guest post by Sophia Mason
Author’s Note: The following painting is discomfiting. We might see it as sacrilegious. But nobody has had to stand in front of it for as many hours as I have, and as a result, I would like to talk about it a bit. So in quintessential Mormon fashion, bear with me.
The first time I encountered the idea of women giving priesthood blessings within the LDS faith, I immediately felt uncomfortable. The immediacy and the intensity of the sensation surprised me, so I began to investigate it with a thought experiment. Why might my mother giving me a priesthood blessing be uncomfortable? I could think of no moral shortcomings, no lack of experience, no disconnect with god(s) that normally would exclude a worthy priesthood holder from direct heavenly influence. And I could see her as a worthy priesthood holder. So I concluded, “That would not be uncomfortable after all”. My discomfort came from the fact that I had never considered women laying their hands on my head for a priesthood blessing before.
If you have felt uncomfortable in front of this painting (or in front of this picture of this painting) for the last thirty seconds, then let’s play the “It’s Not So Bad” game to relieve some of your anxiety.
- Don’t worry. It’s not real. It’s a painting, something someone made up in her head. It’s not even a photograph of a real person acting out something imaginary. There is no sacrament tray, no breasts, no wood paneling, or chalkboard, or cat-eye sunglasses.
- People have been making uncomfortable art for a long long long time. Edouard Manet painted pictures of prostitutes when no one was showing paintings of prostitutes in salon gatherings, and as it turned out, that was a big no no. Picasso? Yes prostitutes, but also concentration camp victims, and we all know none of us want to see fine art of our own willingness to let innocent people die.
- It’s just a painting. It does not make noises, or have flashing lights, or determine your citizenship. You can look away and it might as well have vanished.
But it wouldn’t vanish, would it? It might nag you, follow you, continually crop up again.
This happens for a couple of different reasons and begins to tell us why a piece like this, and art more widely, affects us so intensely and actually endangers us.
Scientifically speaking, art is as real as any substance or stimulant. In the last decade neuroscience has improved its ability to track what happens in the human brain when we see. In one experiment reported in the Smithsonian magazine, subjects were asked to look at Adam’s bended wrist in Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise.
While the subjects looked, neuroscientists monitored stimulation in their brains with “a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)”.[ii] They found that looking at Adam’s wrist stimulated areas in the brain related to the viewers’ movement of their own wrists. Just like seeing someone yawn can make you want to yawn, seeing a wrist can make your brain think about your wrist. This sounds like the perfect evidence for the Senate Subcommittee Hearings and the Comics code from the mid-1950s, and it is. If looking at Adam’s wrist makes one’s brain think about moving one’s own wrist, then looking at Adam’s bare body will make one’s brain think about one’s own bare body (and we certainly can’t have that). However, this line of thinking does not go as far as discussing what about one’s own bare body the stimuli makes us think. Certainly it could make us want to emulate Adam move for move, but seeing and understanding the whole image may do just the opposite; it may make us want to do whatever necessary to avoid Adam’s fate altogether. In any case, that stimuli will probably motivate each of us to different conclusions (though I do not have any quantifiable data on this conjecture). In any case, and more importantly, what we might take from this argument is that art actually does something to us physically and any way we approach it, art makes us think.
- Those stimulated feelings and thoughts are also as “true” and “real” as anything else. In the philosopher John Dewey’s “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism”, he describes one way in which we come to understand our world. He implores his reader to imagine being home alone on a dark evening when a storm in rolling in. As you walk into an empty room, you hear a sound and gasp, feeling the hair stand up on your neck, and imagine the worst for a split second. Almost as quickly as the sensation came, your mind begins to examine your environment and you quickly realize that the sound was only a branch tapping against the window screen in the wind when you go over to the window and see the branch. We might be quick to dismiss your initial fear as “wrong”, or “untrue”. However, there is nothing false about what you experienced. Indeed you did feel paralyzing fear in that moment. So that branch which caused a bloodcurdling sensation is actually both deathly terrifying and entirely innocuous. In addition, the moment where you recognize your own fear is a real and true experience of its own that describes your passage through this world.[iii]
This is to say that even after we have parsed through something such as a painting and understand what makes us uncomfortable, and rationalized that experience, that does not make the experience of discomfort any less significant as an understanding of ourselves and the things around us. This is why I am not necessarily afraid to make people uncomfortable with my painting, or very very, angry. Those reactions are real and true, I understand where they come from. But we all might understand better why they come and what to do with them if we make more space in Mormon psyches to elicit experiences (play brass in the chapel!) and to discuss our actual responses.
- Ideologically we really do have a problem. At times art has a unique way of getting to the point more poignantly than anything else. This painting still follows me around and still nags me in part because it illustrates a sensation I get better than I can articulate it. Every once in a while I contemplate my relationship to the priesthood while I watch men walking the aisles with sacrament trays and I get the feeling that I am playing into a strange male power trip now so inextricably tied up with the emblems of the savior that I wonder briefly if we will ever be able to untie the two. The painting points to that sensation for me in its circuitous way and I think it will continue to point to that sensation even after we have resolved the problem.
[i] Sophia Mason, Wanna hold the Priesthood?, 2015. 48 x 36 in. Collection of the Artist.
[ii] Abigale Tucker, “How Does the Brain Process Art?,” Smithsonian, accessed 20 Sept 2015, Web. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-does-the-brain-process-art-80541420/?no-ist
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Expulsion from Paradise, 1508-1512. Fresco, 280 x 570 cm, Sistine Chapel, The Vatican.
[iii] John Dewey, “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism”, in The Essential Dewey: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, ed. Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).