Textual Iconoclasm? Part 1

By November 11, 2008

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?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Liz, this is all a little over my head, but I do find the questions you raise quite interesting and important. Ironically (I think), the general aversion to “visual exegeses” in Mormon worship stands in stark contrast to Mormon temple worship, which is full of beautiful visual imagery (i.e. the murals depicting the creation, the fallen world, and the celestial realm as well as the acting out of the creation narrative), which brought to textual narrative and beuatiful symbolism of the scriptural accounts to life for me.

    Comment by Christopher — November 11, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  2. Great post, Liz. I thought the same thing as Chris concerning the visual exegeses found in the temple.

    I don’t have my People of Paradox handy, but I seem to remember a strong lack of visual exegeses relating to scriptural texts beyond the mere portrayal of the literal event. As Latter-day Saints, it seems we like to play it safe by using art to only make visual the physical setting–people, places, etc.–yet avoiding the use of art to depict the abstract ideas and imagery you seem to be alluding to here.

    Relating to the church’s history, though, I think you could point to how artistic images have been prolific and helped shape both our view, from CCA Christensen’s many murals to the paintings of JS translating the BoM straight from the gold plates.

    Comment by Ben — November 11, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

  3. I understand images as documents in an historical sense, and wish more historians would give more thought — and earlier thought — to the images included in their books.

    But other than photographs or other images intended to document events in the most neutral sense, I’m struggling to understand how an image could be “assigned a place in the hierarchy” with sacred texts. Even with such well-known and beloved icons as the Biblical Good Shepherd or the Book of Mormon description of Lehi’s dream, every visual depiction is a personal interpretation by an artist who doesn’t have the authority of the writer of a scriptural text. I suppose if we had an apostle artist, he could theoretically present his General Conference “talks” in the form of visual arts which could potentially carry the same weight as another apostle’s oratory …

    But as I said, I’m struggling to understand what you think might be possible. Looking forward to Part II for potential help with this struggle.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 11, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  4. Liz, would your argument change if you substituted music or literature for visual art?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 11, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

  5. There are more and more artists within the Church that are expressing books of scripture in abstract ways, ways that connect the user to the essence of verse, and the spiritual thickness that prevails in those texts. J. Kirk Richards is one of my favorites, as well as Brian Kershnik, who Mormon Times just featured.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 11, 2008 @ 9:28 pm

  6. What are the arguments for prurience in Mormon art? I, as a art hobbyist, have always struggled with the need to depict nudes as a necessary discussion upon the subject of spirituality. Now, I’m not saying that sexuality and its relationship to the spirit or the body is nonexistent. Gender is eternal, so far as we know, and therefore a topic to express in all the forms of art. But why the preoccupation, the prurience, with nudity as most expressive?

    And yes, I will concede that I might not be enlightened enough… maybe.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 11, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

  7. PS—Ardis’ comment is great. Is there a connection between authority, that of the Spirit/priesthood, to the ability to teach through a visual medium? Text is a medium of truth, through the Holy Ghost, and the various visual mediums are as well. Consider Lehi’s “Tree of Life” vision as an epitome of visualizations of truth. A vision though, can be like a work of art in that it can be interpreted and expounded in various ways and at various times. One is given the gift of visions and another the gift of interpretation of visions (see Genesis 41).

    Just some more thoughts.

    (I meant to spell “Brian Kershisnik.” Ha.)

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 11, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  8. My compliments to Elizabeth, who has added much dimension to this blog with her recent posts! (Your sidebar has been entertaining lately, too, JI.)

    This post piqued my interest on taking advantage of scriptural imagery. There actually is a piece of art which has made the rounds of the Church in fireside after fireside. I’ve been to three of them in different stakes. The program is centered around a piece of art by Gayla Prince on the ten virgins. (I know you’ve heard of it!) It usually features a discussion of the painting along with scriptural exegesis. I just discovered online that “Gayla herself has a program that goes with it for $35. You get a booklet, a script, one print, and the digital pictures to make into a power point.” There are also other versions of this fireside online, which range from tolerable to drivel.

    Pray tell, why do you think this one piece of art has inspired so much Church-sponsored activity?

    I’d love to see more of what Elizabeth intimates is possible, but I fear lest it degenerate into something resembling these YW firesides.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — November 11, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  9. Mormonism is a victim/child/product of late modernity. It makes sense to me that it’s primary forms of expression would be text and film.

    Comment by Wm Morris — November 11, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  10. Oh, and I also wanted to call attention to a post at FMH which discussed the prohibition against turning to the scriptures–a little off-topic, but you’ll find some interesting speculations on why these new instructions were given.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — November 11, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  11. Everyone?s responses are so wonderful and all so essential to this discussion. This just makes my case for the necessity of interdisciplinarity in academia or in any kind of dialogue.

    Chris, I appreciated your comment about the imagery in the temple and the liveliness of the symbolism you found there. We need more of that in our meetinghouses, I think. There is something so strange to me about the pseudo-sacred nature of LDS meetinghouses. Are they sacred, are they secular? What do we make of that space? The ?stark contrast? you describe has something powerful to say about Mormon beliefs about art, I think.

    Ben, yes! I wanted to say something about the representational nature of Mormon art, but you picked up on that! I definitely want to do more research on the history of images in Mormonism.

    Ardis, the question of artistic authority versus prophetic authority is an interesting one (which Tod mentions below). I?m glad you brought it up. I had a philosophy of art class at BYU and we watched an interview of Pres. Packer, who is a woodcarver and he talked about his philosophy of art in Mormonism?linking recreational art with power. I wouldn?t really call what Pres. Packer does ?Mormon art,? but he is Mormon and he does produce art, of a certain kind?wooden birds and mantle pieces and such (possibly paintings too, if I remember correctly).

    I know this is becoming my mantra, but art is powerful. Unauthorized religious images are an inherent problem of having, to take a Marxist stance, the means of artistic production in the hands of lay people. When artists were primarily commissioned by the church and wealthy patrons, and much of the art produced was for worship spaces, the images created could be much more tightly controlled. But artists still managed to get away with things; I think of Michelangelo?s Last Judgment where Christ is portrayed nude but later had a loincloth of sorts hastily painted over his manly parts. But, Mormons are still afraid to have an artistic revolt against authority. And I?m not sure if such a revolt should happen. But I think any real changes in the uses of Mormon art will come ex cathedra.

    Stapely, that is a goooood question. I?m trying to imagine what that would look like. Someone composing a symphony for General Conference or for an official Christmas fireside or something? I actually really love that. I don?t think my argument would change if I replaced visual arts with music. The ?correct? music to use in church services is also debated. Musicians aren?t supposed to draw attention to themselves in their church performances. But, I would have to say that any truly great musician must draw attention to herself by virtue of performing well. And sure, the humility of the artist is important, not letting ego get in the way of glorifying God. But what artist does not suffer from some pride in their created abilities? Can we really expect these things of artists whose responsibility it is to be true to their craft, first, above all outside considerations?including authority. Yikes!

    And as far as official hymns for the temple goes, I will share a personal anecdote. When I was in the temple about a month ago, some Sisters decided to sing hymns while waiting outside the baptistery. I can?t remember the song they proposed when a man requested they change the selection, but I didn?t feel like the song was one that would detract from the Spirit. In fact, singing these hymns was the most worshipful experience in the temple I?ve had. Everyone was singing a capella, and somewhat off-key. But, you can see where I?m going with this, it was the community of worshipers engaged in worshiping their God that mattered to me, not adherence to a certain rule. What detracted from the Spirit for me was having someone request the change.

    And I don?t know the theological underpinnings of this rule, but that was my experience. I have a feeling the underpinnings have to do with the concept of reverence. But we have to be careful that we are actually being reverent for the sake of Someone and not just for the sake of being reverent, quiet. Reverence means nothing unless it is directed toward someone or something. And if true reverence means not singing an up-tempo number, I guess I must be okay with that. But I think God wants our worship to be joyful, too, especially in His holy house. God?s probably a lot more austere than I would paint him, though. What are our images of God. . . . And thus it begins again.

    The literary arts are more palatable to Mormons in light of our textual emphasis. But I still feel like it?s only okay to talk about certain literatures over the pulpit or in class discussion. I heard someone give a talk in sacrament meeting when I was about seven. It?s one of the most vivid church memories I have, but the person spoke about the redemptive figure of Silas Marner from George Eliot?s novel. The power of that story stuck with me until I read the book and it has continued. We could use more of this in our meetings. But Silas Marner?s a pretty ?harmless? story. I would expect to hear it in a meeting, just as I would expect to hear someone talk about Jean Valjean as a redemptive figure. But I probably wouldn?t get up and give a talk based on The Great Gatsby, which is a very powerful but violent ethical text.

    Tod, your question of nudity in art is a very important and delicate one. But what you have pointed to is the theological implications of nudity. What does our portrayal or not-portrayal, as the case may be, of nudity point to in Mormon theology? Or does it have more of a cultural basis? Although our theology says otherwise (spirit is matter), I think Mormons suffer from a kind of cultural cartesian dualism. We?re not comfortable with our bodies. We?re uncomfortable talking about sex too much as a theological principle because it?s so culturally loaded outside of Mormonism. And although I think the function of modesty in Mormonism is fundamentally a good one, because it is tied up with cultural taboos some of that spills over into Mormon discourse and culture.

    Ooh, and I love your point about the visions and the interpretation of visions?potentially very fruitful for this discussion.

    Bored in Vernal, thank you.

    I hope what comes out of this questioning looks nothing like one of these firesides, although I am exceedingly intrigued by this kind of systematized image/meaning-making. And boy, I attended so many Young Women?s activities like this! And I don?t think they were ultimately successful in instilling the ?virtues? they purported to be instilling. Mormon?s training in a very particular kind of exegesis (primarily faith rather than knowledge-based), including visual exegesis, naturally feeds into this problem. And why so much Church-sponsored activity over this one image? I would suspect that the image lends itself nicely to this kind of cultural production?it is easy to interpret in a very dualistic way (good and evil) that also leaves room for specific elaboration (divisions of virtues, that somewhat go along with YW values).

    Wm Morris, I?d like to hear more of what you have to say about this. I?ll have to think about it some more.

    Comment by Elizabeth — November 12, 2008 @ 3:01 am

  12. Elizabeth,

    Have you been reading ‘Reformation of the Image’? You should give this work a look–I think it would be helpful to your position in this post.

    Comment by oudenos — November 12, 2008 @ 8:33 am

  13. “The Reformation of the Image” by Joseph Leo Koerner.

    Comment by oudenos — November 12, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  14. Interesting discussion. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje — November 12, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  15. I’ve had a couple of thoughts (or questions) while reading this very interesting post and the comments.

    First, regarding textual interpretations. Does our culture view texts as less ambiguous and therefore less subject to misinterpretation than visual art or music? The paradox is that we are taught and have experienced the concept of personal revelation, yet function in a hierarchical organization that does tightly control the message. I personally have never heard the idea that BIV floated in her FMH post. The text that went along with the Ten Virgins “drivel” that BIV linked to also seemed to emphasize that texts can make sure we all get the “right” message from visual arts.

    Second, I thought about the differences in no artwork (or at least not under current policies) inside our chapels (the actual worship space, not the whole building) versus the obvious dramatic imagery in many of our temples. Even the newer temples which don’t have the murals still have a great deal of symbolic touches to the architecture, furnishings, and interior finish. There is a perceived difference between being a member of the church, and a recommend carrying member who enjoys the blessings of the temple. It appears to me that this is a conscious choice in the architecture, as if there is less chance for misinterpretation at that level.

    Comment by kevinf — November 12, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  16. Elizabeth, I think you have some good points and some interesting observations. I agree that instructions concerning the use of images and scripture in worship have far-reaching implications for Mormonism that have barely been discussed. (I mentioned as much to someone back when the letter was first read, and he said that this was merely a restatement of instructions that have been around for years. Does anyone know if this is correct?)

    The primary distinction you’re making in your post is between the visual and the textual, but I see it somewhat differently. The instructions to avoid using visual aids or directing audience members to consult their scriptures suggests that sacrament meeting after the sacrament is not meant for visual access to spiritual experience, nor for textual/literate access, but rather only for oral/spoken access. The letter made clear that imagery and textual work were entirely appropriate for other settings, but I find it striking that audience participation in sacrament meeting is so narrowly focused on hearing the spoken word. One could perhaps imagine sacrament meeting as a re-enactment of prophetic communication: rather than God speaking to the prophet who utters the divine word to his audience, people in sacrament meeting are supposed to listen to the words the speaker prepared, ideally under the guidance of the spirit.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 12, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  17. By way of suggestions for visual exegesis, I can think of a couple of examples that would be worth taking a look at. First might be the quasi-official type like an Arnold Friberg BoM painting, or Christ in a Red Robe by Minerva Teichert.

    Comment by kevinf — November 12, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  18. FYI, the explanation that has been given for the letter on visual aids or consulting the scriptures that I have heard is to do just as the letter says, to avoid distracting from the purpose of the sacrament meeting. People don’t read as the same rates, some folks have to unzip their scripture cases, or rustle around in the diaper bag or purse. All of that causes commotion and noise.

    And yes, the letter has been around in various forms for a long time. I think this particular iteration, as I have heard in a rumor, came about because people started using powerpoint presentations in sacrament meeting, undoubtedly inspired by some of those leadership meetings where powerpoints are used.

    Comment by kevinf — November 12, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  19. Oudenos, thank you for recommending that book. I have not read it, but it looks fantastic. I will certainly check it out.

    One could perhaps imagine sacrament meeting as a re-enactment of prophetic communication: rather than God speaking to the prophet who utters the divine word to his audience, people in sacrament meeting are supposed to listen to the words the speaker prepared, ideally under the guidance of the spirit.

    Jonathan, I think you are dead-on with this.

    Kevinf, your observation about art in worship spaces (chapel vs. temple) representing a fundamental difference in levels of church membership is a good one. I don?t agree with the sort of hierarchy it creates either, as though those who have attained a certain level of spiritual understanding are somehow more worthy to partake of art than others. But, maybe this does point to a higher liturgical function of art. This strikes me as very Hegelian, art is a preliminary means to a higher spirituality. The need for art as a tool of spiritual development will eventually disappear, although art itself will not actually disappear. You can read a brief summary of Hegel?s aesthetic theory here. This view certainly jives with Mormon eschatology.

    Comment by Elizabeth — November 13, 2008 @ 11:01 am


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