Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: The Mundane and the Sublime in Mormon Art

Michelangelo, Pieta

Michelangelo, Pieta

[A]ll good things…come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. – Norman Maclean[1]

This last Sunday, the teacher in Elders Quorum relayed some experiences he’d had building temples for the Church. He explained that temple construction was just like any other construction project with deadlines, stresses, idiotic bosses, setbacks, etc. He noted that this had at times challenged his faith and even tainted his temple experience. In his mind, the temple is the House of the Lord. Isn’t it supposed to be above all the trappings of this telestial world?

This question reminded me of the September (12-13) meeting of the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. The speaker was Laura Allred Hurtado,* Global Art Acquisitions Curator for the Church History Department, and her subject was one of particular interest to me: finding the sublime in the mundane as expressed through art. As she defined it, the mundane is “lacking interest or excitement; dull, of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.” The sublime is “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe and elevate to a high degree of moral or spiritual purity or excellence.” Beginning with a photograph by Daniel Everett of the Provo temple “wrapped in dramatic lined Tyvek, “we were able to see the temple in a way similar to my EQ teacher above. But as Hurtado beautifully explained,

The temple as it stands within this frame appears first and foremost as a man-made utopia and by nature of it being man-made, it is dystopic, imperfect, entropic, fallen, and corrosive. While it may seem like heresy to talk in these terms in relationship to the House of the Lord, it is also accurate, only in the fact that it is a building, a brick and mortar, having a temporal physicality, vulnerable to fires, vulnerable to time. And in that sense it exists within the mundane. But this is not to deny the grandeur and awe of such a sight as well. This is not to deny the sublime in its function and even in the photograph…For in such a building, we not only learn about God, but we begin to learn how to become like him and we do so in rituals wrapped up in the corporal of the body.

Richard Bushman has noted that designs for the temple in Joseph Smith’s day came along with designs for the entire City of Zion. “City planning, while unusual for a minister, was common for utopian and religious visionaries.” Joseph Smith “conceived the world as a vast funnel with the city at the vortex and the temple at the center of the city. Converts across the globe would be attracted to this central point to acquire knowledge and power for preaching the Gospel…The city, the temple, and the world, existed in dynamic relationships. Missionaries flowed out of the city and converts poured back in. The exchange would redeem the world in the last days.”[2] It is safe to say that the temple took central stage in early Mormonism as it did in the ancient Near East.[3] Zion was and is meant to be very tangible. It requires the dedication to everyday tasks that we are not used to describing as sacred. City planning, business management, food production, etc. all take on a new meaning; all are consecrated to the Lord’s purposes. In essence, the mundane is in some sense redeemed. “From the beginning of our civilization,” said philosopher Roger Scruton, “it has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful in the human condition and to redeem it in a work of beauty. Art has the ability to redeem life by finding beauty even in the worst aspect of things.”[4] Similarly, many of Hurtado’s examples redeemed not so much suffering and death, but the mundane, the ordinary, the (supposedly) boring.

Chapman, Mary's Prayer

Chapman, “Mary’s Prayer”

Case in point, David Chapman Lindsay’s Handprints are “performative gestures” that “incorporate the body in both a devotional way that express deeply personal investments in religious convictions” and “as a type of visualized prayer.” Drawing on the Bible Dictionary, Chapman sees prayer as a form of work; a work symbolized by the artist’s handprint. According to Hurtado, the physical nature of the hand becomes the “medium for a spiritual story. Thus, a combination of the terrestrial and celestial terms.”

In the introductory panel of the exhibition Practicing Charity: Everyday Daughters of God, Hurtado finds that our often small, everyday service “mirrors eternity”:

Kershisnik, Climbing Mother

Kershisnik, “Climbing Mother”

Practicing charity is something we as women of God do every day. We practice our religion as one practices a musical instrument. We practice being friends, neighbors, and Christians. In small gestures of service, in pondering and in seeking knowledge, and in our sincere and often private expressions of faith, we live in celestial ways. Practicing charity means that we are trying to live like the Savior and even though we are not perfect, our service mirrors eternity and our efforts manifest a deep devotion. Through these acts, we slowly come to see, in hints and shadows, our divine nature, our true and eternal selves. Indeed, as everyday daughters of God, we participate in a grand work.

As she explained in her presentation and elsewhere, “I organized the exhibition around the work of three artists—Lee Udall BennionBrian Kershisnik, and Kathleen Peterson. I selected them because they consistently depict women as ennobled while simultaneously celebrating the importance of their everyday lives, lives that in the ceremony of the everyday perform their covenants and their religion in important and symbolic ways” (italics mine). Not only is the divine uncovered through the work of our mortal hands, it is also experienced through the very same mortal (and thus limited) framework, i.e. “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). “The tension between the mundane and the sublime,” said Hurtado, “becomes even more problematic when one thinks on how to depict the Savior. Because artists who wish to depict Jesus Christ have to make difficult and subjective decisions about the appearance of the model who performs the role of Jesus and so often these choices prove to be culturally constructed and reflect more of the paradigm of the commissioner than the reality of the intended subject.”

Richards, "Untitled"

Richards, “Untitled”

This is why Hurtado finds theological value in J. Kirk Richards’ Unititled (Cristo Series). The 150-piece collection “make[s] obvious the terrestrial fog in which we, in this life, access divinity. The inability to really fix the image of Christ emphasizes the personal nature of one’s relationship with Him, especially vis-à-vis personal revelation.” A similar point could be made of Annie Poon’s Book of Visions, in which Mormon origins are told through paper stop motion animation. The style feels like a child’s flipbook and perhaps reflects both childlike faith in such stories as well as a recognition that we are far more naive in our grasp of the supernatural than we may sometimes be willing to admit.

I don’t pretend to be well-acquainted with art of this kind. This ignorance likely made the presentation all the more enjoyable due to its newness. But what stood out the most was the recognition by both Hurtado and the artists she presented that heaven–far from being in an abstract realm untouched by human hands–is found in the faces of those we love and the relationships that we develop. As these strengthen, the face of the divine becomes a bit clearer.

And that’s about as Mormon as it can get.

*Laura was kind enough to provide me with her presentation notes. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, come from these.

 

NOTES

1. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, 25th Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 4.

2. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Random House, 2005), 219-221.

3. See John M. Lundquist, “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, ed. Donald W. Perry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994).

4. From the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters (2009): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00p6tsd. See his Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) for a more detailed treatment of his ideas.

Comments

Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: The Mundane and the Sublime in Mormon Art — 2 Comments

  1. Never thought of these things in this way before. Inspiring. I remember the first display of the International Art Contest and how many of the pieces stirred emotions in me. We were living away from Utah in the military and the portrayals of the scripture themes in the various art formats was indescribable.

  2. As we better understand the concept you present, the mundane and the sublime, the closer we come to a real body of LDS art. This has been helpful to me as I strive to understand that what often appears mundane can be transformed by the artist to higher meaning.