Toxic Fumes and Memories of Mormon Art

March 30, 2005 | 46 comments
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The summer after my mission I got a job restoring Mormon pine furniture. Over the course of its life, the furniture had been painted many, many times. My job was to painstakingly remove layers of later paint with an exacto knife and Q-tip swabs soaked in paint thinner while leaving the original layer of paint unharmed. It was very slow work — generally no more than a few square inches a day — and it involved breathing in a lot of toxic fumes.

The isolation, chemicals, and slow but steady pace gave me lots of time to think with the furniture as I worked. Pioneer Mormon pine hasn’t achieved the popularity of antique Shaker furniture, but it has enjoyed a modest amount of interest in recent years. From my father, I learned that most of this furniture was produced in the 1870s and 1880s in United Order co-operatives in Utah, mainly in Brigham City, as I recall. The furniture was made from the local (mainly white) pine from the Wasatch Mountains, and then painted in a process known as hand graining to look as though it was made from expensive hard wood — maple, oak, mahogany, etc. Today, the appeal of the furniture among antique buyers lies in a sense of rustic, pioneer purity. As a result, the paint gets stripped off and the furniture is displayed with the bare pine. The original goal, however, was not rustic purity but as close a copy as possible to the modern and fashionable furniture being turned out by the new factories in Michigan.

The other irony of Mormon pine is the timing of its production. There were furniture makers in Utah from at least the time that Brigham Young (a furniture maker) rode into the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847. Most of our surviving “Mormon pine” however was made rather late, and came from the United Order factories. These factories, in turn, were not constructed until after the completion of the transcontinental railroad had dramatically slashed the transportation costs from the Michigan factories. In other words, most Mormon pine furniture was produced for tastes that were decisively influenced by Eastern styles at a time when economic logic pointed toward buying directly from the East. (This is a bit of a simplification, of course. Even with falling transportation costs, pine painted to look like oak was still cheaper than actual oak.)

Which leads us to a question: What is Mormon about Mormon pine furniture? Despite the efforts of some to argue the contrary, there is really not much in the way of stylistic innovation in Mormon pine furniture. Unlike the Shakers, the Mormons never developed a distinctive look to their furniture. Hand graining is an venerable craft, and the Mormons produced no real innovations there. And yet the more that you learn about the furniture the more that it becomes clear that there is something undeniably Mormon about it. Its Mormoness lies not in its style but in its story. The furniture sits right at the intersection of the confrontation of Mormon economic communitarianism with industrialized economic liberalism. Furthermore, it instantiates the odd mixture of quixotic resistance (United Orders against the railroads) and pragmatic adaptation (the furniture was tailored to appeal to Eastern-influenced tastes) that characterized (and I think still characterizes) the Mormon confrontation with the world.

So is Mormon pine furniture an aesthetic failure or an aesthetic triumph? If we think of art as the inspired and novel creation of a heroic genius, then Mormon pine furniture is going to be banal and derivative. If we think of art as a purely stylistic experience then Mormon pine furniture probably doesn’t even exist, since it is virtually impossible to identify it using stylistic criteria. And yet the furniture is powerfully evocative of a story and a theology (Zion), and the not-inconsiderable craftsmanship that went into its production was quite literally consecrated for its creation. I would submit that the furniture is powerful and successful Mormon art, but it is art that defies most of our stereotypical notions of art — particularly those that we inherit from Romanticism — and requires that we approach it through the categories of Mormon history and doctrine.

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46 Responses to Toxic Fumes and Memories of Mormon Art

  1. Rosalynde Welch on March 30, 2005 at 11:03 am

    Precisely, Nate. Its connections to our community identity make it an ethnic category, not an aesthetic category. This is not to lessen its value or meaning, but rather to honor its sources.

  2. Kaimi on March 30, 2005 at 11:05 am

    Nate —

    Paint thinner? That explains quite a bit.

    :P

  3. Nate Oman on March 30, 2005 at 11:18 am

    Rosalynde: I would submitt that we have to think more deeply and radically about this. It is not simply that we need to honor “ethnic” origin as a respectful alternative to a real or unique aesthetics. Rather, I would submit that we should rethink our ideas of aesthetics.

    For example, I think that the dominate idea in art is the ideal of the creative genius, somewhat alienated from society, and hence pure in his individualistic production. I think that this ideal can be traced back to the Romantics reaction against Englightenment rationalism. However, I think that we can push it deeper. Like so many modern ideas, I think that the artist ends up being the old scholastic God reconceptualized in human terms. Just as Descartes’ cogito seemed to mirror the unconditioned God of the scholasticism, I think that the Romantic artist ultimately is a recapitulation of the God who creates ex nhilio. So what implications, if any, does our rejection of the theological analogies for the concept of artist have? Might the alienated artist persona or the creative genius artist persona be the worship of a false god similar to Nibley’s critique of academics clothed in the robes of a false priesthood?

    Frankly, I think that on this front — as on most others — Mormons have been too timid and too willing to take as given the intellectual categories that we have inherited. We can do better than grudgingly categorizing ourselves as an aesthetic failure and taking comfort in the thin gruel of identity politics.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on March 30, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Well, sure, Nate, if you want to change the definition of “aesthetic” to fit whatever we’re doing, then you can make the shoe fit! But I don’t think the tropes of “art” and “artistry” that you’re using here have very much at all to do with a post-modern aesthetic or with the contemporary cultural and political uses of art. When I make the distinction between “ethnic” and “aesthetic” (and I recognize that these are crude, and would welcome a refinement of the vocabulary), I’m not making judgments of quality or value, but making distinctions between kinds of ideological function.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on March 30, 2005 at 12:44 pm

    True, as Romanticism spread across Europe and the Atlantic, the rebellious and nonconformist elements of the movement triumphed over the pious aspects. Still, they were always there in the argument: for every narcisisstic individualist like Byron, you’ve got a wonderfully (and weirdly) traditionalist/religious radical like William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or William Wordsworth.

  6. Nate Oman on March 30, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    Rosalynde: It seems to me that your reply does little more than shield a set of categories from criticism and analysis. Furthermore, I think it is niave to suppose that the label “art” is not freighted with normative and ideological significance. In current aesthetic discussions, that which is “art” is good and that which is not art is less valuable. Furthermore, I am not arguing for an arbitrary redefinition of the term aesthetics. Rather, I am arguing that we ought to think through the historical roots and philosophical assumptions of the aesthetic concepts that we use and decide whether or not they hold up and if they don’t then we ought to think about how we might reconstruct those categories on the basis of better philosophical assumptions and a different history. It is not a matter of simply appropriating a label or using some self-evident set of concepts in a neutral and technocratic way. It is about being critical of those concepts from the stand point of Mormonism. It seems to me that those who are interested in the question of Mormon art might want to engage in this project rather than dismissing it.

  7. Nate Oman on March 30, 2005 at 12:48 pm

    Russell: If Romanticism is Blake, I will take it. Alas, we live in a world where lower Manhattan and the art schools are dominated by Byron wanna-be’s.

  8. Wilfried on March 30, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Very interesting topic, Nate. I’m working on a post on folk art and expression, so I happened to stumble on a few sites that you may know already. One is a friendly tribute to Mormon pine furniture, the other gives a lot of sources on Utah’s material culture, including pioneer furniture.

  9. Bill on March 30, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    Don Juan is a greater work than anything by Blake, or for that matter, anything by any of the other Romantics. Too bad none of Byron’s other poetry was at the same level.

  10. Rosalynde Welch on March 30, 2005 at 1:30 pm

    I certainly didn’t meant to be dismissive, Nate! Like I said, I think the paired categories I’m using could use refinement, and I welcome attempts to do so. I guess while you’d like to interrogate the meaning of aesthetics, I’d prefer to interrogate its function. In the end, I think, both attempts can lead to fruitful new categories.

  11. Mark B. on March 30, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    Without any attempt to respond to the point you make in your post, I have a few comments.

    First, when paint “dries” something more than mere evaporation of the solvent is occuring. The process is called polymerization, and results in a coating that cannot be removed simply by re-dissolving the paint with the original solvent. (Try stripping the water-based latex paint off your walls with water–it won’t work.) Thus, you were very likely not using paint thinner, but the substantially more caustic chemicals in paint stripper. So, I’ll see Kaimi and raise him: “Paint stripper–that explains a lot.” (It’s analogous to concrete–it doesn’t just dry, it “cures.” Try adding water to your driveway–it won’t soften the concrete.)

    Second, “grained” wood was used in the past for several reasons, not just aesthetic (although that was what drove the craft). The Nauvoo home of Brigham Young is full of “grained” pine, made to look like oak. The grain in oak, and especially the “rays” in quarter-sawn oak, are considerably more interesting than the plain grain of pine, so most people would think that it looks “better.” In Utah, there is almost no hardwood–so oak or maple or walnut would have to be shipped in from elsewhere. The native species are pines and firs and aspens and cottonwoods, the latter two of little interest to furniture makers. Finally, oaks and other hardwoods are, as the name suggests, harder than pine, and thus more difficult to work with in the days of hand tools and no tungsten carbide tipped saws, jointers and planers.

    On another tangent, I have a client who is a skilled “grainer.” He “grained” all the woodwork in a restaurant in Brooklyn to look like cherry–but underneath that surface it was all pine and douglas fir. So, the ancient craft is still alive.

  12. Nate Oman on March 30, 2005 at 1:49 pm

    Mark B.: We tried a variety of different solvents including acetone and paint stripper. One thing we were interested in doing was softening the paint without actually stripping it off chemcally, so we experimented with dilluting the stripper in various ways. We had problems with the fact that there were multiple layers of paint from different eras with different chemical properties. The other issue was that you didn’t want anything too powerful, because you would burn through all of the paint down to the wood, and the goal was to recover the original graining. One of the main techniques was to chip the paint off dry, as it tended to flake off in layers. This was necessarily very slow because you had to be careful not to gauge the paint underneath. Once you were down to the original paint you still faced a problem. The overpainting, even if it came off relatively cleanly with the knife, would still leave tiny residual amounts of paint on the graining that tended to give it a fogged, rough look. So then came the most stressful part. You would take a cotton ball or a Q-tip, dip it in some sort of thined paint stripper and delcately rub the surface of the graining. The goal was to disolve the residual over painting without disolving this graining. The result is that you had to have your face and eyes right next to the surface of the furniture with the cotton ball practically in your nostril to see what you were doing.

  13. Mark B. on March 30, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    Nate: Sounds like fun–not! That’s why my preferred method for stripping 100 coats of landlord-applied paint from a New York apartment is as follows:

    1. Use blowtorch in violation of fire code to heat paint and then scrape carefully with knife.

    2. Swear at remaining flecks of paint that resist all attempts to strip with blowtorch.

    3. Us blowtorch to burn house down; collect insurance money, and rebuild with woodword finished the way you want it.

  14. Shawn Bailey on March 30, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    I am all for rejecting the understanding of art and its creation based on the conception of the narcissistic individualist romantic genius. I recall well listening to a creative writing professor riff extensively on the first verses of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” The professor argued that when we write we compete directly with God in the creative enterprise. That we are pitting our words against the Word. I find this idea simply blasphemous. I strongly prefer something along the lines Russel explained (if I understand him correctly, I haven’t read Herder, et al.): faithful (and even humble) creative work within a religious tradition. Art as a form of worship, not rebellion.

    The narcissistic individualist romantic genius conception and the obsession with something entirely new or different in the arts seem to be closely related. I would like to see the latter rejected as well. Consider in this context Ecclesiates 1:2-3, 8-9: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? … All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

  15. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    I’m with Nate — and Blake is on our side.

  16. Steve Evans on March 30, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    Yes, WM, but Wilde is on mine.

    — A nickel to whomever gets the reference without googling.

  17. Rosalynde Welch on March 30, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Steve, you’d only like to think you’re on the wild side. But Sumer better hope you’re not on Wilde’s side.

  18. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    Steve:

    I’m already a step ahead of you. My post is both a pop culture reference *and* a true statement of faith.

  19. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    By the way, I’m pleased to see this outbreak of Mormon aesthetics at Times & Seasons (although I now mourn that I got here late because of your bandwidth issues). I especially look forward to Wilifried’s post.

  20. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on March 30, 2005 at 5:32 pm

    Having not been “trained in the ministry” when it comes to humanities, I can’t participate in this discussion on a historical or analytical level, but I’m having an allergic reaction to what I perceive as Nate’s intellectual redefinition of art to, by fiat, reclassify samples of Mormon handiwork as paragons of aesthetic excellence.

    If we want to make connections to scholasticism, I think Nate’s rationalization is akin to the theologizing that occurs in the absence of revelation. It’s the lips drawing near while denying the power thereof. The back-story is nice, but aesthetic is what excites—whatever impinges on our senses and minds in that unfathomable way that brings on the tingles and the tears.

  21. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on March 30, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    Steve (#18): The Smiths’ A Sunny Day, from the album The Queen is Dead.

  22. Steve Evans on March 30, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    Christian, soooooo close…. but WRONG.

  23. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    So I meet you at the…

  24. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on March 30, 2005 at 5:46 pm

    Steve, don’t I get credit for using the Mormon practice of alternate song naming by first lines? Actually the first phrase is “A dreaded sunny day,” and the song is Cemetary Gates. But I had to Google to find it.

    And speaking of Google and art, did everyone notice the Van Gogh tribute on Google’s banner today?

  25. Steve Evans on March 30, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Sorry BTW everyone for the threadjack — c’est le blog, as they say.

    But to get back to Nate’s post: good questions about the meaning of art. In a real way, the art you’re describing holds the mirror up to nature: human nature, mormon nature. We cannot consider it entirely a failure to the extent it can speak truly of mormon-ness.

    And yet, at the same time, we should not feel too guilty about relegating most mormon art to the trash heap/Ensign cover.

  26. Ben H on March 30, 2005 at 5:59 pm

    For one way to avoid the nihilistic tendencies of the version of Romanticism that tries to imitate a creator ex nihilo, consider Emerson’s essay, “History”. One aspires to unfold in one’s life another manifestation of the Protean nature one shares with the rest of humanity. Imitation is self-betrayal, and yet one learns one’s own nature in part by reading it in others.

  27. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    Christian writes:

    “but aesthetic is what excites—whatever impinges on our senses and minds in that unfathomable way that brings on the tingles and the tears.”

    And this description of the function of art smacks of Romanticism [not that there’s anything wrong with that — I think that Mormons are doomed to be neo-Romantics (or at least for the time being)] — which is exactly what Nate is says are stereotypes that interfere with our ability to approach much Mormon art.

    And not to invoke Whitney yet again, but he claimed that poets were prophets and prophets poets and, as you do, privileges the aesthetic as revelatory and the revelations as aesthetically-pleasing.

    That’s fine. But in practice, Mormon art is more interesting or bears up better [or however you want to describe it in terms of value and reception] when viewed as an expression of our peculiar history and doctrine.

  28. Steve L on March 30, 2005 at 6:10 pm

    Shawn: How about art as worship AND rebellion? I’m thinking specifically of Milton here, whose Satan is simply so much more interesting, absorbing and sympathetic(?) than his Adam (I think I may be paraphrasing C.S. Lewis here). If you’ll all forgive me for saying so, I also feel the same way about a certain Mormon ritual involving dramatic presentation. So how about that? Playing both sides? Honoring God in art, but giving the other side equal time? Is that too disjointed? Pretentious? Blasphemous?

    Of course the romantic genius ideal is problematic, and perhaps even Satan himself was the prototype. Paganini and other such virtuosic genuises have been accused of bargaining with the devil. Of course this gets us into the whole Faust thing and a veritable bottomless romantic pit. There’s an appropriate quote by Orson Whitney on Rosalynde’s art thread about making “new” things in art. I sympathize with Whitney and believe the problems expressed here with the ego-centric romantic-ish ideal of genius unfairly characterize what the Romantics actually believed. These 19th-century dudes who were supposedly so self absorbed would be pointing us in the wrong direction if we take the present critiques seriously. They would be pointing to themselves rather than beyond themselves as the best among them did. I’m thinking of Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Goethe, Hoffmann, Hegel, Tolstoy etc. (sorry I’ve got mostly German examples) Bad examples would be Richard Strauss (Heldenleben: SHAMELESS), Liszt, Balzac, Pushkin (I’m sorry to say), Turgenev, etc. etc. I’m not judging the works of all the aforegoing as having value or not, but just trying to point out that an artist can exemplify the ideal Romantic artist in positive or negative ways through his work. Certainly Wagner was a megalomaniac if there ever was one, but Parsifal isn’t Wagner-centered the way Heldenleben is Strauss-centered.

    (Entirely parenthetical. For all you Teutono-philes, I was wondering if anybody read “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.” There’s an entire chapter in which the author argues that the Book of Mormon was inspired, in part, by Hoffmann’s “Der Goldne Topf.” Not that there aren’t parellels, but that gave me a good chuckle. )

    So there you have it. I’m thouroughly pro-ego. Sometimes.

  29. William Morris on March 30, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    I like Balzac.

  30. Jack on March 30, 2005 at 7:28 pm

    Why even worry about defining what “aesthetic” means in the world of mormon art? It seems to me that the developement of aesthetics is incidental to the developement of culture. And, mormon culture is (in part at least) grown from it’s theology. However, inasmuch as the goals of the Kingdom are inclusive in nature (we seek anything virtuous or lovely etc.) mormon art is bound to be influenced from every quadrant. So, perhaps Rosalynde is right (speaking of her post on the arts); the defining element in mormon art is going to be how it expresses mormon theology regarless of aesthetics–and I don’t mean to say quality (artistry, craftsmanship, etc.)

  31. Russell Arben Fox on March 30, 2005 at 7:31 pm

    “[Whitney] claimed that poets were prophets and prophets poets and, as you do, privileges the aesthetic as revelatory and the revelations as aesthetically-pleasing.”

    Exactly right. Which therefore means that the aesthetic response is a reaction to the manifestation of something immanent, something which can be revealed, as opposed to something created out of nothing by the struggling artist. Romanticism (properly understood) is clearly subjectivist, but it is not necessary existential; the sublime is something there, not a psycho-dramatic expression of the will.

    “I’m thinking specifically of Milton here, whose Satan is simply so much more interesting, absorbing and sympathetic(?) than his Adam…If you’ll all forgive me for saying so, I also feel the same way about a certain Mormon ritual involving dramatic presentation.”

    No way, Steve; Peter has all the best lines. Him and the preacher! Or at least they used to. (Oops, I’m dating myself.)

  32. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on March 30, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    I’m too ignorant to know if my naif’s notions correspond with Romanticism, but if genius creating something new is an essential criterion, that doesn’t really capture it. The essential criterion for me is the ability to tap into the deepest parts of our natures, and bodily response may often be a useful gauge of that. They may be good, or evil: we have both in our natures that can be called forth. They may be newly discovered, or old and timeless.

    It’s true there always will be new tools and forms created that are capable of this—electric guitars with distortion, digital delays, and tremolo bars have only been around a few decades, and Eddie Van Halen’s two-hand fingerboarding technique less than that. In this sense it’s like Continuing Revelation: there are many great and important things yet to be revealed.

    But there is also Restoration—old forms discovered long ago that are either still directly relevant, or can be renewed, reworked, and reappropriated to useful effect.

    I should backtrack and acknowledge that ethnic connections and historical remembrance associated with ordinary or mediocre objects, of the kind Nate describes, can make those objects call forth the responses under consideration. A child’s rocking horse in the John Taylor home in Nauvoo does this for me, because of its back-story. It might be difficult to make a clean distinction in many cases, but with Nate’s furniture or the rocking horse I think I would prefer to think of the story itself as the aesthetic object, with the mediocre material object being a… I was going to say fetish, but maybe totem would be a better word.

    Perhaps I can understand Rosalynde’s post to mean that for Mormon art, she prefers to let the back-story shine, and not allow its potency to be diluted by totems that take strength unto themselves with innate aesthetic quality. But I would think the highest art would somehow be both innately aesthetic, while also maintaining a translucence that allows the back-story to shine through.

  33. Nate Oman on March 30, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    Christian: Who said anything about mediocrity? The Mormon Pine furniture that I worked on was superbly crafted and the hand graining was extremely well done. It isn’t about coming up with tortured theories to convince us that Church distribution prints are great art. They aren’t. I have no interest in mediocrity. I do have an interest in a theory of art that allows me to understand and respond to Mormon art. My point is that this is going to require rethinking the (historically accidental) artistic categories that too often we take to be self-evident.

  34. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on March 30, 2005 at 9:31 pm

    Nate, my apologies, I too hurriedly took my cue from your words “banal” and “derivative”, and your declaration that the pieces lacked (at least distinctive) “style,” and failed to appreciate the extent you were referring only to novelty and not quality.

    All I can offer you is a take based on my novice’s theory in #34, which agrees with your conclusion. (I guess #34 is simply derivative, talking my way through agreeing with you.) Even if the style is derivative, its pleasing qualities justify it as Art under the “Restoration” category, and the modifier Mormon is justified by its totemic qualities.

    Perhaps an aesthetic back-story is necessary for art in the “Restoration” category to remain compelling. If so, an obsession with novelty in innate material aesthetic may represent a kind of spiritual sickness, a poverty of meaning—essentially, lust.

    I suppose there’s something about marriage to be learned there.

  35. Shawn Bailey on March 30, 2005 at 10:53 pm

    Steve L. (no. 32): The Satan in both Milton and that other familiar presentation are characters—shadows of (as you noted) perhaps the prototypical self-asserting romantic artist. What we can deduce from them about the creative process? Perhaps there is something to simultaneous rebellion and worship. But can it be rebellion against something other than God? I think it must be.

    Wallace Stegner’s comments on art and humility seem particularly apt here: “The word ‘artist’ is not a word I like. It has been adopted by crackpots and abused by pretenders and debased by people with talent but no humility. In its capital-A form it is the hallmark of the peculiarly repulsive sin of arrogance by which some practitioners of the arts retaliate for public neglect or compensate for personal inadequacy.”

  36. Steve L on March 31, 2005 at 12:01 am

    I think the problem here, Shawn, is a failure to seperate the artist from the art. At institute last night the lesson was on the book of Judges (well, not really Judges, because the teacher didn’t actually read the book), rather Samson. Of course the usual mountain heap of condemnation was dispensed, but I think Samson is also an appropriate archetype for the artist-hero. Naturally a moron and a sinner, but a man of tremendous gifts (and he totally killed a ton of Phillistines!). Can a man not accomplish anything great if he’s also a sinner (this whole conversation makes me think of the average American Mormon’s attitude toward our first black President: Bill Clinton)? Sure, these arrogant artists may be sinners, but is what they produce thus invalid or not ennobling? Once in a youth group I heard a leader challenge the youth not to listen to music by anyone who leads an immoral life. Naturally all the great composers who cohabitated, had mistresses, or drank heavily would all be excluded (e.g. Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Mussorgsky, etc.). And painters and sculptors? Let’s not go down that road. Really if we only appreciated great art by humble people our horizons would be quite narrow indeed. We’d be stuck listening only to Bach, Haydn and Brahms (bor-ing!). OK, so this is a little heavy-handed, but I think you get the idea.

  37. Heather Oman on March 31, 2005 at 12:04 am

    Steve
    #27-

    A nickel for you if you know where “a mirror up to nature” is from without googling.

  38. Jack on March 31, 2005 at 1:06 am

    Here’s a paragraph from Arthur Henry King:

    “To bring the moral and the aesthetic together is to get to the point in our lives where the good, the true, and the beautiful are the same. These three things are not different things; they are aspects of the same thing. If we think that something is good but neither beautiful nor true, our idea of goodness is wrong. And if we think that something is true but neither beautiful nor good, then our idea of truth is wrong. If we think something is beautiful but neither true nor good, our idea of beauty is wrong.”

    I’m not sure that I can agree with him completely on this, but it is good food for thought. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps all those insipid mormon works of “art” –whether they be paintings, songs, novels, or what have you– that send us crashing through the glass doors at Deseret Books and flying out into the parking lot as we run for cover, may reek of the foulest “aesthetic” because they’re simply not truthful! I understand there’s something to be said for craftsmanship; that we sometimes put our zeal ahead of our knowledge in the arts in our attempt to do good, but (imo) there’s a lot of talented folks out there producing a whole lot of schlock (perhaps) because they’re off base theologically. I don’t know…

  39. Jack on March 31, 2005 at 1:10 am

    I don’t mean to say that the artists themselves are off base theologically, but rather how they approach it in their art.

  40. Shawn Bailey on March 31, 2005 at 10:10 am

    Steve L (no. 38): NEVER call Bach boring! EVER! (he typed, resisting the urge to insert an emoticon even though one is probably called for to ensure that his tone is not misunderstood). Besides, you forgot the greatest composer for the keyboard ever, who certainly fits in the category of humble artists: Chopin. Rather than fume over this, I will assume that you mean a steady diet of Bach, Haydn, and Brahms would be boring. Perhaps. I suppose that I am not willing to give up my favorite French composers (Ravel, Debussy, Franck), none of whom I would call entirely humble.

    In a larger sense, I cannot deny that many great artists were famously debauched and/or egomaniacal. For me this raises a general question to which I don’t have a compelling answer. I believe that certain moral standards are conducive to development and achievement. So how is that so many that eschew these moral standards are so highly developed and successful? Perhaps it is because “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Mathew 5:45. Perhaps it is because even though they are not living certain principles, they have complied with the law upon which certain blessings were predicated (see D&C 130:19-21*). Perhaps they are used as instruments by God to bless all people despite their sins.

    The quotation of Shakespeare in General Conference always causes me to think along these lines. Usually the quotes are something like Polonius from Hamlet: “to thine ownself be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Incidentally, Shakespeare seems to be parodying conventional wisdom here!) Certainly some GAs and some members understand how baudy both the life and works of the Bard were. Still, in that context, it is appreciated (in a limited sense) as great art.

    Many artists have also been mentally ill. I understand that Scriabin believed he was God. Apparently on his deathbed he observed what a tragedy it was that he was passing from the universe. I did find Alan Bloom’s discussion about this general issue in his Closing of the American Mind interesting: he talked about how artists used to have to pay for their oddity/ debauchery by being brilliant. Perhaps there is something to that.

    When I say art should be a form of worship, artists should work within the religious tradition, and artists should be humble, I am thinking specifically of what Mormon art should be. I appreciate a great deal of art/ artists that do not fit this description. But I do think about what the artist loved, what inspired the artist. And I wonder: could a temple-worthy Mormon have created that? Would it have been better for that artist’s soul if he/she had been more humble and less self-assertingly brilliant? Afterall, the worth of even an artist’s soul is great in the eyes of God. Much greater, I expect, than the worth of their ultimately ephemeral works.

    I also think about the work itself in terms of Moroni 7:16-21** and the Thirteenth Article of Faith. How effective or powerful is a particular work in inspiring us to do good or believe in Christ? Does it only do so in the most general sense (i.e., celebrating beauty in naturalistic or other terms that is completely devoid of Christ?) If so, such art may still be “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” If so, great. But can Mormon art do something more? Can it be uniquely Mormon?

    I am not saying good Mormon art must be literal, preachy, or didactic. On the contrary, the great challenge Mormon art faces may be to avoid such things and still inspire in a uniquely Mormon way. Furthermore, I am not saying that Mormon artists should try to be exceedingly pure or holy in their work. Doing so would prevent them from telling the stories of this lone and dreary world. Doing so would prevent them from capturing the contrast between the darkness of this world and the light of Christ. Can one appreciate the Atonement without appreciating just how bad things are? How bad they would be without the Atonement? I think alot Mormon art is afflicted by this: it is eery in its otherworldy brightness and cheerfulness. It lacks gravitas. To refine the point again: I am not talking about delighting in misery or depravity. But Mormon artists must acknowledge the human in themselves and their work. Perhaps this, Steve L, brings us to an agreement of some kind.

    *D&C 130:19-21: “And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”

    ** Moroni 7:16-21: “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him. And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged. Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ. And now, my brethren, how is it possible that ye can lay hold upon every good thing? And now I come to that faith, of which I said I would speak; and I will tell you the way whereby ye may lay hold on every good thing.”

  41. Jack on March 31, 2005 at 10:48 am

    “…he [Alan Bloom] talked about how artists used to have to pay for their oddity/ debauchery by being brilliant.”

    That’s an hilarious quote, Shawn. I love it.

  42. rg on April 2, 2005 at 8:49 am

    I was intriqued by Nate’s early observation that many artists (especially in the West over the last couple of centuries) often find ex nihlo creation an imperative for artistic legitimacy.

    God is a Creator. We are told to become like Him. So how did He create? He took exisiting “Matter unorganize” (not much physical ex nihlo here) and formed it “like unto worlds heretofore created.” (not much design ex nihlo here) This seems like a serious connection with a long aesthetic tradition. If we went into a typical university art department would we find that kind of repect for the rich artistic tradition of even our own civilization? One of the problems I have with ex nihlo artistic creation models is that they remove many valuable resources for the creation of art. Ex Nihlo is not only bad theology, it is often impoverished art.

    Malachi tells us that the hearts of the children sould be turned to the fathers and the fathers to the children. What might be the implications of those imperatives if we saw them as a foundation for a theory of art? For example, how might this broaden the “available” artistic styles available to an artist? How might it affect the significance and permanence of the message, craftsmanship, and aesthetic content of the artist’s work? (I’m thinking here of the visual arts, not the other litterary or performing arts.)

  43. Jack on April 2, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Oh, rg, you are way, WAY off! Some of these young upstart artists whom you have accused of severing all ties with the past have created the most lovely sculpture from human garbage. C’mon!

  44. Jerome L. Bown on January 8, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    Nate,
    In response to Toxic fumes and memories of mormon art. It’s
    nice to read some discussion on this subject.

    For individuals interested in stripping to the original finish I would recommend Stephen A. Sheperd’s book Take it off. He deals with the chemical fumes issue quite well.

    As for painted and grained finishes themselves. Does it have to be innovative to be art? If we can imitate and/or interpret a tree on canvas and call it art, Can’t we do the same on a piece of pine?

    What is Mormon about Mormon pine is a valid question.
    Probably the same thing that Newport furniture is to American furniture (Region). Mormon made but not really stylistically original. The term “Mormon pine” is typically used by romantic country trend decorators. The same people that skin original pieces to bare pine. Connie Morningstar had it right in 1976 “Early Utah Furniture”. Most serious collectors and dealers refer to it as Utah Furniture.

    Anyway in my opinion it’s aesthetically pleasing and I like to furnish our home with it. Kinda like the art that is on our walls.

    Thanks and best regards.