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Norman Rockwell and the LDS ideal

Published July 27, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

To show its values to the world, European Christendom gave us Chartres and the Sistine Chapel. When contemporary Mormonism displays its values, it gives us Norman Rockwell ("Church History Museum exhibits celebrate 100 years of Scouting," Tribune, July 18).

Of Chartres and its offspring, the Gothic cathedrals, art historian Emile Mâle said that they were the finest art France ever produced — a stunning assessment given the competition: Watteau, David, Ingres, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, Pisarro, Cezanne, Pradier, and Rodin, to mention a few of the better known also-rans.

Of Rockwell, the less said about critical assessment, the better.

Nonetheless, I like Norman Rockwell, and am happy to see so many of his original pieces on display in the Church History Museum. Despite my own miserable experience with Scouting, I think there's something to be said for it as well. Still, this new exhibit troubles me, because it confirms what many suspect: that the LDS Church is hopelessly trapped in a time warp of its own making.

Like the Virgin Mary who presides not only over the faithful but also over the liberal arts and the philosophers and scientists of Greece and Rome on Chartres's magnificent West Portal, Rockwell's America is the expression of an ideal.

The ideal of Chartres was of an all-encompassing truth, a renaissance and catholic vision if there ever was one. All philosophy, art, and science, and all people, could thrive under the loving patronage of the Virgin. All belonged in her cosmos. In her temple, all were welcome.

And Rockwell's ideal America, what values does it embody? Who is welcome? Rockwell's is the world of the petit bourgeois, a shopkeeper's paradise. Anyone who is white, male, Western European, Protestant, middle-class and straight is welcome.

Rockwell's ideal is the American dream, and, to some extent, the American reality. But this is no vision for modern America, and certainly, unlike Chartres, no vision for the ages. How much less moving, for example, is Rockwell's vision of America than that of his contemporaries, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who gave us no ideal but whose gritty reality is timeless.

Norman Rockwell is a parable of America. Our ideal has become pedestrian, and our real increasingly a nightmare we want to ignore.

Nonetheless, for the Boy Scouts, the LDS Church and the Republican Party, Rockwell's is the right America. Women, minorities, immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, unbelievers, scientists, humanists, single mothers and the poor are not welcome. This is sad for America. But it's tragic for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for Norman Rockwell's America is not Zion. Zion is not the American dream but the just society.

Rockwell is family values art. Don't get me wrong: family values are fine. But here's the problem: Americans are already signed up for family values, and they're not working! They're not working because they're not enough. Rockwell cannot carry the weight even of real America, much less be a vision for the ages.

I said earlier that Chartres was such a vision. If that's true, it's because here a people managed to transcend their present.

In 1134, when the new cathedral started to go up, Chartres was a modest mercantile town of a few thousand souls in a country where towns had only just started to reappear. Yet, here European culture produced one of its greatest accomplishments.

The Mormon capital is a city of a million in a country of 350 million. And what it offers the world as its vision for the future is Norman Rockwell, who didn't even fully represent its past or present.

Ed Firmage, Jr. is a Salt Lake City photographer and writer.