My Thoughts on Spencer W. Kimball’s Gospel Vision of the Arts
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 Part of me feels it’s too brazenly nationalistic and competitive for a spiritual people to embrace–outdated in today’s increasingly globalized discourse.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.
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. . .”
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.”