Mormon Fine Art and Graven Images

(this is the first in a series of six posts on the Pillars of Mormon Art)

…thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
(Exodus 20:4)

This little verse has caused more turmoil in art and in history throughout the monotheistic world than perhaps any other. It characterizes Islamic art, which for centuries has avoided the depiction of any living creature, for the fear that the artist who tried to create was usurping the role of the One true Creator. It characterizes the turmoil in Byzantium, it crops up again in the Protestant reformation, which sees Netherlanders whitewashing their cathedrals to separate themselves from their Catholic Belgian cousins. Its subsequent transformation into anti-religious fervor is the battle cry of the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, and the Communists in China. In more recent years, it rears an impious head as the Taliban government of Afghanistan destroys monumental Buddhist sculpture.

And faithful Latter-day Saints find themselves alternately sympathizing with both viewpoints.

Vern Swanson points out that most of the 19th century pioneer Mormons came from Protestant traditions of Northern Europe, and carried their characteristic whitewashed iconoclasm with them across the plains. The dearth of Mormon art in the 19th century may be construed as a curmudgeonly holdover of this culture, or it may be a legitimate doctrinal concern. Even when the church purposely conscripted “art missionaries” to study fine art in Paris, they studied the casual genre scenes of the Impressionists rather than the monumental allegory and mythology of the History Painting tradition that was always a staple of Catholic France. While Mormons may not have taken a violently anti-art iconoclastic stance, it seems that they did inherit the bourgeois sentimentality of the Dutch Baroque. The Dutch were adept at sublimating blatant depictions of religious stories into subtle commentaries on morality through still life, landscape and genre scenes which decorated the interior of middle-class homes rather than adorning the pulpits of cathedrals. This is a very sympathetic aesthetic for the family-as-cathedral Mormons, who led lives, not quite of stark aseticism, but of tranquil domestic simplicity.

Except for the notable exception of Minerva Teichert, who produced grand historical and scriptural scenes in the early part of the 20th century, there is no notable presence in the fine arts for Mormons until the 1950s and 60s. This is not to say that Mormons of the Great Basin era weren’t engaging in the arts – early Mormon settlements were renowned for their bands, choirs, and theaters – they just weren’t creating “graven images.”

Lest we think this was a mere cultural preference, Swanson illustrates how very profound its religious underpinnings were, even into modern years, by relating an interchange between artist Arnold Friberg and Church President David O. McKay. President McKay instructed Friberg not to paint pictures of Deity because “the Finite cannot conceive of the Infinite.” When Friberg challenged that the church was already using pictures of the Savior painted by others, the Prophet answered, “Those were not done by our people! Our artists are not to portray the Lord Christ!”

While the official prophetic prohibition was soon lifted, remnants of the revulsion against graven images remain to this day.

When I was in the MTC, a well-meaning mother sent me some little bookmark-sized versions of the newest Del Parson painting – Christ’s Love. It wasn’t really my style, but I thought the other sister missionaries in my dorm would appreciate them (since sister missionaries tend to be into such things) and I handed them around. I was a little surprised at the reaction I got. Sister Pyper laughed. “Sorry. It just looks like Jesus got glamor shots.” Sister Dance gave it back. “Sorry, I just don’t think it’s very reverent.”

Funny how something as seemingly simple as a smiling Christ, in an era where a lot of the more commercially successful artists are capitalizing on modern social sensibilities being translated to traditional subjects, as in this depiction of Christ embracing His mother by Liz Lemon Swindle, could evoke such a reactionary response. But I think even amid the sudden movement to embrace very frank and very Americanized views of scripture and Deity that seems to be selling so well, there is still a vast sea of unsettled angst and discomfort among the membership of the Church.

Another anecdotal experience, but it illustrates my point well, comes from an elder I served with. One day he came to district meeting with a very odd-looking, small spiral-bound book.

“What is that?” I asked him.

Preach My Gospel,” he answered. It was about 3/4 the size of the copy I owned. I looked at it quizzically. “I got sick of it,” he elaborated, “all that note space on the margins. So I cut it all off. And I wanted to go through and cut out the pictures I didn’t like, but there was important stuff on the back.” He indicated a few of the pages, “so I just used a magic marker.” And indeed he had – he had blacked out every Simon Dewey painting in the entire book.

“I just don’t like the way they portray the Son of God,” he said firmly.

The Church itself has no official position on the depiction of Deity, and uses many direct representations of the Savior in its official publications. While for years it relied on Harry Anderson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, to illustrate the Savior in its media products, it eventually did give official sanction to the now-famous (and often urban mythologized) portrait of Christ by Del Parson. A definite reversal of President McKay’s counsel is obvious.

But what of the average Latter-day Saint who is trying to avoid idolatry in his life, trying to tear down the groves and the wooden fertility goddesses that so plagued the Israelites, trying to teach his children to worship a living God and not an image? What of the conscientious artist who sees the need to instruct and to testify but fears the potential to blaspheme? I imagine this is a discussion that will continue for years, especially as people from less pictoral traditions, or, more compellingly, those from very idolatrous traditions who were asked by the missionaries to remove shrines and statues from their houses, swell the ranks of worldwide church membership? It’s an issue that still lies at the heart of our visual aesthetic.

But I think, in our noble Dutch tradition, some of us are still approaching it very deftly.

46 thoughts on “Mormon Fine Art and Graven Images”

  1. “The dearth of Mormon art in the 19th century may be construed as a curmudgeonly holdover of this culture, or it may be a legitimate doctrinal concern.”

    Or it may indicate that for much of that time, fine arts of all kinds (including the creation of, if not performance of, music) was deliberately put on the back burner in light of the need to build roads and fences. From the 1870s on, there is quite a bit of Mormon painting, including portraits — much of it wasn’t much good, though, which is why you aren’t familiar with it. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t made.

  2. I would definitely agree with the people you cite in your blog. The current choices for Mormon art depict the Saviour in such a feminized, anglocized manner as to render the pictures uninspiring, bland, and, if truth be told, irreverent. This applies to Liz, Del and the other smattering of copycat artists. I really have wondered who the buyer is at Deseret Book authorizing or purchasing this stuff. It makes us look like we have no depth to our understanding of the Saviour but, instead, picture him as whipped, politically correct, modern day rendition of the sensitive husband.

    I much prefer Harry Anderson’s depiction (even though he is over-exposed) or even Walter Rane or that young LDS genius, J. Kirk Richards. And while Brother Friberg may be over the top with the muscularity and all, at least he gave some inspiration to his art. Even Minerva inspires me with her unconventional style.

    And I beg to differ with you on your assertion that we no picture of the Saviour. The Shroud of Turin gives a very clear picture of how the Lord looked during his earthly ministry. Those artists that use the shroud as the basis for their art find the best reception of their religious work.

  3. “And I beg to differ with you on your assertion that we [have] no picture of the Saviour. The Shroud of Turin gives a very clear picture of how the Lord looked during his earthly ministry. Those artists that use the shroud as the basis for their art find the best reception of their religious work.”

    Are you saying that you believe the Shroud of Turin is authentic? I am just wondering as this wasn’t exactly clear. Then, in the last sentence are you saying that using the Shroud as a model is artistically more succesful or accepted the most by the public? I personally would rather have a copy of the face on the Shroud hanging on the wall then anything done by pop Mormon artists.

  4. Jewish interpretation has not always been as implied. There are Jewish synagogues, ancient and modern, with plenty of images such as at Dura Europos. Even the Jewish Study Bible points out that “Only images made for worship are prohibited.”

    I don’t think the anecdotal discomfort you cite stems from opposition to images per se. It’s not a “I’m against any images” as much as a “Those aren’t the RIGHT images, it’s not how I imagine they should be.”

    “The Shroud of Turin gives a very clear picture of how the Lord looked during his earthly ministry.” Far from proven or reliable.

  5. That’s a great point, Ardis, and very relevant. In fact, it factors into one of Swanson’s other pillars – that of art as a sign of wealth and decadence that I plan to summarize later. But yes, it is notable that the early settlers weren’t exactly rolling in the funds necessary to commission art. It’s still interesting to note, though, that the art that was produced was bourgeois art – portraits, landscapes – things to be hung on family walls. Even C.C.A. Christensen, a fairly prolific artist, limited his canvases to contemporary histories rather than scripture stories or depictions of Deity.

    Nitsav, thanks for bringing up Dura Europos. One of the other presentations at the Picturing the Divine symposium treated Dura Europos imagery in depth. The Jewish approach is a unique contrast to the Muslim and early Christian traditions, and Dura Europos was such a precious find because of that. I would love to know what a lot of the lost art from the Old Testament era was like.

  6. .

    I for one can’t take the Shroud of Turin seriously.

    But Dewey and Swindle and Olsen all drive me batty with their depictions of the Savior.

    To me, I agree that it’s more a matter of reverence than actual image-making. But reverence may well be in the eye of the beholder.

    Incidentally, do you have a source for the McKay/Friberg conversation? I loved it, am fascinated by it, want to be able to prove its existence to people.

    (Nice pillar one.)

  7. I’ve got it in the copy of Swanson’s presentation I have at home – he got it from Friberg’s personal notes. I’ll post the info here when I get home.

  8. But Dewey and Swindle and Olsen all drive me batty with their depictions of the Savior.

    I kinda like it, but then, I like to look at Thomas Kinkade too. Operative phrase being, “look at,” not “purchase for my home.”

    Anneke, thank you, because I’m curious about that, myself.

    And oh, Michael, thank you for this:

    J. Kirk Richards


    I’m 99% convinced the Shroud of Turin is, ah, less than authentic, shall I say.

    But otherwise, I have nothing of substance to add. Fascinating conversation.

  9. I am 100% sure the Shroud of Turin is not authentic. As Latter-day Saints we have a unique piece of information about Christ that this shroud does not depict. (A major clue can be found in Isaiah 22. I’m not going to be any more explicit than that.)

    I believe there is evidence that CCA Christensen did a painting of the First Vision (deity) as part of his Mormon Panorama, but
    since it was the first painting on the scroll it led a very hard life and no longer exists.

    By the way, where is Richard O. when you need him? He needs to check in on this whole subject.

  10. First, I think many people misinterpret the nature of a graven image. If you go to the Webster’s dictionary a graven image is an idol made from wood or stone. defines graven as “to carve”. Image is self explanatory. An idol, again Webster, is an image of God for the purpose of worship. So, when Moses came down from the mountains what did he discover? His people worshiping a Golden Calf. They were praying and sacrificing to a inanimate object. (Now go look up idolatry in the dictionary.) To me it is pretty simple, don’t worship inanimate objects as God. This of course does not preclude you from making objects that express your devotion to a deity or define your spiritual beliefs. Don’t kneel down in front of your art and pray to it. If you must kneel then pray for it to be better art. For you writers kneel in front of your computer but don’t start to believe it is God.

    As far as the idols that already exist, I personally look at many of them as great pieces of art. They have a spiritual quality to them because the artists was trying to create an object of devotion that inspires their audience and yes in some cases is an object of worship. In fact, I think much of supposed spiritual art created for our consumer society lacks the spiritual quality of many antique idols. Here in New Mexico we have a 400 year tradition of saint making. Annually we have the Traditional Spanish Market in the summer and winter Anyone can purchase a retablo (painted wood panel) or Bulto (carved statue) of their favorite saint. Many of the buyers are art collectors that collect this particular genre of devotional art. Another New Mexico tradition is the home shrine. These collectors buy their favorite saint go to the parish priest, have it blessed and place it on the home shrine. I don’t know if they pray in front of it but I do know they pray to different saints to intercede for them with God. Have they crossed a line? They claim they are only showing devotion and not worshiping an idol.

    As for Mormons, I think that old Puritan ancestry has discouraged the creation of devotional art in the past and maybe even in the present. Robert Hughes in his book “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America” talks quite a bit about the Puritans and their influence on American art. It boils down to function overriding what was considered frivolous and even sacrilegious. Mormons are more concerned with food storage than art collecting.

    Finally there is a disconnect with the David O. MacKay quote if it is true. How can Joseph Smith describe God as a personage of flesh and bone and then a future Prophet turn around and say an artist shouldn’t try to describe that vision in art. Is the image inappropriate but the oral or written word is not?

  11. .

    Visual artists wishlist (this list is both for art I would like to own and for artists I’ld love AMV to interview):

    J. Kirk Richards
    Brian Kershisnik

    Those are the two big ones, but there are a number of BYU MFAs I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about in the years since graduation.

  12. .

    Finally there is a disconnect with the David O. MacKay quote if it is true. How can Joseph Smith describe God as a personage of flesh and bone and then a future Prophet turn around and say an artist shouldn’t try to describe that vision in art. Is the image inappropriate but the oral or written word is not?

    When we consider the challenge in representing the world as we know it, taking issue with representations of something so great we cannot imagine it seems reasonable. This is where, for me, issues of reverence come. As a word artist, I have never attempted to create, say, dialogue for deity; if I did it would require more effort for a greater likelihood of failure. I don’t consider that sufficient reason not to make the attempt, but it does require recognition.

    Accepting modern prophets means, for me at least, that I believe other people know more than I do. If I write a scene in Tahiti and someone who’s been there tells me I got it wrong, I should be humble enough to accept that may be so.

    How much more so when dealing with prophets and God?

    Again, not that I’m saying it shouldn’t be done. But it should be done with thought and prayer and humility.

  13. Wow, I go away for a little bit and a whole conversation erupts.

    Given the number of comments about my Shroud of Turin assertion, I should mention that I joined the church 27 years ago at the age of 19. I was raised Irish Catholic and so I am much more comfortable with religious art and devotion.

    I am also a firm believer in the Shroud of Turin. I served my mission in northern Italy and my first city was Torino (aka Turin). I was there for seven months and got to to see the shroud in person (behind all the glass – LOL).

    I have read through all the science, myths, and traditions regarding the cloth. I have also studied of its history and I have a personal surety which is difficult to transmit to others. (As a side note to Marjorie – #9 – the shroud does very clearly show the sure sign you allude to in Isaiah 22 which is why I give it such credence. If you watch the National Geo special on the cloth or any other historical special they mention the uniqueness of the wrist wound).

    Without sounding too elitist, I think that many of you may be discounting the possibility of the shroud being real due to the “inborn resistance” handed down from your LDS pioneer protestant scandinavian ancestors. I bet if you polled the South American members who grew up with Catholic traditions, they would be much more comfortable with religious artifacts and icons as an outward expression of a strong internal faith. I would urge you all not to discount it so quickly.

    As far as young Brother Richards goes, I would love to see many, many LDS artists take up President Kimball’s charge about art and the Restored Gospel as he has done. He is the future of LDS art.

    Just my thoughts.

  14. P.S. How many of you have found yourself in the valley of Adam Ondi Ahman or at Nauvoo and have taken away a stone or a momento from the ground or trees to remember your visit?

  15. Larry, interesting observations – I appreciate your perspective. I would mention, though, that if you’re going to argue the semantics of the word graven, an appeal to an English dictionary isn’t very useful. I’m not sure what the original Hebrew term is. That may be why the Jewish tradition wasn’t as strict as later interpolations of it, I don’t know.

    The controversy takes a lot of different angles – the Islamic viewpoint is rooted more in their view of the omnipotence of Allah than in the specific wording of the Old Testament.


    Your perspective is very interesting, Michael – I’ve never known much about the Shroud of Turin myself. I think Marjorie may be (while trying to avoid discussing openly) referring to the absence of the hand wound.

  16. P.S. How many of you have found yourself in the valley of Adam Ondi Ahman or at Nauvoo and have taken away a stone or a momento from the ground or trees to remember your visit?

    Not I.

  17. I think the usual precautions apply to taking a private conversation involving a General Authority and applying it to the whole Church. Phrases like “official prophetic prohibition” and “President McKay’s counsel” give me pause, particularly if the implication is that (1) all LDS artists were aware of it, and (2) it carried equal authority as an official declaration or pronouncement by President McKay in a General Conference setting.

    I’d like some clarification on this point, if any can be given.

  18. I agree with Bryan. After some thought, I remembered Brother Joseph said “I’m only a Prophet when I’m being one.” Without knowing in what context President McKay did or did not comment on the depiction of God, I think it is inappropriate to discuss it. I retract my statement I made about the quote until I know more.

  19. Thanks. It’s nice to be back. Even though I haven’t been “gone,” I’ve just been in grad school. Which is as good as gone sometimes, I suppose. 🙂

    Bryan and Larry, you’re right, and I think that’s a very important point to emphasize here. Second-hand prophetic utterings can’t be promulgated as prophetic utterings.

    The source that Swanson cites for the conversation is: Friberg notes (February 2001) SMA Mae Huntington Research Library, SMA meaning Springville Museum of Art. So apart from personal conjecture, I think the argument holds no real weight.

  20. Very interesting Anneke. I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts. I’ve never learned how to look at visual art critically and so a lot of might as well be blank space for me. This is all good food for thought.

  21. “In fact, I think much of supposed spiritual art created for our consumer society lacks the spiritual quality of many antique idols.”

    Coming from a family with roots in Polynesian idolatry, I agree. We still talk about animal spirit guardians and such things (my family’s, incidentally, is the shark). My uncle – a devout Mormon – makes walking sticks with graven images of Hawaiian gods or animal spirits on them. They are a representation of his spiritual power/strivings, not objects of worship.

    You know, as a missionary I was given a small wooden replica of an old Hawaiian idol by another member of the church. This came with a note saying how this idol should inspire me in living the gospel and had a cord I could use to wear it around my neck. I did so for a while out of respect to the person who gave it to me, but was never totally comfortable with that. I do, however, still have it hanging in my room. It’s nothing more than a memento to me, really. I wouldn’t call it the most artful depiction I’ve seen. But I get a spiritual boost from thinking about it once in a while. I’m totally comfortable with that.

    As a youth I was fascinated by Greek mythology. I used to marvel at the way very specific aspects of the world and the human experience were personified by each of the various deities. I also used to wonder at the inherent flaws of each. Nowadays, I’m also interested in how pagan gods are used in art by Christians. I’ve been reading Milton lately, and am startled at how he can simultaneously appeal to and denounce the old gods.

    What does this have to do with graven images? Well, this: “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it” (Alma 30:44). I understand the point about not making objects of devotion, and agree with it. But many cultures’ conceptions of deity can be seen as attempts to understand and interact with the world, its inhabitants (human and non-human), and the powers that drive it. Often the result was great art. Within our gospel perspective, I think we can learn from that.

  22. .

    P.S. How many of you have found yourself in the valley of Adam Ondi Ahman or at Nauvoo and have taken away a stone or a momento from the ground or trees to remember your visit?

    I haven’t but with one exception. When I was involved in an archaeological dig on the Nauvoo Temple site (the old well — didn’t find anything older than about fifty years), I kept a film canister full of mud. But it doesn’t hold religious significance for me; it’s just a physical reminder of a cool experience.

    You may be right in that such things holds more significance for those with a different cultural orientation. For me, for instance, I doubt the veracity of the Shroud of Turin but don’t really care either way. To me, it doesn’t have any final reflection on the divinity of Christ and, as you’ve noticed, objects don’t offer me much in the terms of faith-development, so I don’t think about it.

    Imaginative art is different however. Since I usually make fun of Greg Olsen (for many reasons, but we’ll save the levity for another time), let’s talk about a painting of his that genuinely moved me, O Jerusalem. The painting offered me a way of looking at divinity that I had never had before and thus widened my understanding. (Back to the graven-image question, I never worshiped this painting, but I did think on it long and deep, on its implications.) So I like it. And I also like that I’m not battered with claims of authenticity. The painting is patently fake.

    Which brings us an ancillary point, viz. the more “realistic” the depictions of divinity, the less I like them. The more “real” it “looks” the less likely it is to capture an honest impression of divinity.

    In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud observes that the more cartoony and less realistic an image is, the more universal it becomes. I won’t go into that here, but I think this is true in painting the divine as well: too “real” and you get Liz Lemon Swindle’s emoboy-dressed-like-Jesus paintings. Take steps away from realism and you get something more meditation worthy, eg JKR.

    Whether this makes it less likely to be “worshipped” graven-image style seems likely, but really I can’t say.

  23. I agree, Adam. One of my regrets from my LDS mission to Romania is that I didn’t buy any icons. I wouldn’t have been allowed to buy any of the old ones (and wouldn’t have anyway) because the government (rightly) put restrictions on what could be carried out of the country because there’d been a bit of a raid on Romanian artworks and artifacts post-Ceaucescu.

    But there were some lovely contemporary ones, including those by an artist that I met who painted on glass in a semi-updated style (but still using the standard tropes and forms).

  24. William,

    I know another brother who did collect icons while (I’m pretty sure)on a Misssion in Romania. I think he still imports them. Email me if you are still interested collecting them and I will get i the info for you. His mother has some that I have seen and they are cool.

  25. Thanks, Larry. I will e-mail you. I’m not sure that’s in the budget for the Morris household, but it wouldn’t hurt to make the contact.

  26. “I am also a firm believer in the Shroud of Turin . . .

    I have read through all the science, myths, and traditions regarding the cloth. I have also studied of its history and I have a personal surety which is difficult to transmit to others. (As a side note to Marjorie – #9 – the shroud does very clearly show the sure sign you allude to in Isaiah 22 which is why I give it such credence. If you watch the National Geo special on the cloth or any other historical special they mention the uniqueness of the wrist wound).”

    Actually, as someone who loves to study what others think is bunk, I have learned about the Shroud of Turin and am still on the fence. The Mormon Protestant anti-Catholic side of me dismisses the whole thing as anything other than what is claimed by the believers. The non-skeptic science, mystery, and art lover side of me thinks the jury is still out. Right now I am torn between the actual authentic article and a Da Vinci artistic experiment. You can prove either side depending on what you accept as the evidence.

    As for the artistic representation, I find it one of the most beautiful depictions of Christ’s crucifiction I have ever seen. There is no cross, but there is the signs of the cross and other tourture. Yet, the very significants of the absense of Jesus’ body represents the resurrection. Add to that the idea that you can only see the image of Jesus after close examination of his suffering and the meaning becomes powerful. Not to mention how serene and satisfied the face looks as if simply asleep. If it isn’t real, then it is genius.

  27. William,

    I didn’t run across any ancient Arizonan icons on my mission, but I did serve on an Indian reservation for quite a while. After that, it was easy to see all the kachinas around and tell which were authentic, which were just for tourists, and which had real love put into their making. Same goes for the jewelry (turquoise and silver!) and even woven baskets. Pottery was a bit harder, but not impossible. Now, finding something “real” didn’t assume that it is made by an Indian, but only with a love of that art and a purpose in the creation of the specific piece.

  28. I find this commentary on cultural idols fascinating. I’m torn by them – on one hand, my understanding of idolatry was profoundly strengthened by teaching Old Testament seminary, and I realize that especially in our day the danger is not in statues and hand-made Gods, but in our values and intentions. On the other hand, I’ve lived among people for whom the veneration of physical objects has been a cultural norm for centuries. Preach My Gospel specifies:

    People in many cultures own or pay respect to objects that remind them of Deity or ancestors. Sometimes those objects, such as statues, religious emblems, or small shrines, might also be the focus of their worship. Help them understand that the Lord has commanded us not to worship idols. Encourage them to remove from their home any object they worship or to which they pray. Help them focus their faith and worship on their Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Teach them that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ focuses on the living Christ.

    In the restored gospel the Lord has taught us how to remember Him. We remember Him through prayer, the sacrament, and temple worship. Your mission president will provide guidance in specific areas. (Preach My Gospel, page 76)

    I visited an inactive sister who had been a member of Soka Gakkai before joining the LDS church. She was good-hearted and wanted the best for her and her troubled adult son. She told us how she still said Christian prayers but she also kept a scroll of the Lotus Sutra, called a Gohonzon, hanging on her wall “just in case it did some good.”

    I felt prompted to promise this sister that if she was willing to get rid of this scroll and show her faith in Jesus Christ, He would answer her prayers. While I don’t want to get into too much detail, I can say that she did so, and later had a very specific miraculous answer to a prayer.

    Since, I’ve struggled to define what an idol actually is. I love Asian art, and at one point I found myself in a store, looking at little jade statues of Buddhas and dragons. “Wouldn’t this be neat in my living room,” I started thinking – it was, after all, a product of a culture I dearly loved. But them I remembered the promise I made to that sister, and her sacrifice in following through. And I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

  29. We have a Tibetan community here in town that sells Buddha statues for your home or garden. I thought about buying one but like you, could not get comfortable with the idea even thought I have a great amount of respect for Buddhist teachings. I even had the thought “If the statue was of the Savior I would buy it and put it in my garden.” If I go to Deseret Books, buy a Christus statue, put it on a pedestal in my house, knee down and pray in front of it, have I committed idolatry? Or is the statue just a tool to help me focus better on Our Lord?

  30. That is interesting, Anneke. I had a similar experience with a Pima family and their catholic images. Your point about intentions and values reminds me of these two examples:

    I remember taking a “Gospel and World Religions” institute class some time ago. The instructor had an abiding respect for the other cultures and religions he taught about, so much so that he once had a student ask if he was a Christian. Plus his office was filled with their various works of art. I would never call him idolatrous, but the decor he chose certainly gave one pause. Understanding what he was currently teaching gave it context.

    On the other hand, my parents have cultural icons from Hawaii, Korea, and Russia in their home, some of which were created as tokens of good luck in marriage, and such things, but my parents put them up because they came from the missions their sons served in and/or are indicative of things they loved in their homeland (Hawaii). Others are there just because they look “neat in [their] living room.”

  31. I once served in a ward that had a large painting of the Savior in Gethsemane (done by a local artist) right behind the pulpit in the chapel. That made me really uncomfortable for a while. I think it’s interesting that the Conference center is full of art everywhere you go (everywhere I’ve been, at least) except in the spaces that are used at any time for worship.

  32. I have been pondering somewhat on this exchange between Arnold Friberg and President McKay and how it relates to my own experience as a screenwriter.

    As with many who have posted previously, I’m very careful about art of any kind in my home, but particularly depictions of Christ. The aforementioned “O, Jerusalem,” hangs on our wall because it was a wedding gift and because it is the only work by the modern Mormon illusionists through which I enjoy something of a communion with the Spirit upon its viewing. Otherwise, I’m reluctant precisely because of the cultural reasons specified. I was not raised in a culture that taught me to transpose figurines into genuine devotion of the Lord and savior. Not only am I loathe to elevate any graven image, but I am no less resistant to enjoying the presence of the Lord in my home for reasons that are, above all, decorative. In this, I am admittedly a product of my culture to some degree, but also my own distilled thoughts. I have always admired people who were true to the underpinnings of the crosses around their necks or Buddhas on their mantles.

    As to the specifics of what President McKay said, I made the personal decision long ago that, as an artist, I would never portray the glorified Father or Son because I simply can’t (I reserve the right to change my mind should commandment or personal revelation so dictate). It was an instinctual decision that became an artistic one. My scenes of the First Vision or angelic ministry or what-have-you are more about the impact of deity, not the image. I suppose my mind is drawn to Moses’s encounter with Lucifer; one who was trying to recreate the image of deity in himself. But Moses wisely saw that THIS image held no glory. Like Lucifer (it chills me to compare myself to him), I cannot duplicate the Lord’s glory, in my form or any other, in some part because of what President McKay said: I cannot conceive of it. And if I could, I would be reluctant to reveal any more than did Nephi, Jacob, Mormon of other prophets when they said, to this effect, “it sufficeth me to say that I have seen him and have beheld his glory.”

    Again, this is a personal choice. My testimony is a product of some faith, less knowledge, and desire above all. Hence, it is with the desire to see that I may understand that I peer through my artist’s lens with the eye of faith. Not to recreate, but to realize. Not to envision, but to embrace. Thus, I have no desire for people to see the Lord through my art. Only to glorify him.

  33. Thank you Michael, that is a nice painting. I like Richard’s work. His piece and the Brown painting of the same subject plus O Jerusalem by Olsen are perfect examples of art that is meant to express gospel ideas and concepts. They are to help you ponder, meditate and remember to keep the convents you have made. That is there purpose. They are not decorations or objects of worship. They are visual expressions of truth. I would not call them graven images.

  34. Not graven at all.

    This distinction is very important, actually (in my opinion), critical to salvation.

    Take that as the weighty statement it is.

  35. I just discovered AMV and have enjoyed reading some of the articles and comments. I understand that this is now old news, and that there may be few active readers on this thread, but wanted to add one more thought on why, I believe, LDS folk are less comfortable with the visual arts than they are with the performing arts. This goes to a dynamic between individual expression and subjugation of the individual for a unified group effort. The visual arts are for the most part deeply personal explorations of thoughts and ideas based in both emotional and intellectual realms. The performing arts are for the most part a presentation of already scripted/composed material, the presentation of which requires a high degree of conformity on the part of the musicians. I believe that we as an LDS culture value conformity rather than individual expression. I believe that this is why the few artists that find their way into church publications conform to a certain look/standard.

  36. .

    That is a compelling argument. I think it could be stated more positively though: We believe in meeting together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of our souls and to dance hulas and perform in roadshows, although maybe not quite as much as we used to. So I think we could spin it as an attempt to meet the goal of Zion, which requires doing things together.

    Of course, I still think it’s good to engage in a little painting here or there. And to be interesting when you do, dagnabit.

  37. Sam,

    Your comment reminds me of what I think one of the differences is between President Kimball’s and President Packer’s visions for LDS art, at least as stated in the messages linked to. President Packer (Elder Packer at the time) seems to be arguing for a more conformist approach, while President Kimball simply says (to paraphrase) to combine the best talent with the highest inspiration and most complete knowledge and see what you get. Of course, Elder Packer also calls this the ideal, but he downplays training, talent, and skill in favor of spiritual intent. He defines specific musical styles, for example, in which he thinks spiritual appropriateness is not possible. On the other hand, one could argue that President Kimball does the same thing to a degree by the specific artists he calls upon the membership of the church to equal or excel.


    My stake had roadshows just a month or so ago, and I’ve danced a hula within the year. 🙂 I like your way of framing this argument, but I wonder if applying it as strictly to the arts as we sometimes do gives us a somewhat warped interpretation of Zion: one in which we are less of one heart and one mind than we are of one personality and one imagination. At least, I think we can take it too far in that respect. I think this also comes from teaching (as I did last week) about sinning through improper thought and word, and not just deed. We are careful to cleanse that which comes out of us, lest it defile us, but in rendering our offerings sanitary, I wonder if we sometimes render them sterile.

    Another thought I just had: some of the highest forms of spiritual expression, so to speak, in the church – the temple ordinances – are scripted very carefully. We have strict rules about the use and display of art in sacrament meetings and church buildings. We are constantly taught to be wary of illicit influences from worldly music and other media/art. This might influence us to feel that we have to work entirely within those Sabbath day parameters, thinking that to do otherwise is to admire the landscaping on the grounds of the great and spacious building.

  38. .

    In Elder Maxwell’s book The Enoch Letters he describes artists as creating their greatest, most personal and individualistic works in Zion, while caring not a whit whether they get credit for the greatness that all enjoy.

    I’m not ready to do that yet, but I do think that is a likely endpoint.

  39. I agree, Th. That’s what Zion should be. I was pointing to the fact that we risk making it about sameness rather than unity when we are two narrow minded in our application of the Gospel.

    Incidentally, I realized after my last comment that the great and spacious building probably didn’t have any grounds, being “as it were in the air” (1 Ne. 8:26), but I don’t know if that damages or enhances my metaphor.

  40. “In Elder Maxwell’s book The Enoch Letters he describes artists as creating their greatest, most personal and individualistic works in Zion, while caring not a whit whether they get credit for the greatness that all enjoy.”

    Artists have to earn a living, too. And lately, we’ve had several talks in conference about young men developing skills that will be profitable and relevant to the world in which they live. Maybe Mormon artists should heed that particular counsel. There are certain styles which are not going to find a wide audience outside of the church. And members of the church aren’t really known for flocking to galleries and buying quality,original works of art. This puts Mormon artists in a quandary.

    It is great to call for artists to devote their time and materials to build up the LDS artistic legacy, but are the builders who build the Temples asked to volunteer their work? What other professional service is called upon to work for free?

    Artists cannot be burdened with both providing for their family and at the same time donating their labors and materials to the church. Let’s ask doctors to provide medical services free for members. Let’s ask plumbers to work at church facilities for free.

    Artists have to, to some degree, paint or create in a manner that will find favor with a buying audience. And if the Church members can’t purchase enough art to keep an LDS artist afloat, then the LDS community is just never going to have the kind of work that Maxwell calls for.

  41. This was an excellent read, thank you Anneke and all commentors. Did the other five pillars ever get written (the link at the top of the posting only takes me to the AMV main page)?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s