Mormonism has a rich textual culture. Our meetings and teaching and studying are filled with encounters with the written word, and especially the holy word contained in scripture. In addition, many Mormons are prodigious readers and seekers of wisdom out of the best books that Mormonism and the world have to offer (perfectly illustrated by Dave’s Getting Hooked post and the accompanying responses).
Such a textual richness may account somewhat for Mormonism’s conversely impoverished visual culture. Now, many Mormon visual artists are at work and are working beautifully and well; but this visual culture is hardly the indispensable pedagogical tool that text is. Discussions of visual art rarely enter into our worship/class discussion; unless it is to reference the odd Walter Rane painting, which I admit I did on Sunday. That’s right, the parable of the ten virgins. I wouldn’t dare bring up a Trevor Southey, would you, unless it’s perhaps his Joseph Smith—Three Views? I think this visual paucity also has to do with the lingering biblical prohibition against making graven images (I have had this cited to me as a reason for no art in our chapels, which I feel to be rather absurd); and the theological emphasis on Christ’s resurrection rather than on his passion and crucifixion (along with creating a sense of distinction from other Christian faiths and our Reformation-aesthetic lip service) effectively rules out the cross as a visual symbol in Mormonism.
And not having visual images to guide our worship during sacrament meeting forces us as worshipers to focus on the word that is being spoken, which points us to Christ as the divine Logos, the Word. Despite my previous polemical statements, I think this last reason is perhaps the only good one Mormons have for not including visual art in their chapels (although, I did feel that Mormonism’s iconoclasm reached new heights when the First Presidency issued the statement in May 2008 that speakers should not ask congregants to turn to the scriptures or use “visual aids,” with the reason given that this detracts from the Spirit. Isn’t the written word what we’re all about? This strikes me as textual iconoclasm. Are we worried about people falsely worshiping the word of scripture?
Underlying both of these trends, textual and visual, however, is the idea that words and images are powerful. They are entities that can either be bearers of truth or bringers of spiritual harm and sin (again, a polemical position, but I didn’t come up with the binaries), and I think images tend to fall under the latter category more often than text does in Mormon thought. The Mormon concept of art has suffered in the need for vigilance against prurience (again, this does not apply to all Mormon artists. Shauna Cook Clinger, who currently has an exhibit up at the UMFA, does some absolutely stunning nude self-portraits). Yet we are not at all comfortable addressing images in a liturgical context.
To separate words and images, especially by assigning them a place in a hierarchy, is ultimately misleading and harmful. We cannot fully understand the word of scripture without images. And the scriptures present us with some of the most vivid, archetypal images found anywhere. It would be fruitful for us to consider a little more closely the images we are being presented with in our holy texts. Ironically, biblical imagery is rarely edifying but rather terrifying, as is some imagery in Restoration scripture. How would a “close reading” of images shift our textual emphasis from purely seeking edification (and avoiding potentially dirty or “dangerous” images) to an expanded theological language that takes full advantage of the rich store of scriptural imagery (and makes room for new imagery!)? Would it alert us to some of Mormonism’s textual icons? Since I’m not quite sure how this would look, I leave it up to your ingenuity and to further reflection on my part. This will have to come in at least two parts. Does anyone have any images they would like to see exegeted or know of any visual exegeses off hand?