Mormon Artist

Are Scholars and Museums Ignoring Mormon Artists?

Menachem Wecker is a Washington, D.C.-based painter and writer, who blogs on religion and the arts at iconia.canonist.com.

Try searching for “Mormon” on the website of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and MOMA will ask if you meant “mormons.” But don’t get your hopes up—refining your search returns just one page, a profile of Dorothea Lange, who photographed Mormon subjects for Life in the mid-1950s.

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Image courtesy J. Kirk Richards

Searching the sites of other major U.S. museums shows MOMA is not an isolated offender. The National Gallery of Art has hosted musicians who previously performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square. A quilts exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum mentioned the Mormon Trail, and the collection includes Thomas Moran’s painting Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah, while New York’s Metropolitan Museum site yields only one hit: Charles William Carter’s print Mormon Emigrant Train, Echo Canyon.

The conspicuous absence of Mormon art in U.S. museums begs the question: Are art institutions maliciously turning a blind eye on LDS artists, or have LDS artists and cultural institutions done a poor job of marketing themselves to the wider public? And whichever is the case, are there good reasons why non-Mormons should take Mormon art seriously?

“I suspect most people don’t even know there is such a thing as Mormon art,” says Dr. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, adjunct professor of religious art and cultural history at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Apostolos-Cappadona, whose publications include Encyclopedia of Women in Religious Art and Dictionary of Christian Art, says she has rarely encountered Mormon art or artists as specific topics in her research. “I am not sure there is a strong, or even growing interest in the topic of Mormon art.”

A “conundrum” might account for this lack of exposure, according to Apostolos-Cappadona. Mormon-themed art is often off limits to non-Mormons, who cannot enter consecrated temples. And for whatever reasons, experts tend not to view the art by Mormon artists that is accessible to non-Mormons as part of the larger field of religious art, which is getting far more exposure.

A search through the online library catalog at a major East Coast university returned just one relevant publication, Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914: Cartoons, Caricatures, and Illustrations by Gary L. Bunker and Davis Bitton, published by the University of Utah Press in the early 1980s. Rather than championing Mormon art, the book turns out to be a catalog of anti-Mormon cartoons, some of which attack the prophet directly. One example, a 1904 drawing from Life by F.T. Richards, shows Joseph Smith wearing a top hat and a long white beard pushing a wheelbarrow full of babies, flanked by a long parade of wives. “Joseph Smith Comes to Washington,” mocks the headline.

In their introduction, the authors explain that they conceived the study, which was funded by BYU, after reading John and Selma Appel’s The Distorted Image, published by the Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Bunker and Bitton decided studies of images that stereotyped Jews, blacks, Native Americans, and Catholics have proliferated, but such a study of anti-Mormon images was “long overdue.”

Some suggest that anti-Mormon sentiments might still present problems in academia. According to Christi Foist, who holds a graduate degree in religious studies with an emphasis on religion and art from Arizona State University, it can be “a little tricky” to find scholarship on Mormonism. Foist found that her program focused largely on “traditional, institutional religions” like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. “Things that fell outside those boundaries—especially things sometimes defined more as ‘cults’ than religions—typically didn’t get as much scholarship,” she says.

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Image courtesy J. Kirk Richards

Pablo Solomon, an artist based in Austin, Texas, who draws and sculpts dancers, says galleries and museums are generally anti-religious, and as such, Mormon artists, who tend to be devout, might get targeted. “If you pay close attention, religious art is always portrayed as basically primitive propaganda used to scare and to control the ignorant masses in the days before the average person was educated,” says Solomon. “The work of great masters is seldom analyzed as to the message of faith, but rather as to the artwork’s relevance to the progression of art.”

Apostolos-Cappadona disagrees with the charge that academia discriminates against Mormons. “As far as I know, there is very little interest in Mormonism, let alone anti-Mormon sentiment, at least in the academic circles I frequent,” she says, adding that there was some interest, inquisitive but not necessarily negative, surrounding Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. “Who knows—if he revives himself for 2012, then maybe there will be more interest, positive and negative.”

Dr. James E. Bryan, a specialist in the history of the decorative arts and design, who has featured slides of the furniture of early Mormon pioneers in Utah in his lectures, also cautioned against overstating the absence of Mormon studies in academia.

“I would caution that the verb ‘ignore’ is perhaps a bit strong, implying that art historians are deliberately avoiding Mormon art, when I would expect that for the most part they are simply unaware of it,” says Bryan, assistant professor of art history at University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Bryan says he and his colleagues often use history, including religious history, to contextualize art in their teaching, but never try to proselytize or criticize any belief. On “rare occasions,” students have told Bryan his teaching contradicts their beliefs, but the reactions have been misunderstandings, he says. “What is being taught is not what the student should or should not believe,” Bryan explains, “but what the people we are studying believed, and whether we agree with them or not, that’s what they thought and here’s how it influenced their art.”

But art historians are not often bringing Mormon religious history into their teaching due to the influence of modernism on twentieth-century art historians, Bryan says, since modernism increasingly defined artistic “progress” in terms of an increasingly abstract style, which precluded realist traditions like Mormon art.

“This ‘greatness’ of given artists was most easily determined by how much other artists were influenced by them,” Bryan says, or, more recently with the rise of modern art, by the degree of popularity an artist achieved. “As far as I know, no Mormons have been highly prominent by either of these standards … If Mormons have done interesting things I would not be surprised for some art historians to start looking into it.”

Another difficulty facing scholars who seek to bring religion into art and art history is what Lawrence Klimecki, a Sacramento-based fine artist, illustrator, and designer, who is also a deacon in the Catholic Church, calls “the round peg in the square hole.” Museums and galleries rarely give viewers any information which facilitates connecting to the art on a religious level, according to Klimecki, and they tend to see art as just a commodity. “For the religious artist, however, the work is something more—it is an expression of their divinely inspired gifts,” Klimecki says.

David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse and The Gospel According to America, agrees, adding that the essential element of religious art-making is “faithful receptivity.”

“I think the best artists are almost un-self-consciously transparent about their faith. It comes through naturally and candidly in a way they really can’t help,” says the Nashville-based Dark, who is currently pursuing his doctorate in religious studies at Vanderbilt University. “It isn’t—and couldn’t be—incorporated into the work after the fact.”

When artists try to append religious significance to their works after the fact, it is easy to spot, says Dark. “When the audience discerns that a notion has been inserted unnaturally to make the work pass muster for the doctrine police or something (a Bible verse or a symbol placed obtrusively on an image), I’d say the artist’s career is rightfully and even helpfully jeopardized,” he says.

The good news for Mormon artists is that American art might be getting a higher profile in American museums, as Suzanne Muchnic reported on May 30, 2009, in the Los Angeles Times. “Long the stepchild of a Eurocentric art world, American art is finding new favor at home as a growing number of institutions showcase work from Colonial times to World War II,” Muchnic begins, explaining that experts are pointing to three factors which might be responsible for the revival: “a national coming of age, a thirst for new artistic territory and a critical mass of American material that has made its way from private homes to public museums.”

Mormon art could certainly play an important role in the new trend, as Apostolos-Cappadona explains. “Given its evangelical nature and its nineteenth-century roots and expansion into the American West, Mormonism provides a window into the ‘American’ interest in utopian societies and the drive to go west,” she says. Otherwise, there is always the possibility of a Romney 2012 campaign. ❧

Comments

  1. Josh Wagner

    Good article. When I first started reading, I was worried that this was going to be another example of a Mormon crying out “persecution!” when none was intended. But to the contrary, the author simply pointed out that Mormon art does not have a high profile and then explored why. I’m interested to know what people think Mormons could change about our art or how we present our art in order to get more attention in the mainstream art circles.

  2. Joshua James

    David Dark’s insight into religious art is timeless. It’s a reminder that an artist’s personal “coming to Christ” is and always will be the beginning of the artist’s efforts to share Christ.

    Wonderful article. Thank you Menachem, for finding so many educated and meaningful opinions.

  3. Th.

    .

    Do any of these museums even have a box to check for Mormon? For instance, Annie Poon’s in the MOMA, but she didn’t come up in your search. Maybe many Mormons are included while the institution remains ignorant?

    Other than that quibble though, great article. It’s important to remember that most people don’t think we’re as big a deal as we think we are.

  4. Menachem Wecker

    Thanks for these great comments! Josh W., I’m not sure what Mormons could do to bring their art further into the mainstream. Surely time would help. I tend to think that if curators at U.S. institutions could be further convinced of the tremendous impact Mormonism has had on the history of American religion that there could be an entry point there for some exhibit ideas.

    Joshua, you are most welcome, and I completely agree re: David’s insight.

    Th. that is a very good point. Of course I did not manage to track down all the Mormon artists who weren’t identified as such. Do you think there is a sizable number? If so, there might be an exhibit idea right there in a “hidden in plain sight” sort of exhibit. Many museums are looking inward and curating shows that examine there own collection. It would not surprise me if many curators hadn’t even thought that Mormon art was something worth even considering. I think your last point is great, but bear in mind also that I definitely think you are just as big a deal as you are. There is a lot of interest in all things LDS even outside of the Mormon community, and I think (and hope) that art could be a great entry point for many non-Mormons to learn about the faith and get beyond some of the stereotypes we’ve seen in the news…

  5. Sharon

    I searched on the MoMA website for “Lutheran,” “Methodist,” “Baptist” and “Presbyterian” with similar results that a search for “Mormon” (and “Latter-day Saint”) turned up. Perhaps it’s just a matter of artists not routinely being identified by their religion.

  6. Adam Bateman

    Try searching for Lane Twitchell, Paul McCarthey, Benjamin Cottam, Matthew Barney, Wayne Thiebaud, Mahonri Young, Avard Fairbanks, Gary Smith, Angela Ellsworth.

  7. Menachem Wecker

    Sharon, I think you have a very good point, and perhaps the lead paragraph was a bit too cute. But I think the fact remains that most visitors to MOMA know there are “Christian artists,” while many have probably not even thought about LDS art. It seems to me that there is a great opportunity to teach them about the intersection between art and Mormonism. Don’t you think?

  8. Larry Ogan

    Here is the website of artist David Linn http://www.davidlinn.com/. He lives in Utah and is active in the LDS Church. His art is religious/spiritual but non-denominational. I know his Santa Fe dealer and his gallery is selling quite a bit of David’s work to museums nationally. I believe there is a move by so called Mormon artists to be seen in the mainstream art world. Also, the international expansion of the LDS faith is playing a role in the visibility of artists who are members.

  9. Molly

    So what do you mean by “Mormon Art?” And what’s the end goal? Is the purpose of your quest to raise the prominence of art created by Mormons a method for proselytizing? Do you mean art created by Mormons, whether or not it is religious in nature, or do you mean art that is specifically Mormon in content?

    The religious denomination of the artist is irrelevant to whether or not an artist’s work is good or commercially viable. There are a few artists who are Mormon who have done well for themselves, although only one or two novelists (Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer) and one filmmaker (Glen A. Larson) have achieved significant prominence.

    Art will never be recognized because someone wants their religious affiliation to become more prominent. It will only be recognized if it is good art. Faith can still play a role in that art, but it’s got to be transformative and influential or it just doesn’t merit museum-type attention. Especially with the capabilities the internet presents and the prominence an artist can attract as soon as the link to their work goes viral, if there are Mormon artists creating things worth looking at, then people will look at them.

  10. Th.

    .

    Yes, but Menachem: You are remarkable.

    [ :), he clarified. ]

  11. Th.

    .

    Also, I do think you’re right that a Hidden In Plain Sight exhibit could do well. Especially if Romney runs for president again.

  12. Michael Parker

    This was an interesting article and is a subject that was brought to my attention in my graduate studies in CA. My mentor (who isn’t LDS) mentioned that LDS art and artists should be a part of the art scene. There are many artists (like David Linn who was mentioned) who do amazing work that may have religious themes but not overtly “Mormon”. It is our faith and religion that will seep through in our work, almost no matter what we do. There is a group in NY called Mormon Artist Group (http://www.mormonartistsgroup.com) that is a group of artists who don’t necessarily do LDS themed work, but are practicing artists who happen to be LDS. I think that as our work becomes broader and easily accessible to a more general audience, then we will get more recognition as a moving force in the art world. I can see that this is happening to some extant right now. Still, part of the issue may lie in the fact that galleries don’t necessarily promote whether or not the artist is LDS. But do they really need to?

    One last thought is something that my mentor suggested that never really occurred to me. He said to create work that will inspire interest in the LDS church, a sort of missionary tool. Sometimes that is easier said than done.

  13. Molly

    @Michael Parker — “create work that will inspire interest in the LDS church, a sort of missionary tool.”

    This is the problem that I keep seeing. If the point of the art is to be a missionary tool, then at best it’s just marketing materials and at worst it’s propaganda. It’s possible to create art that is informed and inspired by the faith of its creator. But if the whole point is to use it for convincing others to join up, it isn’t ever going to be art.

    Another problem that plagues LDS artists is that Mormons are generally conservative, often to the point of outright puritanism. I’ve seen people create stuff that was up to their moral standards but then get hostile to artists who show nudity or *gasp* swearing. (And I’ve also found it odd that although Mormons are generally puritanical about sex, swearing, and booze in films, they have an unusually high threshold for graphic violence.) These attitudes alienate Mormons from being able to participate in a larger community of filmmakers or artists. You don’t have to alter your personal standards, but in many, many fields Mormons make the mistake of wanting to BE RIGHT rather than hear and be heard. Being too prickly and puritanical won’t help an artist forge any kind of connection with peers.

    The conservatism can also mean mediocre work because of shying away from experimental styles. The cinematography style of the LDS Motion Picture Studio is more on par with history channel specials (broad, sweeping slow takes of beautiful nature scenes, etc.) Nobody pays attention to LDS films except those predisposed to approve of them as faith-promoting because there’s nothing innovative happening with the cinematography, and the acting is usually overbaked and cheezy. “Legacy” wasn’t a great flick from an acting or cinematography standpoint. Wasn’t all bad — the costuming and props were great. “The Testaments” was similarly mediocre from a technical and artistic standpoint. Lots of frames were pretty, but the cinematography style is so conservative and non-innovative that it’s absolutely no surprise that no non-Mormons care to see it. Similarly, the images of the temple and statuettes sold at Deseret Books aren’t art. They’re not bad, but I’ve yet to see an official LDS image of a temple that I thought was good enough to call art. Magazine-worthy photography, sure. But not art.

    Saying this raises hackles among Mormons because they generally don’t like to hear anything negative about faith-promoting materials, even if the criticism is valid and possibly even helpful.

  14. S. A. Evans

    Thank you for your article.

    It is interesting to note the absence of art recognized as ‘Mormon Art’ in such institutions as the MOMA. In my estimation it is due in large part to the conservative and highly pragmatic nature of our faith. We write about, paint and sculpt what we feel. As a result much of the art by Mormon Artists often comes across as evangelical or excessively intimate. In my experience a broader audience is beginning to want to better understand that intimacy and will tolerate the zeal of our creative expressions but Mormon artists, such as myself, are wary to share too much for fear of being ridiculed for our beliefs and or the potential that our works may be misconstrued as disparaging to what one considers sacred.

    I am a 38 year old father of 5 who made a conscious decision to pursue a career in keeping with societal expectations — to be ‘artsy’ as a Graphic Designer and illustrator because art in the most traditional sense as a career was not sensible.

    Recently I have returned to school and I am in pursuit of my MFA in a low-residency program. I was taken-aback by the enthusiasm I encountered in response to my intentions to convey the depth and nuance of my experience with Mormonism through works of art and research. At this point, in my opinion, if more art by Mormon artists does not increasingly find it’s way into the MOMA or elsewhere it is our –as in every Mormon artist– fault. Broader audiences will engage with our creative expression so long as we are able to set aside our inhibitions and apprehensions.

    Furthermore, as per Molly’s last post: it is a fools errand to take a stand and state what is art or even high-art. Even the most brilliant of minds vehemently resists the urge.

  15. Synnove

    I can only say, the museums have left out LDS artists at large and have good reason for doing so! LDS art often referring to religious themes are unfortunately showing a lack of depth and simply lack of understanding of art. To be an artist takes a lot of effort, it does not help who or what you paint or sculpt if there is no artistic substance. It becomes like a singer who cannot sing. Does not help to put difficult notes in his/her hand. On the contrary it just shows off the problem. In most religions this century a person having the least interest in art, and painting a bit in the figurative, is often seen as being talented. The person is not necessarily talented at all, he is just making pictures. This is fine, and anybody can try and have fun with it too. Bit there is an ocean between the amateur painter, the amateur painter trying to make fast money even, and the serious student of art. Nobody would even approach a surgeon that only read about the procedures at home and maybe took a one year course. In music the LDS church members understands the difference between an amateur choir and the Tabernacle Choir, the latter with mostly well trained voices. In art the game needs to be understood and respected (it is not at present), it does take time to become a good artist even with talent. Most students of art in Europe would spend 4 years plus 2-3 years in full time study (I spent 10). Doing a fast track course is of no advantage in studying art. Time is needed and the student would know more about art and the difficulties involved. You simply need ot have a very sound platform to start from. It is also very easy to loose the critical eye necessary to make good art. The paintings often seen in church or copies of paintings, are unfortunately very rarely of any artistic quality. They may be representative for an event and as such serves as a good illustration, however, they are not what I would term art. But are pictures or illustrations that may have a practical purpose in teaching and so on. People need a lot more training also in the experience of looking at art. It is not easy to make a good work of art. Visit the state museums and check out what they bought. I have not seen many if any works that I would have in a collection among LDS artists,but I have seen some..all well trained. Hopefully with further training some artists may improve. Any faith any religion or lack of such does not matter, but you would expect an LDS public and painter to understand this fact….as those scriptures are full of relevant references to working things out and searching, studying etc. etc. BYU is by now a well known institution and also respected in the standard of student work. The art institute needs to follow suit and raise their voices much more. Employing staff that may not have a faith or a different faith may be a solution to the problem. The church administration cannot be blamed as they do not have the necessary qualifications to assess what to do and therefore would comission persons that at the outset have too weak a platform. Those who know should maybe speak up more clearly. Hoping for changes, which I think I saw signs of visiting a BYU show a few months ago.

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