Guest Post: Art, Authority, and Institutional Sexism

“Relief Society Healing” by Anthony Sweat

by Mindy May Farmer

When someone excitedly shared Anthony Sweat’s painting, “Relief Society Healing” in the Exponent II Facebook group a couple of weeks ago, I only wanted to feel joy. The image depicts Mormon pioneer women laying hands on a woman in her bed, comfortable under a patchwork quilt. This is not a simple picture of comfort; one woman confidently pours oil in clear preparation for a blessing. Even more lovely is a small boy in the corner looking at the women in admiration and recognizing their God-given authority. These women represent power to heal and administer in God’s name, offering imagery of Mormon women I crave. Yet, a part of me remained frozen to its beauty when I saw the author’s name.

By all accounts, Sweat is a well-loved BYU Associate Professor and a look at his artwork depicts an honest, heartfelt depiction at Mormonism. Sweat’s online gallery features paintings entitled “The First Visions” and “Purgatory: Joseph, Emma, and the Revelation on Plural Marriage,” indicating a nuanced view of our complex religious history. All groups want and demand allies and Sweat appears to be one. Feminists encourage men to use their privilege to speak up where women’s voices are undermined and challenged. This painting is a good thing.

So, why my mixed emotional reaction? What is wrong with me that I cannot simply see good and appreciate it? When did my glass become so perpetually half-full?

The answers are many and varied. I could list the times male authority silenced me, only to accept some watered-down version from a man. Or detail women criticized, demonized, and excommunicated for concerns and ideas later accepted through male revelation. I could share my heartbreaks trying to carve a place in Mormonism. They all have a common theme: the lack of true recognition or respect for female authority in the LDS church.

With this in mind, I hear about the positive reactions to “Relief Society Healing” and can’t help but wonder what kind of reception a female painter would receive for the same work. What if the artist’s name read “Antonia Sweat”; a woman with no priesthood pedigree? Would BYU sanction her work, which questions modern definitions of priesthood authority? The answer seems obvious.

Let me be clear here: I’m not criticizing Sweat or trying to discourage appreciation for his work. “Relief Society Healing” emphasizes a forgotten, misunderstood portion of Mormon history that many women ache to know and emulate. Any artist pushing for a better understanding and a deeper conversation around women’s roles in the LDS church is urgently welcome and needed.

We can appreciate something good while simultaneously using it to further a difficult conversation around institutional sexism, however. We can and should question when women will be authorities on these matters; when our calls for a deeper connection to our Heavenly Mother, an improved understanding of our female pioneer priesthood heritage, and our inspired depictions of female authority are enough. When a man’s work will emphasize and highlight a woman’s authority, rather than add missing authority to the conversation.

Mindy is a quirky book lover, writer, teacher, feminist, vintage-hat wearer, mom of four, 40-something, who loves a great conversation; written or otherwise.

 

 

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4 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Oh, this is such an excellent point, Mindy. I’m sure you’re right. It’s so sad that any push for or even reminder of authority women could have or have had in the past is immediately seen (in most of the Church, anyway) as illegitimate if it actually *comes* from a woman.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t mind the painting came from a man. If anything, I think it’s GREAT, for a variety of reasons. I would love for LDS themed art to be less gendered. Of course, we need more female LDS artists. But I still think we should think of this positively. That said, I understand your concerns. It’s likely that a woman painting it, especially one who wasn’t in a position of perceived authority, wouldn’t be taken as seriously.

    On another note: I took two classes from Anthony Sweat while I was at BYU. I graduated last year. I trusted Anthony Sweat and appreciated that he could stand in front of a room of 200 BYU students and say that it was possible that one day, women could be given the priesthood, and that women not having the priesthood wasn’t “doctrine” but “practice.” That said, I will never forget talking to him in his office about some of my concerns with the Church (crying to him, in fact) and his saying to me that “Some women really loved polygamy, and living in polygamous relationships. You wouldn’t tell a family in Bolivia that their life would be better with technology, so how could you tell these women their lives would have been better without polygamy? I’m sorry, but this was a commandment that came from God.”

    This conversation angered me, for reasons which I hope are clear… I told him I did not appreciate these comments, and this was, per se, the straw that broke the camel’s back in initiating the crux of my “faith crisis.” I harbored quite a bit of resentment toward him. Interestingly, a few months after this conversation, he sent me an email, saying that he was sorry if he had hurt my feelings. This impressed me. I doubted his opinions on the matter had changed significantly, but I appreciated that he was still thinking about how he could have affected me with his comments, and that he could have the humility to at least apologize from a position of “spiritual authority.”

  3. Tiffany says:

    Love this painting. I hadn’t read the essay that talked about women and the priesthood until after I had secretly (I believe filled with the Spirit if God) given a blessing to my sick son on his bed late at night. I don’t think I’d call it a priesthood blessing but it was with the intention to heal the sick. I felt overpowered on the moment and couldn’t resist not giving him one. I laid my hands on his belly where the pain was and said my prayer. I kept my hand on his body after the prayers and just felt lots of energy flow. I cried. Then when I read the essay, I cried even more. Feeling like I had a legitimate place and right to do this for my children. I haven’t done it since because I just haven’t been overpowered like I was that night but I know God will give it to me when needed again.

  4. Miriam says:

    We as women can claim our own relationship with God. For way too long I thought the church owned it. The gifts of the spirit are for everyone–so says Paul and so says Moroni, and so says little old me. God is no respecter of persons. I have seen so many women (and children, even) give blessings outside of our church, and miracles are happening all over the world. People not even of LDS persuasion. I have been stuck far too long in a a box of what “proper authority” and orthodoxy dictates. I have taken back my relationship and decided to cut out the middleman–I go straight to the source now. I gave my husband a blessing of healing last week when he was sick and within the day he was better. God is so good.

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