Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Mormon Art and Architecture, Installment 1: Symbolism

What happened to visual symbolism in the Church? Does it even exist anymore? Aside from the few examples in the temple ceremonies, I have a hard time coming up with examples of any visual symbols that we recognize as church members (Sorry, but a CTR ring is an acronym, not a symbol). Yes, I understand that there is symbolism in the way we live our lives according to the covenants that we make. But that begs the question: why don’t we portray it visually? (and I’m not talking about a Greg Olsen painting of a deacon passing the sacrament...)

Let’s take architecture for example. The Salt Lake Temple. Almost every decision on that building contains a symbolic meaning: from the number of levels of windows, to the sun, Saturn, Earth, moon, and star stones, to the direction it is facing, to the ascension from one room to the next, etc. The building is drenched in symbolism. What purpose did this serve? Because it looked nice?

What do we have now? Nice buildings in which symbolic ideas are presented and symbolic acts are performed. Hey, what we do inside is what’s important, right? Of course that’s right, but why the shift? Was Brigham Young just a bit overzealous? Is visual symbolism something of the past? Is it too hard or too expensive to do nowdays or does the Church purposefully avoid it? I know there have been attempts, but I’m sorry, the [Statue of Liberty] torch doorhandles inside the Manhattan temple just don’t cut it for me.

Another example: Greg Olsen, Robert Barrett, Del Parson, Arnold Friberg paintings. If I were to assess the Church based on the art it spoonfeeds to the public, I would think that the Church’s stance on the Book of Mormon is that it’s a bunch of stories about strong, Anglo men. The policy of the Ensign magazine is that there is no conceptual art allowed. Are we chuchmembers not smart enough to understand symbolism?

When Picasso abstracted his paintings he didn’t do it because he didn’t know how to paint (boy could he paint! At age 15 his paintings rivalled Rafael!), but rather because there were deeper insights he was trying to communicate. One of my favorite paintings of all time, and one of the most touching paintings for me is Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (to see a photo click here, I don’t know how to add photos yet).

I don’t necessarily mind the paintings of those Mormon painters, to visualize a narrative, but I have a very difficult time extracting gospel insight or meaning from a single one. Shouldn’t that be the role of our art? To give meaning and insight to our lives as we try to live the Gospel? Art as narrative plays that role by proxy. It might give meaning, but only because we know the story behind the painting, not because the symbolism of the piece inspired us.