Author and Scholar Richard Bushman joins us with Glen Nelson, founder of the Mormon Artists Group to discuss their upcoming Mormon Arts Center Festival. They also discuss a work chosen from the Church History Museum Collection by Daniel Everett, a photographer who captured an abstract image of the Provo City Center Temple.
The Mormon Arts Center Festival will run from June 29-July 1 in New York. Click the image to visit their website to buy tickets, see the schedule of events, and get updates from the Mormon Arts Center.
A transcript of the discussion follows:
Micah Christensen: Welcome to Mormon Visual Culture, a podcast presented by theZion Art Society and hosted by me, Micah Christiansen. This year, we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of Spencer W Kimball’s landmark talk, the Gospel Vision of the Arts through discussions with prominent artists, collectors and scholars about the artwork that has inspired them and shaped LDS culture. Doctor Richard Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University, where distinguished himself as a scholar of American history. He is the author of the book, Joseph Smith - Rough Stone Rolling, among others and is 1 of 3 editors of the Joseph Smith papers project. He is joined today by Glen Nelson, a poet, librettist, publisher, writer and a ghost writer of several New York Times non fiction best sellers. Nelson is also the founder of the Mormon Artists Group. Together, Richard Bushman and Glen Nelson are the founders and organizers of the Mormon Arts Center Festival, which will be held in New York this summer and they are joining us via Skype from New York City. Well, as is our tradition with this podcast, we start off talking about a work of art by an LDS fine artist and you chose a work by the Photographer Daniel Everett. It is Untitled 2014 and it is located in the church history museum collection. Can you describe the work for us? Either one of you.
Glen Nelson: Okay. Richard’s nodding at me, so I get the nod on this one. So, it’s a manipulated image to start with. It’s the temple in Provo when it was under construction and wrapped in construction materials, so it’s covered with sort of a Mylar fabric that’s a blue and white stripes. When I say it’s manipulated though, it has a series of Photoshop manipulations to it, so it’s kind of a built up image. It looks like a minimalist painting from a distance and then when you get closer, you realize it has set backs where the eves of the temple appear and other construction materials, like a fence to keep things from falling onto the workers and so forth. It’s fabulously disorienting in a way, isn’t it? It’s one of those things that, when you look at it, it begs you to look and keep examining to find out exactly what you’re looking at, at first. In playing a game with people, we show this to them and ask them what they think it is. We don’t tell them the subject matter and a few people have figured it out just by looking at it. There are some clues to it. On the top left corner, there are these turrets of the temple, if you’re familiar with the building, they kind of become pronounced, even if they’re covered this way. Some people have had an ah hah moment when they figure it out.
Micah: So, when you say you’ve shown it to people, in what context?
Richard Bushman: Well, we’ve been talking to various groups that are interested in knowing more about the center and to illustrate what we’re up to. We use this as an example of the kind of art that artists are doing. That’s a departure from the usual devotional art of scriptural scenes or Mormons at worship. Instead, it approaches church materials from a bleak angle. We tossed this out to them and had them guess what’s going on and then asked them, is this Mormon art or not?
Micah: What are the kinds of answers you get?
Richard: They fumble around a little bit, but I think there’s kind of a yes, probably. I think they’re willing to go along with it.
Glen: There’s no question that it is different than the kind of thing that when Mormons are asked to identify Mormon artwork. I think that we probably all agree that we’re used to seeing representational art of gospel narratives. Those kinds of scenes. To show them this kind of art to put it in the same category would be, for some, a little bit of a mindset change, but probably a welcome one, right? It is the kind of thing that you find people are curious and positive about when you have a conversation about it.
Richard: You know, I would be curious to know what the docents of the Church History Museum have to say about this. This work has been hanging for about 2 years across the street from Temple Square, in the museum there and it’s on the 2nd floor with a bunch of other contemporary artworks. My guess is that people read the panel to describe it and find themselves being more attracted to it than they thought they might be.
Glen: Yeah. I would imagine and it’s probably part of the artist’s game. It’s playing into the idea that it’s, and Daniel Everett’s work in general, as far as I’m familiar with it, is one of playing on people’s curiosity. He photographs pieces. He makes some things that are familiar, somewhat abstracted. He’ll give a title, like Untitled that doesn’t give a great deal more information, but then the description leads to more of a context and that seems like a journey for the viewer. It would be, you look at this scene, which is beautifully composed, which has a lot of interesting things to look at, but is somewhat abstracted and then you look at the title. That’s not necessarily helpful and it makes you look even closer, but then you look at the description and I show this to 5 or 6 people as we were preparing for this interview today. For every one of them, they went through that journey. When they learned that it was the Provo City Center Temple, their feeling was one of absolute delight, like they had been rewarded for all of the work they had done leading up to it.
Micah: I agree with that because you can picture a photograph of the temple with aspires and the sunset behind it and people would look at that and say, isn’t that beautiful or pretty? But what you have here is you’re going at the temple from a strange angle, but you still end up saying it’s gorgeous. He’s shown us beauty where we wouldn’t expect to find beauty. It’s sort of a happy moment to see that beautiful things can be discovered in new ways.
Micah: Daniel Everett. Do either of you know him personally or have had any experiences with him?
Richard: Yeah, I do.
Micah: Can you tell us a little bit about him?
Glen: Well, I mean, one of the reasons I was interested in choosing this piece for our discussion today is I own a few of his works and he’s part of an important group in Mormon art history really. He’s part of the first generation of students who have gone en mass to grad school in art. So, he and his brother Peter both teach at Brigham Young University. Daniel is an Associate Professor there and they’re the first ones to both participate themselves as students in grad school and then encourage an entire new generation of young Mormon artists to aspire to that kind of career. I think the consequence of that is these younger Mormon artists are much more engaged in what’s going on in contemporary art with their peers, nationally and internationally, than they had been before. That’s one of the reasons that I sort of was drawn to him just sort of from a historical point of view, but his work is just all over the place. He does things with photography. He’s involved with video games and installation. He’s mostly, to my mind, kind of a conceptual artist really. They all have an elegance to them and a formal presence to them, but what they really are inviting the viewer to do is puzzle it out. Try to figure out why someone is reacting to a work in a way that’s a part of their own device.
Micah: I familiarized myself with his work a little bit in past contests that I had been involved, in either organizing or judging and I learned that he had studied at BYU initially and then as you say, initially gone to graduate school at the University of Chicago. But it was in between those 2 periods that he became very close with the very celebrated photographer, Edward Burtynsky, who himself, has kind of taken on the mantle of, I don’t know if it’s fair to say Ansel Adams. Burtynsky says Ansel Adams and several other artists who were known for doing large landscapes. I kind of wonder about how that connection happened. Burtynsky isn’t necessarily, I don’t know if he has any connection to the Mormon community. I haven’t been able to find anything that would, but it seems like some of the artists that are graduating from BYU, Jethro Gillespie would be another example of this, have gone on to form relationships with prominent artists, photographers, outside of, and I would put photographers and artists in the same group. They’ve put themselves in lead with artists who aren’t associated with the LDS community. I don’t know how he made that connection, but it’s notable. It’s very notable.
Richard: Well, you know Daniel is exhibited all over the place.
Richard: He’s had group shows and one person shows throughout Europe and in the US as well and is published by some very powerful players in the photography world. He’s not an unknown entity to other people. I just don’t know if he’s that well known to us yet.
Micah: Well this touches on a topic that I’ve seen you write about Glen. You recently wrote an article for the site, By Common Consent, and you said that many Mormons don’t know who their own greatest artists are. You compared it to a student at a historically black college not knowing who Langston Hughes or Ella Fitzgerald were. Do you think that that’s true of Daniel Everett in particular and how does that show up in general?
Richard: Well, I can’t speak to Daniel’s, you know, I haven’t done a poll to see how well he’s known, although the Church History Museum owns multiple works by him. I would say, generally speaking, you could go to any church house in the world and ask anybody sitting next to you who their list of artists would be and I don’t think there would be a lot of overlap. I think we all know people, but the question is we’re not really communicating between ourselves who it is that we know and admire.
Micah: So, who are some of the Langston Hughes and the Ella Fitzgerald and the unknown artists that you think that we should know as a community even better?
Richard: Well, I think I won’t tell you what I think on that. There are people that probably should form a baseline of, if we want to call in Mormon arts literacy and I think those would include people who are well known and loved, but in addition to those, there are people that others outside of the church know in the arts. For example, if you were to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art and ask them, who are the Mormon artists in your collections? They would list, first of all, the early Mormon photographers, like C R Savage and others. So for them really, photography is kind of Ground Zero for art scholarship. But with all of us, I think we have relationships with individuals that have not been as effective in sharing them with others.
Micah: Well, this gets a little bit to the, not just a little bit, but it goes directly to the Mormon Arts Center Festival that you will be hosting this summer in New York. It runs from June 29th to July first. What is the website where people can go to find out more information about this, first of all?
Richard: It’s simply mormonartscenter.org. That will give you all the information about the events that are being sponsored. Some of the events require tickets, so you can buy tickets and some things about the purpose of the arts center. It’s really a way to sort of get the whole picture in one package.
Micah: Terrific. Let’s talk about, well tell us about the Art Festival. Either one of you.
Richard: Well, we think of the Arts Festival as sort of the kickoff event for what we hope will be a permanent arts center that will last and continue to sponsor events into the future, but the aim is to bring together Mormon artists, Mormon scholars, Mormon patrons and people who are influential in the Mormon community to talk. We think that one of our main aims is to foster conversation, so that art is something that we can work into our ways of thinking. We have a symposium that’s going to go all day, bring together art historians and philosophers. Historians, generally. Then we want to display art, so we have this terrific exhibit that Laura Hurtado is sponsoring and all the artists were paid for all the artists to come, hoping they will meet patrons and get questions asked. Then we go on with singing and a concert, so it’s a variety of things representing the range of art, especially art as it is being produced now. Hoping that this will be a starting point for lots of talk.
Micah: If I were to go to the festival, it sounds like there is various aspects of it. There’s one, is the symposium, which is somewhat scholarly. Would that be accurate?
Richard: Yes. We tried to get some very good scholars there and we’re giving them President Kimball’s famous declaration from 50 years ago and asking them to meditate on that and ask where we’ve gone.
Micah: Who are some of the figures that will be speaking and presenting in the symposium section of the festival?
Richard: Well, Glen Nelson leads the list. He knows more about Mormon art than anyone. We also have Michael Hicks, Eric Samuelson, and John Durham Peters, recently moved to Yale. We have Jana Reese and Christine Haglan. It’s a range of people who have done various things in various parts of Mormon history and philosophy. Adam Miller will be there. It’s quite a range.
Micah: This, as you mentioned, is the year that is the 50th anniversary of the Gospel Vision of the Arts originally given in 1967 by Spencer W Kimball. Is that the theme of the symposium? People’s discussion of the 50th anniversary?
Richard: Yes. We propose that is sort of the thematic starting point, but of course when you get together 11 scholars with their own points of view, they’re going to go all over the lot. It’s not narrowly focused on measuring exactly how far we’ve come or what we have to do.
Micah: That’s part of the delight of these events, isn’t it? That you give people a theme and then they go with it in directions you may have not been able to anticipate, right?
Richard: Exactly right. One of the speakers is Campbell Gray, who is the curator of the University of Queensland Museum and the title of his talk is, “Is it Possible?”
Micah: Is it possible?
Richard: Is it possible.
Richard: Well, yes. What does it mean?
Micah: Well, we’ll find out, I guess. Those of us who go to the festival. I guess we’ll find out. Let me ask about what your goals are. Well, before I ask about goals, who are the kinds of people, in addition to those presenting and the artists being shown, who do you hope will come?
Glen: Well, attendance is one metric, but we’re also concerned generally with participation. I don’t want to underestimate the value of having all of these people in the room. I think it’s going to be pretty exciting, that part of it. There are 23 visual artists who are participating in the exhibition and then 23 writers wrote works, essays and poems and other things based on those works for a catalog. That takes us almost up to 50. Then we have symposium speakers and other presenters. We have musicians and curators of concerts. Craig Jessup from Utah State is leading a giant sing in of contemporary choral work. The kind of people we imagine will attend are just sort of the kind of people we imagine to be interesting and interested in Mormon arts, but the way that people can participate extends beyond those who are just in attendance. We’re doing, everything will be taped and put on YouTube and other social media platforms. There will be some live, Facebook live programming with some sort of curated content and live responses as we go along. Even someone who isn’t going to be in New York at the end of June will still be able to really get a piece of this and I also think can really feel included and be able to give us feedback during and after the festival.
Micah: I’m fascinated with this idea and we’ve had conversations before about this Glen, about the idea of collaborations between people working in different media. Artists and writers, musicians, composers, all being thrown together in the same place and things that come of that. It’s almost as if it’s a return to what we’d call 19th or early 20th century cafe society where the cafe Greco in Italy or the Four Cats in Barcelona where you’ve got groups of artists and writers who are coming together and sparks are flying. Is that one of the things that your goal is to do? And if so, how do you hope that they’ll interact? How are you creating an environment where they will?
Richard: I had an email just last night from someone who I haven’t met before. He’s a poet and also a historian who works for the Church History Department and he was wondering if he could do some sort of satellite event during the festival, maybe during a lunch hour where people come and just read recent works. I said, go for it and so, there’s a little park in front of Riverside Church and I think that’s where it will happen. That’s the kind of thing that I imagine can happen organically. But to your comment, I’m deeply influenced by that turn of the century excitement, particularly in Paris where you had the event, the painters and musicians and dancers all coming together and forming these new works. The most frequent comment I hear from Mormon artists around the country and abroad as well is how isolated they feel. I’m also getting these from people who live in Utah. They’re working at a high level, but they just don’t really feel like other people around them are aware of their work and likewise, they’re not aware of other people. As I am sometimes able to introduce, let’s say, a composer to a painter or to a writer, I find that they really want to form attachments and start working on projects together. For me, that’s a pretty exciting thing.
Micah: This then, for me, begs a question. If your goal is connectivity with all of these artists in disparate locations, if that’s part of your goal, then why New York? It’s not a question that is skeptical of New York. Maybe New York is the greatest place to do this, but walk us through why you chose to hold the festival in New York?
Richard: Well, I think a lot of good things could happen in lots of places, Salt Lake included. Provo, Phoenix, and so on. Actually our hope eventually is to be able to sponsor events around the country or around the world. Maybe in Buenos Aires or London, but we all know the magnetic pull of New York City. If you tell a violinist, we would like you to perform in Carnegie Hall, it has kind of a magnetic appeal that a performance be where you couldn’t quite have. Of course, there’s a reason for that because you’re on a world stage. What we’re hoping is that Mormon artists even more will blend with world art trends and think of themselves as contributing to a larger world and not just doing for Mormons. I think Mormon artists already do that. We want to enhance that feeling by putting things here. We don’t kid ourselves that critics from the New York Times are going to turn up to this event and write a column on it, but in time, they will. If we do better and better work, we’ll be like the Jewish Museum, whose shows are of the highest quality and rank with the best things that are being done anywhere. This is a first start, I think, in opening a conversation not only among Mormon artists, but with artists of all kinds, from all cultures.
Micah: Is the Jewish Museum in New York a kind of model that you’re looking at as part of what you hope to create in the long term?
Richard: Actually, it is. We have formed an advisory board and we’re meeting with a former chairman of the board at the Jewish Museum for him to tell the story of how the Jewish Museum got started and how it’s, the problems it has met and the things that it has been able to accomplish. We see that and the Harlem museums and the Hispanic museums, all the places where there’s a culture that is producing art are sort of models of the kind of art or the sort of thing we’d like to do for Mormon culture.
Micah: I imagine that if you’re creating a Spanish, a Jewish museum and you’re in the beginning stages, the people who are the principle audience are those who are in your community, so the Jewish Museum’s greatest early donors and participants and audience were all probably Jewish. Then eventually, as it became known as a world class venue, and I’ve been to performances at the Jewish Museum, etcetera in New York. It reached out more audiences than just the Jewish audience that was in New York that were interested in it. In your thinking of the long term of the Mormon Arts Center in New York that you’re thinking of, is that the trajectory you see? Are you looking just at a Mormon audience in the beginning? Are you hoping to gather more than just a Mormon audience?
Richard: Well, I think your trajectory of how you described who goes to a museum like the Jewish Museum is accurate, but I’ve noticed an additional thing that maybe suggests what might happen with the Mormon Arts Center. I was recently discussing with theChief Curator how he put shows together. What I noticed when I was in the space is although it was true that a lot of people outside of Hispanic culture were in the place, it still had a powerful force as an identity maker. As school children went in and saw exhibits, they were able to say this artwork in a New York museum of high quality speaks directly to me and it comes from my culture and therefore, I’m connected to greatness. I understand in Mormon culture how we want to position ourselves in the eyes of others, but I am quite aware myself and how my kids reacted growing up with Mormon artworks in their home and how they become more strongly connected to belief, even, by the way these artworks have shifted their identity and made them more powerful.
Micah: Your example is interesting because it’s within a neighborhood that identifies with the community and children are going there and seeing artists that come from their community and it is part of the history of that particular community. If you had a Mormon Art Center set up and part of that influence you’re seeking is like the one on your children, I don’t know how many Mormons there are in New York. I guess, are you also counting those who are traveling from, is this something you would want states you want to send people to? There would be tourism for Mormons? I mean, just like anyone else, Mormons travel to New York in huge numbers on a regular basis. Are you planning on this gathering both the locals and the internationals? Are you going to have a huge scope of people you want to have visit?
Glen: Well, I’m going to say something different than what you just described. This is an interesting example because although it resides in Spanish Harlem, they’re very focused on different Hispanic communities all over the world. The museum itself is just sort of a gathering place for all of them, but it’s not really a local museum in one way. One of the things that Richard has been telling me from the very beginning of this endeavor is the importance of scholarship itself and how each of the things we do has to have a scholarship component. It elevates it, so it’s not just putting on a show, putting on a festival, making an exhibition happen, but gathering people together who can write about it, advocate for it, make a case for it and discriminate it to people more widely. I guess when we say we’re going to do a festival when we were inviting people to participate, one of the things you have to remember is there are 4 publications that kind of come out of this festival, just these 3 days. Those will have a life and we imagine that one of the ways that we communicate with other people is through this kind of scholarship.
Micah: Fascinating. So, you’re going to, an integral part of this is not just the physical experience of being at the festival or eventually at the center that’s created, but you will, in a way, be a publication house that will be disseminating information and scholarship about what you’re doing, so it goes well beyond the physical borders of the actual events in space.
Richard: Well, that’s very much the case. What we would like is to produce materials that eventually could be used to instruct and inform widely the strength of Mormon artistic traditions. Right now, I don’t know that any of the Mormon studies Chairs programs around the country are offering courses on Mormon art. One of the reasons it’s difficult is that there isn’t quite enough literature to, we haven’t really digested what is our great artistic tradition and where do we stand? I mean, we’re on our way, but we’ve got a long ways to go and we hope we can contribute to the materials that will allow us to teach maybe even our churches something about the strength of our artistic tradition.
Micah: Something that Glen wrote about Richard in his article, By Common Consent, is he quoted you in saying that Mormon art history or Mormon art, I hope you can correct me if I’m wrong, is where Mormon history was 50 years ago. There’s a long way to go. Could you say more about that? first of all, did I get that right?
Richard: Yeah, you got it right the way you were saying it, but it can be misleading. Mormon history 50 years ago, right after World War 2, was really at a very primitive state in that we had only had 6 PhD’s in history up to World War 2 and the work we did, for the most part, the history that was written for Mormons about their own history that had no acceptance in the academic world. It was thought to be biased. It was thought to be immature, unsophisticated. But then after World War 2, people started flowing into graduate schools. I was one of them. Leonard Arrington was another, and many others. Now there are hundreds of Mormon PhD’s and they’re producing work of the highest order that is accepted by scholars as good as anything that’s done on Mormon history. So, in a way, Mormons have reclaimed their own history. We now possess it. We own it. Mormon artists are much more sophisticated now. They’re working at a very high level, but they don’t quite have the recognition that they deserve in the larger art world, so we sort of want to give them an identity and give them a chance to know one another so that Mormons will be known for their art, not just for their football team or their families or what have you, but the full richness would be accessible.
Micah: It sounds like there are 2 parts to this, at least. I mean, I’m probably being reductive, but it’s not just talking about the artists who are producing today and trumpeting and celebrating their work. You’re also talking about reaching back in time and creating, filling out scholarship on the tradition of LDS art. Is that accurate?
Richard: It’s absolutely accurate. As Glen says, he wants kids to grow up realizing that we just didn’t have pioneers who pulled hand carts across the plains, but we had artists and thinkers and people of real sensibilities who were thinking about and recording this in their art. We have another filler. We want to fill out our tradition. Fill the many dimensions of it.
Micah: I could think off the top of my head, maybe. It’s interesting, maybe a half dozen people around World War 2 who had PhDs in our history and I could probably think of about a dozen art historians who are LDS working at the moment and some of them have written quite important books about the history of LDS art. Linda Gibbs, who is a former curator of the Church Museum of History and Art. Vern Swanson, who has written a number of publications. Do you plan on, maybe not them in particular. Those are just who come to my mind, but do you plan on reaching out to that community and inviting them to be a part of what you’re doing?
Glen: Yeah, actually Linda has already been chatting with us. I mean, there are, it’s sort of a different way of thinking about it, but there are 2 groups that are interested in and we’re engaging. One of them are the scholar people. As you mentioned, there are a number of people who are, let’s say PhDs in musicology or art history, but there’s another side of it, which are almost 100 PhDs in music composition. Right? In visual art, it’s not too common that you have a practicing painter who becomes a PhD. That’s a different kind of metric for them, but really I think what we need to do is engage both of these communities and right now, there’s sort of, if you were to put all of the books on Mormon visual art on a book shelf, you wouldn’t need a very big book shelf. There are really not all that many relative to other fields. We still have a long way to go and I think one of the most exciting parts about this enterprise is If you consider 1830 to the present globally, all of the different disciplines in the arts, right? Painting and poetry and sculpture, choreography and design, architecture, etcetera, we could have hundreds and hundreds of volumes in lots of different ways. That’s one of the things that we are really eager to begin and we are taking a systematic viewpoint, a very ambitious one and so, although the festival is the kickoff point for this, really our focus is going to be how we put some of these ideas, these big picture ideas into practice.
Micah: One of the things that I’ve done with my line of questioning here is I’ve focused almost exclusively on the visual arts, but I should backtrack a little bit and just confirm that you are speaking, like you just said, much more broadly. This festival and the arts center is not just visual arts. It’s also music. You could say more about that. What is your overall, how are you defining the kind of participation and participants that you’re getting?
Richard: The only distinction we’re making really is, we’re drawing a line between creative artists and performing artists. There’s so much work to be done with creative artists, painters and sculptors, composers in all fields, right? From rock music to people who were creating video games to commercial people to fine art composers to folk music, etcetera. All the disciplines. There’s so much work to be done in each of these areas that we feel like it’s more than a lifetime’s worth. We’re going to leave the work of describing what a Mormon actor is or what a Mormon singer is to other people and focus on creative arts, but as far as who was involved with that, one definition that probably should be addressed is, what is Mormon art itself? Who qualifies with this and again, we’re taking a very broad view, but if you self identify as Mormon, then be a part of the conversation. Our feeling is that we really can’t tell our full story unless we know all the details that would make up the story.
Micah: A phrase that both of you have been using throughout the discussion has been, there’s so much work to be done. There’s so much to be done, which goes to… anxiety might be the wrong word. I’m thinking of it more in a scholarly term of the idea of, there’s something that needs to be done. There’s a work that you feel hasn’t been done. You feel an urgency about it. Could you talk more about, what is it that you feel like is not being done and that you’re excited to do that you feel like is central to this idea? How does that work?
Richard: Well, let me give you an example. We’ve been planning a program for 2018 and at the top of the list is the creation of an archive of Mormon music. We’re doing that because Glen has been working on this for a number of years, just kind of on his own, collecting information on some 1,600 Latter Day Saint composers and collecting the basic information. Biographical, where they were born, and so forth. Information on their works, where they’re premiered, when they were performed, so that now it is possible using this archive that he already has in place. If he wants to know what Mormons have written symphonies or those that have written piano concertos or string quartettes, he can bring that information up. We’re getting very close to that. Our aim is to sort of work out a model of where we’re as comprehensive as possible in collecting this information. The advantage of this model nowadays, first of all that it can be done online, so that it’s immediately accessible and in a way, it is self generating. Once it is known that there is an archive of Mormon compositions, everyone who hears about it will want to know, am I part of that archive.
Micah: Right. They’ll want to know, is my name on the list?
Richard: Is my name on the list? If it isn’t on the list, they can get in touch with us and provide us the information. We think it will just sort of fill itself out simply because people want themselves or their grandfather or someone they know who composes part of that collection.
Glen: If I could chime in. In practice, how this works is the in String Quartet is coming to the festival and they wanted to perform a program exclusively by Mormon composers, which is something they’ve never done before. I was able, in about 3 minutes, to just type into this database of mine, string quartettes and up came 144 entries. I sent that off to them and they said, we had no idea that there was so much work. That’s one example of how this kind of scholarship can be put into practice really quickly. The 2nd 1 is, let’s say, going back to identity a little bit, if you’re a Spanish speaking member of the church and 1 5th of the entire church population is, it might become apparent to you after a little while that there are no LDS hymns that are written by Spanish composers and haven’t ever been. What would happen if members who are Spanish speaking became aware of the half dozen or so living Spanish composers of note, I think that would make them feel better, wouldn’t it? I mean it would make them feel more part of the conversation. I think when we say what our aims are regarding broadening the cannon, I think eventually it trickles down to every member is important and if they have some sort of touch stone to the arts, that connection, it can only be stronger for them.
Micah: You know what? As you’re talking, one of the things that occurs to me is for the longest time, the church has had the policy in its sponsorship of artists and of patronizing artworks that artists remain somewhat anonymous from their works. There are good reasons for that that I completely understand. We wouldn’t necessarily want to have someone get a work by the church and use that to promote themselves. I know artists are very sensitive to that. But the consequence for that and I think we all know artists who have had that experience, where they have licensed and worked with the church. They are no longer able to necessarily promote that. The consequences that, there’s an anonymizing of artists that’s gone on for several decades within the church. What I hear that you are doing and what’s exciting about it is that you are giving names to these artists. You’re making people aware of them and it doesn’t compromise the church’s overall goal, which is I imagine to use the arts strictly for devotional purpose, right? Here, you’re able to create a place that allows people to find out more about who is similar to them, who has created around them, what they’re creating, where to see it, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily the church’s job. Other people need to fill that in. That’s just me thinking out loud I guess. It sounds like that’s what you’re doing. That’s exciting to me.
Richard: Well, we’re not really reformers. I mean, that’s not really our purpose to sort of imagine how the church could do things differently than it is.
Micah: I’m not suggesting that they should, necessarily. No.
Richard: Right. But we do feel like this kind of information could be quite a powerful resource to others, including the church in its operations. That’s sort of been our focus.
Micah: Well, we’re close to the end of our time together. We’ve been asking all of our guests a final question and I guess, I’ll ask it to both of you and either one of you can respond or both of you can. 50 years ago, as you mentioned, Spencer W Kimball said that we have the potential for a Mormon Michelangelo, which he explained as being someone who, through the arts, can express our highest values as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 2 Questions about that. first, do you think we’ve reached that potential? Do we have people expressing our highest values in art at a high level right now?
Richard: I think the people who are doing the art have to, in effect, bare testimony, but in a very authentic way. They don’t use standard language. They may not think of it as a testimony, but artists really have to consult their inner voices in order to produce good art. It’s not a mechanical process. There’s this painter that we’ve discovered in Africa who paints his incredibly compelling huge abstractions and he says, this is God. I think that we have to recognize that these people are, in a way, speaking for us.
Micah: Let me ask you Glen, this question. It seems like part of what is fascinating to me and we’ve asked other people this question of, have we achieved Spencer W Kimball’s vision and reached that potential? Often, people’s immediate answer is no. It seems like the question you’re answering with the Mormon Arts Festival is different. The question you’re answering isn’t, how do we get better art? It’s not that question. It’s, how do we let people know about the great things that are happening? Is that accurate?
Glen: Yeah. I mean, when I was a grad student at NYU and the whole anxiety of modernism was just everywhere in every conversation. Was it new enough? Was it a breakthrough work? If not, oh no. So, we judged ourselves quite a bit on the past. What I found over time was, and you know this was also in the era of Derrida and deconstruction. What I found was all of that anxiety was forcing people to not create anything. I think that there’s some negative consequences of comments looking for the next masterpiece all the time. What I’m finding as I talk with these artists is, they want to communicate. That’s what they want to do. They want to do their best work. That’s really what they want to do. Of the 23 visual artists who work here, I had never even heard of about a 3rd of them before a couple of months ago. You know, the more that I really look and look at their works, what I’m finding is that each one has such an individual voice. I think that that’s something that is easy to lose when you have an institution like a church commissioning works. In a way, it’s almost like you don’t want an individual voice. You want a branded generalized voice. This is an exciting moment in time, I think for all of us in the church to realize what Mormon means is quite broad. You have people who are fully participating, like we are, and then other people who haven’t been inside a church house for years and years, who still consider themselves fully Mormon. Then you have other people whose work draws from their Mormon history, but who don’t consider that part of their belief system at all anymore. There’s a very large range of what, even the word Mormon means, as an adjective for Mormon art. I don’t think it’s our place to really close ranks on a firm definition. I think now is the time to spread our arms a little wide and see what’s going on and then later kind of process that and see where we’ve been.
Micah: Right. Well, gentlemen, I can’t thank you enough for joining us today and I’m also very excited about the festival and I will be there myself. I plan on being there for that weekend. Thank you so much for coming.
Richard: Enjoyed it very much Micah. Thanks for having us.
Glen: Thank you.
Micah: I’d like to thank Richard Bushman and Glen Nelson for joining us for this episode of Mormon visual culture, represented by the Zion Art Society. You can see the work we discussed by Daniel Everett on our website, zionartsociety.org under the podcast tab, along with information about the Mormon Art Center Festival and links to register and buy tickets. For more interviews with artists, collectors and scholars, subscribe to Mormon Visual Culture on iTunes. I’m Micah Christensen and thank you for listening.