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Op-ed: Utah's modesty culture discourages artistic expression

Published December 7, 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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

By alexandra karl

Not since Arnold Friberg painted the Queen of England has a Mormon artist made so many inroads onto the international stage. On Nov 28, an article in HuffPost Canada featured Salt Lake City photographer and artist, Katrina Barker Anderson. Barker Anderson is the brainchild behind Mormon Women Bare — a photography project and website showcasing Mormon women in their birthday suits.

The works not only feature nude Mormon women, but champion the notion of their imperfect and unidealized natural bodies. Ravaged by pregnancy, genes, time and gravity, we encounter the female form in all its shapes and sizes: twisted, torn and beautiful. The works are about as honest and forthright as one can get.

The artist, along with her sitters, seek to "reclaim the body" against the shackles of the beauty, fashion and sports industries, which impose unattainable ideals onto girls and women. This places Barker Anderson's work squarely among other feminist artists throughout the world (from Paula Modersohn-Becker to Jenny Saville and Jen Davis) who have addressed similar demons, such that by now, the genre is quite saturated.

Truly groundbreaking is how Barker Anderson's work diverges from her contemporaries and predecessors, by specifically targeting LDS 'modesty culture.' According to her website and well-crafted artist's statement, modesty culture instills a sense of shame and self-doubt onto Mormon girls and women, and permeates college campuses as much as self-narratives. By voluntarily participating in the photographer's project, declaring their bodies to be 'beautiful, strong and resilient,' the sitters upend the above equation, and adhere to a litany of women who have made similar statements of empowerment. In the context of Mormonism, the risk of censure - and ex-communication – is tangible, and makes their courage all the more moving.

In Utah, modesty culture has many ugly heads. Among them is the tendency to lump ALL nudes together, and dismiss them all as pornographic. After all, it was not so long ago that the BYU Museum of Art allowed for August Rodin's internationally beloved sculture The Kiss to be censored with a bed sheet during a travelling show. I encountered similar attitudes at the University of Utah, when I lectured on the subject of 'Nudes in Art', and tried to explore what viewers could learn from other bodies, besides pornography.

Modesty culture is also promulgated by our secular institutions; it would be unfortunate if we did not see Barker Anderson's work supported by the UMFA, BYU or LDS Museum, nor reviewed in the ever-shrinking Tribune, or 15 Bytes. Institutional chasteness only promotes a vicious cycle, and keeps Utahns ignorant of a whole world of cultural production that is profoundly edifying, yet neither sexual nor pornographic, and that international audiences have benefitted from for centuries. HuffPost Canada has shown Utahns that we have a bold and talented contemporary artist in our midst: something we should all celebrate. Her work is good news for Mormon women – and all our mothers, sisters, daughters. Fist bump to them all! But unless our cultural institutions open up and step up to the educational challenge of embracing Body Art, our experience of other people, other cultures and other generations will be limited, and the reception of such trailblazing work, lukewarm.

Alexandra Karl is an art historian and educator. She lives in Salt Lake City.