Some Criticisms of Missionary Art.

September 30, 2004 | 23 comments
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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. It’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. They’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 little—it’s Fishers of Men—but at least the painting itself doesn’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. It’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 artist’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, and—would you look at that! In the mirror he’s putting the tie on over his breastplate and sword and helmet! Oh, and look, there’s Jesus, seven feet tall and three hundred pounds. He’s in the mirror too!

I could go on in this vein But I don’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, ‘My love is like a the moon.’ 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, ‘She is as in a field a silken tent,’ 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 juxtaposition—the breastplate and the tie, the missionary couple and the actual stand of grain—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 hasn’t been made silly by, say, showing a bucket being drawn up from the well full of new Books of Mormon.

· 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 lover’s influence to that of the moon is more immediate and evokes more memories and sensory data than does simply saying, ‘I like things more when you’re around.’ But the moon metaphor doesn’t quite work anymore, because its hackneyed. That is, it’s been used long enough that it no longer calls up actual experience and association with the moon. It now just means “you’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 Ensign’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, here’s some missionaries and, slap, here’s a harvest, it only suggests the conventional metaphor one has seen in the scriptures so many times.

· Hackneyed metaphors suffer from another problem. Stick with me here because I’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, she’ll not only bring up all these moon sensations and memories, and thrill to find them associated with herself, she’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 artist’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 isn’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.

Postscript:
I have better things to say about this issue of the Ensign here.

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23 Responses to Some Criticisms of Missionary Art.

  1. Times and Seasons » First Vision Art on February 6, 2005 at 6:46 pm

    [...] art show. I have high hopes for these Ensign art shows, though they do not always succeed. This one does, I think. It shows different cultures and diffe [...]

  2. Rusty on September 30, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    Adam,
    Bless you brother. I have not yet seen the show, but am in no hurry. My opinions on this subject are probably much harsher than yours. I have a real problem with most Mormon art. We have a rich symbolic heritage and symbols are a huge part of the scriptures and our temple work. Why can’t that translate over into our art (which should be symbolic by nature)? Each one of those paintings you described appears to be insultingly literal.

    As a graphic designer I am constantly challenged to visually communicate messages. Clichés are always the first things that come to mind…I mean, clichés are clichés for a reason. But we don’t let the thinking stop there (which I think was the problem for these painters). Your third point addresses this issue and is right on, that an adjustment (cleverness) to a cliché can be incredibly powerful if done well. I know that these painters have the best of intentions, the painting skill is probably fine, but as we say in design, “it doesn’t work.” Thank you Adam for your insights, I’m glad I’m not alone in my assessment of some Mormon art.

  3. Adam Greenwood on September 30, 2004 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks, Rusty. Don’t lose your patience too much. Milk before meat.

  4. Rusty on September 30, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    Adam, you’re probably right. I’m probably at the milk stage of understanding the symbolism in the temple and scriptures. But I think there was a lot of meat in the earlier days of the church and we’re back to milk. Maybe we’re like the grandparents who can’t chew the symbolic meat anymore and need the literal milk again for nutrition (okay, have I killed the metaphor yet?).

  5. greenfrog on September 30, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    not “literal milk” — liturgical milk.

  6. Jonathan A. Stapley on September 30, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    I agree with and appreciate Adam’s criticism; however, I would submit that the weakness with which metaphor is applied within “Mormon Art� is a symptom of a more pervasive cultural shortcoming. To be brief I will employ a food metaphor. My mother recently spent a month or so developing a pain de campagne recipe. It takes roughly 24 hours to make, but the final product has depth of flavor and texture that is sublime. It is also ephemeral, being inedible after a subsequent 24 hours. American culture, in general, has forsaken such products for the proverbial Wonder Bread that, while cheap and ubiquitous, is insipid. The clincher is that it requires no effort to appreciate it – it essentially appeals to the lowest common cultural denominator (which, incidentally, is why so many American products are embraced by the global populace).

    I remember talking with a friend after a recent performance of a saccharin Mormon Pop song during a Sacrament meeting. There happened to be some cheap doughnuts on the counter. The song was very similar to those doughnuts – sweat and easy, but in the end insubstantive.

  7. Austin Frost on September 30, 2004 at 7:51 pm

    You’re looking at it from the wrong angle: if the art isn’t simplistic, how can it be mass-plagiarized at Enrichment meetings throughout the world? ;)

  8. Adam Greenwood on September 30, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    For the record I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people enjoying art that may not be all that great but that speaks to them. Artisan bread is great, but Wonder Bread is ok.

  9. Bryce I on September 30, 2004 at 8:31 pm

    Looks like Wonder Bread has been sacrificed on the low-carb altar of the Atkins Diet. Buy your lifetime supply of Twinkies now folks — you know they’ll outlast you.

    A Scouting practical joke — squeeze a tube of white toothpaste into a Twinkie through the holes in the bottom and offer it to your friends.

  10. Ivan Wolfe on September 30, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    I used to love Wonder Bread as a kid, but now I prefer whole grain and multi-grain breads.

    I also loved a movie called “Hawk the Slayer.” When I was 9 until I was 14, I must have watched that movie two dozen times. It was the coolest. I watched it again about two years ago and hated it. Sloppily done, badly acted and with subpar sfx (even for the time it waa filmed in).

    “His Hands” by Kenneth Cope used to make me cry, but now it strikes me as poorly produced and overly melodramtic. Jeff Goodrich’s “I Heard him Come” and “Oh, Lord my Redeemer” still choke me up, but his other songs do little for me.

    I’m not sure if I’ve become more sophsiticated and discerning, or cynical and jaded.

    Probably a bit of both.

  11. Jack on September 30, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    Great thead Adam!

    I think metaphor in art can happen almost intuitively while allegory tends to be pre-planned. IMO most LDS artists get tripped up over the one to one relationship of allegory. (i.e., your hilarious example of BoMs being drawn from the well) Don’t get me wrong, I think allegory can be useful if we know its allegory – such as Jacob ch.5. I think the power of metaphor come through strongest when there is a sense loyalty on the part of the artist to that which is in the for ground or the land of the living – for lack of a better term. We read about Nephi’s experiences as they really happened and yet in a strange and wonderful way the individual is able to understand those experiences at the deepest level because they reflect the total experience of humanity.

    How to apply this to visual art…

  12. Bryce I on September 30, 2004 at 8:52 pm

    As for art, Adam, your post prompted me to take a look at this month’s Ensign (which I rarely do, other than to get the home teaching message). I agree with you more or less. Here’s my take.

    On pages 22-23, the most striking visual image is that of the white shirt. The only way we know that these men are missionaries is that they are in full uniform (ok, in the picture on the lower right the missionaries are teaching a family on the front porch). It is quite jarring to me. There’s a certain photoshopped or Where’s Waldo? quality to the paintings — here’s a scene, let’s drop some missionaries in there so it can be a missionary painting. The complete absence of metaphor is striking. Of course these guys are missionaries — they’re wearing white shirts and there are two of them.

    Turn the page and things get better. Sure, the imagery of “Golden Harvest” is as subtle as a brick, but at least there’s an effort made. Taken out of this context, I might look at it and immediately say, “Oh, this artist is showing missionaries,” but then again, I might not.

    “Unfading Missionaries” I like, but I don’t get. There seems to be some kind of tradition that I’m not aware of that the painting is playing off of.

    There’s something going on with whiteness also. All of the missionaries are white — even the Chinese women have cultivated pale skin, and the missionaries in “By the Springs of Water Shall He Guide Them” are identifiable only by their whiteness. All this in addition to the white shirts and white fields. I have nothing profound to say at this point on this subject, just an observation.

  13. Rosalynde Welch on September 30, 2004 at 9:34 pm

    The centrality of metaphor (and the related symbol) over metonymy in your aesthetic theory reveals you to be a Protestant at heart! The issue of metaphor in religious art (though mostly discursive art) was of great interest during the Reformation, of course, where matters of metaphor assumed central theological as well as rhetorical importance–transubstatiation, iconoclasm, etc. I’m not defending the paintings–it sounds from your description as if they don’t work well–but suggesting that signifier and signified can relate in ways other than metaphor in religious art.

  14. Jack on October 1, 2004 at 12:05 am

    Rosalynde said, “I’m…suggesting that signifier and signified can relate in ways other than metaphor in religious art.”

    I think Adam implies this by lumping all else into the general catagory of “symbols”.

    Arthur Henry King, in essay “Religion, Art and Morality” has this to say about what I think is one of the major problems with LDS art: “A direct relationship between art and morality would be a tyranny. When a direct link is assumed, each tries to overrun the other. When an attempted direct connection is set up, one gets allegory instead of symbol, and allegory is always inferior to symbol because it is always more superficial. Allegory is a one for one correspondence, a simple, superficial thing. A symbol always has something more to give us.

    LDS art tends more toward morality than religion in my opinion. One often walks away from viewing an LDS work with the feeling of having just heard a sermon. Often it is a platitudinal expose of beliefs rather than a straight forward expression of religious conviction. I believe that if the artist focuses on religion and its meaning rather than on a “moral” obligation to a set of beliefs, that the symbols will tend to present themselves.

  15. Rosalynde Welch on October 1, 2004 at 10:44 am

    Jack, Dr. King presents an eloquent exposition of a modern aesthetic of religious art–and one that I personally prefer, as well. But this disdain for allegory and the concept of art as ontologically separate from (and, generally, superior to) politics and morality is not a universal given. I always turn everything toward the Renaissance, which must be annoying, I know, but still–the above propositions would have been foreign to most producers and consumers of art during that period.

    I think, though, that there will probably always be significant difference on this matter between producers and critics of art–I’m a critic, and I sense that you’re an artist!

  16. Adam Greenwood on October 1, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Bryce,
    The painting where we see two missionaries walking down a dirt road from behind appears to portray to latin missionaries.
    In Fishers of Men one of the two missionaries is arguably racially non-Caucasian.

  17. Bryce I on October 1, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    Adam –

    You’re probably right about “I Will Remember the Covenant,” although it’s difficult to tell, as there is virtually no exposed skin, and what skin is exposed in in shadow. The artist’s name, Enrique Manuel Garcia, suggests that you may be right as well.

    I don’t see it in “Fishers of Men.” Not that it really matters — I wasn’t really making much of a point, just an observation that appears to be open to argument.

  18. Ryan Bell on October 1, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    Rosalynde mentions “consumers of art.” I think that’s where we need to look for a real culprit. Why do Mormons create such obvious, saccharin, maudlin media? Because that’s what the market will bear.

    First, people just want this stuff. Mormons seem to have an extremely high tolerance for drippy art of all kinds. So when you are marketing art specifically to a Mormon artist, an arena where people bring their religious and emotional sensibilities straight to the marketplace, it’s going to pay off to appeal to those sensibilities.

    Second, the audience, having been weaned on the obvious, doesn’t comprehend the esoteric. I do not say this in a superior way– despite the high artistic attainments of some in my family, I remain basically a rube when it comes to art. In other words, if you’d shown me the painting of the couple missionaries waiting in line for well water, I would have told you they were waiting in line for well water. Ask me to find symbolism in the painting and I probably could, but without being prodded to do it, it would probably go right over my head. I suspect this is the same for 90 percent of the locals who wander daily through deseret book. Sure, maybe your deep symbolism may win you some award somewhere, but it’s not going to help you get selected by the Ensign for its art show, and it’s not going to get you hung on walls in the homes of Draper.

    Finally, while I do agree, Adam, that it’s incongruous and jarring (let alone obvious) to take a ‘symbol’ and plant it in the real world (a la the couple missionaries threshing wheat or the bucket of books), I also think it’s not a bad idea in art sometimes to juxtapose images from different contexts in order to create a striking impression. I would imagine Rusty would agree that this tactic can be an effective tool for drawing attention and provoking thought in design, when one can manage to avoid the cliches. In other words, it’s just pedestrian to show people filling well buckets with Books of Mormon, but it might be clever to take some other symbol and place it in the context of the real world. Trying to think of some good example from advertising or other….anyone have any ideas?

  19. Jack on October 1, 2004 at 8:24 pm

    Rosalynde: I too have an aversion to any approach to the arts that elevates it above any other mortal endevor – especially when some go so far as to label God as an artist to support a claim of divinity in the arts. (which really means divinity in the artist’s abilities) I think AHK would claim that art is not more important than religion or morality, but that art and morality cannot effectively coexist. They both, however, can claim religion as a common ground thereby elevating religion (in the truest sense) above all mortal endevors.

    I agree that allegory can be beautiful – the scriptures certainly attest to that fact. I guess it’s just a matter of everyone being in on the joke – so to speak – that makes it useful. I don’t think there was anything ambiguous in the artist’s approach to the sacred during the Renaissance. (please “enlighten” me if I’m wrong. You know more about this than I do.)

    So (grin) am I an artist because you sense a wacky disposition merely from reading my comments? : ).

  20. Ivan Wolfe on October 1, 2004 at 10:40 pm

    Artists think God is an artist, scientists think God is a scientist.

    He’s all that and more. Art is important, but so is physics. I’m with Jack, in that I do not like it when artists claim to have some special insight into the divine/human nature/the truth that plebians/philistines/hoi polloi lack.

    It one of the (but not the main one) reasons I dropped my theatre major early on. I got tired of actors claiming they had speical access to the divine that the ignorant sheep like members of the church lacked.

    Of course, I later learned this attitude can occur no matter where you go – and it can be found among chemists as well as fine artists. But I think God wanted me to change majors anyway (and the main reason I changed was for totally different reasons than disgust with elitism, so it all balanced out).

  21. Jack on October 1, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    “endeavor[s]” with an “a” – oops!

    One of the things that I love about an artist like Van Gogh is that there is a distinct fix on the elements portrayed. Though his works are highly stylized in terms of technique, there doesn’t seem to be much posturing or even insinuation on the part of his characters or objects. I’ve always loved “Starry Night”. (he has a couple of starry nights- the one with the moon on the right with the chapel as the centerpiece) I’ve always loved where the scene takes me. It transports me to a sort of childhood arcadia by way of heaven. (if that makes any sense) But, one day I looked at it again and noticed how pitiful the chapel looked next to the – I think it’s a juniper – in the for ground. The plant majestically reaches heavenward nearly touching the stars while the chapel with its little steeple is all too saftley nestled in the sleepy town. What is so striking about this juxtaposition is that the elements are not forced upon one another to generate a symbol. One gets the feeling that the juniper is in the foreground while the chapel has a sense of being removed – hence, the difference in size between the two objects – it’s a perfectly natural setting. And yet, a wonderous metaphor distills upon the viewer by virtue of the artist positioning himself to capture the perfect composition.

  22. Jack on October 1, 2004 at 11:30 pm

    “I got tired of actors claiming they had speical access to the divine that the ignorant sheep like members of the church lacked”

    And now you have to deal with it all over again here at T&S. ;>)

  23. Darwin on February 25, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    I said that once, but I was wrong too. You over analyze. Just enjoy the talents of the gifted artists. I believe the art in the Ensign is some of the best.

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