Influence, Reflecting Badly and Mormon Culture

0a-ONUGThe news yesterday that artist Jon McNaughton had pulled his artwork from the BYU Bookstore led me to ponder once again the influence that Church-owned businesses and institutions have on Mormon Culture. While these institutions seem focused on how what they carry and produce reflects on themselves and, ultimately, the Church, I worry that the variety of books, art, music and other Mormon cultural materials aren’t as available as they should be.

McNaughton pulled his art after the BYU Bookstore stopped ordering his controversial but strong-selling painting One Nation Under God, which BYU professor of art Jennifer Barton, in yesterday’s Deseret News article, calls a propaganda piece for the tea party. While BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins says this was a bookstore decision, McNaughton suggests that it was BYU’s administration that decided the work wasn’t acceptable. He told the Salt Lake Tribune, “I think [BYU] is trying not to offend the few liberals on campus.”

Regardless, the bookstore has apparently sold thousands of copies of the popular painting, which not only depicts Christ holding the constitution, but also gives a positive nod to Cleon Skousen’s “The 5,000 Year Leap” and portrays negatively an anonymous supreme court justice, the Marbury v. Madison supreme court decision and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, among other things. Former BYU Bookstore art and frame department Val Ugolini told the Deseret News, “I couldn’t keep it on the walls. No matter how much it would cost, from $50 to $5,000, we were selling it like bread.”

If Ugolini is right, then the bookstore’s decision to stop carrying this work isn’t exactly about making money. Even taking at face value Jenkins’ assertion that this was a bookstore decision, the decision is more about appearance, and perhaps how that overall appearance might affect profits (though I kind of doubt this last part).

Whose appearance? At the least, the issue is how this work reflects on the BYU Bookstore. But likely the bookstore’s decision makers are also worried about how it reflects on BYU and on the Church. General Authorities have repeatedly told the BYU community that what they do reflects on the Church, just as they have often told the membership of the Church the same.

What makes all of this worry over how things reflect on the Church difficult in my mind is the influence that the BYU Bookstore has in the campus and LDS marketplaces. The reverse of whether or not a product sold in the bookstore reflects badly on the Church might be whether or not it is approved of by the Church — and to some degree that is the perception (erroneous in my opinion) of a portion of Mormons about what is sold in the BYU Bookstore, and, to an even greater degree, in Deseret Book.

When this kind of influence exists, there is a very clear danger to the weakest products, to the more unusual items and to the most radical and innovative works, regardless of how faithful or how acceptable they may be to the Church. If the companies and institutions with this influence don’t carry a work, does that mean that it isn’t financially viable? or does it mean that it would “reflect badly on the Church?” And regardless of which of these is the reason, how will I, the consumer, know?

In the case of the BYU Bookstore, I’m not as worried about this influence in Mormon Cultural items. In my experience the bookstore has been much more open to new works, academic works and the unusual than Deseret Book and most other stores that carry LDS products. As an academic bookstore, that’s no surprise. Deseret Book, on the other hand, dominates the LDS market to such an extent that if a work isn’t available there, it might as well not exist for most LDS consumers.

But, in McNoughton’s case, I worry that the bookstore is defining this as “reflecting badly on the Church” when it should not. Those who know me and my sentiments as expressed here on Times and Seasons know that I don’t care for McNoughton’s ideas. I think some of what he is saying in One Nation Under God is simply wrong, and somewhat offensive. [For what its worth, I also think his art is atrocious — but that’s more a matter of taste.] But in my view one valid purpose of art is to provoke and perhaps, in doing so, even offend. [Professor Barton should know this, shouldn’t she?] Besides, how can I object to McNoughton’s “behaving badly” (in my view), when I recently advocated for Mormons knowing about those who are doing much worse!

So, were I the decision maker at the BYU Bookstore, I would hold my nose and stick the painting on the wall, selling as many as I can. [If anyone asked, I’d have to be honest about how I feel about the work]. But, I’m not and I can also see the other side of this issue. I also don’t want people to think that the Church approves of his artwork!

Nor can I manage much sympathy for McNoughton — not when I suspect that neither he nor most of those who like the ideas expressed in One Nation Under God are likely to be as understanding of works on the other side of the political spectrum, or even of those works that are simply unusual, radical or innovative.

34 comments for “Influence, Reflecting Badly and Mormon Culture

  1. What is useful for me in looking at this situation is to draw a distinction between works of art that are provocative, didactic/propagandistic, and devotional. Art that is provocative would be something like the infamous Piss Christ. It creates strong feelings, but ultimately does not “teach” anything beyond any meaning ascribed to it by the viewer. McNaughton’s art is provocative in the colloquial sense of the word, but primarily because it is ham-handedly didactic and the thing that it is teaching is so wrong-headed. Devotional art depicts and teaches, but primarily by stirring up (mostly positive) emotions, like respect, reverence, etc.. McNaughton has made a category error because he thinks of his work as devotional, while it is in fact didactic. I would like to see Church bookstores carry more “provocative” pieces, though those expectations might be a little high (maybe BYU bookstore, with its more academic bent is a good place to start). But I don’t think that McNaughton fits into that category.

  2. I was in Provo last week and actually looked to see a “live” McNaughton print, but could not find one in the bookstore. I did not ask for assistance, however. Maybe it was hidden behind the LDS art somewhere…

    Whether the bookstore carries or does not carry is an interesting question, but far more fundamental is why the bookstore even exists at all. Does it have a profit target? Is it only covering its costs? Does it have to pay the university rent for the physical plant? Those questions are important because it competes with local businesses that do not enjoy the support of the church or university.

    There was a time when the bookstore was far more involved, for instance, in selling interview clothing for men, but local men’s clothing stores raised serious concerns about the bookstore’s mission, the university’s role and fair competition, and the bookstore scaled back its suit sales significantly until it eventually left that business.

    In the end, it seems like McNaughton is the child here. After all, he’s the one that said, If you won’t sell this painting, you can’t sell any.

    One wonders why it took so long for BYU to stop selling the prints.

  3. I don’t much care. Because why? Because I don’t believe in McNaughton’s ideas.

    Yes, yes, free expression, yackety yack. I guess I haven’t been very highminded since I quit with the marijuana.

  4. Kent, I’m not terribly worried, because I see this kind of thing as quite normal for universities and book stores in general. One always has to make decisions about what to stock, and those decisions are not purely driven by profit-making potential. I’d guess there are other bookstores and poster shops in Utah Valley that would not be placed in the awkward position of suggesting that an important part of their core institutional mission (in this case, teaching life sciences) is EEVIL. I don’t think concerns over artistic variety are really a factor when we’re talking about a highly popular work that tends to confirm the preconceived notions of people visiting the BYU bookstore.

  5. Paul,
    That’s a load of complainer-drivel. And I’m not saying you’re the complainer, but it’s just garbage from rent seeking capitalists who are trying to find a way to guarantee (as much as they are able) further profits without the risk.

    The BYU Bookstore provides a service based on a few factors – service, selection, price, and location.

    Any non-“church” company can compete just as easily in all the categories. Yes, all the categories. They may not be able to locate themselves on BYU campus, but thousands of students live off campus. And the fact is, only 1 store can exist on campus (or on the corner of a densely populated appartment complex) so location is a scarce resource they would have to detail with even if BYU bookstore wasn’t in the preferred location. Some competitor would always have a better location.

    All of this is said assuming the bookstore is (trying) to make a profit. If they are selling inventory and services at a loss with tuition/tithing money that’s a different question, but I think it’s pretty clear they aren’t.

  6. It does give a lot to think about. And it is of concern that BYU and the bookstore do seem to give a “church” endorsement, or at least an OK to consider something that is sold there. I remember seeing Fawn Brodie’s “No Man” book being sold but with a rubber-banded copy of Nibley’s “No Ma’m” pamphlet. That was interesting. And certainly there are certain standards and fine lines the bookstore, or any bookstore has to consider wherever that line is drawn- as in pornography vs. art.

    And of course this publicity and tumult of opinions will no doubt help advertise for the artist and encourage those like-minded to buy more copies. But if the controversy and removal does cause people just to think a little instead of going into the bookstore, seeing the picture, and subconsciously concluding that it’s OK. Or with a sigh, concluding “here we go again with right-wing dogma tacitly blessed by the church school’s bookstore.”

    The problem I see with this particular piece is that it is not just another controversial piece of art causing people to think and draw their own conclusions, it is pretty close to blatant priestcraft, seeking money and fame for false religious teachings. I don’t think the bookstore sells a lot of anti-Mormon literature (Fawn Brodie excepted??). Or even Christian or Mormon Fundamentalist books and pamphlets which you can find around fairly easily at some other bookstores targeted to specific markets. The most offensive thing in there to me is the “student” holding a copy of Skousen’s “the 5,000 Year Leap” which is clearly political and religious dogma. I suppose the book itself is sold in the bookstore, but not next to a poster of Christ holding the Constitution saying “buy this book and bow down to me and the Constitution.” There are a lot of other things offensive and embarrassing to faithful members of the Church in that painting (Darwin-reading professor going to hell, etc.). And overall it has the sheen of religiosity promoting false doctrine as much as any anti-Mormon tract I’ve ever read.

    So, I for one applaud the bookstore for removing it.

  7. Chris,

    I’m not advocating the position, but simply obsserving that it existed. To the extent that BYU Bookstore does not have a profit motive, but only cost recovery (or even is exempt from fixed cost recovery), it could represent an unfair advantage compared wiht non-campus stores. I do not know what their business arrangement is.

    You are right — most items in the bookstore are at a market price based on standard retail markups — selling books at the suggested retail price, for instance — so it would appear on the face of it there is no intent to undercut the local non-BYU businesses. (That was not the case in the days of interview suit sales, by the way. The Bookstore suits were widely promoted in various academic settings (eg, Dress For Success lectures) and then special prices were offered to students).

    But one still wonders (correctly, I believe) about the mission of a bookstore on campus. Yes, it provides a service offering books (it is a bookstore after all) of interest to its population (texts and general books and, uniquely in the Mormon environment, church books). School / souvenier clothing seems to be consistent with such a mission as well. School supplies, too. But the gift and other clothing items? I don’t know.

    The university could choose a different model, by the way. They could lease the Bookstore space to an outside company to run a store there, just as they apparently do in what used to be the Cougareat. They already lease space to a bank within the bookstore.

    The bookstore used to sell a wide range of “general” merchandise — soap, laundry detergent, etc, which it no long does. Not sure if that’s because of narrow margins or because they decided it was counter to the mission of the store (and allowed the Creamery on 9th East to pick up that business).

    As for the specific McNaughton print — personally I think it’s awful, but I’m not surprised it was popular in that environment. Still, one can easily argue that it’s outside the mission of the bookstore to offer non-religious political art. And no matter what McNaughton writes on his blog, it is more political and less religious (and, some would argue — and I would agree — less art).

  8. I apologize for the use of the “priestcraft” word. That was too strong and I know it’s as offensive as the “racist” word that nobody wants to be called (even if . . .well). So I don’t mind if a site administrator wants to delete that (can you do just a word?)

    And I don’t think that Skousen/Glenn Beck/Tea Party supporters will be barred from the Celestial Kingdom. I just wish they would recognize that I won’t either just for not believing in that stuff (and voting for Obama). Probably some other things might do it, though. So I’m still repenting.

  9. Grant,
    Agreed that you won’t be barred from heaven just for boting for Obama. Now if the vote was intentional . . .

  10. O.K., the political philosophy (if it can be called that) which inspired the painting is absurd. And I don’t look at the BYU Bookstore or Deseret Book as repositories of high culture.

    But what do we do about this very ugly depiction of Christ? Is this a sign of the art tastes and worldview of the typical BYU student?

    I heard this “artist” also painted a depiction of President Obama stamping on the Constitution.

    With the exception of devotional music, I think LDS culture neglects the arts. The Brethren have also tried to emphasize political civility. Is this an example of the Latter-day Saints failing in both?

  11. Suleiman,
    I can’t contest your critical judgment, but I contest your notion that more critical judgment is what the Mormon art community needs. Critical judgment only refines when there is already robust output and demand.

  12. Adam,

    If this is an example of “output,” should we at least establish a caveat of avoiding the mixture of religion and politics with oil paint?

  13. Thank, Suleiman, for posting that link. Great. Now my blood’s a boilin! Although that will probably help me because I took vacation leave off work so I could go camping with my Varsity boys in the April snow – because everybody knows that’s what us communist/Muslim/Obama-supporters do to subvert the Constitution. There’s also a YouTube where the so-called artist “explains” this painting. You can search for it yourself. Now, I think I have to take back my apology. What a jackass! (I learned that word reading T&S comments.) So, y’all have fun tonight on this comment thread while I’m up there freezing my Marxist rear off.

  14. The real hypocrisy here is that BYU sells BYU shot-glasses and Angel Moroni coffee-mugs, and temporary tatoos of President Uchtdorf’s head on a dragon body. Where’s the beef?

  15. #16: How is that hypocrisy? BYU trinkets in a BYU bookstore? Moroni & Uchtdorf souveniers in an LDS bookstore?

  16. Complaints about mugs? Please, as if coffee is the only thing that can go in them.

    Shot glasses, on the other hand, are a little more suspect. Maybe ulta-fertile BYU families like using them as child-size cups??

  17. When I was at BYU (late ’70s and early ’80s), Brodie was being sold in the bookstore without any attachment. I wonder if it’s still here.

  18. Some people collect shot glasses as souvenirs of places visited, including some teetotal mormons I know.

  19. Suleiman,
    that’s my point. In an area where art output is weak, the way to good art is not suppressing the bad art. Doesn’t mean that the BYU Bookstore has to sell this stuff, but applauding them on the grounds that it will improve LDS commitment to the arts is silly.

  20. Thanks for the link, Suleiman.
    Now I know where to get all of my Christmas presents for friends, family, and coworkers. I think I’ll place a giant print of this above my office, you know, to honor the change Obama has brought to America. I would have never found the print without you, and thank you that I can now support this artist.

  21. @19: Brodie is still there. As is Bushman. As is Vogel. As is Susan Easton Black. As is Dawkins. As is Beck. As is Hannity. As is O’Reilly. As is Obama. They actually have a wonderfully diverse and impressive book selection.

    Which brings me to something that has been stuck in my mind over this whole commotion: is there a difference between what books the bookstore carries as opposed to art? Since art is generally more expensive and takes up more room on the shelves, does it carry more of a burden of possibly representing what the store stands for?

  22. Tremendously interesting post, Kent.

    When this kind of influence exists, there is a very clear danger to the weakest products, to the more unusual items and to the most radical and innovative works, regardless of how faithful or how acceptable they may be to the Church. If the companies and institutions with this influence don’t carry a work, does that mean that it isn’t financially viable? or does it mean that it would “reflect badly on the Church?” And regardless of which of these is the reason, how will I, the consumer, know?

    This is brilliantly-phrased.

    Like you, I would probably sadly leave the art available. Like you I don’t care for McNaughton’s art. I wonder if not offering the piece for sale might be seen by some as a fair “leveling” when I would be more concerned overall about getting more books and art available as opposed to making certain books or art less available.

  23. I think this whole affair is kind of a tempest in a teapot, and McNaughton’s work is in no way representative of the Mormon artists’ output that I am aware of.

    When I ask myself what could possibly be problematic enough that whoever was in charge of appearances at the BYU bookstore decided to remove this, the first thing that comes to mind is the crass way that McNaughton depicted the Savior in the painting, in a theatrical costume with what looks like (at first glance) some sort of druid-type symbol embroidered on his robe, and the flame-like glow in the clouds surrounding his hair. And using this image in the service of partisan political advantage puts McN in roughly the same position as Mr. Hollywood over there on the right. I felt more repulsed by this than any of the rest of this painting’s offenses, and there are a lot of them. But they aren’t a big enough deal to spend the time to catalogue them.

    I wonder if the person or committee who decided this spent some time at the MOA in the presence of the Bloch paintings, and then walked over to the bookstore, and could plainly see the difference.

  24. Totally agree that McNaughton’s “output” is not an issue here.

    A horse produces similar output, and at least it is good for something, because you can put it on your garden.

    The bookstore is under no obligation to help him peddle his art, any more that it is obligated to sell a Sunbeam’s fingerpainting of Jesus.

  25. Forgive me for possibly suggesting something silly, but is it good enough to just put a sign in the art area that says, “Materials sold in this bookstore do not necessarily represent the beliefs of BYU or the LDS church?”

    I think this is a great post, and it is a sticky situation. A lot of comments are reflecting their political beliefs, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think of myself as fairly conservative and I think the art is absolutely awful and the message it gives preachy and disturbing. But it’s shaky territory to start eliminating things from the store that might possibly be offensive. Where do you stop?

  26. I had no idea the artist of that piece was Mormon. I am not pleased by learning this. For my part, I appreciate this piece because it spawned a hilarious and horrifying parody replacing Christ with a Lovecraftian demon, and all the people look like they’re in the final ark-opening scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (It’s so entirely violent and profane that I won’t link it here, but it’s also such an effective parody of the crappy art style at work here.)

  27. If this artist leaves you in dispair without hope for the mormon art scene, check out, amazing stuff, all of it great, and none of it immature/trite stuff like this. Don’t worry, this story is the exception to the rule.

  28. McNaughton is a propagandist.

    I’m conservative. I think Obama and Democratic liberals hurt America.

    But, this painting could have been painted in one of the stations on the Moscow subway in during the Cold War.

    In essence, what the painter did is associate Christ with his favored political figures and also demonstrate who, in his opinion, opposed the Savior. That kind of black and white, my side is holy and yours is evil approach is done today in places like North Korea.

    My favorite element is how he blasts BYU-related activities, including: 1) The teaching of evolution 2) Well-established legal cases such as Marbury vs. Madison which are integral to courses in the law school.

    Then, there is the embrace of Cleon Skousen’s flawed book “The 5,000 Year Leap” which ignores the Civil War and claims that the party harmed by slavery was the slaveowners, not the slaves. Yeah, a great way to learn about the US Constitution.

  29. So if this guy puts up a “Hi, I’m Jon McNaughton and I’m a Mormon” video that also highlights how the church has inspired him to paint particular themes, then will the church take it down? Has anyone heard of any nutty videos/profiles getting censored?

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