Why 90-year-old historian Richard Bushman considers art “essential” to the history of Latter-day Saints

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Artistic expression is not what normally comes to mind when strangers talk about what they know about Mormonism, but famous historian Richard Bushman thinks it should.

Art has been an integral part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its inception, Bushman said at his recent 90th anniversary celebration in Salt Lake City.

The first significant piece of faith was the Kirtland Temple, the second was the Nauvoo Temple, and “the greatest work of art ever produced by Mormon hands is the Salt Lake Temple,” he said. to the 500 supporters gathered on September 25 at the Salt Lac Marriott Downtown in City Creek. “It is a glorious and magnificent piece.”

The temple rituals could have been offered “in a barn”, but it was “not enough to [church founder] Joseph Smith, ”said Bushman. Latter-day Saints “had to build these great buildings, put their whole hearts into it… when they didn’t have the finances to do it.”

Smith was “in desperate debt all the time because his vision led him to projects like these temples, these beautiful big sunstones and the moonstones and the stars. [on the Nauvoo Temple]”The historian said.” The Saints kept working on this when they were about to be kicked out of the country. This beautiful basic ceremony was so precious that it had to take place in the right kind of way. ‘environment, a beautiful environment. “

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun rises over the Salt Lake City Temple in 2019. Historian Richard Bushman calls this temple the “greatest work of art ever made by Mormon hands.”

This is why Bushman, in his 10th decade, now devotes his considerable talents and contacts to a Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York.

In 2016, Bushman, professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of an award-winning biography of Smith, partnered with Glen Nelson, a New York artist and Latter-day Saint who has sponsored religious art for decades.

Together, they came up with the idea for the center (formerly known as the Center for Mormon Arts) and hosted several art festivals before the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible.

The goal was to “foster conversation between artists and academics, sponsor scholarships, produce an encyclopedia of Mormon arts, a catalog item,” Bushman said a year later. “We study Mormon art, not just observation and appreciation.”

The independent, non-profit center has a threefold mission: “to display and interpret the art of Latter-day Saints and beyond; publish studies and reviews on [LDS] art to a wider audience; and to establish a comprehensive archive of Latter-day Saint arts from 1830 to the present day.

In 2020, the nonprofit raised enough money to purchase the space next to the New York City religious temple – across from Lincoln Center – and establish the Center Gallery.

It hopes to be a place, the founders said, to “engage the community with art exhibitions, lectures, concerts and educational meetings.”

(Rebecca Reed) Karl Bushman, left, Ben Bushman, Richard Bushman Jr. and Serge Bushman sing during a celebration of the 90th birthday of their father, historian Richard Bushman, at a hotel in Salt Lake City on September 25, 2021 .

At Bushman’s birthday party, Nelson announced several important initiatives:

• A multi-year project to study Latter-day Saint art, beginning with the publication of the “Guide to Mormon Art,” featuring the work of 24 scholars.

• A 2025 inclusive exhibition of this art in a New York location on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum, followed by another installation in Salt Lake City at the Church History Museum and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. He will then travel to other Latter-day Saint population centers.

At the feast, Latter-day Saint Apostle Dieter Uchtdorf offered his perspective on the value of art.

Drawing on his pilot experience, the friendly German said “from a higher position you will see the larger scale of things, and it’s often quite striking how similar one side is to the other. . … Yet the thinking on the other side causes us to focus on the differences rather than the similarities.

(Rebecca Reed) Latter-day Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, left, chats with historian Richard Bushman at a Salt Lake City hotel on September 25, 2021, during a celebration of Bushman’s 90th birthday .

Art is a one-size-fits-all approach “to seeing things from a thousand feet above sea level,” Uchtdorf said. “Art in all its forms… can give us a new perspective, more holistic and more inclusive. “

One of the great virtues of art is being able to tell a story “in a subtle and human way. It can relate one person’s death experience to that of another. … Expression through art is one of the ways we can help bridge the gap, ”said the apostle. “Art can transmit a message of hope, light and truth anchored in Jesus Christ. “

And, says Uchtdorf, it “always comes down to Jesus Christ.”

These are the sentiments on which Bushman drew inspiration in helping to found the center.

Art helps Latter-day Saint believers express “our aspirations and efforts,” he said. Artists can “delve into these things to tell us this story, as well as the glorious stories of salvation.”

The desire for beauty “is a universal human desire and manifests itself in every culture and every part of the world and in every period,” said the researcher. “And we are part of this great effort.”

If art is so essential to Mormonism, he asked, “why don’t we know more? Why don’t we think of ourselves this way or make others think this way? “

Bushman and others hope that by setting a “benchmark for measuring Latter-day Saint art,” creating a space for exhibiting it, and producing books on the role art plays in faith, outsiders will no longer be able to ignore what he believes to be a “deep truth”.

The world will finally see, he said, “we are an artistic people.”

(Rebecca Reed) Claudia Bushman listens to a speaker during a celebration of the 90th birthday of her husband, historian Richard Bushman, at a hotel in Salt Lake City on September 25, 2021.


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