Why Christian Art Sucks: BYU Boogaloo.

Why Christian Art Sucks: BYU Boogaloo. December 3, 2016

I’m feeling super-helpful today so I thought I’d assist an art instructor who has “no idea what to do with these [photos]” that one of his students submitted as part of an assignment. This instructor has accidentally shown us why Christian art sucks as bad as it does.

Here’s what happened: Waverly Giles, a business student at Brigham Young University, was taking an art class as part of her requirements for graduation. She turned in an assignment that featured several photographs of a young woman with a brightly-painted face. And apparently her instructor gave her a zero for the assignment.

Screencap of tweet by Waverly Giles.
Screencap of tweet by Waverly Giles.

The initial notes left by that instructor on the score sheet say: “Did not meet criteria for assignment. I have no idea what to do w/these. They’re artistic but….”

The assignment requirements. Click to embiggen.
The assignment requirements. Click to embiggen.

But Ms. Giles had a copy of the requirements for the assignment, and it seems clear that her work did meet them in full. He told her later that his real problem with the photos was that the model had bare shoulders, which violates BYU’s dress code for women. He couldn’t see past her shoulders, so he assumed that she was naked. (She wore a tube top, in actuality. Feel free to make any number of assumptions about this guy in turn; I sure am.) And so he gave her a zero.

She later wrote, “I knew I went to a conservative school, but I didn’t anticipate getting 0/100 points for my assignment because the subject was inappropriate.” At most, she expected only to send him into “cardiac arrest” because she felt her photos were way better than the expectations he had of the students in the class. I don’t see an indication that she thought the subject of the photos would be an issue.

Bare Shoulders Bad, Papyrus Font A-OK.

One thing is quite clear: the list of requirements she provided does not in any way say that the submitted photos must fit into the archaic, misogynistic dress code at her school. In fact almost all of the requirements for the assignment are technical. The instructor wants the photos to be in focus and have the right exposure levels and that sort of thing. Literally the only content requirement is this: “Must be a person or animal.” And Ms. Giles’ photos definitely include a person–a very colorful person!

Further, as Ms. Giles explained to local media, it becomes clear that the instructor only had a problem with the bare shoulders in these photos–not with bare shoulders in art generally.

(Me personally, I have questions about the artistic judgment of a fellow who voluntarily chooses to use Papyrus on his score sheet. As a typography nerd, I can’t help it. I totally judge font choices. #sorrynotsorry)

Bare Shoulders Are Actually Totally Okay, As Long As A Man Made the Art Depicting Them And It’s Really Old Art That Is Familiar.

As Waverly Giles tells it, the “Foundations of the Humanities 1010” class had spent quite some time reviewing art that depicted men and women both with bare shoulders, and the instructor didn’t appear to have an issue with the women depicted in this art not fitting into the BYU dress code then. And in her Twitter stream, some clever wag has pointed out that official Mormon temple art includes plenty of people with bare shoulders (and more than a few very muscular men with bare chests and beards–ooh la la!).

Further, in figure drawing classes at BYU, models pose in their underwear for students and that is apparently fine. And I already knew that they’re happy to let male students slide on the “no beards” rule if they need to grow one for a play or something. Indeed, a BYU spokesperson in this case specifically said that their dress code doesn’t apply to women if an art project is involved. (But then the spokesperson punted and said that it was really up to the individual instructor to decide how strictly they want to interpret those rules.)

Thus, this student was quite within her rights to assume that her project wouldn’t fall afoul of BYU’s rules for women.

Instead, she collided with fundagelicals’ fear of non-traditional art.

The art that her instructor was okay with is art that was made by male artists, most of it quite old, and in styles that are less confrontational-feeling and done in mediums that very conservative Christians can view at a safe emotional remove. I saw the same attitude among my fellow Pentecostals years ago–and see it now occasionally when one of them bursts out with a long-familiar tirade about how art today is sooooo inferior to art made in the past.

In short, the acceptable art for fundagelicals is the visual equivalent of King James Version language: it feels fancy, formal, and old. And so even if the language is describing a size queen’s sexual preferencesan abortion potion meant to be force-fed to pregnant women suspected of adultery, or the sexual enslavement of little girls, it just sounds so pleasingly archaic and poetic that the meaning behind it is muddled.

Christian Art Sucks.

Christians don’t do well with modern styles of art. That’s just the reality of it, and there are many reasons for this dislike. And of course, some people like modern art more than others and are allowed to like whatever they want. But when we look at the people who particularly hate modern art, the groups known for their dislike of it, some traits start standing out in common.

People generally like patterns and sights that are familiar, which is why sequels are so common in movies these days. When we’re stressed, we don’t reach for lobster foam but rather for macaroni & cheese, and the more gooey the cheese sauce, the better we like it. People generally are creatures of habit and lovers of nostalgia–often even when we’re not religious at all.

And there’s science behind the reasons why we can be like that, of course. As you hear about it, you may well start thinking of some intriguing side avenues of study that could be had in figuring out how much more prone to nostalgia fundagelicals are than non-fundagelicals, and how much more enjoyment they may get out of revisiting the past. My suspicion is that given their driving need for certainty and their high degree of anxiety around unfamiliar experiences and ideas, fundagelicals will vastly prefer non-confrontational, non-threatening, non-challenging art.

If my suspicion is correct, then it makes sense that they’ll prefer plots they’ve already assimilated as acceptable, character types they won’t find challenging, imagery that won’t remind them that non-fundagelicals exist and don’t care what they think, and neat, tidy resolutions that reinforce their cultural expectations and teachings.

Indeed, that appears to be exactly what we see when we look at the art that is aimed at the Christian market.

Modern Art Hates Them Right Back.

One Christian wrote a long, extensive article about hating modern art that I think is quite typical–and telling. Writer David Goldman was deeply upset that modern artists no longer cared about “the service of God” but rather appeared to have plunged into a “mass-manufacturing business” instead of creating what he thought was proper art, real art. Modern art had become, in his opinion, a “modern cult of individual self-expression” that “[was] a poor substitute for the religion it strove to replace.” He writes much better than my old crowd of Pentecostals spoke, but he is saying exactly what they used to say–albeit in fancier language.

Fittingly, John Waters–the deeply transgressive filmmaker behind Pink Flamingos (OMG I want to party with this guy, but not till I’ve made sure I’m current on all my shots)–declares that modern art’s function and purpose is to “wreck whatever came before it,” and you can imagine that idea has already occurred to the fundagelicals, who hate him most of all.

John Waters said in that Big Think interview that something that’s simply pretty, something that’s purely aesthetically pleasing, is about the worst kind of art that can exist now. He says, “Contemporary art hates you” to the people who hate it in turn because they haven’t learned how to speak that art’s language. It’s hard not to think that indeed, David Goldman hasn’t learned to speak that language–and very likely Waverly Giles’ instructor hasn’t either.

What these Christians don’t realize is that the classical art they usually give a pass to was, in its day, often damned subversive. David Goldman’s lament completely ignores that the reason that art looked the way it did centuries ago is that Christian leaders had considerable more powers of coercion than they do now–and could punish artists who stepped too far out of line. They don’t now, which means that the art being produced is sometimes extremely challenging for Christians.

The Night Watch (1642), surely one of the world’s masterpieces, exists because the Dutch had some very off-beat ideas about portraiture at the time (and some restrictive customs and rules). Their artists created group portraits and ones that caught people in mid-action doing things that look kind of awkward today–and one can imagine that some of these portraits were very challenging to observers at the time who expected staid, stately portraits of elegant subjects sitting still for the painter.

In Italy around the same time, artists working against similar rules and restrictions got away with painting naked women by putting nude courtesans (and mistresses!) in classical settings and calling them goddesses, or sticking patrons in pseudo-historical togas and making them bystanders in Bible stories, or painting subjects that looked decidedly unbeautiful, and sometimes for good measure just putting themselves into the sidelines to smirk back at the viewer.

As long as there’ve been rules about what can’t and can’t go into art, some artist somewhere has been gaming those rules and trying to wreck whatever came before them.

The only reason that Christians don’t think classical art hates them–and think that they in turn do not hate it–is because they think they speak that art’s language. It’s comfortable; it’s something they’re used to seeing. But it hates them just as much as modern art does, and for the same reasons.

There’s one kind of art that does speak fundagelicals’ language though, and that is glurge.

Glurge is VERY OK.

I'm pretty sure this was similar to what I got. It was HUGE.
I’m pretty sure this was the printing I got. It was HUGE. And ostentatious. And obnoxious.

Glurge is the kind of art that is just there to reinforce whatever the viewer already thinks. It’s the art on the Mormon temple walls; it’s the full-color illustrations in those big overwrought white-leatherette-covered Bibles like the one I got when I was baptized into an SBC megachurch as a teen. It’s the art that echoes and re-echoes without contradiction or anything original to say.

This kind of art does not challenge; it does not threaten anyone’s opinions; it does not push back. It’s art that can be totally understood by anybody, even someone who doesn’t speak any artistic language at all. It is sentimental in the purest oldest sense of the word: it is nothing but rose-colored glasses, a peek into what the viewer wishes the world was like, offered up by an artist who selects subjects and settings that are guaranteed to please his or her chosen audience.

Usually we see the term glurge applied to written or spoken stories–Snopes has devoted an entire section of its site to such stories. Pretty much all of the movies Christians love so much lately are glurge as well: the more sappy, sentimental, over-simplified, sanitized, and divorced from reality the movie is, really, the more they love it. Christian music runs along similar lines–when it’s not even worse than the movies are.

The realm of visual arts is even more prone to glurge. An artist who wants to sell fundagelicals artwork needs to get familiar with their worldview and learn how to pander to it before starvation sets in. As frustrated as some Christians might be with that kind of art, they’re not the ones grading the photography students–or deciding what’ll get sold in the big Christian bookstores to be hung on the walls of fundagelical homes and offices. As long as Christians are willing to spend money on glurge but not willing to consider more challenging works, then those graders and sellers will be right there to prostitute art into something those Christians will actually spend money on.

A Do-Over.

Can and should both bow before is, ultimately, eventually. And a school that prides itself on its religiosity sometimes finds itself at the center of a potential PR disaster that requires an expedient and diplomatic response.

From Waverly Giles' Twitter feed.
From Waverly Giles’ Twitter feed. The do-over.

Ms. Giles’ instructor has told her that she’ll be allowed to try again for this assignment. And she’s already got something in mind–something that ought to get a lot more attention, even, than the initial assignment did (the pic to the right here).

I applaud this student for trying to make an interesting and off-beat creation for what could have been a very routine art assignment. I haven’t a clue what her religious persuasion is, if anything (though I can make an educated guess about that of her family, given where she lives and the school involved), and hope that her do-over is as thought-provoking as the initial foray was.

Ultimately, art is a long conversation between the artist and those who view the artist’s work. So ultimately, Ms. Giles succeeded. She wants to make art, not glurge, and to have that conversation rather than pandering to people who fear what she represents. I wish her the best.


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