodernism in the same place every time–e.g. what was Pollock thinking just slapping a bunch of paint onto a canvas? Who can’t do that? Add to that starting place a religious superego that has to connect everything back to a particular world view and art is no fun anymore (your appropriation of CS Lewis is case in point).

    The upside of modernism and postmodernism is the diversity of voices and forms, the wide-open field that will allow Mormon artists to become great American artists.

  3. Thanks for the insightful comments!

    I can’t buy my whole argument either, if it helps. I was talking in very general terms. I see the Postmodern movement as soulless… it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the techniques themselves.

    I was thinking this morning that the next essay I’d like to do would be an interview with Mormon abstractionist Wulf Barsch. He, like Pollock, and like Kandinsky, paints “purposeful abstraction,” and I would never accuse any of them of just slapping paint on a canvas. I do think many in years since have done so, thinking they had been “inspired” by the great abstract masters, but failing to succeed because they lacked that essential inner core.

    It was that elusive Meaning that I found so lacking in the MoA exhibit, and then generalized to the Postmodern world in general.

  4. I don’t think we can call art empty because it isn’t representational or defined by centuries-old standards.

    I agree.

    I have a particular taste for Islamic art (geometrical art) and it is expressly intended to reject representation as the arrogance of man.

    Add to that starting place a religious superego that has to connect everything back to a particular world view and art is no fun anymore

    This ties back to the conversation on the St. Onan thread, wherein the implication was made that Th. could have/should have used a different metaphor because it didn’t conform to a “higher level of discourse.”

    It also ties into the attempt to build a community of Mormon artists (let’s say writers, in this instance because visual art has different emotional/cultural baggage than the written word), wherein Eugene very rightly says:

    The ostensible Mormon artist, though, has no one watching his back, and very often spears aimed at his front. There is no commercial safe haven. Established institutions will not offer him cover if he runs afoul of implicit standards (let alone the explicit ones). Deseret Book”“and any publisher who takes its lead”“will take no chances. What Mormon writers are “allowed” to write about non-Mormons they may not write about Mormons and be considered “acceptable.” Stephenie Meyer’s characters act like Mormons but are never identified as such. And this makes all the difference in the world.

    One cannot build a community of artists when one rejects a whole school of thought because it doesn’t conform to the “implicit” (i.e., arbitrary) standards of the very culture the wished-for community is predicated upon.

    At some point, the culture’s artistic community (however foundling) must decide if it wants a community or a neighborhood association.

  5. One cannot build a community of artists when one rejects a whole school of thought because it doesn’t conform to the “implicit” (i.e., arbitrary) standards of the very culture the wished-for community is predicated upon.

    I think that this is true. On the other hand, I also think certain schools of thought are going to be more interesting and more fruitful for exploration in the Mormon context than others.

    The difficulty I have with much postmodern art is that conversations are being had that I’m not familiar with and that aren’t very well contextualized by the art and the artists.

    But on the whole, I personally am keen on the idea of hybridizing, of playing Mormon materials against other schools/forms/genres/conversations in interesting ways. That’s part of why I liked Angel Falling Softly so much. Other readers of the novel haven’t felt the same way. I’m happy that they at least gave it the chance, though.

  6. .

    Please do interview Wulf Barsch. My wife likes much of his work and although I was not familiar with him myself until a few minutes ago, his influence on BYU art students while I was there is obvious.

    Also, reading a bit about his aesthetic and artistic philosophy makes him all the more interesting. I would love to read a current conversation.

  7. I had to comment because mentions of Lewis’ space trilogy hook me pretty easily. I think your general thought may well be true. In art, or academics, and sometimes in Sunday School class, I encounter someone who takes pride in exhibiting their special knowledge. Probably I fall for this temptation myself, ala Mark Studdock (that’s his name, right? It’s been awhile). Maybe picking at the limitations of a post’s language is a little like that, as well. At any rate, I consider the loss of some of the ‘traditional’ a bit like losing an anchor. I think that what you are saying is that Post modernist art by itself is not going to end the world, but like in A Hideous Strength, it wasn’t just art that was under attack (-and used as an attack). It was all facets of humanity and divinity. Even, if I recall, newspaper editorials.
    Do I understand correctly?

  8. I see the Postmodern movement as soulless”¦ it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the techniques themselves.

    I’m trying to think of something profound to say about this but have come up empty. I think it’s a provocative idea, though. I mean there are there obvious caveats that it’s not just one movement and its value to some audiences may vary depending on which parts of the movement we’re talking about. But even once you get past all the caveats and nuances, this idea of a movement that could be soulless while its techniques might not be is interesting.

    Perhaps because it suggests that some artists could borrow the techniques and apply them to more soulful endeavors. Of course, some of the most blatant use of the techniques of postmodern visual arts have come about in advertising and marketing.

  9. In the early nineties, for about a year, I had a series of conversations with an artists who was considered a deconstructionist. He loved the human form and began most of his painting with a realistic figure or group of figures rendered in charcoal on canvas. He then proceed to paint over these drawings breaking them down into the simplest possible forms (sometimes geometric) but always maintained an organic essence that felt very human. This artists is a chess master and an intellectual. We would talk for about an hour and a half ever few weeks in his studio. I left his studio many times overwhelmed and sometime confused trying to sort out his thinking. Just before he moved from that place and I no longer had easy access to speak with him, he said “I think most so called non-objective artists are just trying to paint God and don’t realize it.” It was then that I began to understand many of our past conversations and quit worrying about the meaning in non-objective art, whether it is minimalist, expressionist or whatever. Thereafter, I just would look at the work and either feel something or not.

    Maybe soul like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  10. I don’t know much about art. I don’t know much these days about being Mormon. Every time you write something, Ms. Majors, I learn something about both, and feel uplifted and enlightened and inspired. Your writing is art. Thank you for sharing it.

  11. Anneke:

    Your subversive allusion (if allusion it is) to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is an interesting and fitting way, I think, to end a post on modernism, postmodernism, and meaning. In his apparent hesitation over modernism’s appeal to the individual as the ultimate authority, Yeats anticipates the anarchical dangers of postmodernism: compelled by and in reaction to the moderns’ questioning of authority and meaning and their exaltation of the self, postmodern humanity lives, to some degree, with a “centre [that] cannot hold” anything together, tearing down power and authority structures through sometimes bitter language and image play and social movements that tend toward rendering all things, including life and the universe, chaotic and nonsensical. By acknowledging an ultimate Authority–God–in your assertion that, “though [Mormon artists] approach [art and Deity] from different backgrounds and holding different pens, we are [ultimately] writing in the same direction, with our eyes single to the Center that holds”, you overthrow, at least in your personal paradigm, the path of the “rough [postmodern] beast” and bear your personal witness that existence and the labor and laborers of Mormon arts and letters are not meaningless.

    With this subversion, you also illustrate your belief that, while the postmodern movement is largely soulless, its techniques (if I understand or extend your thoughts correctly) provide a useful way to critique the world, including cultures, cultural artifacts, and social structures and systems (e.g. language, gender, religion, politics). I hold a similar conviction in that, for example, I enjoy deconstructing texts, pulling apart their signifying systems and playing with their language, all the while trying to uncover productive (and perhaps paradoxically) textually based readings. Maybe this effort further signals my rejection of the postmodern rancor for meaning and the postmodern belief that language is essentially meaningless, that words can to a degree be made to mean anything. The more I study the Gospel and become acquainted with God through his own words, given to us in our weakness, through human language, the more I realize the power of words, as illustrated in our Mormon literary heritage wherein our wordsmith forebears felt genuine anxiety and deep convictions about the subjectivities of language, yet, in the words of Eugene England (from his commentary in Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems), “retain[ed] faith in its ability to communicate shared insights across time and space, based on their conviction that speech ultimately is connected both to the material universe and to our own minds because God is the creator of that universe and illuminates our minds” through language.

    In this sense, then, Mormonism has anticipated and encapsulates postmodernism, though with a very significant, telling, and redemptive difference.

  12. The more I study the Gospel and become acquainted with God through his own words, given to us in our weakness, through human language, the more I realize the power of words, as illustrated in our Mormon literary heritage wherein our wordsmith forebears felt genuine anxiety and deep convictions about the subjectivities of language, yet, in the words of Eugene England (from his commentary in Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems), “retain[ed] faith in its ability to communicate shared insights across time and space, based on their conviction that speech ultimately is connected both to the material universe and to our own minds because God is the creator of that universe and illuminates our minds” through language.

    In this sense, then, Mormonism has anticipated and encapsulates postmodernism, though with a very significant, telling, and redemptive difference.

    Amen.

    Thanks, Tyler.

  13. Yes, thank you Tyler, for the eloquent literary elucidation of what I was attempting to say. 🙂 Well put.

  14. And sorry, Lora, for not getting to your question earlier –

    At any rate, I consider the loss of some of the “˜traditional’ a bit like losing an anchor. I think that what you are saying is that Post modernist art by itself is not going to end the world, but like in A Hideous Strength, it wasn’t just art that was under attack (-and used as an attack). It was all facets of humanity and divinity. Even, if I recall, newspaper editorials.
    Do I understand correctly?

    Yes, that’s part of the argument. It was the sheer chaos of Belbury that reminded me of the Postmodern movement, and the multiplicity of characters, each of whom claims something different as the true focus of the N.I.C.E. There is even a parson who lectures Mark on the religious truth behind the whole “movement.” Lewis does a brilliant job of showing the pervasiveness of the actual evil, even though it appears in myriad disguises. Some people think it’s the arts that are under attack – some think the problem is political. Some see religion as the issue, while for others it’s science. For me to label the enemy “Postmodernism” is perhaps too constrictive, but I think it’s the best we’ve got. It is the loss of the anchor that is the root of all of this chaos, and that does indeed manifest itself in disparate and seemingly unconnected ways.

  15. .

    Of course I would come across this just as you start a new series, but is there still a future interview with Barsch out there somewhere?

  16. I hope so. I had assumed that my first semester in grad school would have afforded me a lot more free time than it actually did… here’s hoping that the second semester does. 🙂

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