Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman share a common pattern of scholarship. Both seek to put the Mormon experience into a broad cultural and historical framework. Both seek engage us by bringing Mormon history into dialogue with the broader history of our shared civilization. This is part of an encouraging direction in serious Mormon scholarship that seems to be moving beyond myopic focus of endless chronicles. Givensâ€™ work had the added benefit of good prose that is actually fun to read.
Givens brings the voices of earlier writers and thinkers within the Western tradition into the discussion. He attempts to show how Mormonism fits in as well as contrasts with intellectual flow of Western Civilization. He also seems to be showing how Mormonism has something to contribute to the discussion. I applaud this break out from an historical myopia that has for too long passed for Mormon historical scholarship. Givensâ€™ background in Western literature and intellectual thought helps him bring many voices forward that are seldom, if ever, present in discussions about the Mormon experience. I particularly liked his many cogent citations from William Blake.
Someone once said that creativity is the ability to make connections between things or ideas that at first donâ€™t seem to have anything in common. Givens builds this approach into his provocative title, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. Givens reaches out with frequent literary, philosophical, theological, and historical references to the broader Western experience. So perhaps it is not coincidental that he has once again published his book with Oxford University Press, a press that actively reaches out to the English-speaking world.
Givens writes about a wide range of ideas and history that can be placed under the umbrella of Mormon culture. This essay will focus on the visual arts because art history is where I have spent my professional career.
He mentions many interesting paradoxes within Mormon culture. One that I particularly applaud is his notation that today only 14% of Mormons live in Utah and over half the membership of the Church lives outside the U.S.A. Then Givens asserts that within the first century, Mormon culture was largely a Utah construction. There is a paradox here that the author doesnâ€™t really develop. He then concludes with a hope that scholars will â€œproduce examinations of Mormon culture in the truly international complexion being ushered in by the new millennium.â€
He acknowledges that nineteenth-century Utah culture was produced by a people that were as much as 60% foreign born, or whose parents were foreign born. But at least in the visual arts, he seems to then miss the cultural implications of these demographics. Even though the visual arts would actually bolster his model of using paradox as an analytical tool.
Givens appropriately give temple architecture in pioneer Utah a lot of print. Stylistically he repeats the mantra that early Utah Mormons borrowed ideas of architectural forms and details from American Gothic Revival. The reality is actually much more interesting. In the late 1830â€™s Joseph Smith sent the Twelve on missions to England. These missions had two effects: Lots of converts gathered to Nauvoo (and eventually came to Utah), and early Church leaders (almost all of whom were American) were exposed to the older, richer, more established, culture of England.
Brigham Young, for one, was fascinated by British architecture and took many opportunities to tour historic cathedrals. For example one day he was down in Worchester and he and Wilford Woodruff went to visit its superb Gothic cathedral. Wilford wrote in his journal:
Today we visited the noted splendor of the Worchester cathedral. It surpasses anything mine eyes have ever beheld. It is so superior to the architecture of the present generation.
This celebration of historic British architecture would later have a big impact on Mormon culture. In Utah, Brigham called Truman Angell to be the architect of the Salt Lake Temple. Brigham then sent Angell on an architectural study mission to the British Isles and France to see great buildings, many of which Brigham had seen during his mission. All four of the pioneer temples in Utah were commenced and completed by presidents of the Church who had lived in England. The particular kind of â€œGothicâ€ style of architecture of these temples is also related to England. The style that had such an impact on pioneer temple architecture is actually more of a Norman style that is particularly British. Most of the windows in our temples are round arched (Romanesque) rather than pointed (Gothic). And then there are those battlementsâ€¦ Linking their design to the embattled and defiant political environment of the nineteenth-century Saints may be true. It is certainly poetic. But when looking for stylistic precedents, the Brits are among the few who put battlements on their religious buildings. And we know that those in charge in pioneer Utah had lived in England.
The British connection didnâ€™t stop with Church leaders. Many of the skilled craftsmen in pioneer Utah were British convert/emigrants. Angellâ€™s chief draftsman was British-born William Ward who also designed Youngâ€™s Gothic Revival Lion House with its battlements. Ward even carved the stone lion over the door. (What could be a more British sculpture in the 19th century than a lion?) Eagle Gate was carved and built by two English artist/craftsmen, William Bell and Ralph Ramsey. Ramsey also carved the wooden beehive on the Beehive House, as well as constructing and carving the ornaments on the casing for the Tabernacle Organ. Brigham was so taken by Bellâ€™s work as a cabinetmaker that Young carved a lot out of his estate and gave it to the English craftsman to build a home and workshop. Most of the skilled stoneworkers who built the pioneer era temples were British and Scandinavian convert/emigrants.
So if a historian is looking for the roots of Medieval revival architectural styles in pioneer Utah, it seems more reasonable to see that influence coming straight from Great Britain rather than slowing moving west from the American east. Besides, a slow movement from the American east wouldnâ€™t explain the fairly early use of this style in pioneer Utah.
If you look at the Logan Temple you see another cultural paradox that is rooted in the diverse population of Pioneer Utah. The stone part of the building is British in style. The upper white towers look more like a New England meetinghouse. The paradox can be explained by the fact that many people from the U.K. populated early Utah. But some early pioneers, including the architect, had New England roots. There is an interesting piece of pioneer graffiti in the Church Museum that was salvaged from the Logan Temple. It states: â€œWe are here together several nationalities with the best of feelings among all men.â€ Early Utah Mormons brought much of their native cultures with them when they gathered to Zion.
Now letâ€™s look at nineteenth-century painters among the Mormons. First the chronology.
Givens seems to see a sort of stylistic progression that moves thematically from farmsteads to romantic landscapes. Indeed those themes exist. But the problem is that the dates of these works are all jumbled up. Sometimes Romantic landscape paintings preceded the farmsteads. Sometimes farmstead paintings were done after the death of some of those that painted the Romanic landscapes. So what gives? The names of the artists provide the clue. The farmsteads painters were virtually all Scandinavians. The Romantic landscapes were painted by British convert/emigrants.
What were these two groups of artists trying to do? Romanticism in the British visual arts had two main foci, the Middle Ages and an exaggerated nature. For British Mormons, nature had an additional appeal. It stood for the purity of Zion. Mountains and wilderness also had scriptural parallels as places where one went to get away from â€œBabylonâ€ to be spiritually purified and commune with the Lord. Scripturally, the temple was referred to as â€œthe mountain of the Lordâ€™s house.â€ Mountains were also physical and symbolic walls that held â€œBabylonâ€ at bay. If you look at poetry of 19th century L.D.S. hymns that celebrate Zionâ€™s mountains (for example, â€œO Ye Mountains Highâ€) most were written by British convert/emigrants.
Givens accurately sees Alfred Lambourneâ€™s exaggerated and dramatic Salt Lake Temple paintings of Hill Cumorah and Adam-ondi-Ahman as pure Romanticism delivering a spiritual message. He attributes this Romantic interpretation to Lambourne traveling back East to see early Mormon historical sites. What he missed was that virtually all of the paintings ever created by British-born Lambourne were Romantic landscapes. For the LDS British artists, the Millennium seems to have been the conceptual return to a highly Romanized Garden of Eden.
But what of the Scandinavian convert/emigrants? In the mid 19th century Scandinavia was not faced with the physical and social disruption of the industrial revolution or the spiritual burdens of the wealth and power that came from having the largest empire in the world. Their challenge, particularly Denmarkâ€™s, was the treat of being engulfed by the rising power of Germany. As a result there was a lot of artistic focus on reinforcing Scandinavian cultural identity to avoid being eclipsed by Germany. This was broadly expressed in two ways, a celebration of both local history and local genre (particularly farm families and their farmsteads). Why? Danish farmsteads and peasants didnâ€™t look like German ones. Danish history was different than German history. When Scandinavian artists became Mormons they continued to paint history and farmsteads. But now it was Mormon history and farmsteads that also happened to document the history of building Zion. For the Scandinavians, the Millennium seems to have been the building a New Jerusalem of which their farmsteads were a part. The vast majority of paintings about Mormon history from the early Utah period that have come down to us were painted by Scandinavian convert/emigrants. With these storytelling roots, why should it be a surprise that so much of contemporary LDS art from Utah and the West is highly narrative?
The point? If Givens had better understood the nineteenth-century history of Mormon art it would have reinforced his paradox model of looking at Mormon culture. In the early visual art of the quintessential American religion, most of the artists were British and Scandinavians. In fairness to Givens, some of the bits and pieces of this historical data made it into his book. The problem is that the data was presented in a fragmented way that missed the significant conclusions. Part of the price Givens paid for missing these conclusions was then his lack of an interpretive historical framework to better understand much of the LDS art of the present.
Givensâ€™ also makes the claim that there was a lack of traditional religious art in the 19th century Utah. That is only partially true. Actually there were several painting series with Biblical and Book of Mormon themes painted. Some of these works have been exhibited at the Church Museum and published in their first exhibit catalogue. Both the Church and private parties commissioned these works. Most were painted by the storytelling Scandinavians. There were also some large paintings of Christ created. Most were commissioned to hang in temples. A few were placed in Mormon chapels.
But by far the largest Church commissioned paintings were landscape murals for temples. Here was another fascinating paradox; landscapes have usually been seen as secular, not religious art. But Mormons were using them in a liturgical context in their most sacred structures. In the history of world art, this is a fairly significant paradox. Eventually the Church sent some of its most promising artists to Paris as art missionaries. (Another paradox, art missionaries were sent to the very heartland of secular culture of the time in order to develop artistic skills to paint religiously significant art for temples!) They came back painting magnificent impressionist landscapes. Those landscape-painting skills were then employed to paint temple murals. Is it any surprise that Mormon artists in the 20th and 21st centuries are among the better traditional landscape painters of the American West?
And what of the present? For the visual arts, Givens seems to look to the late twentieth-century university art school model. But the audience for that art doesnâ€™t seem to be very broad either intellectually or aesthetically. In looking at LDS art through this lens he seems to have largely missed the art from the non-Western members of the Church that make up half the membership of the Church. He also misses virtually all the traditional arts of women. The best interpretive models are usually those that can incorporate the most data.
There is a certain lament about the lack of financial support for artists. Many artists who work within the university art school model seem to frequently teeter on the edge of poverty even in a wealthy country. Yet some cultures that have far fewer financial resources seem to produce lots of art. Polynesia and Africa are good examples financially poor countries that produce rich art traditions.
Every three years the Museum of Church History and Art sponsors a huge Church-wide art competition complete with cash prizes and many purchases. On the average about a thousand artists from all over the world submit entries. Hundreds of thousands of LDS museum goers have visited these exhibitions. Church publications have often taken the lead in publishing these works of art for the Saints around the world. There have also been several articles in BYU Studies illustrating and analyzing some of this international LDS art.
These art competitions, along with extensive curatorial fieldwork, has enabled the Church Museum to amassed a significant collection of American and international art. This has been added to already large collection of historic LDS art. Some of the Churchâ€™s finest new artists, both American and international, were brought to the attention of Church membership through these art competitions. Among them is Walter Rane, whose work adorns the dust cover of Givensâ€™ book
Unfortunately, I found only three sentences mentioning the Museum of Church History and Art in the book. Why does this matter? Because the Museum of Church History and Art is the largest repository of religious art produced by the Mormon culture. Miss the Church Museum and its huge collection of art and you miss much of our religious art. You also miss virtually the only public collection of LDS international art. Such gaps could skew understanding of the history of Mormon visual art.
The permanent art gallery of the Church Museum isnâ€™t the only place to see the Church art collection. The Museum regularly mounts temporary exhibitions that focus on different aspects of Mormon art. Many of the Churchâ€™s best works of art have also been placed in the cavernous lobby spaces of the new Conference Center. Some of the new temples also contain significant works of art. For example far more temples have received newly painted murals in the last ten years than in the previous hundred and fifty years. Given had concluded that the temple mural tradition had largely died in the early 1950â€™s. Fortunately it has been reborn. The new Museum of Fine Arts at B.Y.U. has also mounted some very significant exhibitions of Mormon art while at the same time building their own collection of religious art. The Springville Museum of art has sponsored a superb annual religious art exhibition. But while most of that art is by LDS artists, virtually all of them are from Utah, which Givens reminds us in his introduction only account for about 14% of the current LDS population.
All of this overt Church support for the visual arts is having an effect. There are far more Mormon artists than ever before. Many are exhibiting in art galleries and are actually making a living as full time artists. There is a growing body of LDS private art collectors. Many are seeking and finding art that reinforces their cultural identities as Mormons. Admittedly, some of this art is tacky. But some is really superb.
To create a cohesive religious art tradition that has been able to transcend artistic style and demographic boundaries is no mean achievement. To have done this during a time when a growing militant secularism has engulfed much of the art producing West, is nothing short of amazing.
Perhaps the final paradox of Mormon visual art is that the visual arts not being part of LDS weekly worship may actually be an asset for the development of Mormon art. This may have helped to keep the aesthetic and interpretive canon more open and avoided aesthetic and interpretive ossification. This would have been particularly catastrophic for the addition of artistic expressions coming from new members of the Church that are flooding in from non-Western traditions. And this brings us back to the beginnings. Among the best refreshment of the roots of Mormon art have been and continue to be the demographic and cultural expansion of the Mormonism and the openness in embracing new artistic ideas.
Givensâ€™ book makes a great contribution to the analysis of the Mormon experience. Those interested in Mormon culture will find it fascinating. But â€œculture historyâ€ is a huge field. I think that Givens is at his best when he deals with literary and intellectual history from within the framework of Western Civilization. When he moves into the area of the visual arts he is seems to be moving outside of his field of expertise. This also shows up when Givens attempts to reference the â€œworld Church.â€ This gap points out that scholars of Mormonism probably need to begin develop a greater familiarity with non-Western history and culture if they are to hope to deal with the past half century and as well as the future of much of Mormon culture.
Still I would highly recommend this book. I think that it is quite possible that over time we are quite likely to begin framing our discussions within the intellectual constructs that Givens has created in this book. Were that there were more in the Mormon scholarly community with his broad interests and vision.
Richard Oman is a senior curator at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is solely responsible for the views expressed in this review.