True Religion and Great Art

 

C. C. A. Christensen’s nineteenth-century painting “Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice”

 

One of the more unusual criticisms that I sometimes hear of Mormonism is that it has failed to produce any great art — visual, musical, or literary.

 

I’m not absolutely sure that this is true, unless one sets the standard for “great art” at the stratospheric level of Shakespeare, Bach, Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, and Rembrandt.  Frankly, I’m not altogether convinced that the past two centuries have produced any artists at that level, Mormon or non-Mormon.  Certainly, such artists have been, at the very best, exceedingly rare.

 

But let’s grant the accusation for the moment, for purposes of discussion.

 

What world-class art, apart from the New Testament itself (which, in the original koiné Greek, may in any case not be quite as great a literary masterpiece as it is in, say, its elegant King James Version) did the original Christian church produce during its first two centuries?

 

Do we have any reason to expect that a rapidly growing new religious movement will produce great art?

 

And, anyway, how does the presence or absence of great art count for or against the truth of a religious message?

 

For much of its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a small, isolated group, largely engaged with settling and cultivating a vast semi-arid Great Basin in the American West.  It has had little leisure, and little if any financial surplus, to sustain the production of great art.

 

I advise patience.  (And to our writers and sculptors and painters and composers, I offer as much encouragement as I’m capable of giving.)

 

 

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  • brotheroflogan

    We’ve got some good ones though. We have scultors, painters and authors who have won prestigious awards. Orson Scott Card has won many prestigious writing awards. Greg Olsen’s art has been used in catholic churches. And we all know that Spencer W. Kimball was the face model for Yoda. (haha).

    • mike

      I just did a google image search of “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus Christ Painting,” and “Jesus Christ Picture” and found quite a few paintings of the Savior by LDS artists within the first 50 or 60 results. For such a small community relative to other Christian groups, I would say that the works of LDS artists are quite overly represented. Living in the Midwest, I can say that a number of evangelicals here happily own Greg Olsen and Simon Dewey paintings.

  • Ryan

    These critics have certainly not seen Saturday’s Warrior.

    • DanielPeterson

      Yeah. There you go.

  • Big Brutha

    I’ll bite. Saturday’s Warrior, notwithstanding, the Latter-day Saints are further away today from producing world class art than they were within the first fifty years of the Church’s founding because of the revolution in artistic standards.

    A characteristic artistic style and motifs take a little while for new religious movements to produce. It is also reliant on techniques and tropes extant in the milieu in which it developed. As an example: Islamic art. Early offerings were influence by techniques that existed in the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian Empires that the early Muslims overran. That does not mean that they did not give the art their own characteristic twist (developing prohibitions on depictions of people/animals influenced ways in which art could be “Islamically” expressed). However, the dome of the Rock, has mosaics, a Byzantine/Greco Roman concept. It has a Dome…developed as an offshoot of churches built in the style of the Hagia Sophia, etc.

    Mormonisms early artistic/architectural works were heavily influenced by prevailing styles of building, construction, ornamentation, though with a characteristic LDS twist. Brigham Young sent missionaries to Europe to sketch cathedrals in preparation for the design and construction of the Salt Lake Temple.

    In the 19th century one could still look around and find very finely crafted and designed works of art, whether visual, architectural, or musical. If one surveys the artistic world today, one is hard pressed to point to similar levels of artistic production, sacred, secular, or indifferent. This is all too evident when one looks at what passes as art. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but in past ages the beholder was educated to understand and appreciate a level of craftsmenship and technical proficiency that is rarely seen these days, and when seen, is often decried as being either derivative (which it sometimes is) or insufficiently avant garde (hopefully, always). The Impressionists moved the visual arts away from strictly representational skills, toward a method that while striking and unique, paved the way for the kinds of absurdities that followed: cubism, Dadaism, Jackson Pollock, etc. Those things cut deeply at the root of an art tradition that was thousands of years old and that required a technical skill set built on careful practice and a long apprenticeship: namely, depicting something accurately so that other viewers could identify it and understand what was being depicted.

    The same thing has occurred in music, and architecture. Music fell victim starting with Stravinsky to a kind of dissonance or atonality that were first used with striking effect and that then became the whole dish rather than the spice on it. There are still technically capable composers. However, far too many of them drank deeply from the well of Schoneberg and the 12 tone serialists and today produce works even less approachable, even more abstract or obscure. There are composers who have produced some really lovely pieces. Many of these are often incidental to films since the masses can rarely stand to listen to the more prestigious works.

    Of course, the masses are appealed to on another level completely these days. When it is not appealing to the lowest of common denominators, popular music, art, etc. show a kind of saccharine nature absent in the works of the old masters. This kind of sentimentality is all too abundant in much of LDS art. It is cloying and kitschy. Some of it is cloying, kitschy and derivative which is worse yet. Unoriginal dreck is the worst kind. (Certainly not all of it is but enough of it to be alarming.)

    The old idea of art as a device to ennoble man and praise God appears to be dead or mortally wounded.

    It is in this environment that LDS artists are attempting to create. My wife is a fine artist (BFA from BYU). Without desiring to point fingers or tar too many with a broad brush, I can say that even in that program there is far too little emphasis on technical skills and far too much on feelings, expression, emotion, etc. In music anyway, those things are called dynamics, and while important, are not allowed to trump the very objective matters of correct notes, proper key, accurate timing, etc. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the visual arts.

    All of which underscores my main point: early LDS could learn from the then current techniques employed for producing beautiful art. Many of those are no longer in use, and even where they can be reconstructed (at least in painting) are no longer taught or practiced.

    To have good art, requires skilled artists. Skill requires practice and the ability to differentiate between correct and incorrect methods/applications. Differentiation requires standards and it is precisely those standards that have melted away like the proverbial hoar frost. If everything is equally beautiful it is all equally ugly. If it is simply a matter of personal preference then it is no surprise that people prefer easier techniques that require less time to develop and no criticism to bruise tender feelings.

    Before the Church is ever able to produce President Kimball’s deeply desired masterpieces, we have to create or return to a set of objective standards (or at least measurable ones) for excellence. Barring that we will continue to see the same kind of sub-par offerings put out by much of the rest of the world but with a Mormon twist to make them even less palatable.

    While I agree that artistic endeavors were more avocation than vocation among the early Saints of this dispensation, one should not fail to appreciate the architectural and decorative arts produced by those humble Saints. Some of them are very, very good indeed, and produced in difficult circumstances. We have at time also been graced by some genuinely talented composers. But these have not often be recognized and they have been even less appreciated.

    In conclusion, there is no reason to suspect that the Latter-day Saints will produce great art ex nihilo. It requires a firm foundation in and obedience to the laws governing beauty. Great art does not make a message true. But having the truth should imbue us with a desire to make art great. The fact that we as Saints have not, up to this point, produced much that has been truly great is not a mark against our faith. It is a mark against us for not having the imagination and the discipline to see in our faith the seeds of greatness in our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Elder Uchtdorf mentions creation and compassion as two divine traits we should seek after. I submit that God makes things beautiful even as He makes them good and true.

  • Anyotheruser

    I was at a viewing at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts once when someone I was speaking to found out I was LDS and brought this topic up. I remember responding that it’d been less than two centuries and he should give us a little time – he actually accepted that answer, and even suggested that perhaps the art comes in when the initial impetus fades.

    That said, I do think art is a challenge we have yet to fully rise to (as discussed by President Kimball and Elder Packer here: http://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/07/the-gospel-vision-of-the-arts & http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=380 ). But I think as those who have the talent seek to do so, and for the right reasons, it will happen.

    • DanielPeterson

      Interestingly, we now have a Latter-day Saint working at the Prince’s School, where she also earned her doctorate. (She focuses, among other places, on “sacred geometry.”) I love many of the things that they do there.

      • Anyotheruser

        It was Lisa’s work I was actually going to see!

        • DanielPeterson

          Good stuff, no?

  • http://www.americanyak.com/ American Yak

    Dan, I’ve written about this. http://mormonartist.net/articles/what-does-a-latter-day-saint-renaissance-look-like/ My thinking on it has changed a bit since I wrote, but not that much. My more modern take on it is probably that Mormons (and this is a brash generalization) as an institution do not appreciate the arts. I think there are many who want to, but are more business minded. Again, a gross generalization, and would need a lengthy treatment to give fair appreciation to. But that link above treats it somewhat. (Again, my thinking has evolved a little bit on it all.)

    • DanielPeterson

      Excellent thoughts. If you don’t mind, I’d like to do a blog entry calling attention to your essay a bit later today or tomorrow. (Today is going to be really busy.)

      • http://www.americanyak.com/ American Yak

        I’d be flattered if you blogged about it. The intersection of art, technology, and religion is something I think about constantly. I’ve started writing over @ medium.com to a broader audience on related topics if that also interests you. (I’ve realized that I have far too much to say on the matter.) Here’s my starting entry: https://medium.com/thoughts-on-creativity/6ab0aaad0f37

  • Bryce Haymond

    If dance is considered art, and I think it certainly is, Mormonism might have some claim to greatness. The BYU Ballroom Dance Company, of which I was a member for 6 years, is considered one of the finest ballroom dance formation teams in the world, having won the US Formation Championships title every year since 1982, and the British Formation Championships an unprecedented eleven times (the most prestigious ballroom dance competition in the world). When I toured the world with the team, our performances often brought audiences to tearful ovations, with many commenting that it was the most inspiring and touching performance they had ever witnessed.

  • Bryce Haymond

    Let’s not forget the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It is considered one of the finest choirs in the world, with numerous prestigious awards and high acclaim world-wide. President Ronald Reagan called it “America’s Choir.”

  • wheelercreek

    I am a painter, (you can find my work at art.wheelercreek.com) and I also run this website: http://lds-artists.org. What qualifies as “great art” has been an ongoing & raging debate for a long time. I’m pretty firmly in the realist / representational art site of things, where most of the LDS audience is as well. But that’s not where the current art world has been over the past 100 years at least. So great art by whose standards, the world’s?

    That said, much of our LDS realistic art is honestly pretty lame.. (and I include my own work in that categorization). I am most encouraged by the new Atelier movement happening in America.. https://www.facebook.com/groups/532434360138694/ – this movement grows out of a reaction against the modern / post-modern art & the confusion and garbage we see coming out of today’s art schools. There are some truly amazing artists out there working in classical
    realist traditions. Our own Jeffrey Hein is one that I would call
    attention to..http://jeffreyhein.wordpress.com/

  • Sharee Hughes

    Maybe we don’t have any “great masters’ of the arts in the church, but our artists are not all producing “lame” work. James Christensen is an awesome artist, and I’m also quite fond of the previously mentioned Greg Olsen. And although most LDS fiction would not likely win any prestigious awards, some of them make for enjoyable light reads. I’m not aware of the religious persuasions of all writers whose novels I read, but a notable good writer is Scott Card. Margaret Young also comes to mind. And Eric Samuelson is writing some pretty good plays. So maybe he’s not Shakespeare, but who is today? A good playwright is one who writes about universal themes, the issues that affect people yesterday, today and tomorrow. Too many playwrights today just try to see how much bad language they can include, calling it “realism”, even though that might be real only for a certain segment of society, not universally. I once took an institute class at the University of Utah on religious issues in the arts, and I remember the instructor saying that if Michelangelo had been LDS, he never could have painted the Sistine Chapel because he would have had to take too much time off to do his home teaching or be Elder’s Quorum president or whatever. So perhaps our dedication to our religion is a roadblock in our quest for artistic greatness. Or perhaps we are looking for too much.

    • http://nathanrichardson.com/ Nathan

      Sharee Hughes said: “The instructor said that if Michelangelo had been LDS, he never could have painted the Sistine Chapel because he would have had to take too much time off to do his home teaching or be Elder’s Quorum president or whatever. So perhaps our dedication to our religion is a roadblock in our quest for artistic greatness.”
      Assuming for the moment that active involvement in religious duties genuinely did preclude or curtail artistic development or production, did your instructor seem to be saying that that was bad or not worth the trade-off? In my mind, if the main thing causing art to suffer really were our mutual service in obedience to prophets’ calls, then I’d say, let the art suffer! :-) Which one will genuinely lead me closer to Christ? I don’t remember the scripture saying, “When saw we thee naked, and painted thee?” ;-)
      That said, I’m not necessarily certain that home teaching is at the root of any art problems.

      • DanielPeterson

        Funny post, making a good point.

        I can see the point being made by Sharee Hughes’s institute instructor too, though. Sometimes, meetings and busywork can interfere with more important things — not only art or scholarship, but actual service. I’ve seen it happen more than a few times. So have the leaders of the Church, I think, and they’ve been trying to help with that problem for a long time.

  • http://nathanrichardson.com/ Nathan

    Very interesting thoughts from many of you. Many seem to be saying that any lack in LDS art is a symptom of a general lack in art in the surrounding culture. That kind of makes sense to me. What great contemporary NON-Mormon art is being cranked out in such abundance that Latter-day Saints are noticeably behind? Perhaps the question needs to be generalized beyond specifically LDS art.

  • GoodWill2

    As far as great “Mormon” art or artists go, whenever I see most anything Minerva Teichert has painted, I still get goose bumps. Great art inspires!


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