Some years ago, an institute teacher in a Church history class I attended said with some levity that: “I bear my testimony that Church media is not true.” He said this hyperbolic statement in the context of a class where we talked about Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon, and he went on to discuss how there seem to be many different approaches that Smith took during over the course of the translation process. The class took place around the time that the Gospel Topics Essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon had been published, in which the Church openly acknowledged that Joseph Smith spent at least some of the time looking at a seer stone in a hat. Many of class members had felt that it was a bit jarring to learn that their perceptions about the translation process were not completely accurate, and as part of the discussion in class, they had realized that a lot of those perceptions had been adopted through viewing artwork depicting the translation process, and the teacher was trying to address that issue. He added his comment in jest as a way to drive home the point that while artistic representations of Church history can be beautiful and useful, they aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be understood as sources that define doctrine and history in the Church.
In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring, Anthony Sweat—an Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, an artist, and author of Repicturing the Restoration: New Art to Expand Our Understanding—discussed how artwork focused on Church history can be understood and used in ways that help us approach that history while still understanding that the artwork isn’t a literal representation of what happened. What follows here is a co-post from that interview—drawing on highlights from the interview and reflecting on some of his thoughts—but I recommend reading the interview in full here.
A significant portion of the interview focused on how artwork can be both a blessing and a problem in approaching our history, similar to the discussion we had in the institute class I mentioned above. As Sweat put it: “Art is a dual-edged sword. Art needs history to have meaningful events to portray, and history needs art to help carry those events into the minds and hearts of the people.” Yet, he added that: “Art is at its best when it uses its language of color and line and form to speak visually. It is at its worst, however, when the viewer mistakenly interprets that artistic language as always being factual, literal, or perfectly historical, or expects it to be.” As he makes it clear: “Art is about visual communication and ideas. It doesn’t speak the same language as history.” As such, he cautioned readers that: “We would do well as viewers to remember that ALL visual depictions are merely interpretations and expressions, to give space to allow those expressions, and to realize that the events may have looked and happened in very different ways than how we are seeing them translated on canvas or film.” Art is meant to communicate, but it generally does so symbolically.
Along those lines, he discussed how we sometimes embrace certain views of history because of the way an event is presented in art. As stated in the interview:
Some scholars have called this “source amnesia.” Meaning, we learn things but can’t quite trace back where we learned them from. Art is often one of those sources. We see a painting (or a film) and we just assume that was the way it happened.
Think of Abinadi and King Noah. It’s almost impossible to not make Noah large and Abinadi old and shirtless. Nephi has a headband. Peter has a beard but John the Revelator doesn’t. Joseph Smith wears a white shirt and brown pants in the grove. Jesus has long hair parted down the middle, a long beard, and wears white, heavy, flowing robes as he ministers around Jerusalem.
None of these are exactly historical or scriptural, they are accepted symbols artists use to communicate that we consume and form our conceptions of the past with, so its nearly impossible to NOT embrace alternative histories because of how they are presented in art.
We have to work hard to be conscious about where we are getting our ideas, and to separate visual expression from historical/scriptural sources.
For example, returning to the topic of Book of Mormon translation, Sweat gave the Latter-day Saint community some of the earliest paintings to feature Joseph Smith looking into a hat during translation that were intended for a faithful audience. He discussed some of the sources he examined in preparation for those paintings and different points of view about the translation process, then said that: “We do need to exercise caution on this matter, in my opinion. As church members become more collectively aware of the stone-in-a-hat method we need to be careful to avoid swinging the proverbial pendulum too far one way or the other, promoting that Joseph ‘always’ used the spectacles with opened plates or he ‘always’ used stones in a hat. There seems to be evidence that he did both.” The understandings and biases we pick up from artwork is something we need to be cognizant and careful about as we look to better understand our past.
Moving beyond such cautions, Anthony Sweat also took time to express appreciation for past Latter-day Saint artists and his high expectations for the future:
The history of Latter-day Saint visual art is rich and beautiful, but is also still fairly new. The institutional Church didn’t really start embracing visual art until the turn of the century. Not until the mid-20th century did the Church begin to consistently publish artistic images in its official periodicals related to Church history, doctrine, or scripture.
For example, the first published artistic image of the First Vision in a Church periodical wasn’t until 1931. But we have great, early artists who laid the foundation for Latter-day Saint art: Mahonri Young, Minerva Teichert, J.T. Harwood, the Fairbanks brothers, and so many others. Friberg, of course, in the 1950’s and his masterful Book of Mormon series have become almost visual canon.
… We have barely begun to scratch the surface of the visual artistic output and potential of Latter-day Saint art.
Something is in the air. We have almost a disproportionate amount of really talented artists working today on religious themes (something that the general art world tends to shy away from today, but we continue to produce in). We have more resources than ever before. More members than ever before. More diversity than ever before. More and more themes that have never been touched on for various reasons than ever before. More and more ability to communicate than ever before and share art digitally.
We are a young Church. Give it some time. We’re on the cusp of artistic greatness in my opinion.
It is unfortunate timing that the interview came out within days of the announcement that the murals in the Salt Lake City Temple and the Manti Temples had been dismantled and removed, effectively erasing some of the greatest and most historic work done by our own, Latter-day Saint, artists (Minerva Teichert and John Fairbanks among them). Thus, while the interview celebrates the work of these earlier artists, many of us (myself included) are still mourning the removal and destruction of some of their contributions (and I suspect that regardless of whether I mentioned it or not, that announcement will be a major part of the discussion). That being said, Sweat’s words, as well as his work in showing representations of moments Church history that have not been painted before do leave hope that artwork in the Church will continue to be an important part of our culture. Some of those underrepresented moments depicted in his work include women performing healing blessings, the ordination of K. Walker Lewis (one of the few black man to be ordained as an elder in the Church during the 1800s), Joseph Smith talking to Emma Smith about plural marriage, and a representation of the First Vision that incorporates information from all of the contemporary accounts of the event, many of which are featured in his book Repicturing the Restoration. And, as he indicates, we have barely scratched the surface of what we can capture in art from our sacred history and many talented Latter-day Saint artists who are working to do just that.
To see some of Anthony Sweat’s artwork and read his discussions about why he chose to paint them and what he was representing, head on over to the full interview here. Beyond what I’ve mentioned above, he discusses his pieces: “The Voice of God in the Chamber of Father Whitmer,” “Michael Detecting the Devil,” “Relief Society Healing”, “Purgatory”, “Rough Stone,” and also gives a list of his top 10 events that haven’t yet been presented in art that he would like to see. It’s a treasure that is worth the time to look through and read.
Featured image is “Translating with Oliver,” by Anthony Sweat.