A vital preliminary to Joseph Smith's First Vision was another vision that prepared the way:
For I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the Stars Shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the Strength of beauty . . . and . . . my heart exclaimed all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipreasant . . . being. . . . [I also] pondered . . . the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind [sic].1
Here we have two worlds: the world of the artist and that of the businessman. The Lord himself drew the clear distinction. Telling of "a certain man," i.e., the Lord, who had prepared a feast of delights but the invited guests excused themselves because they had really important business to attend to: "I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it. . . . Another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, . . . I pray thee have me excused" (Luke 14:18-19). Admittedly important business deals; yet the rejected host was angry and did not excuse them—"None of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper" (Luke 14:24).
From the first, God prepared the earth with an eye to making it "most glorious and beautiful" for us, with special care to giving "variety and beauty to the scene." To this the artist calls our attention; and if we reject God's proffered bounty, we offend him—"Deny not the gifts of God"! is the impassioned plea of Moroni to our generation at the end of the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:8).2 For "in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things" (D&C 59:21). Specifically, "all things which come of the earth . . . are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul" (D&C 59:18-19). The pleasing of the eye comes first, the gladdening of the heart next; only then come the food and clothing, and that for the benefit of the fine senses of taste and smell, with not a word about efficiency and convenience but with special attention to the enlivening of the soul. In his great Bicentennial Message, President Kimball deplored the sad ascendancy in our society of the business mentality over the contemplation of the beauty around us. "This is a marvelous earth on which we find ourselves," he wrote, for heaven is a state of the environment as well as a state of mind, and the one begets the other.3 As heaven takes form around the Saints, so steadily and inevitably the acquisitive society becomes enwrapped in an obnoxious, brutalizing, poisonous ambience of mind and body. The command is that "Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness . . . and put on her beautiful garments" (D&C 82:14), placed in direct contrast to "the mammon of unrighteousness," which seeks for gain (D&C 82:22).
In the Old Testament, the piqqeah (seer) is one whose eyes God has opened, so that he can see what others do not see—it is really there, but uninspired minds do not perceive it. When the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, they beheld what they could not see before (Genesis 3:7). Abraham tells how God "put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many" (Abraham 3:12). It was so with his wife Hagar, when "God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water"—which had been there all the time (Genesis 21:19). There is no such vision for those not in tune with the Spirit: "They have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear!" (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:13-14).
In Wulf Barsch's paintings there is a sense of deep concern, an ominous and brooding feeling of admonition and warning.4 This I find disquieting until I remember that that is exactly the effect the reading of the scriptures has on me. The pictures do not tell a story—there is nothing trivial, contrived, clever, or cute about them; they seem more like a solemn summing-up, with something for both suspense and finality about them. For Plato true art must have spoudaiotes, usually rendered "high seriousness."5 Its opposite is blasphemy; which does not mean thundering denunciation, solemn deprecation, or consuming wrath, but the very opposite—it means not taking holy things seriously, being too stupid or insensitive (blax means both) to value anything beyond the business of business.
Was there ever an artist less inclined to show off than Wulf Barsch? He does not hesitate to try again and again to get through to us, not seeking novelty, but fighting for expression and perfectly willing to stay with a problem. It is that, I suppose, that gives his work the sense of deep sincerity that demands to be taken seriously. Strangely enough, with all his moving solemnity, I find some of his things intensely romantic. The constant dialogue of the poplar and the palm is right out of the most ancient traditions of romantic poetry, whether Barsch is aware of it or not, with echoes from the Patriarchal romances of Genesis. The poplar is the tree of the pioneers, marking their farms on all the benches and valleys from the red sands of Moencopi to the plains of Alberta. It is becoming rare as business supplants the noble windbreaks with billboards. And the palm evokes the wandering tribes of Israel (the palms of California are never convincing), for it is their hope and succor in the desert.
1. The 1832 recital of the First Vision as dictated by Joseph Smith to Frederick G. Williams. See Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1984), 5; appendix A in Milton V. Backman, Joseph Smith's First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971); cf. Dean C. Jessee, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," BYU Studies 9 (1969): 280.
2. Cf. Hugh W. Nibley, "Deny Not the Gifts of God," in Approaching Zion, CWHN 9 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1989), 118-48.
3. Spencer W. Kimball, "The False Gods We Worship," Ensign 6 (June 1976): 3.
4. For a further example of Wulf Barsch's paintings, see the frontispiece in the first volume of John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 1990).
5. Plato, Definitiones 412E. See Ioannes Burnet, Platonis Opera (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 534.