What is the best thing you have to devote to the Kingdom of God? It is the talents God has given you.
Discourses of Brigham Young, 445
What is the best thing you have to devote to the Kingdom of God? It is the talents God has given you.
Discourses of Brigham Young, 445
Alliance of Covenant Artists – Vision and Goals
Herman C. du Toit, Ph.D.
Founding Executive Director of ACA
Adapted from a talk given at the inaugural Spring Symposium
Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Lake City, Utah
March 29, 2018
Herman du Toit, Consider I, charcoal on rag paper, 32 x 48 ins. Private collection.
By way of introduction, I would like to explain exactly what the purposes and goals of the Alliance of Covenant Artists (ACA) are. We are simply a group of artists who are believing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who seek to share beauty, truth, light, and hope with the world through inspired and refined reverential works of art, that strengthen testimonies and lead all to Christ.
In doing so ACA has taken a stand on three of the most contested topics in the world of contemporary art. The first is the very concept of fine art, the second is beauty, and the third is standards. ACA stands unashamedly and unequivocally for fine art, beauty, and standards in the visual arts.
Many of us have college degrees in fine art. Most university and college art departments award degrees in fine art such as BFA and MFA degrees. There are many museums of fine art. However, the very basis of the concept “fine art” has been eroded by the postmodern world in favor of uninhibited idiosyncratic self-expression of the artist in an insatiable quest for the novel and the new, often for no other purpose than to subvert time-honored skills and aesthetic standards, and to gain attention for the artist. ACA does not hold to the dictum expressed in 1932 by Kurt Schwitters, one of the founders of the Dada movement, that “Anything that the artist spits is art!”
Standard dictionary definitions indicate that fine art is art created primarily for aesthetic value or beauty, distinguishing it from the applied arts, such as pottery or metalwork, which usually serve some practical purpose. The concept of fine art first arose in European academic traditions and dates back to the Italian Renaissance. Originally the five main fine arts were: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry, with performing arts including theater and dance. Today, the fine arts commonly include additional forms, such as printmaking, photography, video production, and conceptual art.
Our understanding of fine art has been obfuscated by the ongoing polemic surrounding the definition of art in a postmodern world. It is ACA’s desire to counter these often self-serving and specious arguments and restore the normative definition of fine art as the talented expression of refined sensibility through the skillful use of media in response to an informed appreciation of the human condition and its environment. We are not here today to answer the question of whether or not there is a so-called “Mormon art.” Rather we would like to support and promote our understanding of fine art and beauty, as Latter-day Saints, given our knowledge of the nature, origin, and purpose of this world as a home for Heavenly Father’s spirit children, and as an integral part of the Plan of Salvation.
Fine art can therefore be defined by the following criteria:
Fine art is therefore closely aligned with the concept of beauty. However, beauty in the visual arts has become an equally contested topic in the postmodern world. Historically, the concept of beauty was clear and unambiguous. The term is used in the scriptures candidly, unequivocally, and without qualification as if it were within everyone’s grasp to clearly understand, identify, and appreciate in all its forms. Beauty brings us pleasure and satisfaction because it strikes a cord deep within our souls that yearns both consciously and subconsciously for unity with the divine order of things – an aspiration that is universal, and often expressed as the aesthetic impulse. However, we should take care to resist the ephemeral attraction of clichéd or banal manifestations that often masquerade as beautiful. True beauty brings joy, and edification; it is couched in refined expressions that instruct us in the finer qualities of life and brings us closer to the celestial order of things. We should guard against what Hugh Nibley recognized in contemporary Latter-day Saint culture as the “incurable appetite for trite and sentimental ‘kitsch’“ – and against those who would derive gain from exploiting this predilection.
Because the presentational paradigm of beauty in art resonates so powerfully with the individual viewer, it has become a prime target for those who would use it as a platform for promoting their own political and social agendas. In these cases the notion of beauty is abrogated in favor of attention-getting presentations that often usurp the elemental concepts of what could possibly be considered fine art. In the worst of these instances art becomes the handmaiden to selfish and corrosive expressions of the most intractable and aberrant kind, often shifting the paradigm of what could possibly be considered fine art to crass appeals to the viewer’s sense of political correctness, social justice, environmental responsibility, or moral rectitude. Moreover, this is often attempted with scant regard for aesthetic value, or even technical proficiency. The content of such “art” tends to be couched in topical issues of the day, in shallow attempts at social relevance, or to represent a partisan point of view. Making fine art a platform for sentiment and intellectual manipulation often results in the substitution of egocentric exhibitionism, political posturing, and social activism for true aesthetic significance, thereby reducing the value of such works to no more than mere propaganda.
Ironically, it is the exposition of true aesthetic value that would more meaningfully address the inequities in society and the prevailing evils of humanity in the long term, nurturing finer sensibilities in the viewer in a more universal and holistic manner. True beauty has a refining influence on the viewer that counters the base predilections of humankind, inspiring the viewer to act with more compassion toward others, more concern for our God-given environment, and with more courage in facing systemic social evils and political turpitude.
However, the secular world has a problem with the very notion of beauty. This apparent contradiction lies in the attendant meanings of beauty that allude to qualities such as charm, grace, elegance, loveliness, comeliness, goodness, authenticity, attractiveness, nobility, harmony, divine order, moral rectitude, etc. These are values that are not easily accepted by a postmodern world that rejects such notions as mere unjustifiable value judgments, or as a threat to First Amendment rights to freedom of expression when predicated as desirable universal standards.
Aristotle saw an inseparable connection between beauty and virtue. He argued that virtue aims at the beautiful. The fact is there are normative values associated with beauty that the secular world would like to ignore or at least marginalize. Consequently, the term is rarely used in college art programs or at universities where designating something as being “beautiful” convicts one of making a subjective value judgment. These theorists would have us believe that there are no universal values or meta principles that espouse beauty. It could be said of such that “they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (D&C 1:16).
Dale Fletcher, a former chair of the department of fine art at BYU, was shocked at the erosion of aesthetic standards in the professional and academic world of his day. In 1967 he declared: “We are brought at length to open surrender to the predicament – [evident] in the black square, the soup can, the raw portrayal of sexual confusion, the twiddling of the optic nerve.” He was no doubt referring to Kasimir Malevich’s notorious Black Painting, to Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Can series, and to unspecified works extolling “sexual confusion.” Fletcher used these works as examples of the degeneration of true standards in the fine arts. One wonders what he would have thought of the art that finds its way into prominent museums and galleries in our day. When it comes to being successful in the secular contemporary art world, John Seed, a painter and art writer had this to say in a recent article in the New York Times:
“The artist should rely on subject matter that is ‘deconstructed’ in relation to social, sexual and political issues. Perversity is good, and so are self-conscious strangeness, obsessiveness, and irony. Warholian strategies involving mechanical and technological methods of image making are helpful and can also get you in the front door of the postmodern academy. Sadly, a connection to wealth and/or celebrity can work too.”
Although tongue-in-cheek, this article indicates the further extent to which Dale Fletcher’s art world has degenerated in our day. In the face of these societal and cultural challenges ACA stands at the crossroads of secular and true religious values as a source of truth and light in a darkening world.
Standards reflect values. In a society that regards values as negotiable and relative to circumstances it has become increasingly difficult to even articulate meaningful standards in fine art. However, ACA believes that the absence of standards has consequences similar to a lack of goals, or methodology in any worthwhile pursuit. If we are indeed engaged in the pursuit of excellence we will look to exemplars in our field who are proficient in the use of materials, techniques, composition, design, color management, and who are practiced in anatomy in the depiction of the human figure, etc.
In coming to terms with how religiously motivated art is defined in ACA’s vision, it has been useful to differentiate two modalities:
Reverential art is art that is created in an attitude of deep respect and awe of one’s subject matter – be it people, places, or objects – revealing the essential God-created nature of things (Moses 3:4-5). It involves a humbling of the self in acknowledgment of God’s hand that moves throughout His creation and bears record of Him in all things (Moses 6:63).
Devotional art is art that is made in sincere adoration of the Divine through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Art in this category is intended to act as an instrument in drawing the artist and viewer closer to God in an attitude of prayerful contemplation and devoted veneration of Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ and Their dealings with humankind.
It would also be useful to look at another significant dimension of religious art:
WHAT IS REPRESENTATIONAL ART AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Most religious art throughout the centuries has been representational in character; however, we seem to have lost our understanding of the use and power of representation in art. Representation has received a bad rap in postmodern circles. I have heard a work of art being criticized for being “merely representational.”
In popular literature mimesis, realism, and naturalism are often used interchangeably; however, there is an important distinction that can be made with regard to the concept of mimesis that helps to clarify a more informed use of the term “representation.” The key to understanding the nature of representation in the arts is found through a closer scrutiny of the Greek term mimesis. It can be said that a more accurate definition of mimesis is the missing dimension in fully understanding representation.
Whereas mimicry attempts to render an exact duplicate of an event or phenomenon, and imitation also seeks to copy an original, mimesis adds a new dimension: it re-enacts and re-presents an event, a subject, or relationship in a nonliteral yet intelligible manner through the eyes and perception of the artist.
In confronting and experiencing reality, the artist re-presents the phenomenon that is the subject of the artwork through the lens of his or her own worldview. In this manner the artist can imbue the portrayal with significance specific and unique to his or her perception. This is the value of an artist’s portrayal. It provides for a brief instant a window into another’s unique realization of the world – a world that can be imbued with personally perceived significance by the artist. This is how the artist can use representation to draw attention to significances that would otherwise go unnoticed or misunderstood, casting light into areas that would otherwise remain obscure or in darkness, and provide sacral insights that are meaningful and profound.
According to neuropsychologist Merlin Donald, “Mimetic representation remains a central factor in human society and is at the very center of the arts.”
WHAT IS ACA LOOKING FOR IN THE ART OF ITS MEMBERS?
Here are a few of the characteristics that ACA looks for in curating exhibitions of reverential and devotional art:
ACA has a special interest in art that portrays the poignant strivings of Heavenly Father’s children, the dealings of Divinity with humankind, and talented depictions of the natural world with its beauty and splendors: “For the earth comes from the hand of the Creator most glorious and beautiful, with great rivulets, small streams, and mountains and hills to give variety and beauty to the scene designed by God as a place of beauty and delight.”
Through its association with the More Good Foundation (another Church aligned non-profit organization) ACA has partnered with several leading LDS blogs and social media channels in 15 languages that serve numerous countries around the world. Through this alliance ACA hopes to increase its reach in assisting its members to gain the maximum exposure and impact for their work internationally.
“Let us … show to the world that we have talent and taste, and prove to the heavens that our minds are set on beauty and true excellence, so that we can become worthy to enjoy the society of angels.”
In the words of Joseph Smith: “…shall we not go on in so great a cause?” (D&C 128:22).
 Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, 1989, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 2
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
 John Steed, Hell Has Frozen Over: Figurative Art Is Poised to Become the ‘Next Big Thing.’ The New York Times, December 6, 2017
 Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, 1989, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 7
 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11:305
Articles & Talks
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