The 85th annual Utah Spring Salon is on display in Springville until July 5th and I hereby exhort you with all the feeling of a tender stranger from the internet to get yourself there and take it in. It’s a wonderful exhibition every year, but this year it’s particularly grand.
…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.
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.
Six Theological Pillars for the Art of God’s People
Now, if that’s not a daunting title, I don’t know what is. It was enough to pique my curiosity, though, and I left work early on Friday, November 7th to attend Vern Swanson’s thusly-named presentation at the Biennial Art, Belief, Meaning Symposium, Picturing the Divine, at the BYU Museum of Art.
Swanson is one of my favorite Mormon Art Curmudgeons, and not a very curmudgeonly one at that. He’s a wacky art guy, yes, but he’s downright jolly. The afternoon presentations were limited to a half hour, and unfortunately so was the culmination of the day – the panel discussion featuring Swanson, painter Brian Kershisnik, painter/professor Bruce Smith and BYU-H religion professor Keith Lane. A test in Chinese class had prevented me from attending Kershisnik’s keynote speech in the morning, and I was anxious to hear more while we had all these fantastic Mormon Art brains together in one room. But the limited time was well-spent, and I was left with all kinds of buzzy little concepts floating around in my brain, not to mention the cramp in my hand from trying to get as much as I could into my little spiral-bound notebook.
While the presentations were all independently interesting, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on them all in one over-arching framework. And Swanson provided such a framework very handily – his presentation focused on what he called the six pillars of Mormon art. I would like to break my comments, interspersed with what the presenters had to say and examples and commentary from the contemporary Mormon art world, into six separate discussions, to be published here – well, let’s be realistic – whenever I get the chance to write them. The first one will appear within the week.
As an introduction, however, here are the six pillars defined by Swanson:
The Bible’s injunction against graven images
Wisehearted art as “curious workmanship” and “cunning wisdom”
The Book of Mormon’s view of art as a sign of arrogance
“There is Beauty All Around” – decorative and collaborative art
I probably shot myself in the foot, socially speaking, when I let my inner art snob accompany me on a recent date.
We were looking at board games for sale and my date, a nice sciency fellow who knew I was into art and was probably trying to be congenial, pointed to a jigsaw puzzle for sale and said “You know, I’ve always really liked these Thomas Kinkade paintings.”
“That seals it,” I said grimly. “You and I will never be friends.”
As uncharitable as it may come across, and as much as it may have sealed my spinsterly fate for a while longer, I feel it an obligation for those of us in the know to educate our friends. Yes, Thomas Kinkade really is that bad. Continue reading “Doubting Thomas”
The world today is too big; too full of sheer human inertia. I don’t think any of us can comprehend the magnitude of cultural currents as we drop pebbles just to watch the water ripple. We think ourselves educated, well-read, perhaps a little hungry for exploration but for the most part masters of our own little worlds and the way things are. And every once in a while we are lucky enough to get enough of a peek out of our own paradigms to realize that we don’t know anything. This happens culturally; this happens spiritually. And when it happens, the results are usually exhilarating and terrifying.
As missionaries in Japan, we didn’t meet many Christians. But we met a lot of savvy, educated people. And a lot of them had seen The DaVinci Code. It was an odd development halfway through my mission when casual street contacts evolved from “Oh, you’re Christians! My daughters go to Christian school!” into “Oh, you’re Christians! I know all about Christianity. I watched The DaVinci Code.”
In this post, I’d like to briefly outline what I see as the major problems with a currently popular style in LDS visual arts, a style that I’ve nicknamed “sunset in Arcadia.” This post will concentrate on the aesthetic aspect – what works and doesn’t work in creating relevant Latter-day Saint art. In a future post, I will discuss marketing and economic trends that prove similarly troublesome.
The average art viewer isn’t schooled in various styles and may have trouble differentiating what he does and doesn’t like in various pieces of art, but most people enjoy seeing something that looks “real.” The mere feat of making a two-dimensional surface look like a three-dimensional object or, even better, a recognizable person, is something laudable to most art consumers. Many laymen will tell you that their preferred style is “realism.” But it is this confusion of terminology that proves so troublesome in defining an artistic style, especially when most LDS art produced currently is produced for a middle-class market; there is a built-in filter of populism whenever an artist considers making a career of a talent.
or, Opening a Critical Discourse in Mormon Visual Arts
As a fan of LDS author Orson Scott Card, I have long frequented his website and discussion forum, a place which has shaped my ideas of civil discourse. It was at Hatrack River that I learned the meaning of words like ad hominem and strawman and acquired an uncanny radar for the oft-confused correlation and causation. For a long time, my exposure to online discourse was rather exclusive to Hatrack, and it wasn’t until my final years of college that I began to venture into new venues, among which I discovered Card’s other forum, Nauvoo: a Community for Latter-day Saints.
The folks at Nauvoo are friendly, open to newcomers, and fond of online emotion. It was easy for me to open up and join whole-heartedly in their discussions.I was a bit taken aback, however, to the response one day when I replied to a discussion on recent LDS cinema. I had posted my review of the new rendition of Pride and Prejudice, which I had enjoyed upon initial viewing, but upon reflection was troubled with its insular depiction of a very narrow subsection of beautiful, wealthy Provo people as indicative of the Mormon population. The reply to my critique was a sardonic one-lined, “well gee – why don’t you tell us how you really feel?”Continue reading “Dissension in the Ranks”