Art and Literature at the AML Conference

This past Saturday I attended the annual AML Conference. It was a great day; I always love the chance to meet people in person that I have mostly corresponded with electronically, and the panels I attended were filled with new and interesting insights. I found that this year’s focus on the depiction of Christ in both art and literature enhanced the experience. I admit to being a little disappointed when I initially read through the panel topics and titles because I missed some of the other topics that had often been discussed in the past and I worried that this year would end up feeling like an art conference rather than a literature conference. First of all, I am hereby confessing and apologizing for my petty and silly concerns. Second, the conference re-affirmed for me the importance of not compartmentalizing our artistic endeavors; cultural attitudes about visual art, film, poetry, music, and fiction are intertwined and complementary.

The first panel I attended in the morning included a presentation by Noel Carmack about the history of depictions of Christ in LDS art. He provided a historical overview, with many examples, and also described official Church efforts to approve art and standardize its distribution and display. This presentation was the perfect lead-up to artist J. Kirk Richards’ keynote address about his experiences as an LDS artist who has chosen Christ as his subject. First Richards described a series of questions he had asked himself about his desire to create art, particularly with such a sacred subject. Questions such as: “Is it acceptable to depict Christ in art?” “Should I work on other subjects first and get better at art before painting Christ?” and “How should I depict Christ?” I wish I had written down all his questions, because I think that they are things any person who desires to create should ask themselves, whether they are depicting the Savior or not.

Next, Richards put up a triangular diagram that illustrated the tension between three major styles of visual art. First is the Classic style, which seeks to serve as a standard of excellence and perfection, with its goal being a presentation of perfect beauty. Second is the Realist style, which primarily seeks to present reality and reject the impractical or visionary. The goal of Realism is to portray the ‘person next door’ that viewers can recognize and relate to. Third is the Abstract style, which seeks to depict some quality apart from an actual object; the goal being to express a principle or symbol through invention or reduction. The part of me that had once desired to be an Art History major (it only lasted a few semesters) really responded to Richards’ presentation of this triangle, with examples of art that illustrates each style, as well as art that he feels hits the ‘sweet spot’ in the middle with elements of all three.

And then my brain wandered a little from the art on the screen and I wondered “can we apply these principles to literature?” I can certainly see, particularly in LDS literature, a division between those who feel that literature should follow the Classic style and hold up an example of idealized, perfect humans and those who feel that it should follow Realism and depict relatable, flawed humans. I’m not as sure about the Abstract style, although I have read a few allegorical or inspirational novels in which characters, plot, and setting take second place below the author’s particular message or agenda. As Richards explains, the best art falls somewhere in the middle of all three styles, and I think that literature should be the same way.

What do you think? I hope I have explained things well enough that those who were not at Richards’ presentation can understand, and for those who were I hope I have captured what was said clearly enough. Do you favor a particular style of art or literature more than others? Do you feel that one is completely unnecessary or so problematic that we should always avoid it? Can these ideas about visual art really apply to the written word?

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6 Responses to Art and Literature at the AML Conference

  1. Jonathan Langford says:


    Thanks for the summary. Maybe I’ll be able to attend again someday! Assuming of course that the conference continues…

    I wonder if a better (or at least alternate) parallel to Abstract art might be writing that is primarily about language –i.e., the medium — rather than narrative or the story being told. A lot of poetry is like this, and sometimes literary fiction is accused of this as well.

    I’m not sure I agree that the best art falls in the middle of all three styles. But then, I tend toward a more polyglot approach to literature and art: many different artistic purposes to be served in many different ways, as opposed to a single ideal.

    I’d also point out that within each of these categories, there’s enormous variance in taste. Among those who claim a liking for “realistic” fiction, for example, there may be vastly differing opinions because of differences in what they think reality actually is like. Among those attuned to style, some may find a particularly literary affect grating, while others find it attractive.

  2. I loved Kirk’s presentation. Part of it was also his approach– he had a basic message in mind, but he was so unrehearsed. It gave him a genuine, off the cuff authenticity that I found very endearing, humble, and engaging.

  3. Jonathan, I’m not sure he was saying the “best” fell in between the three paradigms. I think he was talking more about finding value in each of them and being sensitive about when using qualities of each of them could benefit a work. At least that was my take.

    • And looking at Kirk’s work this time, I was amazed at how diverse a sampling it was. Some was more abstract, some was more classical, some was more realistic. He uses different portions of each in each work… he’s amazingly nimble, pliable, and flexible in his talent. He’s definitely one of my favorite LDS visual artists (along with James Christensen, Cassandra Barney, Emily McPhie, and Nnamdi Okonkwo, probably…)

  4. Steven says:

    If you’d like to hear, and see, the presentation Mahonri so effectively sums up, you can click here:

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