So I had a meeting with an architect who does a lot of work for the LDS Church, and we had a very interesting conversation that included the following story:
It seems that, on one occasion, the Church commissioned an artist to paint a depiction of the First Vision, wherein Joseph Smith is first visited by the Father and the Son. It’s a sacred moment, and the Church is notoriously cautious when it comes to putting sacred moments on canvas. I once asked a high-ranking mucky-muck on the Church’s Temple Committee why we didn’t see more original, interesting art in temples instead of the prints of prints of Harry Anderson and Del Parson magazine illustrations that you see everywhere else. His answer was that every piece of art that is approved to hang in temples has to go through umpteen layers of committee approval, and particularly with any portrayal of the Savior, it’s almost impossible to get consensus. So that’s why we stick with the tried and true – and boring.
Which is sad, really. Harry Anderson’s paintings are the ones that are used more often than any others, and the guy was a Seventh-Day Adventist! Can’t we rely on homegrown artists for a change?
But I digress. All this is precursor to the story about the First Vision painting. In this case, the artist did a considerable amount of research, and he determined that, back in the early 19th Century, a 14 year-old impoverished farmboy who went out into the woods to pray would almost certainly have been barefoot at the time. That makes sense – shoes were expensive, after all, and wearing them outside while working crops in the Spring would likely have been ridiculously extravagant and probably uncomfortable to boot.
So the artist painted his shoelessly and historically accurate portrayal of the First Vision, turned it into the Church, and found himself in the center of a controversy he had not anticipated, but which I’m sure you’ve guessed.
The Church wanted to know where Joseph’s shoes were.
The artists began by patiently explaining his research and conclusion, but it didn’t matter. The Church was unwilling to accept the painting as is. They insisted that the artist paint some suitable footwear, and the artist refused. One of the members of the committee suggested a compromise – that Joseph be depicted in a position where his feet would not be visible. The artist was unwilling to do that, either, and he ended up rejecting the commission altogether and withdrawing the painting. I have no idea what happened after that – I don’t know if he left the Church or if he just chalked it all up to experience and sucked it up, but I am interested in the questions this thing raises.
First off, what would I do in this situation? The artist has a point, certainly, but with regard to my relationship with the Church, I doubt this would be the hill I would want to die on. I’d probably just accept the compromise option, paint Joseph with his feet hidden, and recognize that the focal point of the painting shouldn’t necessarily be 19th Century podiatry.
But it has to be asked: why on earth should the Church care? Who are they protecting? What member of the Church is going to be offended by the idea of a barefoot prophet?
This is a problem so stupid that it could only have been created by a committee.