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
The Artistic Talent
Elder Douglas L. Callister
Emeritus General Authority Seventy
From an address given Thursday, March 29, 2018
at the inaugural Fine Art & Faith Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah
The Last Supper, Scott Rogers
Dear honored guests:
It is a privilege to address so many gifted sons and daughters of God, whose artistic talents do so much to add richness and joy to the world. I am aware that each of you has paid a handsome price to refine and perfect your talent, and that not all of that price has been paid since the moment of your birth.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provides us with this fine insight as to the premortal estate: "During the long expanse of time which then was, an infinite variety of talents and abilities came into being. As the ages rolled, no two spirits remained alike. Mozart became a musician; Einstein centered his interest in mathematics; Michelangelo turned his attention to painting. . . . There was as great a variety and degree of talent and ability among us there as there is among us here. Some excelled in one way, others in another."
If each of you could look behind the veil and remember your pre-mortal life you might see yourself in an artist's studio, busily engaged in producing grand art works, some of which you may be permitted to view again when your earthly journey is complete.
Birth has taken from you your memory of pre-mortal life, but it has not diminished the talents you developed there. When you by inclination take your brush and canvas in hand, you are returning to an activity which you loved and nurtured for many years before the trumpet sounded for you to come to his earth.
Perhaps Elder Neal A. Maxwell had this in mind when he wrote: "When we rejoice in beautiful music, it is but the flexing of instincts acquired in another place and another time." Art was once more a part of you than you can presently remember.
It would be revelatory to see the art which adorns Heavenly Father's home. Rembrandt died almost 350 years ago. What masterpieces has he produced since then? It is unthinkable that he has been indolent or that heaven has neglected his talent. Whatever talent Rembrandt possessed when he left this earth is greater now, especially if he paints with the light of the gospel. What has Michelangelo sculpted since his passing that would cause his statuary of David and Moses to pale in comparison? These men were poets with a brush and a chisel.
The craftsmanship of a Stradivarius violin was a work of art, in addition to being a remarkable instrument of sound. What instruments has he made in heaven? Has there been an improvement on the piano or the organ?
Are there shapes in heaven we have not imagined? Are there colors we do not know? Are there museums in heaven? If so, what magnificent works do they display from artists of this world and perhaps other worlds that have been? Do these museums include masterpieces from any of you, reflecting a talent you once nourished and are now endeavoring to remember and express?
We have no present answers for these questions and dozens of others, but we may feel comfortable in the assurance that the refined nature of God naturally inclines Him to live in an environment of artistic beauty. And that is the environment in which you, also, lived for an unimaginably long period of time before you were born. It was your real home.
Jedediah M. Grant was a counselor to Brigham Young in the First Presidency of the Church. Just before he passed away he told Heber C. Kimball that he had been permitted to visit the spirit world on two nights in succession; only with reluctance did he return to his body. He described the great order of heaven. There was "no darkness, disorder, or confusion." He then described the beautiful buildings he saw, comparing them favorably to anything on this earth. He added: "I have seen good gardens on this earth, but I never saw any to compare with those that were there. I saw flowers of numerous kinds, and some with fifty or a hundred different colored flowers growing on one stalk."
Whoever creates a world must be an artist. God is. This varied and exquisite earth reminds us of His artistic skills. The universe with its brilliant, starry heavens, is further evidence of God's artistic attentiveness. God is an artist, just as He is a gardener, a physician, and many other things.
We will never be able to create beautiful heavens and earths ourselves if we have not paused to appreciate the artistry of our present world. Our earth is more than functional; it is stunning. Much of its beauty comes from its variety. There must be seasons and deserts and mountains and prairies and oceans and rivers and cloudy skies and sun-filled days and raindrops and hundreds of types of vegetation, just to satisfy our aesthetic urges. Innately we hunger for beauty if only we do not numb ourselves to it by failure to observe. Art and color add to the sum of human joy. If colors were taken from the world and all we saw were black and white, we would suffer a great loss. Likewise, if there were no paintings, statuary, or photographs to enrich a building, our deprivation would be very great.
President Gordon B. Hinckley taught: "It is . . . important to enhance one's appreciation of the arts and culture which are the very substance of civilization. Can anyone doubt that good music is godly or that there can be something of the essence of heaven in great art?"
President Boyd K. Packer expressed his concern that a coming generation tended to "put Levis on everything." He meant that we may be inclined in dress, manners, conversation, music and art to become so casual and indifferent to real beauty that we distance ourselves from heaven.
I once heard a story of an arrogant American who visited the Louvre in Paris where many of the great art treasures of the world are to be found. The tour eventually caused him to stand before the great painting, Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. After a quick glance the American disdainfully said, "I don't see what is so great about that." The guide quietly whispered, "I know, but I bet you wish you could." There was nothing wanting in the magnificence of the painting, fully justifying the acclaim it has received from the noble and refined over many centuries. There was something wanting in the visitor's capacity to appreciate it. When certain music or art has won the admiration over the centuries of those who have been discerning and earnestly searching for beauty, our failure to appreciate it is not an indictment of the music or the art.
Helen Keller, an admired woman of a generation ago, was both deaf and blind. We may be impressed by her response to a girl who had just taken a walk in the woods, but said she did not see anything special. Helen answered: "Nothing much? To walk through the woods and see 'nothing much' when I, without eyes, touch the bark of the birch, feel its smoothness, and hear the quiver of a bird in song." Then she tells what she would like to see if she could have her sight for just three days.
Consistent with this story, Canon Frederic Farrar, the great Christian apologist, reminds us: "We cannot argue about color to the blind. We cannot prove the glory of music to the deaf. If a man shuts his eyes hard, we cannot make him see the sun." If we refuse to look, see, and hear the finest available, we will never remember what warmed our hearts in our pre-earthly home and our descendants will lose their vision also. It pleases God when we open our eyes and ears to appreciate.
President John Adams encouraged his children in the breadth of things they should ultimately read: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy. . . in order to give to their children the right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain." One senses that these latter subjects are the things which the gods study and that in our quest to ultimately become like them we must become acquainted with all of these subjects.
Religious art has played an important role over the centuries in sustaining the faith of the masses. This was especially true before the Bible became commonly available to a literate population. From paintings, icons, and statuary, impressions were gained of Biblical events, personalities and doctrines. Multiple images were created of Mary holding the Christ child, of the Savior upon the cross, or of one of the miracles. Without art the understanding of the people of religious events and teachings would have been even more obscure. John Stuart Blackie expressed a personal preference when he stated: "The highest art is always the most religious, and the greatest artist is always a devout person."
Carefully chosen religious art, consistent with true doctrine, is abundantly found in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses and temples. These paintings soften the walls of long corridors and suggest worshipful thoughts for the viewers. Such art may have the same influence in our homes. Its very presence may deter boisterous, irreverent voices and arguments. Uplifting art is part of the environment we create if we wish the Spirit of God to be attracted to our homes.
President Heber J. Grant sometimes invited my grandfather to drive him up onto the Avenues at night in Salt Lake City in order to view the temple lit at night. President Grant shed tears, observing "It is always makes me cry when I think our fathers, at great sacrifice, built this temple for us." The very sight of the temple at night stirred his soul. Susa Young Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young, referred to the Salt Lake temple as "that frozen poem." The architecture of that temple, and many others, has been a source of inspiration and testimony to thousands.
Years ago, when the Joseph Smith Building was still being operated as the Hotel Utah, I spent an evening there with my six-year old son. We had secured a room on the west side of hotel, facing Temple Square. Father and son knelt together for evening prayer, following which we looked up and saw that the window of our room exactly framed the spires of the temple, lit at night. My young son began to cry, exclaiming, "I sure love that temple, daddy." Since his birth my wife and I had consistently prayed that the seed of a testimony would blossom in his little heart. The first time I knew that the seed had begun to grow was when he saw the beauty of God's house on that occasion. It was a reminder that artistic beauty can draw us nearer to God. Many children have spontaneously been inspired just by walking or standing in near proximity to a temple. It is a form of art which uplifts us.
It is not Latter-day Saint buildings only which have drawn men and women nearer to God. Great cathedrals, built at sacrifice of the people, have constantly been sources of inspiration. Architecture is a profound form of art and has been admired by the refined and spiritually-sensitive since the beginning of time.
The architecture of the interior of these buildings also manifests the inspiration of God. It may be reflected in stained glass windows, magnificent stone masonry, or graceful arches. It is shown in the circular staircase of the Manti Temple and the pioneer woodwork in the Salt Lake temple. The interior of temples further inspires us by the art hung on the walls. The Bountiful temple is enriched by 259 paintings. Many of them, of course, are excellent quality prints, but there are also a significant number of original paintings, perhaps some of them created by you. When we reflect upon the number of operating temples and their need for original, inspiring art, it should be an encouragement to you to include temple appropriate art in the expression of your talent. The temple, through its art, whispers, not shouts, "This is God's house; His presence is here."
When we reflect on the order, peace, and beauty of a temple's interior, it may be an inspiration for us to further beautify the interior of our own homes. We may imagine what adorned the walls of our pre-earthly home or the walls of the temple. Sometimes when sealing a young couple in the temple I remind them that one of the great lessons of the endowment is that environment matters. Adam and Eve learned that as they left the environment of a lovely garden to enter a lone and dreary world. Even newlyweds, living under modest circumstances, can refine the environment in which they live. I invite them to look at the walls of their home and ask what would be inviting to the noble spirits yet to come to this earth if permitted to see. Often the unperfected art of their own hands will be a blessing. Sometimes inexpensive prints may bring warmth and spirituality to a modest home. I remind them that some art work may be stunning, but they might tire of it if observed many times the same day. Choices should be made with the anticipation of a long-term love affair with the object of art and the sense that the object will be unremitting in its quiet inspiration to the viewer. Great art and great music help transform a house into a home. Pablo Picasso said, "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."
It is hard to imagine a world without music. Brigham Young said that there is no music in hell, and that the greatest music has been reserved for heaven. There could not be a Christmas without carols, a nation without an anthem, a General Conference without the choir and hymns, or an Olympics without its encouraging tones.
In like manner, there could not be a world without inspiring art. Is it possible that hell has no art, just as it has no music? We cannot imagine a temple or Church meetinghouse without grand art. We cannot imagine a world without beautiful paintings, statuary, cathedrals and gardens.
Picasso, the great visual artist, also said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Children explore their world visually. A child's image of Jesus is a retained memory of a softened artistic expression of Him the child has seen. It is not enough that the Master's words express kindness and affection for little children; His face and hands must also.
In Primary, children are frequently taught through the medium of pictures, just as they are through music. They want to use their visual sense. They want to be participative by being chosen as the child to hold the picture at the front of the room for other children to see.
The creation and placement of art can have a calming influence on a child in the same way as a child's favorite storybook, songs, and a blanket. The placement in the child's bedroom of a picture of the Savior, a child praying, or a happy family gathering will be reassuring. A child's favorite book will usually have colored pictures in it.
In addition to adding to the development of a child and enhancing the beauty of a home, art may have a great therapeutic influence on those who are drawn to this outlet for inner expression. Autistic children often find great satisfaction in creative arts. They can sometimes say through art things for which they cannot find words.
Adults with Alzheimer's often cling to artistic expression as one of their last great pleasures in life. Very busy men with weighty responsibilities have found both escape and balance in their few moments available for painting. It was a necessary outlet for Winston Churchill who possessed considerable talent with a brush and palette. Some of the busiest General Authorities have found relief from the pressures of their lives in occasional moments of artistic expression.
Often the intrinsic beauty of an object, as the world measures, is not as determinative of its real worth as is the sacrifice made by the person who created it as an expression of love. Daughters of God, including those in the more advanced years of life, often donate many hours in the creation of a quilt, an altar cloth, exquisite embroidery, or some other manifestation of their handiwork. It is cherished by both the creator and also the recipient of the work because of the loving price paid to create it. Many homes are added upon by the display of a work of art not only previously owned by a cherished ancestor, but also because the object is the handiwork of the ancestor. It would be a shame if we had only bought things from our own lives to pass on to our descendants.
Ernest Hemingway, the fine American author, once said: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Many of you have had the same sentiment when standing before an empty canvas. However, the great composers and artists do not wait for inspiration to come. They sit down at the piano or easel each day as if in the regular performance of their duty and inspiration comes while they are already working. If they waited for inspiration to come before taking a brush in hand, they would never paint anything.
The greatest composers acknowledged their dependence on God for inspiration in their composition. Johannes Brahms said: "To realize that we are one with the Creator, as Beethoven did, is a wonderful, awe-inspiring experience. Very few human beings ever come into that realization and that is why there are so few great composers or creative geniuses. . . I always contemplate this before commencing to compose. . . When I feel the urge, I begin by appealing directly to my Maker. . .I immediately feel vibrations that thrill my whole being. These are the Spirit illuminating the soul power within."
The thoughts which underlie these fine expressions as to the composition of music apply with equal certitude as to the creation of paintings and statuary. The Light of Christ, available to every son or daughter of God, is the greatest source of inspiration in music, art, literature, and all of the fine arts.
Among the most famous artistic creations of a religious nature were the Sistine Chapel and the carved Pieta by Michelangelo and the painted Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo said: "Good painting is nothing else but a copy of the perfection of God and a reminder of His paintings. . . Only God creates. The rest of us just copy."
Years ago, my wife and I visited the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome. We saw the magnificent statue of Moses sculpted by Michelangelo. There was a crack on one knee. The tour guide said, "It is rumored that after Michelangelo completed this masterpiece he stood back a few feet, then casting one of his sculpting instruments at the statue, creating the crack, exclaimed, "Why doesn't it speak?" In other ways, of course, great art and music really do speak to the inner man.
The question was once asked, "What artifact could we send out into space as evidence of human achievement?" One answered, "I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again." Then he added ruefully, "We would be bragging, of course."
Could we just as well choose the Mona Lisa or Rembrandt's Night Watch?" Again, we would be bragging by this display of the advanced refinement of our civilization.
As beneficiaries of your artistic talents, many of us are grateful for the effort you have expended, both in the pre-mortal estate and during your earthly journey, to refine and perfect your artistic skills. You have chosen one of the grandest heavenly gifts through which to express your appreciation of beauty and your love of God. May He bless you for it with the certain testimony that He loves you and He loves the beautiful works you produce.
Articles & Talks
This is the place to find inspiring articles and elevating talks on the arts which reinforce a spirit of excellence, holiness, and beauty.