In this post, I’d like to briefly outline what I see as the major problems with a currently popular style in LDS visual arts, a style that I’ve nicknamed “sunset in Arcadia.” This post will concentrate on the aesthetic aspect – what works and doesn’t work in creating relevant Latter-day Saint art. In a future post, I will discuss marketing and economic trends that prove similarly troublesome.
The average art viewer isn’t schooled in various styles and may have trouble differentiating what he does and doesn’t like in various pieces of art, but most people enjoy seeing something that looks “real.” The mere feat of making a two-dimensional surface look like a three-dimensional object or, even better, a recognizable person, is something laudable to most art consumers. Many laymen will tell you that their preferred style is “realism.” But it is this confusion of terminology that proves so troublesome in defining an artistic style, especially when most LDS art produced currently is produced for a middle-class market; there is a built-in filter of populism whenever an artist considers making a career of a talent.
To begin with – let’s define the term “realism.” Realism is a specific 19th-century movement, or any former or subsequent movement that reflects its ideals. What the average art viewer probably means when he says “realism” is “illusionism.”
The Renaissance masters invented laws of perspective and composition that persist today. These pioneers emerged from a largely non-representational period in artistic history in which art was more about idea and symbol than replicating things in the actual world. They began to paint things that looked like believable objects. Raphael’s Madonna, for example, looks like a believable human. She has three dimensionality and color, solidity. Her clothing falls into believable pleats and folds. She sits in a believably rendered landscape. Renaissance buildings and animals and boats look like believable buildings and animals and boats. However, they do not look real.
Some of the first realists included painters like the French Gustave Courbet. Courbet painted scenes such as The Stonebreakers; his aim was to represent real human beings in real settings. Renaissance art looks believable; the figures in the Pastoral Symphony are properly molded and shaded. But Realist art looks like real people you might meet. Manet mocked Giorgione, suggesting in his DÃ©jeuner Sur l’Herbe that the only type of people who lounge around naked in the forest are prostitutes. That was the point of Realism, and that’s why it was so provocative; it dared suggest that art could be about normal people with physical and moral flaws; not just perfect figures who, though centuries had painted them as Christian heroes, were ultimately Greek gods and goddesses. Modern art is about defying the idea that the artist needs only worship the Ideal.
This is the most crucial point in my examination of current popular Mormon art. We have a consumer base who is still confusing illusionism for realism; still marveling at the “prettiness” of a Renaissance throwback style, and entirely missing the point that world culture got two centuries ago; a point that is essential, in my humble opinion, to portraying the reality and the universality of the restored gospel. Latter-day revelation enlightens us to see that God is not only for the elite; not only for the learned; not only for the physical lineage of Israel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of a living Christ; a real man, who was, coincidentally, a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He is not a myth. He is not a romantic legend. He is not a god. He is a God. And he condescended to earth and lived as a man.
Many current LDS commercial artists are trying to portray grand things. And so they give their subjects the grand continental treatment – they dress them all up in the Venetian style to add them class and luster and polish. I cannot fault their motives. But what I wish I could communicate without condescension or pretense is the fact that setting the Savior and the events of His life in a golden, peacefully wooded Arcadia makes Him a myth before you’ve even said a word. Look at some of the more popular paintings by artists such as Greg Olsen, Simon Dewey, and Liz Lemon Swindle. They are characterized by golden lighting reminiscent of sunset in a humid, lush climate. They are invariably set in placid woodlands. Not a fold of fabric is left unsmoothed – not a single figure has a face with wrinkles or pockmarks. No one is old or thin or frail or anything less than a Greek ideal. And while the artists have finely-tuned techniques that capture amazingly illusionistic scenes… not a single one of them looks real. And Mormonism is filed away with feel-good philosophies and Chicken Soup for the Soul and the reality of it all is lost.
Not that this style can’t be effectively used; nor do the artists always portray “Arcadia” in their work. Swindle’s Be it unto Me, for example, is maybe the first depiction I’ve ever seen in which the infant Christ looks like an infant. Not a glorified miniature adult – He is a vulnerable human baby, and Swindle’s execution of it is admirable. Artist Walter Rane is doing some amazing things – his He is Not Here uses Arcadian lighting, but it’s not for atmosphere – it’s the light of sunrise, which becomes beautifully symbolic in this very simple, conceptual work. Rane’s painting on the cover of the January 2007 Ensign, likewise, bodes beautiful things for LDS art to come. A final embracing of Modernism (not full-fledged allegiance; simply taking those principles of the movement which support gospel ideals) is what will move our artists into a larger circle than the mere self-congratulatory interior market they now enjoy. Our message is a light to the world; our art should be as well.
There are also LDS artists working in abstraction; a personal favorite about whom my mother and I have written two research papers, is Czechoslovakian-born painter Wulf Barsch, but Abstract Mormons have columns of their own to fill.
What I’d like to see as a result of the raised awareness of the shallowness of the now-popular Arcadian style is a larger market for LDS artists and a raised vision of what we can do, and ultimately an art so strong as to transcend current comprehension of doctrinal topics, rather than merely gussying up our beautiful Latter-day doctrines in dead European aesthetics.