Podcast transcription: Brontë Hebdon and the Church's Visual Culture
Glen Nelson: Hello and welcome to another episode in our podcast series. In the studio today we have Brontë Hebdon, a PhD student at the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts in New York City. The institute has produced many of the world's leading art historians, museum directors, curators, and conservators. It's a graduate program of New York University, and it is housed in the former Duke mansion on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brontë is Marica and Jan Vilcek fellow, and her focus is art from the 19th century, from France, Georgian Britain, and fashion. She earned a BA degree in art history and curatorial studies at BYU in 2016 and a master's from the Institute of Fine Arts in 2018. So welcome Brontë. It's great to have you here. What an exciting adventure education you're having.
Brontë Hebdon: Thank you. Yeah, it's been a wild ride.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. Now tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did art become a career focus for you?
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, so I'm originally from Idaho, from southeastern Idaho...
Glen Nelson: Where's that?
Brontë Hebdon: [Laughs] ... but I grew up in Washington state. My Dad was an environmental engineer, and he had this side passion of ballet, painting, and the arts, so I grew up watching operas with him, going to the ballet, and as I grew up, I kind of just got more interested in the visual arts. I took a trip to New York with my sister, and I spent a day at the Met, which turned into three days, and somehow I picked up a copy of Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo. And through reading that book I started to understand that each painting, each art object, had a history, a traceable history, and it just absolutely fascinated me. And so when I decided to go to BYU, I said, "Art history, this is what I want to do," and I've never looked back.
Glen Nelson: Wow. And you also worked at the museum, right?
Brontë Hebdon: I did, yeah. Briefly. I helped with their two shows, the first one being their re- exhibition of their permanent Religious Art collection and then also their collection of Western Art.
Glen Nelson: So how did you end up deciding to come to NYU? Because I'm an NYU grad myself, so I care.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah. Well, you know, it was actually quite by chance. I knew that if I wanted to study art history, I probably should leave Utah professionally. I just knew I needed a degree beyond the Intermountain West. And so I said, "Okay, well, where does that place me? In California, maybe New York, even maybe back in Europe?" But I just kind of applied everywhere and said, "You know, we'll see what happens." And my last application to put in just happened to be at NYU, and I spent hours and hours. For some reason, I couldn't format my paper correctly. It wouldn't upload. And I was this close to saying, "Whatever," you know, I applied to like six or seven other schools. "It doesn't matter. This is just one more." But I had this thought that was just, like "Probably finish, just keep trying, keep messing with it, and you can change the formatting, maybe that'll work." So I kept working on it for a couple more days, and I eventually got it to upload, and that's where I ended up going. It was just the perfect fit for me.
Glen Nelson: It's just an amazing program.
Brontë Hebdon: I've loved. My very first semester I took a course on museum practice with Philippe de Montebello, the...
Glen Nelson: Former Metropolitan president.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, longtime president. It was quite a pleasure to learn.
Glen Nelson: Well, you're in the big leagues, you know at that institution.
Brontë Hebdon: Oh yeah.
Glen Nelson: You really are. In preparation for this podcast, you sent me some fascinating articles that you had found regarding allusions to the Church in popular 19th century European fiction, but as we started to discuss our strategies for the interview today, I wrote to you at the end of an email, "I'd love to know how you think art affects our culture," and so that took us on a slightly different direction. And you wrote back to me, "I'd love to talk about art and the culture of the Church. Approaching Church history from an art historical perspective hasn't ever been done before. The language of art history has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and I think now is the perfect time to start asking serious questions about the visual culture of the Church." So there's quite a lot in that statement. Maybe we can unpack it a little bit. This idea of approaching Church history from an art historical perspective. What do you mean by that?
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, so at the most basic level, art history as a discipline, as an intellectual pursuit, has really only been around for about 200 years or so, but the idea is that you're approaching history through cultural objects, which most of the time this would mean painting, sculpture, or architecture, but what's happened in the last 50 years or so is that the discipline has widened considerably, and we now can find cultural value in objects that we might not have thought important to study in years previous. So what this means is that we have artists making quilts, for example, suddenly a quilt, an art object that can have a lot of cultural, political, economic meaning and can really help speak to an environment into a time in history.
Glen Nelson: And so those are documents from their period or talking about a period. So there are kind of like talismans for the history that they're depicting or from where they came.
Brontë Hebdon: Exactly. What's really happened is it art as a category has really just exploded, and for the art historian that's great because that means that we suddenly have access to so many different sources of information. So when you think of an art historical approach to Church history, I think the first thing we have to do is separate the doctrine out and realize that yes, the gospel of Jesus Christ is one thing. The Church as an institution is another, and an institution like any other, you know, political, religious, cultural group is very much available to influence from many different sources. So an art historian looks at cultural objects and tries to identify how different influences are made visual in that object and how those influences kind of bring together greater trends and patterns for an institution.
Glen Nelson: The focus is still on the object, on the artwork, or the artifact.
Brontë Hebdon: Yes.
Glen Nelson: So it's not like you're trying to tell history using artifacts. It's not that so much as you're looking at the history implicit within an artifact? Yeah, I see.
Brontë Hebdon: Very much so. Yeah.
Glen Nelson: So when you say that that hasn't been done before in Church history, what do you mean by that?
Brontë Hebdon: Well, this is along the same lines as is why art history as a discipline has shifted so much, lately. History, as a discipline, is very much grounded in factual information and in biography, things like this. But when you open up history to interpretation, there's a lot more that's possible. So thinking in terms of art objects in the Church, we can start to kind of identify different themes--doctrinal themes, political themes-- and the church and we can see those influences being acted out in the objects. So like you say, it's a way to trace history in a way that's fresh and new and also identifies cultural objects and gives them more relevance and meaning.
Glen Nelson: So I think historically the way the Church has presented its own timeline has been less a museum approach than an elevated visitor's center approach, where you have elements on a timeline, you know, the first vision, the plates, the Book of Mormon, the creation of the Church, and so on. And so they're looking for objects or artworks that illustrate that, and sometimes they really just come to that level of illustration, and they don't really try to transcend that for art. And over time--I'm thinking now specifically of the Church History Museum--about half of the museum is this kind of storytelling that is just an illustration of its own history, but that's not really what you're describing.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah. No, I think there are two parts of the same idea really, because I think that that illustrative history is a very necessary component. It's hugely important, and there is so much of Church history that still needs to be documented that I hope that we continue to see that type of history move moving forward.
Glen Nelson: Do you mean like undocumented stories or voices that haven't been heard in the past?
Brontë Hebdon: Precisely that. But what our history brings to the table is these different lenses of interpretation. One of my favorite things about our history is the more theoretical aspect of it that you can look at an object and analyze it in its period context according to different themes. I'm a social art historian, so I interact a lot with the economic factors that influence a piece of artwork, and so when you take an art object, say from the Church, and look at it in terms of economics, you say, "Okay, well, maybe these materials were used because they were cheaper or more available, so suddenly the artist's intentions are not necessarily geared towards making art. They're geared towards, well, this is what I have on hand at the moment, so I'm going to use these materials."
Glen Nelson: Oh, I see. I think traditionally there are four lenses to look at artwork. One is art creation itself. One is art history. One is art criticism. And then one is aesthetics. So you're specifically looking at the art history side, which is different than art criticism in a way. How would you say it differs?
Brontë Hebdon: Well, probably the clearest difference that I can see is it art history is still grounded in factual information. We use documents to support our ideas, whereas art criticism is very much more about the zeitgeist of a particular moment. So if you are reviewing an exhibition, your opinions and ideas are going to show influence based on your own perspective, your lived experiences, etc., etc. But an art historian still tries to ground the analysis in documentary evidence.
Glen Nelson: I'm curious that you said, "Now is the perfect time to start asking serious questions about the visual culture of the Church." Let's talk about the visual culture of the Church for a little while...
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: ... their perceptions of what that is, and then there's the actual thing, but let's define terms first. What do you think visual culture is? What does that mean?
Brontë Hebdon: This is where I get excited because this is exactly what I love to study and really think hard and long about. How art historians define visual culture is, any visual element of a cultural, religious or political group. So any part of a culture that is visual. So when we're talking about the Church, there are many different visual cultural aspects we can think of. Bible videos that the Church has just put out. That's a huge element of visual culture. The type set of the Book of Mormon-- original editions up until today--the Church's logo and how that has changed over time. Even, I was kind of thinking about this earlier, like those straight to dvd movies like "The Singles Ward" and whatever, that is absolutely visual culture. It's the creation of a cultural group through visual images.
Glen Nelson: And so that could include things like graphic design, media, publications. Architecture, does that come into play as well?
Brontë Hebdon: Very much so, yeah. The temples of the church--huge part--church buildings. yeah. chapels, all of that: very much included.
Glen Nelson: So visual culture, then, includes all of those different things. You know, if we just came to somebody on the street and said, what is Church visual culture like, what kinds of things would they say? And how could you help them broaden their vision of it?
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah. Well, I would hope that most people would say, you know, reaching back, "Oh, the gospel art library," you know, those canonical images that we all grew up or came in contact with as we were maybe converted, with those images of Christ in Sunday School, Del Parson, and Arnold Friberg and those Book of Mormon images. I would hope that that would be the first response. I'm hoping that as membership continues to develop that we can expand that idea beyond paintings and really see visual culture is a more fluid entity that can be shaped and can be more productive.
Glen Nelson: If we asked somebody where we are today on the streets of New York what they thought visual culture would be, if they were LDS they would probably have one idea, if they had no contact with the Church, probably, what would they say visual culture of the Church is?
Brontë Hebdon: I'm thinking if we were here in New York, probably The Book of Mormon musical. When I've talked about this with some of my non-LDS friends, that's often their first point of reference, either The Book of Mormon musical or white shirts and ties, the missionaries.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, because that's a visual image, not necessarily a created image. Yeah. All right. How does it change, let's say, if you go internationally? Because their perceptions would be quite different, I would imagine.
Brontë Hebdon: Absolutely. And this is where it gets really interesting for me because as the visual culture of the Church interacts with other visual cultures, in different countries and different socioeconomic groups, the interactions are varied. On my mission, I was often mistaken as a Jehovah's Witness.
Brontë Hebdon: And where were you?
Glen Nelson: I was in Romania. And in other countries or in other states that might not have happened. So the idea is that if we as a collective Church membership can understand that oftentimes people's first point of contact with the Church is through some form of our visual culture, if we understand that, then we can create a culture that is going to be the most open to positive conversation, the most open to gospel conversation, and that can hopefully become a better and more effective proselyting tool.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. Well, let's delve into that a little bit. It's problematic in lots of ways because if the visual culture of the Church is kitsch-based or really illustration that's sort of substandard illustration, then doesn't that reflect negatively on the Church to somebody who's just approaching it for the first time?
Brontë Hebdon: Yes.
Glen Nelson: At our first Mormon Arts Center Festival in 2017, there was a presentation by Levi Jackson that was really quite surprising to me. The title of it was "Meaning Matters: The Need for Critical Awareness in Mormon Visual Culture," and he talked about the negative side of mixing fine art images of Jesus with stock images. But he went to the Church's website, and he noticed that there were all these different images of Jesus and some of them were based on paintings and some of them were based on other things, but there were so many of them, and some of them are just placeholders, and how he defined that was they were images that you immediately didn't try to decode, that you didn't try to process. You didn't slow down. It was a gateway and that was its designL as a gateway to some kind of information. But the problem, as he saw it, was those same images are in our museums and temples and meeting houses, and because we've had so much interaction of them that was almost dismissive--because of the way that they were digested--that it was almost impossible to look at those art works with fresh eyes and contemplative eyes. Do you see what he's going for?
Brontë Hebdon: Oh, absolutely. And it's difficult to critique because a lot of these images are beloved by members of the Church, but you, I think, identified exactly the same problem that I see. When you look at an image like that, there's no effort required by the viewer to understand. A lot of the times the image is strictly narrative, "We know that Book of Mormon story. I don't need to contemplate this image anymore than that. I know that theme already..."
Glen Nelson: It's almost like shorthand, visual shorthand.
Brontë Hebdon: Exactly, exactly. Which if you are, you know, if you're teaching Primary or Sunday School, that can be very helpful. There is a place where those images are necessary. But if you're wanting to deepen conversion, and if you're wanting to have a deep spiritual connection to God through this image, it's not going to cut it.
Glen Nelson: Because you're going to have to slow down, for one thing. A couple of quotes that Jackson had said, regarding the overuse of religious imagery, he said, "It's been repeated so much for me that I find myself excusing myself from any sort of critical voice," and he also said that with artworks that are seen a lot, like in magazines with lots of text over the top of it or on websites that the Church frequently uses, if those images are put back in a in a museum context, he said, "As soon as that context changes, there's implied meeting in that context." And what he said is that if there's a work, let's say it'd be loved work that we see a lot, a lot and then that's put into a museum context, it almost reads ironically. It's hard to get back to its more sincere beginnings, and I'm not sure what the solution is for that.
Brontë Hebdon: It's difficult. I feel like with the works that we already have and know and use, the only solution I can really think of as to maybe retire them for awhile and replace them with images that are deeper, psychologically.
Glen Nelson: I do that at home. We have an art collection here, and I never leave our work up for very long. I'm always rotating it because I just stopped looking.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, exactly.
Glen Nelson: I had this experience at church this last Sunday in the Manhattan building, where the temple is, there is a series of paintings by Walter Rane, and there may be, I don't know, 20 or so of these Book of Mormon paintings. And they're original paintings, rather than reproductions. And when they were new, people in the building spent a lot of time looking at them and now, I personally don't as much. I've seen them. I've spent some time with them. But a woman came up to me and she said, 'You have to tell me what's going on with these paintings. Like, how did that happen? What are they, what does it mean?" And she's from out of town but she comes here often, but she had the opposite [reaction]. She was so used to seeing paintings in churches, reproductions, and not slowing down that it took her awhile to realize that these were not reproductions. And so she was very excited to spend some time with it.
Brontë Hebdon: And that, to me, shows how much potential that we have as a body of people. If we had high quality art, not reproductions, but real art pieces in our meeting houses... I mean, her response tells me that there's a demand for that. I really think that there is. I'm fascinated by the way that the Church kind of decided to go the opposite direction. I don't know if it was an economic thing and you know, the Church was growing so quickly that they just didn't have our objects to put in chapels. But I feel like we've almost gone the opposite direction where if we have anything at all, it is only a print that we just walked past so quickly. But I've experienced that same reaction. Whenever I sit in the lobby of the chapel here and I look at visitors come past, I know exactly which ones are from out of town because those are the ones that stop and look at the paintings.
Glen Nelson: I had an experience: I was visiting in Salt Lake City, and some people that I had just barely met meet in one of those old buildings where the Minerva Teichert paintings are and they said, [whispering] "Do you want to come see them?" And they had such pride in them, and I think that there is a parallel between the art objects that you're describing and the architecture, too.
Brontë Hebdon: Absolutely.
Glen Nelson: So there was a time when the Church was growing so quickly that I think that the only way that they could make it work was to do these as, as one scholar has put it, "the cloning of Mormon architecture," and this critic, Martha Sontag Bradley, in "Dialgue: A Journal of Mormon Thought," in 1981, just goes through the decisions that were made to kind of cannibalize existing architectural plans or to say, "Okay, we're going to have x number of potential plans for a building, and that is all you have. And so as a visual culture then, The expectation is that our buildings are going to be this thing which is kind of cookie cutter.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, exactly. And on the one hand, I think that that's actually a very helpful thing.
Glen Nelson: How so?
Brontë Hebdon: Because how, you know, sacrament meeting is the same regardless of where you are...
Glen Nelson: It's a democratizing thing.
Brontë Hebdon: Very much so. If the buildings all look the same, they're easily recognizable.
Glen Nelson: That's what she said, too, in the article. She said that in, let's say, a country outside of the U.S., if they have a building that looks like a Utah building--I don't know if that's unfair, mayb--they feel like they've been accepted. They feel like they're part of this larger thing.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, that makes total sense to me. It does. But I do think, you know, at least in the United States, and I would argue in Europe as well, we have the infrastructure now to support maybe going back a little bit and reinvigorating with more personality.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. The danger for members of the Church who live where there are lots of other members of the Church is that you start feeling less like an individual if there's so much sameness. And you start thinking in decreased ways about the pride that you feel for the Church's visual culture. But there's a scholar named Paul L. Anderson, and he's the Church's leading architectural scholar .and unfortunately he died in March unexpectedly, but he had been working for years on this book called "Mormon Moderne: Latter-day Saint Architecture." And he had an exhibition at BYU's museum that was up for about two years. And its premise was that from 1925 to 1945, there were roughly three dozen church buildings that were highly influenced by the International Style, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau. So those three movements. And he did all this research about American architecture. Sacred architecture had kind of devolved in the 20th century, and there were very few architects who were doing buildings of a sacred nature. Frank Lloyd Wright was one, but there were a number of LDS architects who were really influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and these other European styles. And they created these series of buildings: temples and meeting houses. And some of them are not used by the Church any longer, but a number of them are. And as I read through his article that was published in the "Journal of Mormon History" in 1982, it really got me excited because this is part of our history: advanced architecture. And one of these buildings won this big prize in America, an architecture prize, but the Church leaders locally, as it turns out, this was in California, some of them were embarrassed about its modernity. And so the Church itself never trumpeted the prize. They didn't even put it in their media.
Brontë Hebdon: Really?
Glen Nelson: Yeah. So as I said, he passed away without finishing this book, but I just read that Josh Probert is working on it, to complete it, and the Neal A Maxwell Institute is going to publish it. But I think this is where art historians really can make a difference in Church culture by changing the narrative. If the existing narrative is "our buildings are not interesting or they are just utilitarian," I think that art historians can say, "No, that's not actually the case. And there's a lot more going on than you realize." Wouldn't you say?
Brontë Hebdon: Absolutely. Yeah. It just takes someone with open eyes really. And the knowledge to recognize examples. Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Paul was a student at Stanford and then Princeton, and he worked for the Church for a long time in the architecture side, but also the museum side. So he developed the BYU museum and lots of other things. So he was very well situated. One of the reasons that I'm excited to have you here today and also for your career is that we really do need more scholarship in the Church, and voices like yours that can be advocates, I think, can really be influencing. Is that part of your part of your long-term goals, maybe?
Brontë Hebdon: Absolutely it is. I just consider myself so lucky and blessed to not only be a member of this wonderful church, but also to have had the experiences I've had to have done, you know, my bachelor's at BYU and have had that amazing experience, but then to come to NYU and just really have my mind exploded with all the different possibilities of study and interpretation. I just really feel like if I can use that knowledge that I've gained to foster greater appreciation within the Church for what we already have as well as engender more conversation about how we can take that and improve it, that to me I would count as success in my career, in some way, [if I] can help that happen.
Glen Nelson: How does visual culture reflect on identity? There are two sides that I want to talk about a tiny bit, how our visual culture might read to somebody outside the Church. It' s kind of crass, but how the branding element of that comes in, but also on the personal side, for someone inside the Church, how does the Church's visual culture affect the individual's identity?
Brontë Hebdon: That's a fabulous question. Well, if we go back to the original idea that art history studies the different forces that impact an institution: cultural, political, economic, whatever they may be, the same can be saId for the individual. So, me as a woman here in New York city, I consider myself a member of the Church. I am a woman; I am an art historian, like, I have all these different identities that kind of work and express themselves individually and together.
Glen Nelson: A giant Venn diagram of influences and overlaps.
Brontë Hebdon: Exactly. So when I think of the side of myself and my identity that is a member of the Church, when I visualize that, I see myself going to church, I see myself partaking in these different elements of the visual culture. Because that's the thing about any cultural institution, you only experience it through active participation. You're looking at the images, you're wearing a white shirt and tIe, that kind of thing. It's very phenomenological, which means it's about your lived experience, it's sensory, it's your eyes, your ears, that kind of a thing. So for the individual, I think it really does come down to each person's individual experience with the Church, which if we go even farther down, it becomes a testimony and a conversion thing. What I'm interested in is how the visual culture of the Church either helps or hinders the development of a testimony.
Glen Nelson: Have you ever felt, let's say, that something that the Church has produced or commissioned that's kind of, from an aesthetic standpoint, sub par, you know-- maybe it's kitschy or something--does that affect your approach to the Church? Has that had an effect on you?
Brontë Hebdon: I'm trying to think of one specific example. Well, and this is where the art historian side of my identity might make it more pronounced than it would have been otherwise. When I was at BYU living in Provo, I'd go to the Provo Temple, and there was one, in the chapel of the temple, there was this huge mural of Christ and the twelve apostles, and if I remember correctly, it was His ascension. And you would sit there in the chapel waiting for the next session to come, and so you'd have like 15, 20 minutes to just look at this image. And you're provided with a Book of Mormon or a bible to also study, but most people would just sit there and look at this image. And the painting itself was done well, like the technique was pretty advanced. The coloring was very good and clear. But the longer I looked at this image, and the more times I went to the temple, each individual figure's line of sight was very much askew. Christ was in the center, kind of radiating light, but each of the twelve apostles were looking off in a random direction. There were children looking straight up to heaven, others looking straight down. There were moments where the artist cut out different perspective planes so that the paint just appeared muddy in between the figures. And the more time I spent waiting, the more bothered I became. And I don't know, maybe that was just my art historian kind of being nitpicky. That's totally possible. But it did impact my experience. I sat in that room and instead of feeling peaceful, I felt very agitated by the end.
Glen Nelson: The conversation that I have most frequently in this way is with composers in the Church who are writing really advanced music. And then sometimes they'll go to whatever thing that's happening in the Church, and the music being presented, it makes them cringe just a little bit. Like they love the hymns, and they react to them, but they also wish that they were slightly different.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah. And on the one hand, I think that that can be a really interesting part of Mormon visual culture. Mark L. Staker, the curator of the Museum of Church History, in this article he wrote back in 1995, he talks about Mormonism and Mormon art as folk art, which doesn't necessarily mean that it's less accomplished or less theoretically complicated. It just means that they emphasize more of the community ideology than the individual artist's ideology. And I think that a lot of art that we take in today in the Church kind of falls into that category of folk art, in that it's more the collective experience. And I'm thinking, yeah, you're right. When it comes to music and composition, the expectation is never rigorous excellence. It's more, the communal aspect of everyone singing together, everyone experiencing together.
Glen Nelson: I'm thinking here, if around this table we also had representatives of the Church, what would they say to this question? Would they say we're not in the fine art business?
Brontë Hebdon: See? And that's where it gets really interesting for me. Especially when you think that a lot of the big images that we use today, you know, Del Parson's image of Christ, those images, are commissioned by the Church. Which means that the artists sent the image to Church, and I don't know who's on this committee, I don't know what it looks like, but someone in Church headquarters is saying this image of Christ is good. We can check it off, or, "No, change His eye a little bit, lengthen His hair a little bit." Who's making that decision?" I do not know. I don't know who it is. In other art groups in Europe... In England, you've got an art academy where you have academicians and professors that are monitoring style and technique. But in a religious institution, you might not have that same expertise. So the purpose of the art becomes different, I think.
Glen Nelson: Well, we're in an interesting period regarding all this stuff. I happen to know some of the people who make those decisions, the art committees, and it's pretty complex, and one of the challenges.. And they're trained people. They're not art neophytes in any way.
Brontë Hebdon: Good.
Glen Nelson: They have to deal with correlation, which doesn't have an art background. And so let's say that for a new temple, they want to have a new image of Jesus in it. What does He look like?
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: So finding common ground is very, very difficult on this topic.
Brontë Hebdon: I can imagine.
Glen Nelson: And sometimes it's so fraught, not with contention, but just with a lack of cohesion on the thing, that they throw up their hands and say, "Well, let's just put in a landscape." "We can get a landscape approved." But it's very complicated. But I don't want to let the Church entirely off the hook, either. They're very proud of their best works.
Brontë Hebdon: Yes.
Glen Nelson: They're exhibited at the conference center, at the Church History Museum, in its publications, and so they love their best works. In certain points of its history, they've sent people out for study, right. The most famous example is the Paris art missionaries at the end of the 19th century. Their purpose though was specifically so they could get training in France, come back and decorate temples, because if you've got these beautiful buildings on the outside, they wanted something on the inside to match.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah. That is very good to hear. I'm glad that it does function in that way.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, and I don't know if you've seen the new "Come, Follow Me," but many of those images are new images, with new voices, let's say from Jorge Coco in Argentina, and other places, so I think that they're consciously trying to provide fresh material, addressing that burnout issue of seeing an image too frequently, and I've heard that they're also working the catalog-- I think it's called "The Gospel Art Book." They're working to redo that and to give many different kinds of artworks...
Brontë Hebdon: That is so wonderful.
Glen Nelson: So a few minutes ago we were talking about how visual culture impacts identity and how sometimes if you have exposure to finer art, you have an expectation that that would be nice to have. But there is a flip side. There is some work that is offensive to people. I have had an experience before of seeing an artwork--let's say a picture of Christ--that was... It was like, you know the this nordic Jesus, or He was kind of contemporized in a way that felt almost disrespectful to me. There was a period in the sixties and seventies when Jesus looked kind of like a...
Brontë Hebdon: A hippie?
Glen Nelson: ... A tiny bit, and then I can also imagine women saying, "Well, how are women being depicted?" Or people from different cultures saying, "Where am I in the visual culture?" Because if I'm African American for example, and there are no images of me or of people that look like me, then is there a place for me in the Church?
Brontë Hebdon: That's exactly the problem, and I'm really grateful that the Church is being more inclusive in the "Come, Follow Me" and if they are redoing the "Gospel Art Book," I think that that shows a really good step forward, because you're exactly right, especially as church membership grows, the membership in the United States is no longer the dominant cultural force. We've got members over the entire world, and they need to be represented, absolutely. The image of Christ is a very interesting problem, I think, in the Church, and it's interesting that we constantly need new versions of Him and they're all a little bit different because there is no, settled idea of what He should look like.
Glen Nelson: I don't mind that, myself, do you?
Brontë Hebdon: I don't.
Glen Nelson: I would be more uncomfortable if they said, "Okay, all art work of Him needs to conform to this visual identity."
Brontë Hebdon: It's interesting, you know, in researching a little bit more into this, I found that that actually kind of was the case back in the early 20th century, in the era where James E Talmage is writing "Jesus, the Christ." There was this kind of shift in biblical discussion towards a more literal representation of the doctrine, and it was at that same time that you start to get images of Christ that are very historical realist in technique, so very academic art--this is Carl Bloch, this is Heinrich Hofmann, that kind of thing. And those images of Christ all look very much the same: he's very athletic, he's very pale skinned, long brown hair, parted down the middle, thin beard. Those images all look the same.
Glen Nelson: Draped in European renaissance clothing, almost.
Brontë Hebdon: Exactly. But we're getting away from that.
Glen Nelson: I had an interesting experience. You're jogging my memory. I was on the Church International Art Competition jury--not this time, but the previous one, so it'd be two years ago. And there was an entry from Cambodia, and a woman depicted Jesus..., and He was Buddha. He looked very much like Buddha. There was a lot of debate about what would be acceptable in a depiction of Jesus. And one of the jurors was from Australia and worked quite a lot with Pacific peoples. And he said, "Oh no, you see this, you see the coloration...", which was the pink. It was a very pink painting. "You see this coloration throughout the Pacific. You see these kinds of depictions in Southeast Asia all the time. It's reverential. There is nothing critical about it. This is not an ironic painting. This is not a twee image." And I found that kind of interesting. And I want everybody to feel like whatever their version of the Savior is in their mind, that there's some kind of representation of it.
Brontë Hebdon: I completely agree. And what's interesting about that is the reason that Christ in the Church art looks like he does right now is because up until the 1950s, sixties, seventies, the majority of the Church membership was European. And so in images of Christ, we used mostly European codes of expression: white symbolizing purity, you know, the beard, which is very much emblematic of wisdom and like philosophical truth, things like that. But when you expand Church membership outside of that very homogenous Western European worldview, suddenly white doesn't necessarily mean purity. It could mean any other potential thing. And so you have to be careful and not be critical of images that might not read to you as "correct." Because in other cultures that might actually be totally fine.
Glen Nelson: You can't duplicate endlessly what works in one place.
Brontë Hebdon: And I feel like the Church is in a very interesting position when it comes to that because on the one hand we're not mainstream Protestant and we're certainly not Catholic either. We don't respond as much to pictograms, like the cross or even, I'm thinking of a banal example, like the Jesus fish. We don't really respond as much to those images. We kind of have to create our own because the way the doctrine situates the Church as a restoration, we're going back to a time before the visual tradition of Catholicism, before the visual tradition of most religions. So where do we pull from for our images? It's up for debate, which is why I'm excited that as the Church becomes more and more integrated globally, those visual markers will hopefully be more clear.
Glen Nelson: Terryl Givens wrote a book, "People of Paradox: A HIstory of Mormon Culture," and in it he writes, "as the most institutionally directed of the arts architecture provided the most immediate avenue for official recognition and accommodation of local aesthetic and cultural sensibilities." I've seen that play out. The new temples that are being done, they are really trying to be sensitive to their locations. There's a temple in Mexico that is just stunning, you know, this hacienda-like temple, and for a number of years, the people who make the decisions of what goes in a temple have been trying to draw from the local artisans to create work that was meaningful to them...
Brontë Hebdon: That's wonderful.
Glen Nelson: Instead of just reproducing work that might have existed in another one, but Givens quotes a critic and he says, "We have been eclectic in our architecture to the point that we have churches in every conceivable style and combination thereof. Is there an architectural style somewhere in the past that belongs more completely to our theology, philosophy, religious orientation, and practice?" That seems like the critic is saying that they would prefer to have one universal style that represents the Church, and I don't think that's probably the answer.
Brontë Hebdon: I don't think it's possible, honestly. I read a similar article on that topic: Merrill Bradshaw, "Towards a Mormon Aesthetic." Is it possible for the Church to have an aesthetic in art and architecture? To me it feels almost--maybe this word is a little bit too harsh--but it almost feels imperialistic. I feel like it's a much better idea to do exactly that, to integrate with the culture that's already present in these places and expect the membership to continue to do the same thing, as well.
Glen Nelson: Going back to visual culture, we've talked a little bit about what we think of our own visual culture and how that plays out, both where we live., let's say if you're an American, or if you're a member of the Church from another country, but now let's talk a little bit about how people outside of the Church might see our visual culture and how that visual culture might impact them. So this is where it gets harder...
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: ...because you have to face some really scary facts, like that Pew study that was done a few years ago about what the perceptions of the Church are outside of the religion itself. The single most common association with the Mormon religion is negative. According to the Pew research, again, this is 2012, the Pew Research Center said the most common offered word to describe the Church is "cult," which was given by 70 percent of the survey.
Brontë Hebdon: Wow.
Glen Nelson: Other common responses are positive descriptors such as "good," or "good people," "family," or "family values." "Overall, the percentage of positive descriptors is up six points from a one year ago," so the common misperception about the Church suggests to me that our visual identity and culture might be helpful to dissuade some people from disliking the Church.
Brontë Hebdon: Absolutely. The example that comes to mind for me is temple architecture. My friends that aren't members of the Church always remark, "oh, but I can't go in there. That's off limits to me. I don't know what you guys do in there, but I can't get in there," and I've wondered more and more if the architecture doesn't somehow push that idea forward even more. In the Salt Lake Temple, for example, those big wooden doors with the stairs leading up on either side: locked. You know, there's a very much a..., almost like a castle feeling that you can't get in, and creates this "us and them" mentality that I think is maybe not as helpful.
Glen Nelson: There are some practIcal reasons for all of that, but I'm thinking as you're discussing this, the architecture of U.S. banks, how that's changed. So years ago, they were fortresses, and they had very few windows, and they were super solid, and they had big strong doors because after the Depression and the whole series of financial crises, people wanted the perception that their money that their money that they were depositing there would be safe forever. But the downside of that as we got closer in the 20th century into our own day to day, is that that's unapproachable. So banks now are full of glass, inviting people to come in, and so I wonder if there are some solutions that the Church might consider regarding architecture, how to draw people in.
Brontë Hebdon: That's a really excellent example. And obviously you're right, there are practical reasons for keeping doors locked. Heavens, yes. But I'm thinking, you know, temples in Utah and beyond, maybe you can speak to this more than I can, but the way that temple grounds are used, I think, could be a potential solution to that--the way that the landscaping is done to almost be more like a garden. I feel like that would be a much more inviting presence than a locked door.
Glen Nelson: Our building in Manhattan was an existing church building done in 1975. And when the temple was dedicated in 2004, they basically renovated the top floors and made that a temple within aspire with Moroni on top of it. But there is no garden at all. There's no..., in fact, you have hot dogs, sellers, you know, inches away from the temple. And it's a very busy walkway. And so the idea of sacred space is almost completely removed from the outside idea of visiting a temple. But there are some windows at the ground level. They're always draped off and closed off. And years ago, at Christmas time, we used to have this giant live naitivity inside in the foyer, and people used to come to those windows and just stare inside because, you know, members of the Church have lots of babies, so we always had some young infants to be baby Jesus, but it drew people in. So I wonder what kinds of solutions might be possible, but from a templegoer's experience, in Manhattan there is such a distinction between being inside and the sacred feeling that you have and then the onslaught of sound and smell and the visual when you exit that, it's kind of great. It's like before and after. It's really quite exciting, but it's hard for me to imagine how we could make every temple have that experience [laughing]. We wouldn't want to, probably.
Brontë Hebdon: And that's what's so tricky is that you have to preserve that sacred space, the integrity of that space, but somehow to not make it feel like a fortress.
Glen Nelson: How fluid do you think visual culture is?
Brontë Hebdon: Oh, it's constantly changing. Every single day. Every general conference that comes out, whenever a general authority uses an image in a talk, it shifts again. Absolutely.
Glen Nelson: I wonder as the members of the Church have more exposure to new kinds of art, postmodern art, international art, more women's art, if they might bring with them some expectation of change.
Brontë Hebdon: I mean from my perspective, you know, studying the 19th century, there's this really huge shift that happens in the 1860s and '70s with the onset of Impressionism, where suddenly you get this separation between avant garde art, the -isms--Impressionism develops into Surrealism, Dada, etc., etc. You've got that strain, but then you're on the other hand, you have more academic art which stays closer to the academy, to proper technique, etc.
Glen Nelson: The salon painters.
Brontë Hebdon: The salon painter, exactly. And while avant garde is basically what drives the market, abstract art, that kind of stuff, the Church has tended to stay more towards the academic, and so for members of the Church as viewers of art today, there is a huge divide between their understanding of the more academic narrative art and abstract, -ism art. All it really comes down to is experience and opportunities to learn. I think if we start slowly to introduce more abstract art into our visual culture, it will catch on. I'm sure that it will because there's just as much emotive power and power to convert really in an abstract piece of art as there is in a representational figural image. Just as much.
Glen Nelson: I grew up in a tiny, tiny town--hundreds, not thousands--and I'm imagining how your sentence would play out there. And I think what the missing element is, is somebody who can be the bridge and explain this stuff, because at this point--let's say abstraction, but you could talk about any...
Brontë Hebdon: ...Non-figural...
Glen Nelson: ...modern movement--they're not novel anymore. I mean, Cubism is 100 years old.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: We're not talking about breakthrough movements. We're just talking about the way that it has been integrated into understanding...
Brontë Hebdon: ...understanding art that does not necessarily have a recognizable human figure.
Glen Nelson: So then what is the role of scholars like yourself in this process?
Brontë Hebdon: Complicated. Because as much as I would love to go chapel to chapel talking about abstract art, that probably would not happen. I see my role as very much instructional to the people that will listen. The Mormon Arts Center and the role that that plays here in the city, I think is paramount.
Glen Nelson: Shout out.
Brontë Hebdon: The more people we can get to come to that and to experience different types of Mormon art, I think, the better. The MoA museum at BYU, another great resource that we have. I mean this is going to be like a generational shift. It doesn't happen overnight, not at all. But I think it would really be very beneficial to the purpose of art within the Church if we could get beyond figural representation and start to see, you know, the power of the spirit really functioning, not only in human figures, but in abstract principles and design. I can only see that as benefiting the Church.
Glen Nelson: I grew up in this town that had no... you couldn't go see art works. There was no museum. There was a university that had a small gallery of student works. But to see a great work... I had no clue about what that was. And it was only when I was in my twenties, and I came to the Met in New York. I was recently in Spain, and we went to the Prado in Madrid, and I just sat there, like I was crying, like it was just so beautiful.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Like these works that I had seen reproduced, of course, in picture books, to see them live, it was an entirely different experience.The scale of it was different but, but the nuances of things... So when we say exposure, I think it's got to be a hands-on kind of experience.
Brontë Hebdon: It does. And unfortunately there are so many problems with that. You know, art can't travel very long before damage starts to happen. So it's not like we could take, you know, a collection of images. I mean that used to happen all the time actually, but it just is not possible anymore. The good news about that though is that the internet makes at least some interaction possible. I'm thinking like the Google Arts Project online where you can zoom into any artwork that you want. But the bigger problem is just that Humanities education is really suffering, no longer important. It's all, you know, STEM, science, technology, which, you know, great. It's got it's purpose.
Glen Nelson: You mean art education, humanities in schools is in decline.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, that's right.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah. I mean, in my high school in Utah, which was only just a decade ago now, I took the last art history class before they took it off the board and like three art classes, as well.
Glen Nelson: The Center is in the middle of a really exciting project to create an at-home series of, essentially, courses for children and adults.
Brontë Hebdon: Wow.
Glen Nelson: And we're going to have: art making, and art criticism, and art history, and aesthetics, which we're calling values. In each of these four, we'll have multiple units inside of them, with videos and things that you can do at home and exposure. Does that sound kind of cool?
Brontë Hebdon: That's amazing.
Glen Nelson: I'm sort of knee deep in it right now, which is why I'm excited about what you're saying because I feel like the exposure issue..., the primary one for me is, "Oh my goodness, I had no idea how many amazing artists there are, right now." There is a movement that's really shifting, and this engagement is not happening because of the Church, because these artists are on the Church's radar, but they're not really being promoted particularly by the Church. They don't appear in Church magazines or exhibitions necessarily, but there is this groundswell of change, and it's very exciting to me. It's almost like social media is creating the opportunity for a lot of sharing of art works, and the way that you can follow an artwork and then, "Oh, I like this artist, so this other artist who's connected, that might also appeal to me." So in addition to the art works that the Church is creating, exhibiting, or commissioning, there's this whole other side of visual identity in the culture about what the members of the Church are making themselves, and that's very, very exciting to me because it's really, really broad.
Brontë Hebdon: That to me is wonderful. It makes me very excited, too.
Glen Nelson: I get emails almost every day from somebody around the world who's a painter, writer, a composer, or whatever saying, "Here I am, I'm doing some stuff." And at first I want to think, "Well, you know, how good could you possibly be? I've never heard of you," you know, like really kind of a condescending. And then I look at their work and I say, "Oh wow," you know. He has a PhD in composition, and he's teaching tango in Argentina. But he's LDS, and he's putting out this LDS work, and you know, in Africa, too, and in Asia. So what do you think the average person, somebody who's listening to this podcast, what can that person do to enlarge or shift the Church's visual identity?
Brontë Hebdon: That's an excellent, excellent question. I think the easiest response is to just engage with those new artists, whether it's following them on social media, bringing them and integrating them into Sunday School lessons. I think if you can discover artists and art works that you love and that influenced you and then share them and increase their visibility in your ward, in your stake, whatever it may be, I think that that's how change is probably going to happen.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. I love the idea of sharing, and with the new ways that we're doing Relief Society and the priesthood and Sunday School, they really invite this kind of thing. I got an email recently... I wrote a book a year ago on this German American artist Joseph Paul Vorst, and I got this email saying, "Yeah, I went to priesthood, and I gave a presentation on him," and the topic was about, it might've been service or it might've been something related to World War II or the Depression, where this guy was from, and having these art works by this LDS artists that were completely new was a jumping off point. It wasn't an art lesson. It was a jumping off point.
Brontë Hebdon: That reminds me of an experience I had, too, teaching Sunday School about the sacrifice of isaac, and I brought in a picture by Caravaggio, I think, of Abraham sacrificing Issac and it was, you know, very Baroque, very dramatic, and I just showed it on my computer and said, "You know, we usually think about Abraham being stopped by that angel mid-strike, but the way that Caravaggio had depicted it was that the knife was literally at Isaac's throat, and using that as a visual example for the lesson, everyone was much more engaged, and their experience was totally different. So I think, yeah, if we can continue to integrate art work like that, then the results are only positive.
Glen Nelson: There's a lot of power in art--that's like the biggest understatement ever--there's a lot of power in art, but I think a lot of its power comes from the initial discovery of it.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: You know, the first time view, or the first time that you really stop and view, or the first time you see something new in a work that you're already familiar with, and the overuse of an image really robs us of that opportunity. So if a visual identity of a culture is too fixed, I feel that it is in decay.
Brontë Hebdon: Yes. It's the same thing, like a testimony, if you're not growing, then it's dying.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. very cool. We've discussed a bit about the visual identity of the Church from the Church's standpoint, from the consumer standpoint--either in the Church or outside of the Church--but what about the artist, him- or herself? What is their responsibility and how, how do they impact all of this?
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, I think that there's a certain amount of pressure that comes with the label of a "Mormon artist" that I don't think other artists from other backgrounds necessarily have to grapple with as heavily. From the artist friends that I have, there does seem to be this responsibility to depict art that somehow relates to Mormonism, to the Church in some way. And I think that that comes maybe from exposure to art growing up in the Church or I'm not exactly sure, but it's interesting to me that there seems to be this pressure on Mormon artists to create religious art first and foremost, as opposed to, you know, art of any other type.
Glen Nelson: That, for me, started with the kind of thinking in the seventies that Merrill Bradshaw was working on, this "Mormon aesthetic" idea. He was talking specifically about composers, but he wanted to essentially create an army of artists who would tackle these things. But it really did put a lot of pressure on them because they, as artists, they found themself self-censoring a lot or feeling like the kind of work they wanted to do was not good enough because it had to be of use to the Church. And if that utility differed from what their aesthetic was they had a difficult time with their own identity. Let's say you're a jazz composer or you're a choreographer, how does that serve the Church? And so then they began to think in two different ways, like a split personality, that they had this side of their life that was this creative side and then this other side that they had to keep separate, which I think is really tragic.
Brontë Hebdon: If we are trying to reevaluate the visual culture of the Church and try to push back against a more stoic representational art in favor of more emotive art, I feel like the danger of that is to then put more pressure on these Mormon artists again because if you're expecting art to be the catalyst of conversion, you have to then imbue that art work with a certain amount of the spirit, really. And you know, it has to be capable of creating an environment for that process of conversion.
Glen Nelson: Right. Let me ask you specifically, you're not advocating that a certain kind of work be created, rather that we expand what the visual identity of the Church might be.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, just an expansion.
Glen Nelson: For example, the demographic most likely to convert to a different religion is that group of 18 to 25. So as we think what art might appeal in a proselyting way, then it would probably need to be an 18-to-25-centered image, right?
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: And I don't know what that means. But there are ramifications of that fact, and I'm not exactly sure how that can be implemented, but having that on the radar, to be described in that way, maybe makes some sense.
Brontë Hebdon: Yeah, absolutely it does. And then I go one step further and say, "Okay, well then how does the artists create an image?" I mean an artist normally thinks of his audience in a theoretical way, and you do gear the image towards a specific group of people often, but when the end goal is conversion or you know, the growth of a testimony, like how do you represent that process? How do you create that process? It's difficult and to be honest, I think it's almost too much to ask, which is why Del Parson's famous image of Christ in the red robe, I think, is the one of the more effective pieces of art that we have in the Church today because it doesn't try to teach you anything. It just has Christ. And you engage with Him as a figure in a way that the viewer himself or herself can insert their own narrative, theIr own relationship.
Glen Nelson: My son is a young missionary. He just entered the field. And I'm imagining what would he say to all of this? He would probably say in his experienced, which has only been a few months, that it's unlikely that art is going to convert anybody, t.hat the spirit is really going to convert somebody.
Brontë Hebdon: Exactly.
Glen Nelson: But what I find with art works, not just visual art works, but music and other things, is that it does invite the spirit, in a way. But there's a slippery slope to suggest that all members of the Church who are artists should be creating work that leads, that are didactically to be used that way. My thinking has always been that artists shouldn't be held to a higher standard than any other profession.
Brontë Hebdon: That they should be held to a higher...?
Glen Nelson: That they should not be held to a higher standard. So would we say to a plumber, "Your work here is not uplifting," like this burden to constantly be uplifting, I don't know if that's really helpful. And it might also be antithetical to how artists create things.
Brontë Hebdon: Absolutely, it is. This is not the healthiest idea, you know: the artist as tortured genius. That is such a narrative strain in modern art. A Mormon artist can't be that way. He can't be tortured. He can't be, you know, psychologically damaged. He can't be channeling those emotions into his art. He has to feel okay and create an object...
Glen Nelson: Oh, I don't know if I agree with you. I think you need to meet more artists in Church...
Brontë Hebdon: No, but know what I'm saying...
Glen Nelson: We're a bunch of tortured folks. [Laughs]
Brontë Hebdon: What I'm saying is that there is that expectation to kind of bury the difficult emotions and try to reach for those happier, more sanitized ones.
Glen Nelson: And I think that that might be the reason that alLot of younger people in the Church are looking to these new artists who are bringing to their works elements of questioning or elements of... not subversion, not criticism of the church, but just saying, "My life is sometimes really hard. Here's what it looks like," on the wall. And they're saying as a viewer, "I completely know what you're doing."
Glen Nelson: Well, we have gone from a to z, I think, with this topic, and if we had several more hours, I think that we still couldn't cover it. I certainly couldn't cover it, but I want to thank Brontë today for this discussion about the Church's visual identity and what role we have all to play in art history, art criticism and understanding art works. It's a full list of things, isn't it? So I encourage you to check out some other artists that you might not know. How do you do this? Well, the Church History Museum has this exhibition every other year and it has artists from all over the world who exhibit there--it's an open call, essentially--and they keep all of those earlier exhibitions online. You can go to the Church History Museum and check that out. A couple of years ago, the BYU Museum of Art had a show of LDS contemporary artists' work that Ashley Whitaker curated, and that is still online; you could check out. And of course the Mormon Arts Center has exhibitions, and a book that we published in 2017 is called "Immediate Present." Laura Allred Hurtado curated the exhibition. She's the global art curator of the Church History Museum, and it contains 24 artists' work that I think anybody would fascinating. And that's available at amazon.
Glen Nelson: Thanks Brontë. It has been great to have you here to discuss your work and art in the Church. The music, we've been listening to is "Trio Fantasy" by composer Murray Boren. On behalf of the Mormon Arts Center, I want to thank you for listening. Goodbye.