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Mormon Aesthetics

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The Mormon dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass.

The Mormon dislike of metaphor is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass.

That's something I figured out from thinking about The Book of Mormon musical, and it's also why art produced by Mormons for Mormons is such useless crap.

with thanks to Oscar Wilde and his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Here's a funky story from the Independent (why is it that some of the best stories about US culture and politics are in British newspapers?) about the role of the CIA in fostering and promoting American avant-garde art. According to the article, American philistinism

combined with Joseph McCarthy's hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. It also prevented the US government from consolidating the shift in cultural supremacy from Paris to New York since the 1930s. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in.

A former CIA official who was part of the program stated

"We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War."

Pretty remarkable stuff.

If only the LDS Church acted more like the US government of the 1950s and 60s than the Soviet government of the same era, mainstream LDS art might actually be worth paying attention to, instead of horrible, gut-churning crap.

Magic by the Lake*


Check it out:


The water at the northwest corner of the Great Salt Lake is pink. It's PINK. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Spiral Jetty, the color of the water "is due the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that thrive in the extreme 27 percent salinity of the lake's north arm, which was isolated from fresh water sources by the building of a causeway by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959."

The reason I discovered this is of course that I visited the Spiral Jetty, which I've wanted to do since I moved to Utah. In case you haven't heard of the Spiral Jetty, it's a sculpture constructed in 1970 by American sculptor Robert Smithson. It's hard to describe why this counter-clockwise spiral of rock jutting into a lakebed is so magic, but it is. It just is. Even with no water lapping at the rocks, it's magic. I was going to offer a feeble but inadequate account of why it's magic, but then I decided I'd just offer some photos instead--I'd let this be one of the times when a picture stands in for 1,000 words.

A Totally Cool Artist I'd Never Heard of

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I had to pick up a book at the SLC Library this morning and while I was there, partly out of envy for a friend who's currently doing the museum scene in NYC and partly on a whim, I headed up to the library's art gallery to see what was on display. I'm very glad I did, because what's there is super cool.

It's the work of Edie Roberson, who has been a Utah artist since she moved here to teach at the UofU in the 1960s. Back when I was taking poetry writing classes, a term of vague praise that got tossed around a lot was "whimsy." There is considerable whimsy in these paintings, and I absolutely dig it. I liked all of it, but I was particularly charmed by Out on a Knight Like This.

The coolest thing for me personally about this display is that I caught it in time to find out that there's a reception for the artist this Saturday at the library at 4 p.m. Before that, from 3 to 4 p.m., you can meet and talk to her. I have to go.

it's part of the SLC Arts Festival; the Tribune had a write-up of it, here.

If you're in northern Utah and you don't already have plans for the weekend, you should check this out.

The Darkness Behind the Paintings of Light

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OK,first a correction: I assumed, because of his popularity in Utah and his horrible aesthetic, that the so-called painter Thomas Kincade was Mormon. He's not. He belonged to the Church of the Nazarene. My bad.

Second, turns out he's a complete asshat: mean, crazy and prone to substance abuse! We're talking someone who peed on a Winnie-the-Pooh statue in Anaheim and then declared, "This one's for you, Walt."

When I posted the link to the Salon story on Facebook, one of my friends provided a link to this site spoofing Kincade's work. It's all pretty great, but you must check out the third one down on page 7. The closest I've been to ROFLMAO in a long, long time was after I saw that.

It's just so nice to see this guy, the Ayn Rand of painting (meaning, ridiculously popular despite the fact that they're soulless hacks who produce nothing but the most revolting crap, both ideologically and aesthetically speaking), getting the sort of attention he deserves.

Your Own Personal Jesus?


Remember a month or so ago when I wrote about awful, horrible kitschy Mormon art? Well, via Salt Lake City Weekly, I discovered a type of Mormon, erm, visual image (I dare not call it art) that makes all that stuff look downright classy.

blog3740nal.jpgThat's right: a painting of YOU with your own personal Jesus.

I hardly know where to start.

On Facebook I posted a link to the City Weekly piece, but I didn't bother to click on the link to Kay Paintings, the studio responsible for these images--some impulse of self-preservation stopped me, I guess. But a friend clicked through, and pointed out that the studio had certainly figured out something important about making money in Utah: the more children you want in the picture, the more it costs. (I love the line at the bottom about "For 11+ children please call for a quote.")

I figured if my friend checked out the website and could still produce coherent prose afterward, I should be OK, so I screwed up my courage and clicked through to the gallery. At which point I began a low, pained chant of "oh my god, oh my god" as my horror mounted.

Religious Art So Bad It's Evil


Saturday I went to Provo, about an hour south of Salt Lake City. Home to Brigham Young University, which I refused to attend even though the school offered me a hefty scholarship, and the Missionary Training Center, my nine weeks at which I loathed with every iota of my being, Provo is not some place I would visit just for the hell of it. But currently one of my dearest friends lives there, so after two decades of staying well away from Provo, I've visited twice in the past six months.

This most recent trip involved looking at lots of art, some good, most of it downright terrible. The BYU's Museum of Art had an exhibit called As a Rose by sculptor Adam Bateman, made of sprinkler components. I totally dug it. The permanent collection is a bit heavy on fairly pedestrian landscapes, but there are some great pieces in it too.

But the art in the BYU bookstore is another matter. Oh my lord--and I say that as a prayer of hopeless desperation. The place sells so many depictions of Jesus, invariably northern-European-looking, usually cheesy, occasionally creepy. There's one of Jesus with four hot young women, one of them slightly ethnic looking.... Is this polygamist Jesus? There's one of Jesus hugging the three children (one of whom appears to be crying) of an attractive woman, who also gets a little affection from JC. The caption to the painting said something about how the intent was to depict a Jesus you could actually hang out with, someone who would be your friend--you know, the kind of guy who would provide really great booze at your wedding, or else date your mom after she kicks your no-good dad out of the house.

The only artist whose work A) we found on sale in the BYU bookstore and B) doesn't completely suck is J.Kirk Richards, who served a mission in Rome, which is probably one reason he actually seems to know something about art history and creates interesting variations on themes in Christian art. Pieces I liked include this really lovely Mother and Child and this Angel with (gasp!) wings ('cause in case you didn't know, in Mormon theology, angels don't have wings).

And after that, we went to galleries to look at bad Mormon art, because you have to know your enemy--at least, you have to know their work if you're going mock it effectively.

Beauty: Sustainable or Not?

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Green Mormon Architect has an interesting post on the idea that "only beauty is sustainable," which I cannot link to because he has made his blog private. (GMA: wtf? I doubt being "green" or an "architect" is much reason to take a blog private. Must have something to do with the "Mormon" part....) He writes, "If the community doesn't embrace a building, the building will not be saved or preserved when the time comes. Unaesthetic buildings will not last and are unsustainable even if they have a LEED rating." He then provides a photo of the Mark Miller Toyota building in Salt Lake City, and it is indeed pretty damn hideously ugly despite its LEED gold rating. He adds, "I will be the first in line to tear this building down when the time comes." He notes that the SLC Library has no LEED rating, but is a beautiful, functional, inviting building, and adds, "I will be the first in line to preserve this building when the time comes."

Sustainability in relation to buildings generally refers to the amount of resources they use in their building and maintenance. You know: are renewable materials used responsibly in the construction of the structure? Are the environmental considerations of the building site reasonably attended to? Are energy-saving features incorporated into the design? Of course it's possible to attend to questions like that and still produce an ugly building. GMA's example of Mark Miller Toyota illustrates that perfectly well for me. I also have a feeling I might not be such a fan of the LDS church's new stake center in Farmington, despite the fact that it "is insulated with polyurethane foam, uses highly efficient windows, carpet made from recycled materials, tankless water heaters and European-style toilets that offer the choice of little or lots of water with each flush"-it still probably looks like an uninspired, unimaginative LDS building. Plus I'm guessing that those "highly efficient windows" don't provide for much light or ventilation, making the building as dark and stinky as most LDS buildings from the past 30 years generally are.*

I'm not entirely sure that ugliness is unsustainable--there's plenty of very old ugliness in the world--but I like to think that we might someday achieve a world where that's true. And while I believe in and support the goal of sustaining beauty, I want to discuss the challenges it involves.



Autochthony is a terrific word I learned as an undergrad and have to few opportunities to use. It means "the state of being autochthonous," which is a fancy word for indigenous. It is, rather obviously, made up of the prefix "auto" or self, stuck onto the word chthonic, a Greek word meaning "of or relating to the gods and spirits of the underground."

I wrote yesterday about reading The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade, and how I didn't like it all that much, except for his discussion of sacred places. Eliade uses the term autochthony to refer to a religious feeling of "belonging to a place, and it is a cosmically structured feeling that goes far beyond family or ancestral solidarity" (140).

saguaros.jpg I like this because it describes how I feel about the Sonoran desert, an area running through south central Arizona and extending slightly into Sonora, Mexico. It is a particular ecosystem with some of the coolest vegetation in the world--the saguaro cactus, for instance, a plant so iconic and interesting that it has come to symbolize the entire southwest, though it is indigenous only to the Sonoran desert.

Thatcher, the town I grew up in, is not in the Sonoran desert. But Tucson, where my mom was born, where my grandparents lived til they died and where I went to college, is. I was in Tucson last week, and while it's not accurate to say that I ever forget that I love it and think it's beautiful, still, going home and encountering it again always has the force of a revelation.

Dying Art


In Lolita, monstrous pedophile Humbert Humbert feels nothing but contempt for Charlotte Haze, the woman he intends to marry because doing so will give him access to her nymphet daughter, Dolores, aka Lolita. One of the primary signs that Charlotte is a philistine and an idiot HH need not feel bad about duping and exploiting is her admiration for the work of Vincent Van Gogh, a painter both HH and Vladamir Nabokov detested and despised.

I mention this because it really sort of freaked me out when I read some of Nakobov's tirades about how overrated and awful Van Gogh is, and how a sign of our culture's idiocy is the fact that most people like his work. Because the truth is, most people do. Van Gogh is revered not just by college students who put posters of Starry Night up on their dorm room walls, but by critics and by art collectors who pay outrageous sums for his work.

I confess to long having loved Van Gogh. I liked his work until I went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam in 1984; at that point, I fell in love with both his work and him. I remember standing in front of Wheatfield with Crows or Crows over a Wheatfield, his final painting, and weeping. It sounds cheesy, but there's something in the actual brushstrokes of his works that speaks, very eloquently, of pathos and confusion and curiosity and interest. I mean, there's always something different about seeing an actual painting and mere reproductions, but with Van Gogh, there's REALLY something different.

Which is why I would really like to see, in person, this display of his letters, which include illustrations and drawings--there's even a sketch for the painting he did of his room in Arles. Translations have been published online, but they're, you know, translations, in print, not the letters written by his hand.

I love email, I do. But I miss letters. I've written about this before, about how a good letter is art that fits in an envelope. I wish art in an envelope was something we still sent each other.


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