“Except for two or three older writers, all modern literature seems to me not literature but some sort of handicraft, which exists only so as to be encouraged, though one is reluctant to use its products. Even the best products of handicraft cannot be called remarkable and cannot be praised without a ‘but.’”
Those are the words of Nikolai Stepanovich–for my money one the best realized characters in literature–from Chekhov’s A Boring Story. Nikolai Stepanovich was talking about Russian literature. I do not know if he spoke for Chekhov, who (I assume) considered his own stuff above “some sort of handicraft.”
Would it be fair to apply the Stepanovich critique to Mormon literature? It is tempting. Mormons who think Mormon lit is no good and that better Mormon lit should be encouraged are a dime a dozen. And many of the same people are reluctant to use the products of Mormon lit (even to the extent of never having actually read any). Whether or not it applies, I think that the Stepanovich critique is neither fair nor useful when it comes to Mormon lit. Interestingly, I think it suffers from a problem that also besets notable discourses on Mormon art by the likes of Orson Whitney and Spencer W. Kimball.
You know the discourses I am talking about. Orson Whitney declared in his talk Home Literature:
We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.
In the same talk Whitney gave us a trifecta of pithy and potentially problematic Mormon lit epigrams: “The Holy Ghost is the genius of ‘Mormon’ literature,” “Above all things, we must be original … [o]ur mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be,” and “Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”
Likewise, Spencer W. Kimball declared in his talk The Gospel Vision of the Arts:
Members of the Church should be peers or superiors to any others in natural ability, extended training, plus the Holy Spirit which should bring them light and truth. With hundreds of “men of God” and their associates so blessed, we have the base for an increasingly efficient and worthy corps of talent.
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If we strive for perfection–the best and greatest–and are never satisfied with mediocrity, we can excel. In the field of both composition and performance, why cannot someone write a greater oratorio than Handel’s Messiah? The best has not yet been composed nor produced.
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Could there be among us embryo poets and novelists like Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749–1832)? Have we explored as much as we should? … Goethe was not the greatest nor the last. There may be many Goethes among us even today, waiting to be discovered. Inspired Saints will write great books and novels and biographies and plays.
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[T]he full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people …
I do not know whether these art talks are prophetic. [A prophet is only a prophet when speaking as a prophet, and we have at our disposal certain tools that may guide us in particular cases: Were these views submitted to the church for a vote? What does the scriptural canon tell us on the subject? Does the spirit bear witness of the truth of these views?] Setting this question aside, I will venture two thoughts about what the art talks get right and wrong.
First, the art talks do important and positive cultural work. Not too long ago (no Mormon history is very long ago), literary art was roundly condemned from the pulpit. Brigham Young described novels as “trifling,” “nonsense,” and “falsehoods got up expressly to excite the minds of youth.” No doubt these judgments resonated with many practical pioneer minds. I believe the general intuition that literature is frivolous, unworthy, unmanly, and so forth is still with us.
The art talks respond to this past and its lingering effects. By making it clear to both artist and community that art can be legitimate kingdom building, the talks authorize would-be Mormon artists to do their thing. And, to my knowledge, would-be Mormon artists have drawn courage from the art talks. Some have even said that they felt moved by the talks and the spirit to dedicate their lives to realizing the achievements the talks anticipate. Let’s give the Brethren some credit. I am personally grateful for the present institutional church’s orientation toward art as signaled by the art talks.
Unfortunately however, Whitney, Kimball, et al. (like the Stepanovich critique), are preoccupied with greatness. This makes sense in a way. The art talks can be read as official requisitions from the pulpit. We want art. Not crappy art. We want the great stuff. And I love the audacity of Orson Whitney (in 1888!) declaring that Mormons will produce Shakespeares and Miltons. How many cultures in the history of the world have produced Shakespeares and Miltons!? To this day, quoting Whitney with a straight face is probably an act of blatant audacity. An act that reveals investment in a typically Mormon kind of optimism.
The emphasis on greatness in the art talks is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Greatness is the product of many factors. Artistic achievement has something to do with it, of course. But greatness also comes from the attention and approval of the cultural elites who confer such distinctions. Such authorities can be arbitrary, and they may be motivated by politics as much as art. Greatness also means gaining and maintaining esteem over time, through translation, across cultures, and so forth. Even Shakespeare was not Shakespeare until centuries after he lived. Thus, greatness means somehow communicating with audiences entirely unknown to the author.
The concept of greatness is also mired in cultural status issues. It makes art an object to possess and trade on. In this sense, the statement “my culture will produce great art” seems to be motivated not so much by an appreciation for art, but by a desire to prove something about the culture of the speaker. Not that this instrumental view is entirely hostile to artistic achievement: the rich and powerful who bankrolled Bach and Mozart surely tried to use art to prove something about themselves. Yet the instrumental view alone (especially without the patronage to match) is not likely to lead to better art.
Finally, the concept of greatness is essentially useless to both artist at the moment of creation and audience at the moment of first contact. Artists do not become great simply by swinging for the greatness fence. Art that self-consciously aspires for greatness is bound to come out stilted, affected, or overdone. Much better to be intentionally ambivalent to the potential greatness of a work. Unlike its opposite, ambivalence to greatness is not toxic to things that really matter, like authenticity. Likewise, a thoughtful audience does not immediately ask “is this art great?” Instead, it asks questions about meaning and pleasure: “What does this mean?” “Does this give me joy?” And so forth.
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Great Mormon art might already exist. It might be languishing in the form of a rough draft on you sister’s laptop. It might be published next year by a small Mormon press (that might go out of business six months later). We might never know about it in our generation. We should hope for something else: to be a voracious audience with the capacity to identify good art. In short, the Stepanovich critique describes a hopeless situation. We can’t sit back and say we will only use the products of Mormon art when they finally become great or remarkable. None of us truly encourages Mormon art who has not overcome his reluctance to use its products.
(This has been cross-posted at A Motley Vision, where I have a permanent gig. Many thanks to the BCC crew for letting me play here over the past weeks.)