Kenneth Hartvigsen: Experiencing Art in an Intimate Way
Kenneth Hartvigsen has thought a lot about the power art possesses. He is a believer that it has the ability to help us unite, understand one another, and feel a greater connection to the Creator. On this week’s episode, Kenneth, an art curator at Brigham Young University, takes us inside his thought process surrounding art so we can “experience” one of Carl Bloch’s most famous paintings, “Christ Healing the Sick at the Pool of Bethesda.”
“Looking at art of any subject can be sacred in the sense that what I am looking at is somebody else’s deep desire to better understand what they’re doing here and to respond to things they’ve experienced."
Learn More about Christ Healing the Sick at the Pool of Bethesda” and "Monumental Matters and other BYU exhibits: https://moa.byu.edu/exhibitions-2/current-exhibitions/
1:56- “Something To Feel”
5:06- The Great Unifier
8:11- An Embodied Experience
14:43- The Church’s Commitment To Art
18:29- Seeking To Understand
26:56- Back To Bethesda
37:07- Art and Empathy
42:39- Sacred Even When Not Religious
46:29- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones Pearson 0:00
President M. Russell Ballard has said "God's purpose for the artist is to inspire, to give us visions of ourselves that we might not otherwise see, to make us better than we would have been. The world is better for the arts and righteous artists in it." In the classroom and through the museum exhibits he curates Kenneth Hartvigsen is a believer that our world truly is better for the arts and Kenneth Hartvigsen is the curator of American art at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah. He holds a doctorate in art history from Boston University, where he studied American art and visual culture, with research interests including 19th and 20th century painting, popular illustration, and the visual cultures of popular music. He has presented and published on topics as diverse as sheet music illustration, the flag in American art, and Kanye West appropriation of Confederate iconography. Kenneth also teaches art history at BYU and maintains an active studio practice, occasionally exhibiting his paintings in Provo and in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his wife, two daughters and a very mischievous cat. This is All In and LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Pearson. And I am so grateful to have Kenneth Hartvigsen on the line with me today, Kenneth, welcome.
Kenneth Hartvigsen 1:29
Thank you. I'm absolutely thrilled to be here with you today.
Morgan Jones Pearson 1:33
Well, I am thrilled to have you on the show. And this is, this is really exciting. I was just telling my husband yesterday that one of my very favorite classes that I took in college was an art history course. And so a chance to talk with you is really fun, I You shouldn't test me on any of it. Because the truth is, I probably don't remember a ton. But just to start out, I watched several videos of you, you have some mini tours that you do and gallery tours on YouTube and on Facebook. And I watched several of those as I was preparing to interview you. And I noticed how much passion and excitement you seem to have about the work that you're doing. And I always see that that's really cool. There's just something about seeing somebody do something that they really love, that I think then as a viewer makes me more excited and impassioned about whatever it is that I'm watching or listening to. So I wondered how did you first become interested in art?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 2:31
I love that question. And I'm glad that there was a sense of passion when you saw those those, those mini tours, you know, I always tell people, I have the best job in the world. Because I get to tell people about things that I think are deeply meaningful, that are profound, but things that a lot of people maybe haven't experienced or haven't spent a lot of time with, you know, engaging with art history the way we do as art historians and curators. So it's something that that I do feel strongly about, I really first fell in love with art in a high school humanities class. And I took the class mostly just because it was a class that a lot of people took in junior year in high school. And it was a humanities class that taught art history and literature and music kind of all together. Before that, I didn't really have a deep connection with visual arts, I hadn't been an artist growing up. And I remember being a little bit skeptical about some arts just you know, especially modern art, you know, those kinds of things that seemed a little surprising or unexpected to me. And, you know, we had just the greatest teacher in the worlds in this humanities class Her name was was Julie Hewlett, and she was an absolutely amazing woman. And she changed the way that I saw the world. She had a love and a passion for music and art. And she really opened our eyes. And I remember one particular day when a student was complaining about a work of modern art. I don't remember what it was, but you know, maybe something by Picasso, or maybe an abstract expressionist piece by Jackson Pollock or something like that. And I said, Well, this just this just doesn't make sense. And Mrs. Hewlett said, Did World War I makes sense? Did the Great Depression makes sense? Did World War II makes sense? She said, Why should the artists make sense when they're in a world that doesn't make sense. And that was, I think, the first time that it ever occurred to me that when people created art, they weren't just trying to make something pretty or weren't just trying to reproduce an image that they had seen somewhere else. But that maybe art was somehow connected to, to broader experiences, and about what it means to be a human, about what it means to engage with, with this world and with all of its complexities all of its beauty, but also all the things that are hard. And that I think was the beginning of my path as an art historian to realize that art wasn't just ours, that it's not just something to look at, but it's something to feel it's a tool for feeling and experiencing the world in new ways.
Morgan Jones Pearson 5:06
Kenneth, from what I understand, you begin your classes by first emphasizing that art is the unifying characteristic of humanity, something that connects all of God's children from all ages of history who inhabit every corner of the earth. I wondered if you could elaborate on that and why that's such an important starting point.
Kenneth Hartvigsen 5:26
Absolutely. Yeah, that is the way I start almost any class, whether it's an upper division class, and people who have already been studying art history for years, or whether it's an introductory class. So any students who might hear me on this who've had my class, you will have heard me say this multiple times. I do say that. I start by saying all human beings, throughout the history of the world have created art. And it doesn't matter what part of the world they live in, what period in history they live in. It doesn't matter the political environment that they live in the religious context in which they worship, all human beings create things that we consider art. And I think that's such a valuable place to start. Because sometimes people think of art as something that is purely a luxury. They think of art as something only tied to leisure time, and leisure activities, that it's something elitist. That is often I think the way people think of art, but I don't think those things can be true, because if they were true, we wouldn't always do it. If it was simply about luxury, and simply about how we spend our leisure time, people wouldn't create art in hunter gatherer societies, people wouldn't create art, you know, when they are under political oppression, people wouldn't create art, in prisons, and in hospitals, or during conflict. But they do. And the fact that we create, and I'm defining are broadly here, you know, whether we're talking about, you know, literature, or dance, or music or visual arts, but just broadly speaking, we create art in all kinds of situations. And the fact that we are moved to continually create these things in our best and our worst times—when we are joyous, and when we are deeply mourning. And so I think it's so important to start with that when talking to students so that they recognize this is not frivolous, this is not a frivolous subject. This is not something only for the luxury, the luxury times in your life, this is not something only for the elite in society. This is something for all of us. And I believe that the fact that all people do create art means that it's something deeply within us that, you know, I recognize that there are some people who have an art background and have art experience and artistic talent. And there's some people who are just, you know, not that interested in the arts, and I understand all of those things. But if we're talking about humanity, it is within us all, it is absolutely part of what makes us human is the creation of art. And as such, I see it as a way to better understand all of my brothers and sisters who live everywhere in the world, throughout all of human history.
Morgan Jones Pearson 8:11
Kenneth, I love that. A few years ago, somebody was talking to me and and they said, you know, what do you do for a living? And I was telling them about my job. And they said, Oh, so you're a creative. And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, like, I can't even draw stick figures. I'm not a creative. And then it was interesting, because the next week, I was working on a written story. And I realized that for me, the Microsoft Word document, with a blank page was like a canvas. And I was trying to paint a picture. And so I love this idea that there's this innate desire in all of us to create art. And you talked about how you believe that that is a gift from God. And the person that wrote in said that you talk about how this offers us unique ways to think and feel through embodied engagement with the world around us. So I wondered if you could tell me, how do we see that in the many ways in which people express themselves, but not only express themselves, but how they worship? How do we see this creative, innate desire in the way that people express their feelings toward deity or spirituality?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 9:24
I love that question. Yeah, you know, I think that the thing that I find so fascinating about art, one of the things I find so fascinating about art, is that I see it as a way to think and feel with all of our senses. And you kind of alluded to that in the question that, you know, when you're creating art, whatever art process that is, you're probably using your hands, right, you're using your body in some way. You're using your eyes, both to observe the world as you create, to observe the artwork and process, and then we as viewers, use our eyes to engage with the artwork. You know, if you are an artist in the sense of maybe being a musician, then of course, you're engaging the ears, you're engaging the mind. If you're a dancer, you're engaging your entire body and the way you move and interact through space. Maybe you are gastronomical artist, a Chef, and you're engaging tastes, you know. And so for me, art is very much this way of thinking and feeling through our senses. And we usually imagine that thinking and feeling only take place in the mind. But I think it's important to recognize that we are embodied spirits that we're here on this earth, to learn to live as embodied spirits. And you know, we sometimes use phrases like we come to this earth to get a body or to receive a body. And that's true. But I also think sometimes that's, that's just kind of shortchanging what we're doing here. Because I don't think it's just okay, I got my body check, I need a body, because we are going to live as embodied spirits throughout the eternities. We know that after the resurrection, we are to live as embodied spirits, embodied entities for the eternities. We believe that our Heavenly Parents are embodied, embodied beings. And so I think that bodily aspect of who we are and what we're doing in this life is vitally important. We are here to learn through and with our bodies. And so I think art provides us a unique space to do that, to think and feel as we create in this embodied way. And, you know, tying it to worship is such a fascinating question, because worship is also an embodied experience, whether you're talking about ritual practice, for example. I mean, if we use from the Latter Day Saint context, just something like the sacrament, which is taking this sacrament on a regular basis on a Sunday, which is an embodied experience, in which you are, you know, watching the passing of the sacrament take place in a certain way, taking place in a certain way. You are hearing the prayers spoken, you are feeling and contemplating. And then you physically eat and take the bread and water into your body. So there is a physical embodiment that takes place with that process. And that's true of all of our covenants, that we make all of the rights that we perform, whether we're talking about baptism, baby blessings, priesthood blessings for the sick, temple worship, any of the things that we do as Latter Day Saints are actually embodied actions. And those embodied actions are not meant to be purely physical. They're meant to be felt, they're meant to be spiritually felt, they're meant to be intellectually engaged in as we think about how these actions relate to the things we believe and to the types of people we want to be. And so I think that is a very interesting way of thinking about art practice, because it is a physical thing. But it isn't just about seeing, it isn't just about the existence of a physical object, it is about feeling, it is about thinking deeply. It is about engaging us in many different ways. And that's true in sacred practice around the world, whether you're talking about veneration of sacred icons in Eastern Christianity, or whether we're thinking about praying at a Shinto shrine, or in a temple in India, these are again embodied practices. These are practices that take place in certain ways, at certain times, in certain locations, and that have certain actions and practices involved in them. And those actions and practices often have art involved in them too. Whether you're talking about statues or sculptures or paintings or stained glass or frescoes, in Latter Day Saint history, we have a very interesting relationship with art where, in to some extent, we've inherited a lot from an American Protestant tradition, which tends to shun visual art and religious practice. And so when you come to our churches on Sundays, you don't see a lot of visual art, especially in the sacred chapel in that sacred space of the chapel. But our temples are full of art. Our temples are full of visual art, in not just the murals in the sacred spaces of the temple, which are often present, but in the presentation of Temple ceremonies through films that are highly artistic. So you know, even our own religious practice relies heavily upon visual art as a component for assisting the worshiper to think and feel as they engage through their senses with these artistic objects.
Morgan Jones Pearson 14:23
I love the way you said that about the temple. I've never thought of it that way. But I was just looking at pictures yesterday from the Washington DC Temple Open House, and they have that cherry blossom. Have you seen that it's incredible. It's like stunning and obviously ties in Washington DC, which is cool. But I wondered so before we we shift away from our practice of art within Latter Day Saint culture, how do you feel art has shaped our culture?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 14:55
I think that's a tricky question because, well, there is a Again, if we're thinking about art in a broad sense, if we're thinking about engagement with with all artistic histories and practices, I think Latter Day Saints have always been deeply committed to artistic experience. If you look back at the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, only two years later, Brigham Young started a playgroup started a group to put on dramatics, the Deseret Dramatic Association. And then it was only three or four years after that, that he started the first Playhouse in Utah, which was also I think, the first Playhouse west of the Mississippi River or something like that. And he, in dedicating the Playhouse, he talked about how we could learn by watching these characters on the stage, learn the best and worst of human behavior that we could learn, from watching people to emulate and also from watching cautionary tales of how we can misuse our human experience. And so I think even from that very early stage in the valley, you have a prophet Brigham Young, saying, The arts are of value to my people. so valuable that again, two years after arriving, we need a dramatic society to put on plays. In the late 19th century, the church called art missionaries that maybe had been spoken about on this podcast before. But there were specific missionaries who were called and were set apart. And their job was to go to France and study art in the best French academies. And the purpose of these art missionaries was not to proselytize in the field, their purpose was to learn from the very best artists in the world as much as they could, and then to come back to enrich the artistic productions of Latter Day Saints. And so some of those artists came back and worked on murals in the temples, for example. But there was that investment on the part a spiritual investment and a financial investment on the part of the church leaders in the late 19th century. To say we need our people, we need our church to have access to the very best in in our production and in our study. And so I think from those early stages in the 19th century, we had an investment in the arts. I think if you look at BYU as an example, obviously, I'm biased because I work at BYU. But, you know, BYU has a a wonderful, wonderful, and committed art faculty and has so many incredible students and art majors, whether we're talking about the visual arts, again, or whether we're talking about drama, or literature, you know, we have an incredible program of computer animation that has provided a lot of opportunity for students to go to work with the major animation firms in Hollywood. So I think that the Church both in a cultural sense, in a religious sense, again, through our temples, through the engagement of the arts of through on the part of church leadership, but also in the CES sense in the sense of church education, has made very serious investments in the value that the arts can bring to our lives. And I think that that is in the sense of enriching our lives, helping us to feel joy helping us to learn important lessons, like Brigham Young said, Sometimes learning with the good and the bad, but also just in the sense of creating as a godly act that, you know, we know, our Heavenly Father is a creator. And therefore, when we create, we're doing something that He also does and participates in.
Morgan Jones Pearson 18:25
Absolutely, I agree completely. So you mentioned earlier in our conversation, this idea of having experiences with art, whether it's creating or looking at art, whatever the style, medium, or subject. How would you say, Kenneth, that we prepare ourselves to have experiences with art? How can we approach it in a way that we're prepared for that art to change us or to have some kind of experience with it?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 18:55
Yeah, I think it's very important to approach art open hearted. You know, I think, from my experience teaching art history on campus, and having not just taught our history here at BYU, but having taught art history at other institutions as well. But when you're teaching intro classes to students who are maybe engaging with art for the first time, maybe students who have never even set foot in an art museum, there is sometimes a reticence and a feeling that art is elitist. And I've kind of alluded to that earlier, or a feeling that maybe art just isn't for them. And sometimes people feel like they don't get art, they feel like they're kind of on the outside of a secret conversation that they're not part of. It's like an inside joke that they're not part of. And I think sometimes people are very skeptical of artists, especially if we're talking about once we get to modern art and contemporary art where the art rules changed dramatically. And art objects start to look very, very different than they had in the past, that people have approaching that kind of art for the first time, are skeptical of artists and feel like this whole thing is just some kind of joke. And these artists are just taking advantage of, of people and of their engagement with their work. So I think first of all, that it's important to, to shed that skepticism completely. I think it's important that you know, we lose nothing by assuming that the artists that we are participating with are honestly attempting to say something of value. I go into every art exhibition that I see, assuming that these artists are trying to say something about the way they experience the world. And even if I don't agree with that, even if I have a very different point of view from them, which is often the case, how can I not desire to better understand my brothers and sisters and the way they experience the world? If an artist is making their best faith effort, their authentic effort to say, this is how I think, this is how I feel, this is how I'm trying to make sense of the world, how can I not want to listen to that voice. Even if I don't agree with it, I should listen to that voice and try to better understand my brothers and sisters. So I think it is important to go into any art opportunity open hearted, and to assume the authenticity of the artist, to assume that they are trying to say something of value, or they are expressing something of their experience. And I think it is just very important to begin any art experience with your own feelings. Right now, I have an exhibition at the Museum of Art that I've been working on for several years called Monumental Matters, which is an exhibition of contemporary art. And there's some very, very significant artists and significant artworks in this exhibition. But it is a contemporary art show. And I know a lot of our audience is, is approaching contemporary art for the first time, and that there might be a little bit of trepidation there. And so what I am encouraging every single audience that I talk to about this exhibition, I encourage them to walk into the gallery, and to not worry about the questions like what does this mean? Or why did the artists to do this? We can talk about those questions, eventually. I don't think they're the most important questions. I think the more important question is, what am I feeling when I stand in front of a work of art? How does it make me feel? What is it making me think of? And then, well, how do I feel about those thoughts? You know, if you see a work of art, and your first reaction is revulsion, which sometimes happens. If you see a work of art, and it's frustrating or confusing. Well, that is also an important place to start. Why do I feel frustrated? Why do I feel confused? What is it about this work of art that is making me feel this way? Because I think it's an opportunity to learn an awful lot, not only about the artists, but an awful lot about ourselves. We learn an awful lot about ourselves, when we think deeply about why we think and feel the things that we do when we have an artistic experience. I hope this is making sense. By the way. I'll just go forever about these?
Morgan Jones Pearson 23:14
I think it's super profound. And I'll tell you what I thought was so interesting, as you were talking. So when you were first talking, and you're saying you know that you approach it, thinking, you know, what was what is this person trying to say? I thought that is the way that we should approach people coming into it with the expectation that we're going to learn something about the way that somebody else is thinking or feeling or these things. And then when you're talking about people coming into this Monumental Matters exhibition, and instead focusing on their own feelings, I was like, how does that relate to us as human beings? When we come into a situation should we be thinking about what the other person is feeling? Or what we're feeling? And I think that that's just it's an interesting thing to think about.
Kenneth Hartvigsen 24:01
Yeah, like I said, I think sometimes people are skeptical of artmaking. And, and the world's certainly has bad faith actors in any environment. But by and large, most people in the world are trying to have an engaged experience, right? And most people, by and large in the world wants to be loved, want to love other people, want to have better understanding, want to learn more and grow more through this experience of life. And so I just feel like, well, we should always treat everybody like that's the case. We shouldn't walk into any situation. I love that you compared it to meeting new people. I don't think it's helpful to walk into a situation where you are meeting new people, from a skeptical point of view and to assume that person is like a con artist who's trying to try to trick you into something unless you have a really good reason to think that you shouldn't assume that. And so if we walk into a gallery Why are you assuming that Why are you assuming that this artist is a con artist who's trying to trick you In some way, why instead, don't you just say no, this is a real person with a family and a belief system and has been through complicated things and happy things and sad things. And they're making this thing to in one way or another engage with their human experience, and they're offering it to me, why on earth should I not take the opportunity to take it seriously, and it doesn't mean you have to love it. There's a lot of artwork I don't love, but it still can teach me a lot about about maybe the people who made it or about myself, you know, people, people are a great mirror, we, you know, we often see ourselves and others, again, for good and bad, right. And I think the same is true of art of artwork, that if we, if we truly wish to engage with it, we will learn a lot. And that's true of people too. You know, you learn a lot from relationships with people that you don't get along with. Anyone who has served a mission probably had a companion or two that they wouldn't have chosen to live with 24 hours a day for a few months. But you've probably learned an awful lot from that person. And so yeah, I think artwork can operate in the same way. If you walk into a gallery, and you see artwork that you don't like, or that feels strange, or kind of rubs you the wrong way. That's fine. Those are your feelings and your feelings are authentic and true. But you can also learn a lot from them. And it doesn't always serve, when you have an immediate reaction to something, to just assume that's going to be the truth forever. Sometimes you meet a person and you think they're great. And then the more time you spend with them, you realize they're not maybe encouraging you to be your best self. Art can do that, too. Maybe you see something for the first time, and you really love it. And then the more time you spend with it, you think you know, I'm not sure if this is actually feeding me spiritually or intellectually the way I need to be fed. Yeah. So I think there is something interesting about thinking of art objects, almost like people, like the way we interact with people.
Morgan Jones Pearson 26:49
Well, I think I think everything you just said is spot on, and super fascinating to ponder and think about. I wondered, so we talked about how there are Latter-day Saint art pieces. And also, obviously, there's religious art outside of our culture. But I wondered if you might be willing, I think it could be kind of fun for listeners, if you could talk us through what this idea of like experiencing a piece of art might be like, with a piece of either Latter-day Saint art or religious art that our listeners might be familiar with?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 27:25
Sure, yeah. You know, I was thinking one art object that I would think a lot of your listeners might be familiar with. And, you know, of course, they can Google this and it will pull it up immediately if it doesn't immediately strike a chord. But if you look at Carl Bloch's painting of of the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda, which is a painting that we have at the BYU Museum of Art, and it's a painting that has come to mean an awful lot to the Latter-day Saint community in the last 15 or 20 years. It's been at the museum for 20 years. And it's something that's been used often by the Church, you will see it often in publications. And so it's a picture that would be familiar to a lot of people. And as I said, we have it here at the museum, it's always on view in the main level. So people should come and experience it. It's a large painting. And it has a view of the Savior in a courtyard space, you can see that part of the courtyard is kind of covered and in shadow. And then on the interior space of the courtyard, there's the pool of Bethesda, this pool of water. And, you know, we would know that for the story from the New Testament, that Christ approaching the pool of Bethesda, that this is a pool where there's a kind of folk legend that an angel stirs the water every day, and the first person to get in the water, as soon as it's stirred, will be healed. And so people gather around this pool to be healed. And that we see Christ lifting up a covering over a man who has been laying by the side of the pool for decades, and he is so so physically challenged, that he's not able to even crawl into the pool to be healed, that he just lays next to the pool, and hopes that someday someone might carry him to be healed. And so we see the Savior lifting this sort of veil covering over this man. And we know that we're just in the moment right before the Savior is about to say to this man, pick up thy bed and walk. So this man who is laid there for years, hoping that someone would carry him into the pool is about to be shown the miracle of healing through Christ. So that's a painting, as I said, that I think a lot of our your audience will be familiar with. And if they aren't, as I said, they should Google it and take a look or, and come to the museum and see it. Well, the first thing I would say when having a meaningful art experience is that art takes time. And it's meant to take time paintings or sculptures or whatever art objects you're talking about. It takes a long time for the artist to create these things. It took them their entire life to study and learn how to do it. And we're not meant to experience it in an instant but that is often how we consume it, we might see a painting and see it just as an illustration of a story and see it and then kind of move on. But I think the first thing to have a truly meaningful art experience is just to take time, when you see this painting at the Museum of Art, we have benches in front. And so you sit down, sit down and spend time with the painting. The longer you sit with any work of art, the more you'll notice. And so I think that you can first start with just the visual experience, just sit down and, and look and just think about colors. Think about the composition of the characters, you know, the figures, think about how the artists composed the scene, how they chose which specific figures to focus on how they're drawing your attention to those figures. So you can really just start with that sort of visual experience of the piece. In my experience, what tends to happen is that if you just start by looking and just thinking about the visual mechanics, the color of the line the shape, pretty quickly, without even trying, you are going to start feeling and start to think more deeply about, well, what is this reminding me of? What is this making me think of that's maybe outside of the picture. And I think that's where you as a visitor or viewer kind of become part of the story.
You know, who in this composition Am I drawn to? And why? Is it because of something the artist has done visually? Or is it because of the emotions that I'm feeling? Is I engaged with this art object? You know, why did the artists choose to include so many figures? There are a lot of figures in the Pool of Bethesda painting, more than we have specific characters in the in the account of the healing? Why did he include those people? Who are they? Because each one of them have their own story, their own experience? And so I think, you know, as I said, starting with just the visual, starting with the simple questions of what do I see, starting with the simple question is of what colors are being used? And why? Why is the artist focusing my attention here, and then you just allow yourself to think and feel. And the truth is, there's always something more to think and feel when you engage with a work of art for a long period of time. We have had Bethesda here for 20 years, as I said, and we give regular talks in front of the Bethesda. And almost every time that someone gives a talk, they say something different that I hadn't thought of before. Something that that occurred to me looking at the Bethesda not too long ago, just in this is just one example. As I said, it feels like you could have a different feeling or a different experience every day. But looking at the Bethesda not long ago, it occurred to me that we're not looking at Christ healing anybody, we're actually looking at the moment before somebody is healed. We're not seeing the man standing up and carrying his bed away. We're seeing him still laying on this, you know, rough bed on the stone next to the pool of Bethesda. We're seeing a man who in this moment, still does not believe that healing will ever come. He doesn't know who the Savior is at this moment. He's not someone who sought out the Savior, the Savior, came across this man next to the pool. And so it occurred to me, for the first time fairly recently, that what we were witnessing is a moment of anticipation. And probably still a moment of frustration on the part of this man. He's been laying there for years, for decades, for almost his entire life, hoping that somebody would help him into the water and nobody has. And I thought about how many times in my life have I felt like this blessing that I thought I should have is never going to come? How many times in my life have I been like this man, laying in darkness, Christ is literally lifting up the curtain to sort of reveal him. How many times have I been laying in spiritual darkness or emotional darkness, and felt like this blessing is never going to come, this relief is never going to come because I can't do XY and Z, I can't lift myself up and carry myself into the pool because other people aren't lifting me up and carry me into the pool. So I realized that this painting, this realization ahead of this painting in this moment, was how universal this painting in is in expressing that moment, of, of frustration, of hope, but also doubt, of doubting our own abilities and what part we have to play in reconciling our own shortcomings in this life. But the beauty of it is that the man doesn't know that the very next words out of the Savior's mouth will be pick up your bed. And how often we do not realize that the blessing is what is happening in the next moment. And so that is just that's just one example of what that painting meant to me recently. But there are so many people in that painting and you could you could kind of tell an entire story about each and every character and we do this sometimes with audiences will come we call it slow looking is kind of what I've been describing for you and, and we'll bring people in front of the Bethesda. And we'll just sit there for a few minutes. And then we'll say, well tell us what you see. And then we'll say, well, which characters? Are you drawn to? How does that make you feel? What do you think about these characters, and it's amazing how people will pick out some figure in the background that you've never paid attention to. And then they will elucidate for you how that character in the background is the center of the whole painting, and you had no idea. But I think it is it is about being open-hearted. And it is about spending time and then trusting yourself, allowing yourself to feel, allowing yourself to openly feel and think whatever it is that this work of art makes you think and feel. You know, I mean, how valuable is that, that a work of art says to us, that pretty much every work of art says to us, I want you to take a few minutes and think and feel whatever it is, you need to think and feel right now. I mean, imagine what the world would be like, if every single day, everyone gave themselves a few minutes to think and feel whatever it is they need to think and feel. And I feel like that's what art is inviting us to do. Every single artwork is inviting us to do that. Anyway, I can, I can keep doing this forever. Yeah.
Morgan Jones Pearson 36:14
No this is so fun. And I pulled up the painting as you were talking. And it's interesting to me, because I've never thought of it the way that you described it. And that he didn't know who Christ was. So when he's pulling up the thing that that man has overtop of them. It's almost like the guy has a look on his face like, Hey, man, what are you doing? And how many times have we thought that whether it be toward God or just in general, like, what is going on here? Like, why would you do this? Here I am just trying to like my own business and sleep under my thing, and like, you've come and lifted it off. But I think that your thought is so profound. And I love the way that you invited us to view that. So I appreciate you being willing to go along with my crazy, crazy haired idea. Another question that I have, so you mentioned this idea of of art inviting us to think about the way that other people are feeling and you're a big believer in what you call art and empathy. One of your students described you as someone who is always inclusive and helps everyone in your classes and in the museum feel seen loved and important. Why would you say that that is so important to you?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 37:35
First of all, I'm, I'm moved that a student mentioned that because that's something that I do feel strongly about. And it means a lot to me that students feel that I do think ultimately, that my profession being an art historian is just to try to understand the human experience better, just to try to engage with people in in whatever, whatever place they are. And I often told my students at the beginning of the semester, I say, My classes are like, kind of like group therapy, like, we're not going to judge each other. And whatever you say is okay in this space, you know, whatever your reaction is, whatever these paintings make you feel is okay in this space. And I was actually just talking to students at the end of the semester, and I was just talking to a student today. And the student said to me, yeah, when you said at the beginning of the semester, this is like group therapy, I thought you were joking. She said, No, it really is this class was like group therapy. And I think that art requires that level of vulnerability. To truly understand on a deep level, on a level deeper than than just, you know, this is an artwork that is beautiful, or this is an artwork that is complex, which are all reasonable things to think. But I think if you want to have a deeper engagement, if you want to experience it on a deeper level, it requires a certain amount of vulnerability and honesty, and you have to be willing to go wherever it takes you. And so it is it is vitally important to me both for the study of art, and for my hopeful, better understanding of humanity, period, it's vitally important to me that, that anyone in my classroom or anyone in my gallery knows that this is a safe space for you to think and feel. Whatever it is, you're thinking and feeling is okay. Your reaction to a work of art is yours and is instructive for you. And so your voice needs to be free, needs to be allowed to be present. And I do I feel very strongly about that. And, you know, I think for me, this idea of empathy, it's kind of like what we've been talking about. I think you picked up on something really interesting in making those connections between engaging with artwork and engaging with people. Because I think that just as I said, I think that engaging with an artwork or entering an exhibition or looking at artwork for the first time, you should prepare by being open hearted and just being open to whatever the artwork might teach you or help you feel. I think that the reverse is true as well, which is that looking at a lot of different kinds of artwork allows us to be more open hearted as we engage with our brothers and sisters throughout the world. You know, one of the things I love about about working in an art museum is that arts can provide a space for for thinking about really complicated issues that doesn't turn into debate. For example, I had an exhibition which I curated a few years ago, that was all inspired by refugee crisis throughout the world. And there were three different artists that I brought together, each one kind of had their own mini exhibition in a large gallery space, and they were different ways of dealing with the question of refugees and displaced people. And I think it was a very moving exhibition. And there were photographs, and there were large drawings, and there were films. And I think it was a very moving exhibition. But the thing is, no one ever complained, no one ever became angry in the space that I'm aware of. And the reason I mentioned that is because if you were to say, we're going to have a roundtable discussion today on campus about refugee crisis, it probably would involve some anger and some frustration about differing points of view about how do we solve these questions? Or how should we treat people from different places. But if you're going to an art museum, and there are artworks that deal with these ideas, or are inspired by these ideas, you can look at them, and maybe you don't agree with them, but you're not going to yell at them, you're not going to feel the need to engage in a kind of negative way. And so I think an art museum is a space where we can, where we can kind of discuss and talk about really important and heavy subjects, but in a way that doesn't easily devolve into debate and shouting and yelling at each other. And so all of this, I know this is a become kind of a roundabout answer. But I think all of this is to say that, that I do think that we need to be open hearted to experience art, but that also experiencing many different kinds of art can help our hearts to be open, as as we learn more about the people around us.
Morgan Jones Pearson 42:29
Absolutely. I completely agree. Kenneth, I wanted to ask you one more question before we get to our last question. And that is so one thing that you mentioned in an email to me prior to this interview is that art can be sacred, even when not ostensibly religious and content. And so then I was thinking about how the student that recommended you talked about how you help students understand the gospel, through art and through the beautiful things of this world. And obviously, it's not just religious art helps us understand the gospel, we can understand the gospel through beautiful things of all kinds within the world. And so I wondered, how would you say that art can help us understand and appreciate the gospel more fully?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 43:20
It's an interesting thing for me to talk about, because on one hand, it's sort of the same conversation we've been having all along, which is that I feel like my big answer that I continually come back to, which is that for me, learning about art is really just about learning about people. And, you know, as I said before, we're here in mortality, to learn and grow through this human experience. And through this embodied experience, and all of us are going to experience different things that are challenging for us in unique ways. So for me, looking at art of any subject, can be sacred in the sense that what I am looking at, is somebody else's deep desire to better understand what they're doing here. and respond to things that they've experienced, things that have been happy for, you know, exciting for them, or things that have been sad for them and things that they're confused about, or things they deeply believe. But in any of those cases, I feel like it's an opportunity to sort of look into the eyes of a fellow traveler here, in this complicated part of our existence. And to try to see their their spiritual progress to just try to understand how they are grappling with the thorny things and the complicated things about about being here as a human and learning as a human. I have had profound art experiences throughout my life in art museums, when I was looking at things that were not ostensibly religious and sometimes, it is a purely aesthetic reaction that you can't quite put into words. Sometimes I see a work of art, or listen to a piece of music. And it seems to vibrate on a spiritual level that I can't put into words, I have stood in front of works of art and I've been brought to tears. And I couldn't say why, I couldn't express in words why. But there was just something about it that aesthetically was moving me. And so I think those experiences exist, and they're special and sacred. But then I also think the sacred comes through trying to better understand all of our brothers and sisters. And as I, as I keep saying, you know, we we don't necessarily agree with each other all the time, because we're all on different parts of the path. And we've all seen different things and felt different things and to, to recognize someone's humanity to recognize their divine existence as a child of gods to recognize recognize their spiritual reality is a son or daughter of God on this earth does not require that I agree with what they say. But I think I can see that sacredness in in most of the art that I spent my days with.
Morgan Jones Pearson 46:20
It's beautifully said, Thank you so much. My last question for you. And thank you so much for this whole conversation. I feel like I've learned so much. But my last question is, what does it mean to you to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Kenneth Hartvigsen 46:33
I've been thinking about this a lot. I've listened to some of your podcast before and I've been thinking about this question for a long time, actually, before you ever contacted me. And I think what it means to me is to keep trying our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. They accept our best efforts. Whatever it is, I believe that they are always willing to meet us exactly where we are. If we say to them, okay, I'm going to do a little bit better. And I'm starting today, I'm going to do a little bit better, they will accept us exactly where we are and say, Okay, let's try to do a little bit better. We know they don't expect perfection that perfection only comes through the Savior. And that that's the plan. The plan is not that we are perfect, that the perfection will come through through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. So for me, being all in the Gospel simply means I'm going to keep trying, I'm going to wake up every day, and I'm going to try, I often tell my wife, that agency is such a central part of the plan. But we sometimes don't, don't emphasize all the different ways that it operates. And one of the ways that I see agency being central to the Gospel is that every single day of my life, I wake up and I choose whether or not I'm going to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We don't necessarily think about it in those terms, you know, you don't wake up and think to yourself, I am going to be a disciple—some people might, most of us don't. But every single day of our lives, we make a choice about whether or not we're going to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Some days, it's really easy to make that choice. Some days, it's really hard to make that choice. But if we keep choosing to try to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then we will win through Christ. And that's true of everything else. That's true of I'll say to people, that's true of family relationships. That's true of marriage is true of love. Every single day, if someone is in a relationship with somebody, every single day of your life, you wake up and choose whether or not you are in a loving relationship with that person. Some days, it's really easy to make that decision. Some days, it's not quite as easy. But if more often than not, you choose to try to be in a loving relationship with that person. You will win. And and so yeah, so I think being all in the gospel of Jesus Christ just means trying and owning my agency and as much as possible every day, even when it's a hard decision to make to say today I'm choosing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Morgan Jones Pearson 49:12
Absolutely. Kenneth, thank you so much. This has been such a treat for me to have you. And just thank you for all that you shared.
Kenneth Hartvigsen 49:20
It's been so much fun, I hope it made any amount of sense but it's been great fun for me.
Morgan Jones Pearson 49:29
We are so grateful to Kenneth Hartvigsen for joining us on today's episode. Big thanks to Derek Campbell of Mixit six studios for his help with this and every episode of this podcast, and thank you so much for spending your time with us. We'll look forward to being with you again next week.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai