In Faculty, Faith + Works

Collin Bradford shares how Mormons can learn to appreciate contemporary art

Art Professor Collin Bradford kicked off the 2017-18 Faith and Works lecture series by speaking on how contemporary, sometimes considered ugly, art can be inspiring.

Bradford came to BYU with a desire to study engineering. However, during his Freshman year, he struggled to find motivation. Bradford served a mission in Spain and saw a “fog of depression” lift from his life.

After his mission, Bradford returned to BYU with an excitement to look into several majors. He came to the realization that, for him, art encompassed everything he enjoyed. However, Bradford discovered as an art major he received many questions about how art majors make a living and people feel compelled to say how much they dislike contemporary art.

“During my time in school,” Bradford said, “I became increasingly aware of how disconnected from art, or even antagonistic toward it, our culture is, especially the art of today.”

Bradford explained that based on inherited cultural ideas, people expect art to be beautiful, show technical and manual skill, be uplifting and involve a lot of work. When they go to a contemporary art museum, those expectations typically are not met. This causes people to become agitated.

“I think we approach art as a culture with what King Benjamin might call the natural man,” Bradford said. “The natural man, King Benjamin tells us, lacks meekness, humility, patience and love.”  

The natural man is threatened by art that is not easily understandable, is impatient with art that requires time and patience, is quick to judge work that does not conform to preconceived thoughts, and looks for art that reinforces his own worldview.

Bradford’s friend told him, “Many Mormons decide how faithful something is by how familiar it feels.” This statement rang true to Bradford. He said many Mormon’s approach to art is often similar to the approach of anti-religious or anti-Mormon people who misunderstand what they dislike because they approach it uncharitably, without empathy or explanatory context. That approach leads Mormons to view unfamiliar art and artists as an enemy.

“Maybe it’s instructive that the ‘therefore’ in Christ’s statement, ‘be ye therefore perfect,’ comes right after he tells us to love our enemies,” Bradford said.

Bradford then quoted LDS writer Adam Millers’ explanation of how truth can be held with love,  “Rather than facing down the enemy, real thinking turns its head to see what the enemy was seeing. This gesture of love embodies the deepest possible act of resistance: it contests the enemy’s right to be an enemy rather than a friend.”

Bradford explained that we need to see what the artist is seeing. He said it is important to ask, “why did someone choose to make this?” and to sincerely wonder “what in their experience and in their response to the world around them motivated them to make that thing?” all while maintaining a charitable outlook.

“They are making the work they’re making because of something sincere inside them,” Bradford said.

Bradford noted that several contemporary artists derive inspiration from classical works but apply that work into current conversations. Bradford also explained that beauty is not a universal standard, it does not always represent truth and it is not always moral. The grace of creation is an ongoing process and all of the material world, including the parts we don’t typically think of as beautiful, are part of divine creation.

“I think sometimes our challenge is that because we (Mormons) have some important truths, we feel like we have all the truth and we set boundaries on where the spirit can go and what it can teach us,” Bradford said.

Bradford explained that years ago as he was dealing with a challenge of faith, he felt the “unmistakable warmth of divine presence” at a time and place that was outside of a typical and idyllic meditation setting, but God still reached out to him with inspiration.

Mormons believe living in a fallen world is divine, explained Bradford. Beautiful art that is devoid of pain and suffering can refuse the confrontations that open us up to grace. Bradford compared classical paintings of mothers with Mary Kelly’s “Post Partum Document” to show how Kelly’s contemporary work shows the truth and reality of motherhood more than the classical paintings, inviting charitable empathy and an embrace of the reality of motherhood instead of an aesthetic idealization of it.

Bradford displayed contemporary works by artists Gabriel Orozco, Jason Dodge, Katie Paterson and several others to explain how art is used “as a way to think about something or a way to view the world.”

“I think art can do something really interesting for us,” Bradford said. “It makes ideas accessible directly through our senses rather than going through language. We feel those ideas in a way that’s different than when somebody describes them to us.”  

As he concluded his remarks, Bradford shared a piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres called “Untitled (Perfect Lovers).” It consists of two battery-powered clocks that start out synchronized. They tick in unison, side by side, until they slowly fall out of sync, and eventually the battery in one of the clocks dies before the other. In other words, time runs out for one before it does for its partner.

“This gives me a sense of the beauty and tragedy of love, far greater than any picture of two people embracing could do,” Bradford said. “It didn’t take any manual skill to make, and a lot of people won’t think it’s beautiful, but I’m not sure that the power of commitment and love comes through better in any art than this.

“I feel such gratitude for the grace I’ve experienced through looking at difficult and sometimes ugly art,” Bradford continued. “I feel so grateful I get to spend my days talking about it with students, making it and looking at it. I get to experience the grace of creation and wonderment at the world and get closer to divinity through it and I hope you can too.”

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