Mormon Art – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Hawkgrrrl Asides, christianity, church, Culture, curiosity, diversity, education, evangelicals, Humor, inter-faith, Jesus, joseph, LDS, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, questioning, religion, symbols 31 Comments

From the misguided and ill-conceived to the hurl-worthy, why is there so much bad Mormon Art?  Do Mormons have worse artistic taste than non-Mormons?  Or just on par?  You be the judge.  I’ve included various works of art below, all by Mormon artists.  Some I like and some I don’t.  See what you think.

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To the right is a statue of the First Vision.  Actually, I kind of like this one, although I’m not a fan of the medium the artist used.

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This one is from Jesus’ little-known Sermon in Stepford.  Much discussion has been had elsewhere about the problematic placement of the rose and whether this is supposed to be a picture of Jesus with his polygamous wives.  The artist has apparently denied that interpretation, but without an explanation of the phallic rose.

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A Moroni tree-topper.  Not exactly art, but kitschy.  It’s almost so bad that it’s good in a Nebraska salt and pepper shaker way.

This Nativity inspired painting is both beautiful and thought-provoking.

 

 

This toothy-grinned Jesus is not nearly as good as its unsmiling counterpart.  This picture doesn’t make Jesus look very smart, IMO.  Like he didn’t get the joke, but he’s laughing anyway.

This just looks like it belongs in a mini golf course to me.  Art?  Really?  Was this before wide-spread adoption of the Word of Wisdom?  Just plain weird.

This painting of the sacred grove always looks like it was inspired by the Redwood Forest rather than anything actually growing in upstate NY.  Accuracy aside, though, it’s nice enough with the effect of the light filtering through the trees.

This tattooed man (those are prophets’ portraits on his back) spells one word to me:  “devotion.”  I’d like to see him add one of E. Oaks since the “no tattoos” pronouncement.

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I like this more Art Deco version of Moroni, although that trumpet looks a little bit improbable, like a straightened ear horn or gramophone.  Or a yard-long beer.

I have also noticed that many other religions seem to like our Jesus pictures, particularly these two:

 and

So, what do you think?  What Mormon artists do you like and which ones do you not like?  Why is there so much bad taste in Mormon art (kitschy or weird stuff) or is this just true of all religious art?  Is it because that’s what sells or is that blaming the victims?  Or does religious feeling inspire otherwise unskilled and inartistic people to create “art”?

Do you disagree with any of the above artistic assessments (beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all)?

Discuss.

Comments

comments

Comments 31

  1. Ah, you know, of course, this subject strikes a chord with me, so to speak, especially when it comes to LDS music. Without writing another 1,000 word diatribe like I have before, I think from my personal observation, true “art” requires a portrayal of the darkest darks and the lightest lights in order to be effective, and we as a culture are taught that portraying the darkness means taking away the Spirit. Frankly, it gets on my nerves. To put it artistically.

    In the visual arts world, I don’t have quite as much experience. One thing I’ve found fascinating is the fact that for instance, most artists that I’ve talked to think that the simple fact that BYU doesn’t allow nude models in the art department strikes them as evidence that we’re hopelessly and irretrievably backward. Of course, I sure believe in the Church’s standards of modesty, but on the other hand, it’s a strange symptom of our culture to see nudity in art and automatically equate it with sexuality.

    As far as the tattoo goes, I’ve seen a similar full-back tattoo of the artwork from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime on a rather large guy. I guess if you’re going to devote yourself to something…

  2. Actually, Harry Anderson, who painted the Second Coming painting above, was not a Mormon, but a Seventh Day Adventist. The Church commissioned him to paint several works, though. If that particular depiction is popular outside LDS circles, that might have something to do with it. Incidentally, Harry Anderson’s Jesus is probably my favorite.

  3. Wow, I never would have equated or seen that rose as a “phallic rose”. He’s just holding a rose folks. I’m not really sure I see a problem with the painting of Jesus with those women. Just because the savior is surrounded by women it has to symbolize something sexual? I’m sorry. I don’t get it. One of my favorite paintings is one where Christ is surrounded by children of different ethnicities looking at him adoringly. Is that painting symbolizing something “unseemly”?

    It seems to me that the painting with the women is symbolic of Christ’s love for women as the other is of his love for children.

    I’ll leave it there.

  4. Umm, see, that’s the whole problem, in my opinion. To me, with at least a LITTLE study in the “language” of the visual arts, that painting of Christ is sexual ENOUGH to be creepy. If you took that same painting and replaced the central character with, say, a Shah or King, and then told me that one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted it, I could write an entire article on the sexual overtones implicit in the symbolism.

    The symbolism is there whether the artist knew it or not. And if not, then it’s like he’s trying to have a conversation in a language he doesn’t know how to speak!

    We have to be bilingual people! We have to know the languages of the media we use or we’ll end up saying completely foolish things without knowing it.

  5. Well, I’ll say this–I don’t think we differ much from other religions in terms of taste–but religious art in general trends toward the kitschy and bad as a whole with the shining examples of REALLY good stuff being quite notable.

    But I don’t know that this is an exception from art in general. Look there is a LOT of really bad art out there. A LOT. TONS of it. I mean seriously. In all the various artistic mediums. From sculpture to music to writing to painting to any other medium you care to name, there is a LOT of BAD art. Not merely untalented, but actually bad. A merely untalented artist rarely fails quite the same way as a talented artist who misses the mark quite badly. Some one who CAN paint but the subject, portrayal or whatever, is just bad. As with the Stepford Sermon painting above. It’s an obviously talented artist who seriously misjudged his/her work. They made bad choices. It’s not that they CAN’T paint, it’s that what they chose to paint came out poorly.

    I think the same is true of many LDS/Christian singers–it is NOT that they cannot sing, but that what they choose to sing is unfortunate.

    Authors too fall into this trap. Sculptors, and other folks as well. And I’m NOT at all convinced that this is in any way limited to LDS or even religious artists of any medium, but that it is magnified greatly by the lens of religion simply because as a small community we are more willing to degrade our standards in order to purchase LDS-themed artwork–so works that would otherwise quite rightly be relegated to the trash heap are tolerated simply because we want more art within a certain theme. The artists producing these works quickly learn that it doesn’t matter so much the quality of the work, but the theme on which it is centered. This is what gets them sales, and so they focus on more and more LDS-centric themes, whilst ignoring the fact that much of their quality is suffering. This is hardly a wise decision in terms of promoting artistic quality, but it is a fairly predictable marketplace outcome.

    Short of the church or another body stepping up and saying ‘these works are of sufficient artistic quality, while these are not’ while paying much less attention to the theme, this sort of catering to the market will continue.

    I also think that it is wise to be cautious in how we approach the term ‘art’. Works created SOLELY for the purpose of going onto a postcard or as works of hire for a corporation may require artistic talent to create, but I’m not quite certain that they merit the term ‘art’. Art has a long and steeped tradition of patronage, to be certain, but I’m a bit concerned that when a person does ALL of their work for a single corporation that their claim to the title ‘artist’ is a bit thin. They may be quite talented, but if someone else always tells you what to paint, you are less of an artists and more of something else. I’m not sure what, but something else, for sure.

    That’s my take anyway. On the other hand, I could be wrong, so who knows.

  6. Hear, hear Arthur. And all too often, I’ve heard members take pride in not knowing “the language of the world.” Then, when their colleagues/coworkers “laugh them to scorn” for being foolish, said member uses the reaction to reinforce their own sense of righteousness.

    Unless we really do want to remain as peculiar as we possibly can be, we would do well to understand that gospel principles weigh in on real conversations taking place in the world…and that for those principles to be the least bit relevant, they can’t be articulated like you’re in Sunday School class. Nor can they just be “dumbed down” or “smartened up.” The principles are self-existent…language (or paint) is only the imperfect light that casts the principle in the aura appropriate to the situation. And we can hardly be effective artists if declare that the canvas itself is a chunk of depravity.

  7. The laughing Jesus looks a bit like the caveman in the Geico ads.

    There were very large trees in New York prior to the destruction of the eastern hardwood virgin forests. Trees that large now remain only in tiny patches, usually only of a few acres, only a few per state. Whether the Smith farm had any giant trees, I wouldn’t know.

  8. I heard somewhere that the painting of Jesus in red, unsmiling, is actually by a Catholic artist.

    And I don’t know if our art is tacky, but there’s plenty of stuff in evangelical Christian culture that makes me wince, like any movie starring Kirk Cameron, and Testamints! Ugh.

  9. Wow, Kuri (link in #12), I think you have found the magic bullet to “class up” (by comparison) any of Hawk’s worst examples offered above. I’m just wonderin’ about the effectiveness (not to mention discomfort) of those crown-of-thorns sports helmets.

  10. Re the Angel Moroni sculpture: I once attended a fireside by Karl Quilter, the Mormon sculptor who has done at least a couple of the Moronis for the temples (and some busts of Joseph Smith, etc). It was long ago, but I seem to remember him expressing the idea that he intentionally made his Moroni appear unnaturally in balance (i.e., no hips sticking out to counterbalance the weight of the golden plates, etc.) to convey Moroni’s “other worldliness.”

    Also, I am no artist, but part of the problem with the trumpet maybe the perspective of that particular photo. We almost never see Moroni from that angle. Maybe the length of the trumpet is exaggerated so that it will look right when viewed from below?

  11. Love the post,thanks for taking the time Hawgrrl as this is another one of those things where i have been fairly much alone for the past 30 years.Having had a liberal arts education,with no LDS input,can leave one a little marginalised. Around here,Minerva Teichert counts for edgy.

    Loved the stepford RS,funniest thing I’ve seen in ages.

    I remember back in the 80s feeling that the art work on the Ensign was really creating a new mormon aesthetic-cute without being schmaltzy.Now nothing appears that does not have the veneer of an old master,even if the paint’s not yet quite dry.Too much brown in the printing ink.On the positive,I do enjoy the gospel art section,occasionally there’s some good stuff.Loved the nativity painting-who was the artist?
    Arthur,did you ever notice the primary song ‘though a boy I may appear’ sounds a lot like the superman theme?Cracks me and my kids up,but a post modern take on church institutions can be keep you hanging on when the others are dropping like flies.

  12. Although I lack any credentials for criticism of the visual arts, I do have two graduate degrees in music and more than 25 years experience serving as an organist for other denominations. In the field of “sacred” music, LDS composers have produced a lot of schlock. LDS composers have also produced some very fine music which can hold its own in any context. But this is the case with composers from almost any denomination. And while I have been greatly enriched by becoming acquainted with much music coming from current (I hesitate to use the word contemporary, as it conjures up images of guitars, trap sets, and wind chimes) composers, I must admit that each late winter/early spring I find myself cringing at all the tacky music that appears for use in Lent and Holy Week. Sentimental writing, trite verse, and just plain bad music turns up all thew time. I would hope that LDS composers could do a better job in composing music for this pre-Easter season, but then perhaps we as a church are fortunate the church basically ignores it, and instead concentrates on Easter itself, and not the events of the preceding week.

    But, I loved the graphics posted above! Along with the Angel Moroni tree-topper, I think my favorite was the paint-by-number kit for a portrait of Gordon B. Hinckley. Really.

  13. wayfarer – the Nativity artist is Brian Kershisnik. You may like more of his work. I thought it was all pretty good.

  14. Benjamin O. (#6) pretty much said what I would have. Specifically, I’ll invoke Sturgeon’s Law. Theodore Sturgeon, a noted science fiction writer of a few decades back, was asked in an interview if it wasn’t really true that 90% of all SF is crap. His reply: “Yes, but then 90% of everything is crap.”

    In other words, there’s nothing particular about Mormon art that makes it bad; it’s just (as Benjamin O. said) that most religious art is bad, and most art period is bad. In fact, given a lot of the Christian art I’ve seen, I suspect a good argument could be made that Mormon art on the whole is better than other Christian art.

    But it’s more painful for us when we see bad or kitschy LDS art. ..bruce..

  15. As for the Joseph Smith “Sphynx”, it is a little unusual, but I think it’s unfair to pull it out of its context. A visit to the Gilgal Gardens in Salt Lake City is very interesting. There are a number of unusual sculptures by Thomas Child (built and displayed in what was formerly his back yard). As you go through the garden you get a sense of what he was trying to portray, which essentially, was his testimony through a variety of sculpture works. I was very touched and moved by the experience. In its context, the sphynx is just a single piece of a very moving exhibit.

  16. Hey interesting site with some fun opinions!
    I’m writing not in defense of my painting, The Sacred Grove” but simply to shed some additional light on the subject. First of all the image on this site is not sized with the proper ratio which causes the the trees to look “squatty” and exaggerates their diameter even more than in the actual painting. These are, however, actual trees from the Sacred Grove and you could even find them if you looked long enough. Their size is not really out of proportion at all if you look carefully. Look at the leaves in the foreground next to the trees or on the young sapling on the left side of the painting and you will get a true sense of scale. The effect of exaggerated size is obtained by the point of view chosen and the unusual perspective it creates. Notice how low the horizon line is, it’s almost an ant’s eye view. This perspective dramatically foreshortens the ground plane between objects close to the viewer (the trees in the foreground) and those far away (the smaller trees in the background), this creates an illusion. Imagine laying on the ground, looking up and taking a picture of a friend nearby towering above you with a city skyline off in the distance – your friend would appear much like a giant when compared to the city in the background. In effect this is what is happening in this painting. This perspective was used in an effort to create a feeling of the grove as a temple or cathedral like place, which is what it felt like to me when I visited there. Now, whether or not all this explanation changes someone’s reaction to the painting – I doubt it, but I just thought someone out there might like to know.

    Also, hats off to any artist who “gives it a shot”! I know how hard it is, especially when you’re trying to create art that touches on spiritual themes that are so personal to others. Believe me you get beat up all the time. Trying to portray heavenly things with earthly materials, tools and talents can be discouraging. I keep waiting for an art store to open up on Kolob or somewhere nearby where I can get those Celestial tubes of paint and that magic canvas that will make all the difference! I’ll keep checking the web!

  17. Greg-

    I LOVE your painting, The Sacred Grove, and having been there as well, feel it is a wonderful representation of the Grove. The picture on this post definately makes it look like something it is not and I would recommend to others if you haven’t yet seen this painting to look it up online. It is beautiful. Thanks for all the wonderful work you do Greg and for making my home a more beautiful place because of your artwork. 🙂

  18. On apologizing for Stillborn Mormon Art

    As leading apologist and Mormon theologian Robert Millet proclaims, “Mormons are in the RELIGION MAKING BUSINESS.” The Mormon Business model is, by virtue of the business plan, not disposed to the making of art but to make business.
    Mormons must keep in mind, the making of art is not making fanciful depictions of what Mormons think the Mormon Afterlife is like or what architecture is most dynamic for placing next to a freeway or Mormon Stories and Mormon Myth but must delve into the essence of the “Faith” looking for truth. Honesty may be the largest impediment to Mormon Inspired Art.
    If Mormonism can’t stand up to self-scrutiny, all the Arts suffer. Whether Mormon Music or the Mormon Apostles, one can see the Mormons are being watched. The New Inspired Mormon Art being made is, perhaps, best left to the Mormon Counter-Apologetics Movement.
    Inspired and testy, Counter-Apologetic Mormon Art is filling the void and we all know Mormons need to fill the vacuum — “the Void must be filled –– Mormons know how God abhors a vacuum.”

    Complaints of uninspired Mormon Art are best left to silence. Opening up discussion of the motivation for making Mormon Art might lead to more self-scrutiny; leaving Mormons longing for a sign of affirmation in the Religion Making Business.
    After piercing the Veil there is little else to explore; the human condition has little to do with the Mormon Experience; unless there is an inner-exploration and Mormons don’t go there.

    Dramatic tension is impossible when seeking to inspire “The Religion Making Business.”
    A revisit to this discussion might yield a new genre of Mormon Art to fill the void or the demise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, either way it’s God’s Will in the The Religion Making Business. God Only Knows.

    GOK

  19. Part of the problem as I see it is a lack of support for the arts in general within the Mormon faith and culture.  They ignore “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” 

    If more Mormons lived by this, if they supported the arts, Mormons like the Catholics, would have works of art that the world would hold in awe.  It takes quantity to get to quality!  If you look at the entire body of work of any major artist, you will find “dogs” however it is the ones that they get so right that they are remembered for.  The same would be true of Mormon art if there was a quantity to select from. 

    Also what is it with the cheap prints most Mormons have on their walls?  You wouldn’t frame photos from a magazine, yet you buy $4 prints and frame those.  Even if the original is a great work of art a cheap mass produced copy is not going to impress or inspire anyone really.  Go hire trained fine artists to create some original work the beauty of your (family’s) environment is not something you should cheap out on! 

    Another problem I see in the Mormon culture is that just like mormons are afraid of the nude model in art classes (I suppose medical doctors should never see a naked body either?) they are afraid to go to art museums for fear of seeing nude images.  How does one develop good taste if they avoid art museums???  So, Mormon parents, send your children to LCAD to study art instead of BYU, go to art museums (remember nude is not always sex but is always a reflection of the beauty that our heavenly father designed), buy real art from real artists and if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, seek after these things!!! 

    By the way, Brigham Young sent young men on art missions to study art in Paris, they worked from nude models and came back to Utah to create much of the art in the early temples!

  20. I always write comments late, but I still hope somebody sees them. I think LDS art is so bad because the wrong people select the art works and also some lacking in development, through this sets a kind of standard far below the best within the talents both inside and outside Church on a world scale. However, this may soon be improved upon as I am dealing with the matter! If you read this and you are well educated within Fine Arts, by that I mean 6-10 years of study at University level within the Fine Arts (not just Art History or philosophy or any other related subjets, not communication, cultural studies or visual educators), please contact by sending to my special email: newbetterart@gmail.com
    , I will then contact you, don´t worry. I only need to see one photo of work! I am making an archive of those artists I think are possibly good enough to be in my archive for a start! If you do not wish to contact me it is fine, contact only if you wish to!! If you feel LDS art is sadly poor in quality, IF you have suggested Uni level studies, and if you are really interested in this kind of area, please mail me. I will quickly assess all. I am not trying to be negative, but I am basing my realistic views on real practices, then I shall discuss with you individually. By th eend of next year I hope to have a few names worth while knowing!

  21. I’m a contemporary artist so my art is not traditional like most Mormon art is. Here is my website http://shellwhiting.blogspot.com. I paint about Heavenly Father, Spirit Babies and Molly Mormons. I grew up Minvera Teichert in the house and she has always been talented and ignored by the art establishment.

  22. I personally do not care for most of the “LDS” art. I have seen art from mainstream Christian religions and IMHO it is the same. Not impressed with
    other Christian art either. One does not have to be an artist to recognize good and bad art. I am in awe of any one who is artistic. But I do believe LDS artist can and should do better. We need art work that is awesome.

    I really hope the church top leadership hears what people are saying about the LDS art work and start demanding better.

  23. On other blog sites some LDS have said that the painting of Christ with the four females and holding a rose is for the Young Women program. The different color belts and flowers represent the Young Women creed, like virtue and honesty and I do not remember what else.
    The females are the female youth of the church. It does not represent polygamy nor are those wives of Christ.
    Geez. Like I said in my previous comment. I have seen worse and very creepy art from other religions.

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