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My Thoughts on Spencer W. Kimball’s Gospel Vision of the Arts

May 27, 2012

If you are a Latter-Day Saint and you’re an artist, chances are you have read President Kimball’s address The Gospel Vision of the Arts. I was one year old when this speech was adapted and published in the July 1977 Ensign. Two decades later, it was a continuing source of discussion in my university art classes. I wager it still is a source of discussion and motivation for Mormon art students even today. The purpose of this blog post is to add my two cents, hopefully gently.

President Kimball begins by quoting a predecessor, John Taylor, thus: “You mark my words, and write them down and see if they do not come to pass. You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters. God expects Zion to become the praise and glory of the whole earth, so that kings hearing of her fame will come and gaze upon her glory. …”

I confess I have mixed feelings about this sentiment. Part of me feels it’s too brazenly nationalistic and competitive for a spiritual people to embrace–outdated in today’s increasingly globalized discourse. And yet another part of me wants to say “Yeah, Mormons, go kick some artistic [rear end]!” Certainly Latter-Day Saints have made giant strides in many fields, not the least of which most recently has been politics. But are we even close to meeting John Taylor’s vision?

Part of me says no. Rarely if ever are Latter-Day Saint artists studied in art history classes and textbooks. The world doesn’t stream into Salt Lake City to see what today’s mormon artists are producing. Bidders aren’t scrambling at the auction houses to acquire LDS works of art for millions of dollars. And yet, there is a vibrant community of Latter-Day Saint artists, creating stunning works of art–traditional and contemporary, religious and secular. There is more opportunity than ever, in my opinion, for the ambitious young artist to make his or her mark in the world of spiritual artwork. We’ve come a long way since the days of Minerva Teichert, who had to convince BYU to accept her paintings in exchange for her children’s college tuition.

Minerva Teichert’s paintings today are bought and sold on the open market for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

President Kimball continues: “Would someone say that they produce singers best in Italy, in Germany, in Poland, or Sweden? Remember we draw our members from all of these places. The gospel attracts many and stirs their blood with the messages of the ages…”

I love this idea. And every three years, when I see the entries stream into the International Church Art Competition, I am encouraged by the increasing breadth of artwork in so many international styles and disciplines.

I’ll warn you right now, I’m not obeying any of the rules of quotation. If you want to read this article unfiltered through my lens, click on the link at the top of this post. Anyway, here are a few favorite excerpts from the paragraphs that follow:

“Members of the Church should [at the very least be peers] to any others in natural ability, extended training, plus the Holy Spirit which should bring them light and truth. . .If we strive for perfection—the best and greatest—and are never satisfied with mediocrity, we can excel.”

“Michelangelo (Buonarroti—1475–1564) thought of himself only as a sculptor. He was called upon by Pope Julius II (in 1505) to build a great monument which the pope desired to have finished within his lifetime. This monument was never completed, and the controversies which arose embittered a large part of the great artist’s life. His 3,500-square-foot painting in the Sistine Chapel is said to be the most important piece of mural painting of the modern world. To be an artist means hard work and patience and long-suffering. This artist said, “I am a poor man and of little merit, who plods along in the art, which God gave me. … I am more exhausted than ever man was.” And when we see Michelangelo’s masterpieces of art, we feel as did Habakkuk: “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” (Hab. 1:5.)” But then we ask, “Can there never be another Michelangelo?” Ah! Yes! His David in Florence and his Moses in Rome inspire to adulation. Did all such talent run out in that early century? Could not we find an embodied talent like this. . .”

Can we produce contemporary Michelangelos?

Perhaps this would be a good time for me to outline some of the obstacles in our path. In my opinion, we could accomplish President Kimball’s vision much more effectively if:

1. We stop discouraging our young artists.

Ours is a practical society. How many brilliant young creatives have been encouraged by their parents to study dentistry because it’s an easier, more family-friendly life? Of course a career in the arts should only be committed to with a lot of thought and prayer. It’s amazing to me, though, how many parents give their kids music lessons or encourage them to paint or to write as children, but then eagerly steer them away from such pursuits later on.

2. Mormon art patrons step up to the plate.

President Kimball asks, can their be another Michelangelo? We might as well ask, can there be another Medici family to fund new masterworks as great as the Sistine Chapel? Where are our contemporary Mormon versions of Gertrude Stein, Henry Frick, Getty, or Guggenheim? We have business leaders throughout the world that have the potential of bringing LDS art to the great heights achieved by Modern artist and their Jewish patrons of the 20th century. But what about the church, you might ask. Wasn’t the Catholic church responsible for funding the Sistine Chapel? Yes. But the LDS church does not have the same history of funding art. The art it does fund is underpaid and squeezed by layers of committees. Theirs is the business of expounding doctrine–and church-funded art is a subset of that goal–doctrinal and precise, not poetic, romantic, or abstract. That’s the cold, hard, honest truth. And frankly, the church has better places to put its money–humanitarian work, for example. Shouldn’t we then do the same, you might ask. I’ll leave that for you to decide. I mostly want to plant a few seeds of ideas: perhaps we need not feel guilty about splurging on great craftsmanship. Perhaps we should value art as a society, and not hang cheap reproductions on our giant walls. Perhaps we should work to bring contemporary Mormon art into the forefront of current art discussion worldwide. Perhaps we could fund an art school or two, unfettered by current academic restrictions of accreditation and secularism. A lot can be done by a few powerfully connected or moneyed people. And I confess, such people have made a huge difference in my own life, as I’ve made my way through this career as an artist.

3. Create places where inspiring works can exist.

Thousands of people thronged to the Carl Bloch exhibit at BYU. Those amazing altarpieces brought many of us to the brink of tears. Now ask yourself, ‘If a young Mormon artist wanted to do works like that, where would he or she put them?’ The International Art Competition at the Church Museum has a size limit, and for good reason. But such a size limit would disqualify Bloch’s great works, were he to submit them. :) The Church has doctrinal restrictions that disqualify many of Bloch’s paintings, due to things like wings on angels. The other main patron of large scale artworks is the government, which has become strictly secular. And so, artists who want to explore scriptural themes in expressive ways are left with few choices as to where to show and place these works. If Michelangelo and Bloch were working today along the Wasatch front, they would have to work smaller, put more clothes in their paintings, and cut the wings out. Their works would not be so moving to me if they were to undergo those changes.

4. Be slightly less puritanical about what constitutes appropriate artwork.

A marble statue of a nursing mother in the Springville Museum of Art need not be dismissed as pornographic. Figurative artists must study the human figure. We don’t give gynecologists a hard time for studying the body–why should we give artists a hard time? Don’t hate the body. If it’s respectful, it’s not pornography. (I know this is a hot button issue, but I feel impelled to put forth my viewpoint on the matter.)

I hope you don’t read this and get the sense I have a chip on my shoulder. The truth is, I am extremely grateful for the myriad of opportunities our society affords. We are truly blessed to be able to paint overtly religious themes and have venues in which to display our works. Most of the art world is so strictly secular that those opportunities no longer exist elsewhere. Having read Kimball’s speech one more time, I realize how much it has motivated me over the years. Many of my contemporary LDS artists have the desire to achieve much of what Spencer Kimball outlined. Can we do it? Yes. Should we do it? I think so, but I’m biased, because I’m an artist. Do we have to make changes to do it? I believe so.

Let me leave you with the closing paragraphs from Kimball’s speech:

“We must recognize that excellence and quality are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and about life and about God. If we don’t care much about these basic things, then such not caring carries over into the work we do, and our work becomes shabby and shoddy.”

“Real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.”

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    May 27, 2012 9:52 pm

    Nice job, Kirk.

  2. Eva Syphus permalink
    May 27, 2012 10:31 pm

    You are so right, Bravo

  3. David Chiu permalink
    May 27, 2012 10:38 pm

    Well said… centuries must sometimes intervene between genius and popular recognition, so a certain intrinsic satisfaction is necessary in case the substantial return is posthumous

  4. egloria123 permalink
    May 27, 2012 11:42 pm

    Another roadblock: all the other things we’re supposed to do that take up our (your and other artists’) time. General busyness.

  5. May 28, 2012 6:55 am

    Thanks, Kirk. True that. Perhaps the Internet is also one of those places where artists can find good venues now in this technological age — for many types of art, the digital world provides ample showing space for the expressions of the faithful.

    One more thing: perhaps too many artists are restricted from success because they define it so extrinsically. I’m a working designer, and my illustration skill is often also employed in various ways by my employer. But for my spiritual expressions I’ve found great and varied outlets Online, “with no thought of reward,” that is, except for the spiritual rewards of sharing the gospel and striving to inspire others to do the same. Check out this article on Muddy Colors (an illustration collective blog run by some of the best in the fantasy illustration community):

    http://muddycolors.blogspot.com/2012/04/extrinsic-motivators-and-creativity.html

    Definitely food for thought regarding what most truly impels us to create art and stick with it in our quest for excellence.

  6. Matt Southerland permalink
    May 28, 2012 7:07 am

    Nolan’s dad here. Your powerful, heart-felt comments have truly hit home. I have a happy successful career as a designer. However, I choose this field because I feared I wouldn’t be able to support a family as an illustrator or fine artist.

    I so admire your work. Continue to press forward. Your’s is an inspired path.

  7. May 28, 2012 8:01 am

    Thank you for this well thought out post, that reflects the thoughts of so many LDS artists. All through school I was applauded for my artistic inclinations, but when it came time for me to apply for scholarships, I was basically forbidden by my parents from going to an art school. I know they were well meaning, but their decisions were based on the fears that I would succumb to some wild and crazy art world, outside of their control, and leave the church. I know that as an artist, I am years behind where I would hope to have been because of the pressure put on me to do something more “productive” like be a teacher, and get married.

  8. Katya permalink
    May 28, 2012 8:07 am

    I’m a big fan of the LDS Architecture blog ( http://ldsarchitecture.wordpress.com/ ), which highlights the architecture of meetinghouses and tabernacles before the adoption of the standard meetinghouse plans. One thing I’ve learned from that blog is that we used to have a lot of beautiful original art in our meetinghouses, whereas now we are limited to the same bland dozen or so prints in every building. I wonder how hard it would be to at least get a wider variety of prints in our local meetinghouses so that we could be exposed to more Mormon art in that venue.

    • Eva Syphus permalink
      May 29, 2012 3:00 am

      I hope your comment is read by someboby who could do something about that.Maybe if more people would express their feelings things would change.

  9. May 28, 2012 8:29 am

    Well said – thoughts I have had too on countless occasions. May I add some thoughts I have had. They are lengthy, and I hope won’t be seen as hijacking your post, which isn’t my intent.

    I’m only writing as a supporting voice to Kirk, speaking to any other young aspiring LDS artists seeking direction, to first quote and then comment on some words along a similar vein as President Kimball’s which have long impressed me and also been studied at BYU-Idaho in their art program.

    They are taken from Boyd K. Packer’s “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord” (full address found at http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php%3Fid=6143) :

    – – – – – – –

    “The work of the Lord has been moved by … members … who have been blessed with special gifts and who use them unselfishly. Because of what they do, we are able to feel and learn very quickly through music, through art, through poetry some spiritual things that we would otherwise learn very slowly. …

    “It is a mistake to assume that one can follow the ways of the world and then somehow, in a moment of intruded inspiration, compose a great anthem of the Restoration, or in a moment of singular inspiration paint the great painting. When it is done; it will be done by one who has yearned and tried and longed fervently to do it, not by one who has condescended to do it. It will take quite as much preparation and work as any masterpiece, and a different kind of inspiration.

    “There is a test you might apply if you are among the gifted. Ask yourself this question: When I am free to do what I really want to do, what will it be?

    “…The ideal, of course, is for one with a gift to train and develop it to the highest possibility, including a sense of spiritual propriety. No artist in the Church who desires unselfishly to extend our heritage need sacrifice his career or an avocation, nor need he neglect his gift as only a hobby. He can meet the world and “best” it, and not be the loser. In the end, what appears to be such sacrifice will have been but a test.

    “… Go to, then, you who are gifted; cultivate your gift. Develop it in any of the arts and in every worthy example of them. If you have the ability and the desire, seek a career or employ your talent as an avocation or cultivate it as a hobby. But in all ways bless others with it. Set a standard of excellence. Increase our spiritual heritage in music, in art, in literature, in dance, in drama. When we have done it our activities will be a standard to the world. And our worship and devotion will remain as unique from the world as the Church is different from the world. Let the use of your gift be an expression of your devotion to Him who has given it to you. We who do not share in it will set a high standard of expectation: “For of him unto whom much is given much is required.”

    – – – – – – –

    I must add that I wish we had more Medici’s and other patrons. I, too, wish the Church had more room and/or resources allocated to the arts. Then again, your statement about the comparative importance of contributing to humanitarian aid and other, seemingly more pressing needs, makes some sense. And if I had money, I would certainly be helping other artists up and along, but would certainly invest most of my money into more direct ways of bringing others to Christ through lifting them from poverty, or funding the production of copies of the Book of Mormon, or contributing to the work of temples and the perpetual education fund.

    The key, I think is this: When I or anyone else were to get enough monetary means to do those things I mentioned, and then has some to spare besides for personal enjoyment, what is that “splurge” purchase going to be: A new dirt bike? An elaborate personal home theater? A fourth renovation to some summer cabin? A diamond? Or an immortal work of art, to be spread and heralded forth like a shining banner through the dark and dreary world.

    I don’t know enough to know how much spiritual art financial capital is out there. From what I can tell, it’s there but hard to come by. It’s an understatement that anyone wanting to make a living at producing solely spiritual Christian/LDS art is embarking on a monumentally difficult and uphill challenge. No one would no better than you Kirk. And yet you’ve essentially proved that it can be done.

    But with the apparent scarcity of resources or current interest, I wonder whether there is room, so to speak, for all the artists in the Church who seek that kind of noble career, to be reimbursed and compensated monetarily without some sort of supplementary additional aid. Here’s how I’ve reconciled these ideas:

    It has been for me a somewhat tough thought to swallow, but I rather wonder if the greatest works of our time will have been made, like the Kirtland temple, in a way different than Michelangelo’s were made – without glorious grants or fellowships, paying instead a sacrificial tuition and price, one rewarded primarily with the inspiration and power of heaven versus silver and gold. An artist who has “met the world and bested it” in the secular realm, producing (wholesome) works the world wants and earned enough money to mostly fund his or her own spiritual art from the inside (though he/she will likely find subsequent additional reimbursement from the outside as well). An example of an LDS artist who seems to me to be working in this method is Mike Malm.

    Perhaps, like Elder Packer indicated, the willingness to produce spiritual LDS art in that way will be merely the “test” he mentioned – opening to the humble, young aspiring artist the windows of heaven, both spiritually and temporally.

    And indeed the fact remains, that for artists like you, Kirk, and others such as Joseph Brickey, who are relatively young but among (in my estimation anyway) the very best, who have striven long enough and worked hard enough, there will likely always be both room and means to paint and exhibit more exclusively the spiritual art we so revere.

  10. May 28, 2012 11:16 am

    I suggest that we not limit our creations to the LDS audience, and certainly not to the Church. I suggest we enlarge our vision and create for everyone, specifically for the non-LDS world. That is where we can find the money and recognition we crave; that is where the greatest need is; there is the peer acceptance we need, and it is there that we would best fulfill the prophets’ visions referenced above. In doing so we would raise all of our standards, among LDS artists and out.

    If we want to feel fulfilled as artists but we feel that LDS artists are underfunded or suppressed among our membership, go to the non-LDS world. Go to a non-LDS art college or atelier. Create an interpretation of the Restoration that surpasses the world’s standards. Submit it to their competitions — there are many of them. The Church has not funded artists or their training for many decades, nor in my opinion should they. But the non-LDS world is hungry for great, uplifting spiritually-centered art, and if your work is sufficiently good they will pay for it. Yes, LDS-centered art institutions are great, but don’t limit yourself to just them when deciding where to study. You might find your springboard in France or Italy rather than Utah.

    We don’t need to hit our audience over the head with our faith, either, and only paint pictures of Joseph Smith and wingless angels. Paint outstanding works about whatever subject uplifts, then sell it on the “outside”. Once you find your footing there, you are on your way, and the Church and its artists will rise with your tide.

  11. May 28, 2012 1:39 pm

    I have one more thought on this matter. I think it should not be overlooked that work-for-hire in any artistic field (design, concept art, fine art commissions, illustration, photography, etc.) creates one of the most selfless opportunities for artistic expression: we as artists can then meet the needs and wants that others in the world have. In this we also have the opportunity to be with (and exemplify Latter-day Saint life to) those who otherwise might not have personally known someone of our faith. In my observation, I feel that excellent artistry is already happening in every artistic field by Latter-day Saints. We are excellent right along with those who are excellent of other faiths. I think the prophecy is being fulfilled, just with less of the bells and whistles that some might expect. And in that way it can all happen among companies and employees or contractors and clients more personally.

  12. May 28, 2012 2:48 pm

    Nice post! I have thought about that talk a lot as well.

    I think your point about the patrons is very important. But I don’t think LDS patrons aren’t supporting great artists just because they are lazy, selfish, or just don’t care but because the normal person’s art education is SO poor they literally have never seen or understood the difference between a poor reproduction or a great original painting. Someone needs to re-educate the wealthy about what is great art and how it can be not only a fabulous financial investment but also an investment in the LDS culture. Maybe the job of educating is up to the us, the artists, because I don’t see it happening anywhere else.

    Amelia
    http://www.aclassicallife.wordpress.com

  13. May 28, 2012 10:55 pm

    I, though not visually artistically gifted, appreciate the arts. I’ve always believed there is a strong correlation between the arts and the success of the nation that supports it. Your post made me think of this movie clip on Ted.com by Elizabeth Gilbert. The gist of it is that we have to nurture creativity and let God transcend through it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Here’s that link.

  14. June 6, 2012 12:17 pm

    amen kirk, to all o it. Keep championing the cause. Just reading this today, but in a similar vein to some of my thoughts i wrote yesterday at Segullah http://segullah.org/daily-special/why-dont-we-create-better-art/

  15. Ana Blake permalink
    June 17, 2012 10:28 pm

    I am assuming you did a BFA exhibit at BYU. If so, when? There was one exhibit in particular that really struck me–I think it was in the late 90’s. I don’t remember who the artist was but I remember a lot of large paintings, some with wheat fields and the eyes of the people in them. Was that yours?

    • June 29, 2012 3:22 pm

      Ana, that wasn’t me, unfortunately. I never did a BFA show at BYU. I’m trying to think who that might have been. Perhaps Doug Fryer? I just don’t know.

  16. Kaitlin Clark permalink
    September 6, 2012 5:04 pm

    I think you are wonderful. Your point of view and art work are very amazing. Minerva Teichert is actually my great-grandma. It is interesting that you pointed her out because I was looking a few of your paintings and thought to myself, “He has a similar style to Minerva.”

  17. May 26, 2013 2:31 am

    Great as the old masters are, Michelangelo et. al did not have a knowledge of the fullness of the gospel. Their works are inspired, nevertheless, we are not aware of an artist in the history of the world who have soared to the greatest heights both in knowledge of the fullness of the gospel and knowledge of the arts. Because we live at a day when the fullness of the gospel is available, then maybe all we have to do is wait for an artist equal to this task. Wait, someone who can create more inspired artworks than Michelangelo or Carl Bloch? I believe so.

    When the prophets give constraints on what constitutes appropriate work, I believe they have a vision of the work of someone whose artistic skills and spiritual knowledge are of such stature to give justice to the great story of the latter-day era–and someone whose work, in every way, will be ‘appropriate’, not because the artist is consciously making his work to be so, but because he is inspired to do so. Not because Michelangelo’s David became one of the greatest works of art–then only can every great sculpture be nude. And neither because Carl Bloch’s glorious angel has wings then every great angel painting must have wings. I believe the prophets, when setting ‘guidelines’ about appropriateness, are not giving constraints but I believe direction–to me, a spark, a precious hint, to someone hoping to create inspired, great “Latter-Day” works of art. Also, the guidelines will surely disqualify Carl Bloch and Michelangelo, but neither of them were LDS and you never know what they would have made were they given guidelines too. (IMHO, guidelines aren’t restrictions for a true master of art).

  18. September 20, 2013 1:26 pm

    This was very well said, and I totally agree. I am a writer, poet, and musician. There are very similar roadblocks with those genres in the LDS community as well. But I think you hit the nail on the head: our major problem is a lack of patronage. If we had other publishing houses, other museums, etc. other than church sanctioned institutions to showcase or promote our work, I think the work of salvation would move a lot faster. We have very wealthy and very talented businessmen. I wish we could channel those talents. Unfortunately, we like to wait to be commanded in all things before we ask an artist to create a beautiful painting. ;) Am I right? haha! But we can repent and change that. The world needs beautiful things. The world needs inspiring things. The world needs the message of the Restoration!

Trackbacks

  1. Bryan Mark Taylor’s 200 Paintings | Dawning of a Brighter Day
  2. This Week in Mormon Literature, June 2, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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