The New Yorker: getting warmer

8.22.12 | | 5 comments

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This month, The New Yorker has published two articles that take Mormonism seriously. The first was a “Critic at Large” (wherein the critic takes a look at several related works). Sadly, among the works considered was not Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, which means that critic Adam Gopnick is unable to rise above the standard of Book-of-Mormon-as-lit criticism set by Edmund Wilson’s constantly quoted phrase, “farrago of balderdash.” But he does seem to have actually attempted reading it, even if he didn’t seek out a more experience guide. Which is more than I feel comfortable saying about John Lahr who probably takes Wilson’s word on everything. And let’s face it: Wilson was not always right. History’s on my side here, folks.

Anyway. Back to Gopnick.

He starts with a brief look at Joanna Brooks’s The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (the newly repubbed-by-national-publisher version that got her on The Daily Show). He decides it’s muchly “standard minority-faith stuff” which may well be true. I’m not well read enough in the genre to reach any decisive conclusion. It would not surprise me.

From there he moves to a look at four new works of history, The Mormon People (Matthew Bowman), The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Paul C. Gutjahr), A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America (J. Spencer Fluhman), and Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (John G. Turner)—all from reputable authors and publishers. This takes up the bulk of the article and I have no serious complaints with his treatment. Nor would it be fair for me to. I have not read them.

From those books’ historical arguments, Gopnick talks about Mormonism’s 1950s-born need “for more general admission, not as cardboard stage-ethnic types good at one or two things but as people available to do everything, just like the ruling Wasps.” Which is, apparently, a natural segue to the nice fact that “Mormon art produced one camp genius, the mid-twentieth-century painter Arnold Friberg.” Since his Nephi looks like Mitt Romney, that lets him close by speculating what Romney gets from his Mormonism—though that attempt devolves into what Romney can tell us about Mormonism. It’s  a little confused and hardly flattering.

So it goes.

The Mittesque Nephi is the subject of Neima Jahromi’s “Adventures in Mormon Art History.” Jahromi suggests that Nephi’s pose may be descended from a similar pose held by Aristotle in Raphael’s “School of Athens.” He then goes on to produce a post-length’s bit of serious analysis, drawing in Mormon history with a greater sense of taking-it-seriously than even Gopnick managed. He admits that we can’t know if Friberg had Raphael in mind (though he was certainly educated enough to make it a real possibility), then turns back to Mitt (because you cannot talk about Mormons in 2012 without talking about Mitt; I think it’s, like, a law) which mostly just provides somewhere to stop rather than any useful new insight, but I think that’s okay because, for the first time, The New Yorker said something about Mormons—and specifically a work of Mormon art!*—that gave me a new perspective and new information.

Which was terrific.

More of that, please.

5 comments: “The New Yorker: getting warmer

  1. Kent Larsen

    OK, now my copyright wonkishness is coming out. The New Yorker article credits the artwork as follows:

    Arnold Friberg painting courtesy More Good Foundation.

    Huh? Since when does the “More Good Foundation” have the rights to Friberg’s works? I’m already very suspicious of the MGF and its insular, TBM empire-building ways. This sounds like they’ve taken up something that they shouldn’t be involved in.

  2. Christopher Bigelow

    Good writeup, thanks. I’d seen the article on the books, but not the one on the art.

    Point of clarification on the Brooks book: the Free Press edition IS the newly repubbed edition. The previous edition was self-pubbed by Brooks. So Stewart’s version was the current new one.

  3. Th.

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    Thank you, Chris. I didn’t realize FP was an imprint of a larger publisher. I’ll remove the reference. For historical purposes, this is how it read:

    He starts with a brief look at Joanna Brooks’s The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (his version is the Free Press version, not the newly repubbed version that got her on The Daily Show).

    Kent—do you know of MGF is the corporation (or whatever) owned by Friberg’s family? I had though the BofM paintings were owned by the Church, but I admit I never really looked into it before. That was the credit listed by Deseret News (click on the image to find where I found it).

  4. Kent Larsen

    I happened to see the originals today — they are in the Conference Center (aka Meganacle) — so I assume they are owned by the Church.

    The MGF is, from the little I know, a group put together to create pro-Mormon websites. I haven’t seen any evidence that they do anything else, or have any ownership of physical property. If they do or have a relationship with the Friberg family, it isn’t mentioned on any of their Internet sites.

    I think that the DN just found an image of the Friberg painting on a MGF website and assumed that they had the rights.

    But, I must admit, that is a supposition based on the kind of organization that MGF appears to be online.

  5. Th.

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    Hmm. I can see why you don’t like these people. I’m more than a little surprised that The New Yorker’s army of factcheckers blew this. I guess online-only content is not as rigorously examined.

    * * * * *

    I’m seen the paintings at the Conference Center as well and, since, as I understand it, the paintings were work-for-hire, they own all copyrights etc as well as the actual paintings.

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