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What Is Beauty?

Professors Julie Allen, George Handley, and Heather Belnap discuss the impact of visual aesthetics within Latter-day Saint culture.

You’ve probably heard the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It suggests that what we see on the outside can be misleading and might not match the content within at all. However, an effective cover does many things: it entices the viewer to pick up and buy or read the book; it accurately provides an idea of what’s inside, including the quality of the content; and it might even reveal things about the author as well as hint at the tone and style of the book.

This year’s Mormon Scholars in the Humanities (MSH) conference—held on March 24–26, 2022, at the University of Oxford—centered on the meanings that visuals provide in Latter-day Saint literature.

BYU Professors Julie Allen (Comparative Literature and Scandinavian Studies), George Handley (Interdisciplinary Humanities), and Associate Professor Heather Belnap (Art History) shared unique insights during the conference about the theme of aesthetics and visual appearance in Latter-day Saint literature.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Latter-day Saint Literature

Allen’s lecture focused on the aesthetics of fantastic beasts in Latter-day Saint speculative fiction and what those depictions can teach us about ourselves.

Certainly, the worlds of Ender’s Game or Fablehaven contain abstract creatures that seem strange. No matter how bizarre these creatures appear, they are really just representations of us. We come to recognize the creatures’ symbolism by studying their place in the narrative: sometimes they speak out about their treatment from humans and show us that our treatment of all outsiders (including other humans) is equally harmful.

These creatures speak to the question “What are we trying to learn about ourselves?” By placing this question into a world apart from our own, we are able to gain emotional distance and better find an answer. When we look at philosophical questions without our bodily constraints, such as from the perspective of a non-humanoid creature, we can recognize how important aesthetics are to humans. Often, the outside appearance distracts from the essential elements inside. Recognizing this tendency forces us to determine what we think of as strange or different or odd and why we think that way.

Unorganized Matter, Creation, and the Chance for Beauty: A Case Study of Annie Dillard

Handley’s lecture began with an introduction into ecotheology, the study of theology with environmental values, which has connections to Latter-day Saint theology. Loving nature not only requires caring about natural beauty but having charity toward a natural world that ultimately is a reminder of our own mortality. The creation of our world included the creation of pain and hardship. Earth was created with both stunning views and dangerous terrain. That equal opportunity to experience the good and the bad is what gives beauty meaning.

Handley explained that in American novelist Annie Dillard’s writing, beauty feels like something stumbled upon, but at the same time, it feels like a gift. The problem is that it emerges from the same circumstances in nature that also create ugliness and even death. This makes beauty challenging to accept because we don’t wish to accept something that can create pain. However, both ugliness and beauty are part of the gift of life that we are given. If we can learn to appreciate nature in this way, we won't treat it like a prize or a trophy but as a humbling expression of undeserved generosity from God.

Towards a Mormon Iconography: LDS Women’s Writings on Art and Aesthetics, 1900–1950

Belnap described how women during the Progressive Era became the keepers of artistic discourse within the Latter-day Saint community. The major art influencers of this time (almost entirely females) utilized the women’s resources within the Church to spread their cause. It was their goal to cultivate a distinctly Mormon art. This art focused on their religion, as well as helped them connect with other religions nearby through a shared appreciation for art. These women hoped they would be able to spread the gospel message through art.

Belnap taught, “Art is a powerful means of communing with and connecting to the divine. It is a record of our people that tells stories in ways that the written word cannot. Art (and architecture) can also be viewed as a more universal language—like music—that speaks and moves and unites people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.”

These three different perspectives remind us that aesthetics teach us about ourselves, the undeserved generosity that is beauty, and how to connect with others. Whatever form that aesthetics may take, from written description to art to spontaneously beautiful, natural moments, we have a lot to learn from them.