I’ve long been a critic of Mormon artwork. The main problem is that artists tend to portray a superficial connection to the events they are portraying. That’s perhaps somewhat understandable except for the problem that people have a habit of remembering the art rather than the details of what the art was about. We saw that a few years ago with the renewed interest in the seer stones and the method of translating the Book of Mormon. People remember paintings that had Joseph with gold plates, indicating he read them. People didn’t remember all the lessons that he translated them by looking at the Urim & Thummim. Critics complained that they were never taught in church that Joseph translated by looking at stones in a hat. This wasn’t typically true. But what they remembered was the misleading art.
Misleading art abounds. Arnold Friberg’s paintings used to be in most people’s Book of Mormons and I believe remain in missionary editions. Yet they portray the Nephites as an odd mixture of vikings and Roman centurians complete with gladii as swords. The one thing that Nephites don’t look like is typical mesoAmericans wielding macuahuitl as their swords. The Salt Lake Temple visitor’s center has improved somewhat. They how have Lamanites looking more mesoAmerican and using macuahuitl but the Nephites still have that Friberg inspired Roman appearance. For more than 30 years Mormon scholars have pushed a mesoAmerican setting for the Book of Mormon that can explain many odd passages such as Alma 24:12-13. Despite this body of scholarship misleading art distorts significantly how most members think of the Book of Mormon. As with the way people remember the translation process, people remember the art about the Book of Mormon rather than the text itself. In this case the distortion makes the unfortunate racism of the past persist in our culture. White Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian appearance is privileged and subtly treated as a higher value. This is at odds with the text itself but also almost certainly the actual appearance of the people in the text. It not only allows elements of our racist past continue to persist, but sets members up so that critics can undermine their trust in the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
To me though the worst part of Mormon art is our adherence to the 19th century European masters for our art. Their art, particularly Carl Bloch’s, is truly great. Most members prefer that more realistic style of art to more abstract styled works by great Mormon artists like Minerva Teichert. While one can find Teichert pieces in chapels or in temples, typically it’s Bloch or Friberg. Like me, you probably pointed out the paintings to your kids as you walked the hall with them when they were disruptive toddlers during Sacrament. They play an important part setting expectations and understanding. Yet they all again portray the Jews of Palestine as white northern Europeans. Not only is that distortive of the actual history, it again unintentionally pushes the persistent racism of our past. Whiteness is promoted. Even most popular contemporary Mormon art tends to follow in the same pattern as Bloch or Friberg.
Imagine how our brothers and sisters of African, Asian or other ethnic heritage feel seeing our religion portrayed as fundamentally northern European? I don’t think I have to say much here, because it should quickly become clear we’re not being inclusive the way we should be.
What’s surprising about this is that the Church has historically been extremely inclusive with photographs. Church photographs for lessons have a variety of races and cultures partaking of the sacrament, offering prayers, and doing service and has for decades. Yet when it comes to representations of the scripture and important events in our history, our art is misleading and in many ways undermines the very religion it is supposed to promote.
While I’ve griped about this problem of Mormon art for years, it was recently brought into particular focus by a story of Jana Reiss on the place of Mormons in the alt right. The topic was some African American Mormons making exactly the points I made above. What was extremely shocking was a backlash by people pushing a white identity politics tied to the alt right. Searching on the twitter tag #DearWhiteMormons is a deeply depressing experience. Even acknowledging that many responding probably aren’t even Mormons but are the alt right & Russian troll armies, it highlights a huge problem we in the church have to grapple with.
Of course there is much we can do to solve this problem. I’m sure most of you reading have had lessons on racism in your Family Home Evening to prepare your kids prior to encountering such things at school. In ignorance, it’s so easy for children to pick up racism. Even though I opposed the politics of Pres. Obama, we had a lesson on the importance and historic nature of electing a black President. I’ve mentioned the many African American saints I encountered and baptized on my mission in Lousiana. Their stories overcoming obstacles I can’t fully understand continue to sustain me. I’ve also discussed the problems with LDS art that portrays Nephites or worst of all Christ as a northern European. Emphasizing to children as you read your scriptures that most art isn’t accurate is important. What we all really need to do though is start asking for better art.Right off the bat I hope the Church commissions some art that makes Christ and the Jews of 1st century Palestine looking Palestinian rather than northern Europeans. Why is this important? It breaks the perception of Jesus as privileging northern European ancestry. It’s also just more accurate. Second I hope we get art with Jesus interacting with people of all races. There are a few paintings of Jesus holding children of asian, black, or other ancestry. Why not put some of those in the hallways of our chapels and temples? It’s a small thing that would help inclusiveness. Why not some paintings of Jesus coming in glory at the second coming that show people of all races being caught up to meet him? Why not get rid of the beloved Friberg paintings from our Book of Mormon and replace them with art more informed by recent scholarship of what the Nephites and Lamanites were likely like? For that matter, given that we don’t know what Adam and Eve looked like, why not represent them as Asian, African or Polynesian?
The church has often condemned racism in conference. But this is a problem that goes beyond mere doctrine. There’s so many subtle unintentional ways in which we are not as opening to other races as we should be. Not only does this undoubtedly affect the effectiveness of our missionary effort, but it can lead to the presence of more overt forms of racism like we see on Twitter.
As I said, the Church definitely has been getting better. I was particularly excited seeing a darker skinned painting of Jesus in Gethsemene at lds.org. I just wish we had paintings done in the more realistic style most members prefer that avoid making the scriptures seem to take place in Sweden or Ireland.
 I’m including the seer stones as Urim & Thummims as that quickly became the typical Mormon description by the mid-1830’s. FAIR put online Anthony Sweat’s excellent appendix in From Darkness Unto Light about the problem of art shaping perceptions of history, particularly relative to the translation of the Book of Mormon. He does a great job explaining why artists often don’t feel constrained by historic accuracy. One line in particular sticks with me. “It would be hard for me to paint a painting with Joseph with his head in a hat. We would have no sense of the vision of what is happening inside.” (237)
 Here I’m don’t mean to push the mesoAmerican setting as the only way to read the Book of Mormon. It’s certainly the most popular among scholars. The problem applies equally to nearly any other American setting for the Book of Mormon though. The point is we should not be seeing Nephites as Vikings nor Romans. By popular contemporary Mormon art I mean the majority of work you’re apt to find at a Deseret Book, Seagull Books, or what’s typically for sale at the mall. There are of course exceptions but those tend to be far less “realistic” in style and thereby frequently less popular with the masses. (Even though those tend to be the ones I personally prefer) This LDS art website gives a good representative view. I should note that thankfully a few are more inclusive and include children of different races with Christ. Yet Christ is almost always portrayed as northern European with only a few offering so much as a slight tan for a man living in a desert region and preaching in the countryside. Right now working full time indoors and of primarily Swedish, English and Sami stock I have a darker tan than most paintings of Christ.
 I recognize most Jews people encounter are descended from northern European, especially German, ancestry. Yet the Jews in Palestine prior to immigration of European Jews looked much more like Palestinians. Almost certainly Jesus would have looked more like contemporary Palestinians. A few years back Popular Mechanics presented one view of what Jesus likely looked like based upon forensic reconstruction of bones contemporary with Jesus.