It's a new year which for the Latter-day Saint Community means a new course of study and a new study manual. Well, in this case newish. It is a brushed up version of the 2019 manual. I will be using most of the same metrics to asses this manual as I did with the 2022 Old Testament manual.
To reiterate, this post is NOT intended to do any of the following:
Condemn the specific artists whose work is featured in the manual. I know and respect many of them.
Condemn the design team behind the manual. I don’t know what constraints they were forced to work within.
Condemn religious artwork that features white and/or male characters. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to be represented in religious art.
My intent is rather to:
Ask the decision making parties involved in this manual to consider their decision making process. Who they include, what factors they consider. I know there are good BIPOC and women artists out there. I know there are good inclusive artworks out there. Why aren't they better utilized?
Point out the problems with the ratios of representation in the artwork for this manual.
Ask my fellow artists to consider the power we have to influence religious thought and culture. How will we use that power?
Provide the average church member with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions about the art that accompanies their religious study.
I know for a fact that there are gears turning behind the scenes to improve the diversity in Church visual materials but the results of those efforts may take a few years to manifest BUT, we as a community don’t need to wait for the organization to create a visual culture of diversity and inclusion in the most important branch of the church, our homes.
Now for what you came for, the data. As you review these numbers, keep in mind at this point in history, well over half of the church members (especially if you are looking at those who are frequently engaging with the church) are BIPOC and women.
Overall there are 83 pieces of artwork in the manual, NOT including church stock photos. This is significantly less than the 2022 manual. Many of the stock photos included are stills from the Bible videos. I chose not to include any of the stock or uncredited photography in this assessment because I think they speak to a similar but different kind and lesser degree of social, cultural and financial investment than fine art.
Of the 83 artworks about a 1/6 are by women and 2% are by a BIPOC artist. There is only one BIPOC artist, a man, and only one piece of his is included. These ratios are significantly worse that the 2022 manual.
Of the scenes depicted, a little over 1in 3 included women. A slight improvement over 2022.
1 in 4 included BIPOC figures over double the percentage of the 2022 manual. I will caveat this with a qualitative assessment that while there were more figures in this manual that could be arguably considered BIPOC, many of them barely made that threshold and none of them were significantly melanated.
Across all the artworks, there are 224 faces. A little over half as many as 2022
Faces are defined as: Faces visible in the painting that are 1) at least half visible and 2) are large enough to take up a significant portion of the painting or are composed of enough brushstrokes to indicate individual clear features (i.e. eyes, nose, mouth). Or bodies where enough other body parts and skin are visible to make a clear assessment of the figure's build, gender, and race.
Less than 1 in 6 of those could reasonably be considered BIPOC faces. Almost 10% less than 2022.
The ratio was just slightly higher for female to male faces.
The over all representation ratios for the figures depicted was worse than 2022 and the narrative importance of women was half that of the previous year, the narrative importance BIPOC figures was slightly higher.
A centered character is defined as: A figure that is clearly equal to a partner or more important than other figures in the painting. This is determined by composition, emphasis, implied lines, and contrast.
The one area that this manual scored significantly better in than the 2022 manual was a comparison of authorship and the inclusivity of the works.
A majority of this inclusivity though comes from the inclusion of white female figures. When looking at racial inclusion, only 30% of the white male (20% of total artworks) and 43% of the white female artists (3% of the total artworks) created racially inclusive work.
In less technical words, individuals representing less than a 1/4 of the Church's population painted almost 1/2 of the images in this manual using only faces/figures from their demographic.
Why does all of this information matter? Because humans are flawed and throughout history those flaws have often manifested as the exclusion, disempowerment, and violence against women and BIPOC peoples. In Latter Day Saint history that has manifested as white supremacy taught as doctrine, the minimization of female power and voice within our communities, and the limitation of the female role to domestic duties. Thankfully much (but not all) of this negative narrative has been corrected within official publications as the restoration has continued to unfold. It is important though that ALL aspects of our church culture reflect the gender and racial equality that our doctrine preaches. Otherwise, the words feel empty and problematic narratives continue to be fostered.
If a young impressionable child opens a church manual and only sees white faces, it becomes easy for that child to associate skin color with righteousness and religious power. If a young girl opens a church manual and sees few images of women, and the few that do exists show them in submissive and domestic roles, it will be easy for her to internalize the message that her story and voice are secondary and the only good she has to offer the world is in the home. While there are images in this manual that break down these narratives, they are few and far between.
So if you are reading this and aren’t at the decision making tables that affect the CFM manuals what can you do to expand the diversity of the religious art in your life and community?
Express your concerns to your local leaders and ask that they be passed on. (Most communications sent to headquarters are bounced back to Bishops and Stake Presidents) Ask them who is at the table where the decisions are being made.
Email Deseret Book to express your gratitude for the efforts they have been making to provide more Female and BIPOC inclusive content and encourage them, to create and publish more. You can email the president of DB at email@example.com
Seek out women and BIPOC religious artists to follow and support on social media. I encourage you to look beyond the confines of our denomination. Much of the diversity I have found in religious art happens outside of Latter Day Saint culture.
Purchase diverse religious art for your homes and share it on your own social media.
Utilize diverse art in your Sunday school, RS/EQ, YW/YM, Primary, and Seminary lessons. There is no policy that limits you to using only church “approved” art in your lessons.
Support the upcoming exhibit organized by Meeting House Mosaic.
Stay tuned via my Instagram or newsletter for some very exciting group projects I have coming down the chute.
In closing I want to not that while the fine art in this manual left much wanting, a majority of the stock photos (not including the film stills) reflected the rich cultural diversity of our global church. That is always encouraging to see. At the end of the day though, we still have a long ways to go. If the goal of Zion is to create a community where all voices are heard, where all individuals are equal and valued, let’s make sure we are doing better at “picturing” that celestial goal.