In writing this post, I must first admit my personal limitations. I am not familiar with much LDS art. In fact, the mediums with which I am most familiar are film and visual art and most of the visual art I know, I know from wandering the BYU bookstore and perusing the Ensign. So this cannot be read as a condemnation of all LDS art.
It is often the case that LDS art is accused of being treacly or kitschy. In part, this is because of the nature of its distribution. LDS art seems to be created to be sold and, as such, reflects the interest of the market. Average consumers don’t want difficult art or morally complex messages. They want to be assured that Joseph loved Emma, that Jesus will take care of them, and that their little girls will grow up to be beautiful brides. The quandary is that they feel the Spirit when looking at that sort of art.
Let me give you my favorite example. A few years ago, the Church made a movie called The Testaments. They played it in the Joseph Smith building and used it as a missionary tool. It told the story of a group of Book of Mormon peoples and it was clear that the creative minds behind it had gone to great lengths to generate a culturally appropriate setting for the movie. However, it was a terrible, terrible movie. The acting was stilted, the sets and script were absurd, the make-up was horrible, the directing and scoring were distracting, and Christ was played by a kind of Nordic wisp. Nonetheless, at the end of the movie, when Christ appears to the people and heals them, I felt the Spirit. I felt it very strongly.
The thing is that the Spirit isn’t meant to help you distinguish good art from bad art; generally what the Spirit offers you is an idea of the sincerity of the artist. So The Testaments for its multitude of flaws still managed to bear a sweet, uplifting testimony of the reality of Christ and the Book of Mormon in spite of its being a bad, quasi-Mayan, after-school-special rip-off. The art we find for sale in Deseret Book really does inspire those people who buy it and it isn’t because they have no taste; it is because it is genuinely inspiring. For something to have the Spirit, it does not have to be great art, as anyone who has heard a humble, sincere testimony will tell you.
It seems like, if my read of the market is correct, most art consumers are happy to just feel the Spirit. Which is too bad, because we are never going to get Shakespeares of our own at this rate. With no motivation to improve, why should the artists among us bother trying? If they can feed the kids with spiritual kitsch, why not? There is a reason BYU is known for its design department, not for its art department.