I love the Ensign art shows. They are in themselves a kind of art, greater, as the saying goes, than the sum of their parts. I do not love the missionary art show in the October 2004 Ensign.
To get to the show, click here and select the title “You Taught Me.”
I do not know much about the aesthetics of visual art, so I can’t say much about that aspect. My gut thinks the quality of the works in this show is less than in others, but the rest of me has no opinion. But I do know something about the use of symbolism and metaphor. Itâ€™s not done well here.
Of the eight paintings three are particular culprits. The least bad painting shows two missionaries standing by their bicycles in the grassy foreground. Theyâ€™re looking across a yellow sand beach to some tiny figures who appear to be fussing with nets alongside little fishing boats. The title does beat the viewer over the head with the metaphor a littleâ€”itâ€™s Fishers of Menâ€”but at least the painting itself doesnâ€™t, not exactly. The fishers are fairly small and indistinct in the background; the painting does not shout, LOOK! MISSIONARIES with FISHERMEN! Also, the size and indistinctness of the fishers, combined with the setting of the painting, is such that, though the fishers look like they may be Christ and his apostles, the viewers can also view them as real fishers that missionaries might view on a real coast somewhere.
The next painting is a little less subtle. Itâ€™s called Golden Harvest. A missionary couple in their golden years (nyuk, nyuk) is standing in full pros. in the middle of a poor stand of grain. The husband is holding a sickle while he eyes his next clump. The wife is picking up his last clump to cradle it in her arms. The artistâ€™s intention is obvious. The field is white to the harvest, and all that.
The final painting is not exactly Baseball Jesus, but it is kitsch. Two missionaries are getting dressed in their apartment. One is tying his tie in the mirror, andâ€”would you look at that! In the mirror heâ€™s putting the tie on over his breastplate and sword and helmet! Oh, and look, thereâ€™s Jesus, seven feet tall and three hundred pounds. Heâ€™s in the mirror too!
I could go on in this vein But I donâ€™t really want to discourage artists from trying, even if they are failing. Keep on trying, gents and gals. But next time, consider this:
Every metaphor and symbol has incongruous elements in it. Those incongruous elements need to be kept quiet. Consider the ordinary metaphor, â€˜My love is like a the moon.â€™ Your young lady will like it if you use it while the two of you look up to its white glow in the night sky. She would not be as pleased if the two of you were actually on the moon watching gray dust pool in the bottoms of ragged craters. When Frost says, â€˜She is as in a field a silken tent,â€™ he does not mean that the woman is conveniently portable. Any such suggestion would ruin the poem. Unfortunately the last two missionary paintings do that. They put incongruous elements in such close juxtapositionâ€”the breastplate and the tie, the missionary couple and the actual stand of grainâ€”that they undermine the metaphor.
Contrast the better use of metaphor in the painting that shows a missionary couple in Africa standing in line to draw water from a well. The viewer has a chance to appreciate the visual elements of the painting, the landscape, and the postures and expressions of the figures, and even to think some about how being a missionary forces you into the life of a people, all before thinking about drawing water from a well as a metaphor for missionary work. The viewer can appreciate the metaphor because it hasnâ€™t been made silly by, say, showing a bucket being drawn up from the well full of new Books of Mormon.
Â· Metaphors and symbols work because they tie to one object the world of connotations and associations and experience suggested by the other. To the extent the moon metaphor works, it works because comparing your loverâ€™s influence to that of the moon is more immediate and evokes more memories and sensory data than does simply saying, â€˜I like things more when youâ€™re around.â€™ But the moon metaphor doesn’t quite work anymore, because its hackneyed. That is, itâ€™s been used long enough that it no longer calls up actual experience and association with the moon. It now just means “youâ€™re pretty. I like you,” without the same gut impact. If you want to use the metaphor now you have to use tricks and circuitousness to actually evoke the experience of the moon and to avoid the hackneyed meaning. Realistic painting of the kind seen in the Ensignâ€™s art show can do precisely that. By showing a harvest or fishermen or a youth putting on armor, and by only very mildly suggesting the comparison to missionaries (submitting the work to a competition for art about missionaries would suffice), the viewer is left free to actually bring up all the physical experience and emotional memory associated with harvests or fishing or the experience of getting ready to fight. And then they can apply it all to missionary work and be edified thereby. But if the comparison is made too obvious on the canvas, if the artist merely says, slap, hereâ€™s some missionaries and, slap, hereâ€™s a harvest, it only suggests the conventional metaphor one has seen in the scriptures so many times.
Â· Hackneyed metaphors suffer from another problem. Stick with me here because Iâ€™m having a hard time saying this clearly, but part of the work metaphors do is they add depth and poignancy and appreciation to an object by associating the aesthetic admiration one feels for the cleverness of the metaphor with the object of the metaphor. Let me give an example to clarify. If I stroll with my lover in the moonlight and I come up with a new and clever way to compare her to the moon, sheâ€™ll not only bring up all these moon sensations and memories, and thrill to find them associated with herself, sheâ€™ll also appreciate the intellectual cleverness I used in making the metaphor, and thrill to find it also associated with herself. Both she and the moon are magnified by it. While too much cleverness ruins a metaphor by overwhelming it (e.g., the reader gets so caught up in the cleverness of the metaphor that the moon gets lost), some cleverness can enhance a metaphor. Hackneyed metaphors are not clever without some new wrinkle. Painting is at an advantage here. By allowing one to portray many nuances and associations of the portrayed object, painting allows an enormous variety of subtle commentaries and insights that both add to the metaphor and to the artistâ€™s cleverness. Unfortunately, by focusing their efforts on simply drawing the metaphor, the artists in this show miss out on the chance.
Feel free to pile on in disagreement, by the way. This isnâ€™t one of those things where I have any emotional investment in the opinion I offer here. If you beat this baby up too bad I’ll just throw it out with the bathwater.
I have better things to say about this issue of the Ensign here.