How Much Art Comes through Church

Church Life Expressed through Art

Think through this with me: How much art do we see through the Church or because of the Church?

I’m talking about all forms of art; visual and performance, representative and symbolic, etc. and etc. What art is delivered to us by the Church? How much art is in our worship and lessons? What impact does it have? And what art do we participate in because of the Church?

I’ve given these questions some thought, and I made a list of what comes to mind immediately. The list seems much shorter than I thought it would be:

  • Hymns during meetings
  • Images in lessons
  • Stories told in meetings
  • Talks/Sermons
  • The buildings we meet in

What can you add to this list?

I ask simply because I suspect this will tell us something about the role of art in our worship, and how we understand art. And I believe that understanding art and its role will help improve our spiritual lives.

Based on the above list, I think art is often seen as an “accent” to our services. We use art to set an environment for worship and to emphasize what is taught in lessons.

Is this really the principal role of art in the Church?

•   •   •

The view of art as accent or entertainment may originate in the broader Western cultural view of art that has developed in the decades since the rise of consumer culture. I think its a simplistic view. It’s almost like our Western culture is saying “if you can buy it, its value is reduced to what you pay for it.” In our culture we have moved toward believing that value comes from money instead of from meaning. And when we apply this to art it implies that works of art become accents, paintings become decoration, music becomes Muzak and books are increasingly classified only as entertainment.

I don’t think the Church has avoided this tendency. More than fifty years ago the presence of art in our Church lives was larger (although perhaps not as meaningful as we might want). Church magazines included poetry and fiction. Wards put on roadshows and plays and the Relief Society taught lessons on all the arts as part of its curriculum. I don’t mean to suggest that the sophistication of these efforts was high, just that there was more—the arts were a bigger part of life in the Church.

Starting about 1970 the Church reduced the arts in its programs, perhaps unconsciously, and probably because the arts weren’t understood as necessary to the spiritual life of Church members. As a result Church members’ experience with art became less connected with spirituality.

•   •   •

Is this really correct? Can spirituality be separated from art?

Answering that question says a lot about how we understand spirituality and also how we define “art.” While both spirituality and art resist easy definition (regardless of the definition used, it seems easy to find an example that doesn’t fit.), both have characteristics that make a connection clear.

First, spirituality requires expression and exploration. We urge Church members to express their spirituality, and we provide a venue at least monthly to make that possible. And we urge members to develop spirituality, exploring how to put it into practice.

Second, art is a form of expression and exploration. Whatever art is, artists are using it to communicate their understanding, and explore meaning. And the recipients of art give expression in their reactions and find in art a vehicle for exploring their own understanding.

Given this, shouldn’t our Church life involve such expressions and explorations? And, doesn’t dedicating our time and talents to building the Kingdom of God mean that we should express and explore through art?

•   •   •

Lest I come across as unnecessarily negative, I do think that the status of art in the Church isn’t as bad as it might seem. If we expand how we think about art in the Church, I think there is more art than meets the eye. Using this expanded view, I think I can expand the above list of the arts that we receive through the Church. Let’s add the following additional art forms:

  • Sacrament Meeting
  • Lessons
  • Hallway discussions
  • Ordinances
  • The Sacrament
  • Temple ordinances

No doubt you can also come up with several more.

I’m not suggesting that these art forms are always good art, nor do I claim that most practitioners are particularly creative. But creativity is not exactly a requirement of art—art requires little more than simple expression.

For example, there is great variation in how the sacrament prayers are said. Good delivery of these prayers can make a large difference in how we experience our worship. Indeed, I claim that the degree of artistry in the delivery of the sacrament prayer directly influences the spirituality that the congregation feels. Some of the most spiritual sacrament prayers I’ve heard in recent years were given by a young man with a bit of a speech impediment. The impediment led him to pause between most words, slowing the delivery and enhancing its impact. The delivery of the sacrament prayers is an art.

[Yes, its a limited art; a very limited art. The words can’t be changed. It’s more limited than even theatrical delivery—because the person praying can’t move or gesture to add emphasis. But limits are very important in art. Artists have self-imposed limits for millennia as a way of increasing creativity. The various forms of poetry, for example, are self-imposed limits.]

•   •   •

So what does all this say about the role of art in the Church?

Part of the answer is likely found in how we see worship and Church life. We can change what we define as art, and perhaps in doing so improve both art and worship.

Another part might be in expanding what we see as our Church life. Either because of culture or through neglect, we often limit our Church lives to those things that are directly pushed at us by the Church. We limit the art in our Church lives to what happens at Church, what appears in the scriptures and manuals and what the Church provides. Instead, we could use every resource we can find to express and explore our understanding of the Gospel.

And along with finding resources we can create art ourselves. When was the last time that you brought creativity to a lesson or talk you prepared? When did you last create art to go with a lesson? When did you last make your own expression in reaction to the Gospel?

Let me say this way: if we really believe that we should dedicate our time and talents to building the Kingdom of God, if we really are seeking spiritual growth, shouldn’t that involve art?

13 comments for “How Much Art Comes through Church

  1. Old Man
    May 11, 2020 at 10:16 am

    One could and should write a book on this topic, but I would add that the decline in the arts coincided (at least in my mind) with a decline in church architecture in the early 1970’s. Take a look at the cinder block travesties that passed as chapels in the 1970’s through the end of the 20th century. Much more care was taken in building chapels earlier in the 20th century.

    Speaking of the arts as a whole, I believe it was an inherent suspicion of the arts in general because of cultural trends of the 1960’s. We were suspicious of modern cultural developments and while experiencing significant growth, we probably had a budget crunch. As a people, we retrenched or simplified. But not in a positive way, because we also got cheap.

    We took down the old pioneer monuments such as the Coalville Tabernacle and focused less on aesthetics and cultural memory. (Remember, we were also suspicious of our own history in the late 70’s onward.) Perhaps we looked more at costs of maintenance and construction. Then in the 1980’s and 1990’s we really turned to audiovisual media. That is still the current art form for Latter-day Saints. Everything is on video, and the internet has encouraged that media.

    I hope the younger generation does look back at the art and architectural history of the Latter-day Saints. There is so much more than many suppose. But I would not hold your breath, the traditional arts are taking a beating even in education.

  2. May 11, 2020 at 11:11 am

    Kent, I would have included temple architecture, internal decoration, and liturgy (which includes dramatic arts) in your initial list, along with General Conference as a high-profile venue to experience choral singing. And there’s also a healthy tradition of singing in the home.

    I think you’re right to connect a decline in the arts experienced through church to broader cultural changes (rather than seeing this as some uniquely Mormon philistinism). It’s also worth considering parallel changes in how art is defined, which might resolve some of the uncertainty you express about “good art.” There’s a sense – I’ll leave it up to you to decide how accurate it is – that “real” art is not mere visual, musical, or rhetorical ornamentation, but instead something that undermines the assumptions and upends the narratives of the beholder. I think there’s fairly broad support for visually appealing paintings for our buildings or beautiful music for our services, but less interest in work that conflicts with institutional narratives.

  3. Chad Nielsen
    May 11, 2020 at 11:52 am

    The architectural loss is one of the saddest parts of the last few decades for me, even as a younger member of the Church. Growing up in the Ogden, Utah area and studying the history of our little temple square, I have a small fascination with the old Ogden tabernacle and wish that more could have been done to preserve or move it rather than tearing it down accompanied with the statement that it was in the way and we’re a forward-looking church, so we don’t need to preserve our past. Having also lived in Logan, Utah, it was sad to see one of the more unique church buildings in the area (fondly known as the “golden toaster”) get sold to the university up there and torn down, as well to know that the interior of the temple there has little resemblance to its original form (destroying much of the unique pioneer heritage it showcased). It was also sad to see the Wellsville Tabernacle in the area and know that the Church let it pass out of their hands, allowing it (despite the best efforts of the Wellsville Tabernacle Foundation) to fall into disrepair. Maybe it’s one of those Utah-Mormon things, but I still find it sad to see so much of our unique and interesting architecture being abandoned by the Church. Perhaps this shows my age and lack of maturity, but one of my hobbies in my spare time is playing Minecraft in a world where most of the buildings I build are representations of Mormon architecture. Still, one bright side is that the temples the Church is building these days are more unique than the cookie-cutter small temples based on the Monticello, Utah Temple and some of them look back on our heritage in fun ways (Brigham City, Cedar City, and Tooele, for example), and there has been some effort to preserve information about the older architecture online by interested individuals (such as http://ldspioneerarchitecture.blogspot.com/).

    More could be done to to preserve and pass on an interest in other aspects of our artistic heritage. I am probably an outlier among Millennials in the Church for knowing the “Oratorio From the Book of Mormon” by Leroy Robertson or “The Redeemer” by Robert Cundick. I’m sure that there’s even more of our musical heritage to learn and know beyond the European-art style music produced in Utah that I don’t know about. Then, there’s the visual artwork, such as that produced by C. C. A. Christensen and Minerva Teichert that is worth remembering. At least some of that visual art has been preserved and used by the Church.

    Anyway, my comment so far has all been a tangent musing based on Old Man’s comment. In response to the original post, one thing I might add to the initial list is the music that is performed for the congregation–whether prelude/postlude, numbers performed by solo singers or instrumentalists, choir numbers, etc. arrangements of hymns and original music compositions are an important art form that contributes to our meetings (as well as the life of organizations such as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square).

  4. Left Field
    May 11, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    The endowment ritual is participatory drama from beginning to end, though the filmed version largely obscures its fundamental character. It’s not uncommon for people to think of “the film” as something separate, even extraneous, something we merely watch for instruction–and then to dissociate the rest of the ceremony from the ritual drama. But even in the filmed version, it’s still a ritual expression of the dramatic arts.

  5. ji
    May 11, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    Chad,

    Maybe Utah needs a state historical society with authority to designate historical structures for protection from demolition or defacement?

    I also think that art can enhance worship. Yes, we can worship in plain white-walled no-art purely-functional buildings — and I don’t want unnecessarily elaborate buildings that cost too much money. But when I visit old church buildings in southern Germany and see the artwork, or see the great cathedrals from long ago, I know that the art I am seeing is not mere decoration — much of that work was done in a real sense of devotion and worship, and I respect that. I have seen this in the Salt Lake Temple. I have also seen this Buddhist temples in Mongolia.

    But beyond buildings, I think it would be wonderful for those with artistic abilities to share their worship through their art, both within our community and without.

  6. Wayfaring Stranger
    May 11, 2020 at 4:15 pm

    When I started going to “Mutual” as it was called back in the day we had ward, stake and regional speech/drama and music festivals. Every kid who fell into the 12-18 age range could participate. I remember how excited I was as a young musician to prepare a solo for the yearly festival. There were no limits to what kind of instruments could be performed, and the only requirement regarding the type of music to be played was that the music couldn’t be show tunes, pop music or rock. That still gave us a wide variety of music to choose from. Of course there were also the yearly road shows. They might’ve been corny, but we had fun and learned how to work well with others in a large group while also using our individual talents to make our production shine. All of that is long gone now. I lay the blame for a distinct dumbing down with regard to church music to Brother Packer. Although he was an artist he made himself the de facto top expert on appropriate music for church meetings even though he knew very little about music at all, and we have suffered as a church for it ever since. Thanks to his narrow view of music much beautiful and spiritually uplifting music written by the great composers suddenly became taboo. Only certain instruments could be played. Only hymns from the hymn book could be sung or performed as special musical numbers. I have have heard poorly rehearsed ward choirs or special musical numbers that deemed “acceptable” only by virtue of the fact that they performed hymns but drove the Spirit out of the meeting. But hey, they were following directions. As a professional musician I can tell you that ANY instrument can be played in a reverent and spiritually inspired manner. Music is the one language that is understood throughout the world, and it can do more to touch hearts and minds than an entire 2 hour block of time full of talks and lessons on a Sunday. I have former students who were in tough missions around the world. No investigators, no converts. Usually the mission presidents had never thought of using music as a missionary tool. Members of the church would loan instruments and some other missionaries would put together a small vocal group-even in poor countries. The missionaries would perform recitals that were free to the public. Suddenly the mission office would receive phone calls, emails, etc. from folks who had attended the recitals saying that they had felt the most amazing warm, peaceful feeling while listening to the music (not just hymns), and could someone please explain what they had felt? The concerts and recitals did more for missionary work and bridging gaps between the church and other faiths than any other program that the mission had tried. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF MY STUDENTS WHO HAS BEEN ON A MISSION TELLS THE SAME STORY. This could be one of the greatest ways to do missionary work throughout the world. I fear though that because most of the Q15 are business or law oriented, and also because the importance of music as a form of worship has been devalued in our church over the last 45 years, that this most universal form of expressing our deepest and most sacred feelings will never be used, not just in missionary work but also as a means to unite hearts and minds everywhere as opposed to something we mumble through or even decline to do at all during worship services.?

  7. JR
    May 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Wayfaring Stranger, Your rant is very similar to the one I briefly considered posting! It would be interesting to compare notes sometime. (Pun intended.) Though I would note that, while the general decline in our church music was not just due to BKP’s influence, he was the most vocal about equating his limited knowledge and taste with that of God and the Spirit! While there were some useful principles in his infamous BYU talk on the arts, his examples were entirely off the mark. The more interesting parts of that story are the efforts made as to that speech prior to its being given (not my story to tell publicly) and the comment of one of the liberal arts professors hoping to calm down the humanities college faculty when they were vocally upset about BKP’s declarations — “Remember, they’re general authorities, not specific authorities!” Unfortunately, our church culture can seriously get in the way of remembering that. :)

    I did have my own personal interactions with BKP (and son, indirectly) over music in regional and stake conferences. I chose to be cooperative and privately amused. Who needs an angry, out-of-sorts authority in charge of a church meeting, however ignorant he was of hymns we’d had in the hymnal since 1948 and which he had previously approved using?!

    In view of our wards now being much smaller than the ones I grew up with and our reliance on volunteer musicians from within a designated geographical boundary and our over-scheduled buildings and over-burdened people leaving no reasonable time or location for choir practices, it is no wonder that most of the ward choirs I hear leave me wishing I hadn’t. But those factors contributing to the decline of a once vibrant, even if not polished, choral worship tradition are handy reasons why I can avoid being embarrassed when explaining to my non-member musician friends that, no, the Tabernacle Choir is in no way representative of our church music.

  8. Joes
    May 11, 2020 at 9:01 pm

    Just my own pedestrian thoughts:
    I remember teaching Cultural Refinement lessons in Relief Society and being uplifted and feeling the Spirit. I gained new insights! My thinking was deepened beyond my own understanding. I’ve always considered it a great loss that we no longer have this influence in the church. Perhaps we don’t really need refinement anymore.

    I mourned the removal of Bach being played on the organ from meeting Preludes and Postludes so we could focus on the hymns of the Restoration. Few musical compositions can compare to the soaring heights of Bach who considered all his work to be “Glory of God alone”.

    Removal of the arts accompanies the simplification of doctrine/teaching/publications. We are a world wide church. Some might consider this to be a dumbing down. Perhaps this contributes to underlying tension with many members needing more intellectual engagement with the gospel. But if intellectuals are to be feared or at least not tolerated, what other avenue exists?

    We laugh that no matter where in the world you go to church it is all the same experience. This could not be truer with church constructed buildings. We never consider whether they are bland in appearance or not. They are the Mormon look. And does God really care? He care how we dress, whether arms are covered, how we wear our hair, if white shirts are being worn, if males have facial hair, and if knees are allowed to be seen. It all does get complicated and hard to parse out how to really understand this attribute of our Beloved Father and His Son.

    BYU magazine recently had several unique artistic renderings of interpretations of Joseph Smith’s First Vision to accompany the republishing of Truman Madsen’s work on the same topic. Totally awesome!

    I have enjoyed the new art included in the Come Follow Me lesson manuals. I love seeing new artists and differing artistic styles represented.

    After years of teaching young children in Primary and elsewhere it became obvious to me how they were influenced by the “official” art they were introduced to. I’ve had children tell me that someone is portrayed wrong because it was a new rending of a common sense in our gospel teachings. If it was different from what they had seen before it was wrong. And supporting their conclusion was the fact they had only ever seen just one portrayal over and over again. Also important is including the diversity that represents God’s children. Seared into my brain is the experience of teaching a group of children that included a black child who could not stop staring at the photo of black men being included in a Priesthood circle blessing a baby. I assumed it was the first time she had seen people of her color in that role. I was SO glad that sensitive people had made that photograph possible.

  9. JC
    May 11, 2020 at 10:10 pm
  10. Wayfaring Stranger
    May 11, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    Joes, I too really miss the cultural arts lessons in Relief Society. Whether we discussed great visual art, poetry, literature or music my spirit was always nourished and uplifted. When those lessons ended and the RS, EQ and HPs all had to study teachings of the prophets our RS president made time twice a month for me to teach basic music history and share music with the sisters that they could then share with their families. I had lists of pieces, composers and interesting facts about the music that I made into handouts for all to use. Our bishop would always pop into the RS room for this portion of our meeting time. As a result he was much more willing to allow the choir and other ward members to perform more than just the hymns. Unfortunately, when he was released we got a bishop who considered singing even the requisite hymns a waste of good time.

  11. GEOFF -AUS
    May 12, 2020 at 12:32 am

    Agree with wayfarer, and would add that when all could participate during the week, musical numbers on Sunday were for the exceptional. My wife was trained as an opera singer, and sung with the covent Garden Opera company in London. She sang regularly in Sacrament, thought not in the last 30 years. Usually she sang music from masters like Handle.

    We have the young women sing in church, now and then, but they always sing plastic church music from Utah, music which seems to have no climaxes or highlights, just drones on.

    We have a brother with a testimony of the BoM being in the great lakes, who does not like the stone buildings in the friburg artworks in the chapels and temple.

    There are some exceptional chapels in tourists areas. Yellowstone has a chapel with an open fire,(from memory at each end of the chapel). When I was in the bishopric of Leura ward in the blue mountains in Australia, someone decided we warranted a tourist chapel. An award winning architect came from Sydney, and asked us about our beliefs. The building had the baptismal font in the foyer (central belief should not be hidden), the hallway had an arched ceiling, the chapel had windows at the peak of the ceiling, and moon bowls along one side, that were like giant rain water gutters 2m in diameter that reflected light onto the ceiling including the ripples from the water.
    The building won awards and most Sundays there were architecture students looking.

    I don’t know of any others tourist chapels, are there?

    Each temple has artwork in the first room of the endowment that represents the local country, and are quite good. In the newer and smaller temples anyway. They make you feel less American, and that little bit special.

    I am a car nut. All the church owned cars in Australia are toyotas, reliable but mediocre.(which pretty much describes church art now) In my youth the mission presidents drove GM top of the range, but we had one mission pres who bought himself a new jaguar. He went on to be an Apostle. He may have had pride, but he had taste too. My wife drives a Jaguar XF at present, (we are talking about art), but I am working on a Mercedes S550e, which should be even better.

    Something strange to note. Some of the most incredible art is in the vatican. The cistine chapel,(Michael Angelo did the artwork) and the corridores that lead up to it, full of old masters. A couple of widows in our ward went to Rome. They went to the new LDS temple, but not go to the vatican or the collaseum. I have not been to Rome since the LDS temple has been completed, but pretty sure it does not compare to the work of the old masters.

    We seem to prefer LDS mediocrity to world class excelence.

    Though we do have the new emblem of the church?

  12. GEOFF -AUS
    May 12, 2020 at 12:36 am

    I have difficulty getting comments to come up on this site, but often they come up with a second comment

  13. GEOFF -AUS
    May 12, 2020 at 12:48 am

    Appearently the art in chapels is about to become more uniform, so you can go to any chapel in the world and see pictures of white men.

    https://www.the-exponent.com/art-in-meetinghouse-foyers/

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