Mormon Art and Greatness

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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
[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 …

The same general ideas also appear to a lesser extent in M. Russell Ballard’s Filling the World With Goodness and Truth and Boyd K. Packer’s The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.

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.

* * *

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.)

Comments

  1. We want art. Not crappy art. We want the great stuff…. The concept of greatness is also mired in cultural status issues.

    The “if you decree it, they will come” strategy reminds me of the Iranian approach to the arts (and technology, science, whatever else, for that matter).
    Here’s Ahmadinejad admonishing the people “to provide help to backward nations and make use of capabilities and God-given talents,” while here an Iranian gallery director laments that “the art of narration and religious plays, the themes of teahouse painting, has being fallen into oblivion with the advent of television and modernism in general.”

    The Iranians and Mormons aren’t alone, of course. I wonder if it’s an “underdog awakening to/being deluded by grand visions of its potential” phenomenon.

    Artists do not become great simply by swinging for the greatness fence.

    :)

  2. I will admit that I have not had access to a huge range of Mormon literature. Outside of OLD (Our Lovely Deseret), I wouldn’t know where to get it. What I have seen has been uneven, but even the best does not touch me in the way ‘secular’ literature does.

    As I have tried to write some stories myself that reflect my spiritual experience, two problems arise. First, stories need conflicts, real internal conflicts, and it seems as though expressing spiritual conflicts in a sincere way that won’t strike many LDS readers as heretical is a delicate balance. However, I think that this can be overcome, and I have seen models of this in other literature.

    The second, and more difficult problem, is how I can express spiritual communication and revelation in words that reflect their real meaning and their tone, for lack of a better word. If I want to describe a moment of spiritual truth, the cliches of testimony meetings and Ensign articles flood in and have to be pushed aside. Or they sound sort of dreamy and new-age, which doesn’t seem right, either. For me, Mormon literature has to deal with the voice of the spirit, and I haven’t seen a compelling model of it.

  3. Whitney wrote an epic poem himself (Elias), and one wonders whether he was hoping to be among the great. I get the sense that the boosterism was primarily that, rather than a desire to participate fully in the life of the arts. As far as the Great Mormon Novel, Levi Peterson’s Backslider is often proposed, as is Brady Udall’s Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, which, as contemporary literature goes, is quite good (I would even say superior to Owen Meany/Garp). For pure emotional devastation (one important role of art), I would recommend Margaret Young’s Heresies of Nature.

    And I agree with the sentiment. Even if what we’re producing is mostly schlock, we have got to provide outlets for growth, and that means buying Mormon fiction, and if one is good, buying lots (I bought 5 copies of Edgar Mint to give as gifts in hopes of supporting good fiction). That said, I still refuse to buy Mormon romance novels. I think those are an artistic dead end that distract us from more important projects in art and in life.

  4. I find it ironic that this look at art follows our “baptizing” our favorite pop-songs (Which focused mainly on the 80s)…

  5. To Brigham’s credit he was a lover of the theater and was quite involved in the construction of the Utah theater in the early 1860’s. He would often read scripts before they were presented and even lectured the corps on how to act.

  6. S.P. Bailey says:

    Does Brother Brigham contradict himself? Very well then, he contradicts himself. He is large, he contains multitudes.

  7. Does anybody think that the Mormon emphasis on self-reliance and providing for a family acts as a brake on artists? So few artists are able to live on the income of their product; we have no wealthy patrons subsidizing our artists.

    Great artists may have come and gone and nobody has or will ever see what they’ve produced. From the short story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” by Mark Twain:

    “The newest prophet, even, is of a sight more consequence than the oldest patriarch. Yes, sir, Adam himself has to walk behind Shakespeare.”

    “Was Shakespeare a prophet?”

    “Of course he was; and so was Homer, and heaps more. But Shakespeare and the rest have to walk behind a common tailor from Tennessee, by the name of Billings; and behind a horse-doctor named Sakka, from Afghanistan…

    “…That tailor Billings, from Tennessee, wrote poetry that Homer and Shakespeare couldn’t begin to come up to; but nobody would print it, nobody read it but his neighbors, an ignorant lot, and they laughed at it. Whenever the village had a drunken frolic and a dance, they would drag him in and crown him with cabbage leaves, and pretend to bow down to him; and one night when he was sick and nearly starved to death, they had him out and crowned him, and then they rode him on a rail about the village, and everybody followed along, beating tin pans and yelling. Well, he died before morning. He wasn’t ever expecting to go to heaven, much less that there was going to be any fuss made over him, so I reckon he was a good deal surprised when the reception broke on him.”

  8. kristine N says:

    When I was at penn state for my master’s I met another grad student who was in the english department. I remember discussing LDS literature with her and she made a statement to the effect that the people she knew who were aspiring writers who started delving into the “more difficult” topics, especially if they were also difficult aspects of Mormonism tended to leave the faith. Could it be that it’s too difficult to cultivate the thought processes that lead to great literature especially without rejecting this faith?

    Not that I’m going to claim all great art is iconoclastic, but I do get the impression from my (admittedly superficial) knowledge of good art that much of it is rooted in rebellion, or in the need to make sense of cultural cognitive dissonance. Many artists who are considered great today who were very controversial at the time they were creating their art. Their artistic offerings have been assimilated into our culture, so they don’t seem out of the ordinary to us.

    I suspect (and hope!) we do already have some LDS authors who will in the future be considered “great”–I think Orson Scott Card is already considered great among science fiction writers. Ender’s game and the Worthing Saga are amazing, and I think his work has influenced the current state of science fiction writing immesurably. His more recent writing is more tame and more focused on religion, which is too bad from my perspective. I loved his first works and I wish he’d go back to imagining different worlds and weird, interesting situations to put his characters into instead of reinterpreting scriptural stories.

  9. Brigham Young was even in a play.

    Ann is right. Mormon artists have to produce stuff that sells

  10. Steve Evans says:

    S.P., let me thank you for an outstanding series of guest posts. Job well done!

  11. Ditto, Steve. Thanks SP!

  12. S.P. Bailey says:

    Ann: Thanks for the Twain quote. I love it. Interesting how Twain managed simultaneous appreciation for small-town virtue and such sharpness for provinciality.

    Mormons do willingly take on many obligations that other artists might eschew. Family relationships and church service might be liabilities to an artist, but they also might be a source of insight that may never come to an artist suffering alone (sans family/ward) for her art in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment. Also, Mormons have carried out their obligations and succeeded in other fields that demand intelligence, hard work, luck, etc. (professions, sports, etc.) Why should artists be any different?

    As far as the lack of wealthy patrons, Mormons are as hard up as anybody. I suppose we could lament that the church does not commission and purchase more or better art. However, I don’t think that is the solution. Patrons give but they also exercise control. And the church seems to be (perhaps with good reason) very risk-averse when it comes to literature. Look at what comes out of Deseret Book! I think it is much better if the institutional church is not forced to put its name or dollars behind every risk taken by a Mormon artist. Some will miss the mark. Some will be wonderful.

  13. S.P. Bailey says:

    Kristine: certainly some writers and English professors have abandoned the church. Yet I have not heard a persuasive argument that literary talent/lit-crit insight and faith are mutually exclusive.

  14. Interesting to bring up Orson Scott Card. He was in the vanguard of a number of Mormon Science Fiction/Fantasy writers. I’ve often wondered at why our culture has produced more than it’s share. A friend of mine, Steven Kent, has started a series of SF novels about clones that are selling quite well (Clone Republic, Rogue Clone), extending this phenomenon. Many would doubt that SF can be good literature, but Enders Game and especially the sequel Speaker for the Dead stand out to me as both outstanding pieces of literature as well.

    As Levi Peterson’s work shows, the internal conflicts of striving for perfection, and not being able to get there make for good fiction, but I sometimes suspect as a culture that we are uncomfortable with those realities. This goes along with the cultural anguish over laughing at ourselves. Our humor tends to be very localized, mostly in-jokes, and that is reflected in much of the mini-boom in LDS film production. The Singles Ward didn’t do well outside of our culture, but Napoleon Dynamite is a touchstone of pop culture. And yet the in-jokes are still there. The more universal we realize that our real experiences are, the more likely we are to achieve the greatness that Whitney was hoping for. I think it’s out there.

  15. kristine N says:

    What other science fiction/fantasy writers are LDS? I have to admit I don’t often think about the religious persuasion of the authors I read, unless, of course, it informs their writing (as Card’s does, or Carl Sagan).

    S.P.–that’s not quite my suggestion (or rather, this other woman’s suggestion). To qualify this, I’m not entirely sold on the idea either, so I may argue it poorly. It’s more like can you be both a rebellious, revolutionary thinker, and still be LDS (or, in our day and age, a religious person at all)? I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I also wonder if religion doesn’t in many people squelch rebellious tendencies that might produce revolutionary, ground-breaking, “great” artworks or thoughts? This argument also rests on the supposition that great art will be revolutionary and ground-breaking in some way.

  16. I think its sad that alot of members think our religion somehow makes us unable to be rebellious and revolutionary thinkers or artists. I think we need to shift our thinking…our very religion is extremly revolutionary against traditional christian thought. I mean, we rebel against society every day, just by living our religion. And the BOM is full of characters who did very drastic and revolutionary, even rebellious, acts, like building football shaped boats to cross the sea, rebelling against their unjust governments or captors, standing up to kings, becoming martyrs, chopping off arms…I could on…

    Also, just becuase we are mormon, doesn’t mean our art has to have anything to do with it. I am many things beside mormon that influence my thinking and writing and art. We aren’t supposed to be mindless drones, that might sometimes be an unfortunate cultural side-affect of our religious community, but I think our thelogy encourages us to be anything but. Our different-ness, its seems to me, would be a great asset to an artist. I think an, ahem, ‘great’, artist would not be afraid to create art that asked hard questions and told the truth, even if society or his own religious community might question its ‘appropriateness’.

    If, as individuals, we are afraid to pursue artistic avenues because we are afraid of shaking our faith, than we have other problems. Both as members, and as artists, shaking up your thinking and your faith should be a constant thing.

  17. It may interest some of you to hear what a real, live breathing “great artist” (and former Mormon) has to say on the topic. Here’s Lane Twitchell:

    ***

    Growing up I was often asked “Can a good Mormon boy be a great artist?” or phrased another way “When will Mormonism produce a great artist?” I’ve never really been able to answer those questions until now. No and it won’t. And here’s why.

    Conceptual art systems (and all art systems are conceptual) are self contained. They grow by excluding other systems. They either swallow them, as an artist learns to subsume the master, as did Pablo Picasso, with rapacious skill. Or they turn away, like Donald Judd, in self-righteous anger.

    Joseph Smith was an artist. A profoundly great and grave one. His art makes Picasso’s look like child’s play and Matthew Barney’s . . . infantile. His was an art that dismissed Luther, Calvin and Wesley and went head to head with the foundational texts of Western culture. And to a shocking degree he won. The whole Intermountain West is his Marfa.

    No one can be an artist in the shadow of Joseph Smith. An artist tries to create objects that are in themselves charismatic, that continually attract attention and “witness” to the greatness of the artist. In the contemporary world these objects replace religion. The work of an effective contemporary artist makes people believe. Not in anything in particular but rather in the artist. In this sense, every artist’s practice, and the circle of people that support it, constitutes a cult.

    ***

    Twitchell later wrote, more pithily: “a nice Mormon will never be a great artist because a nice Mormon is already a work of art – Joseph Smith’s.”

    And I’ll also post an excerpt from one provocative response to Lane’s post:

    “I can’t imagine any other American religious group spending the amount of time, energy, print and web space that Mormons do trying to promote the idea that their religion will some day produce a Shakespeare. It seems pretty unique — am I right? Or are there Jehovah’s Witnesses out there who proudly announce Gloria Naylor as the great JW novelist? Do you think there are young 7th Day Adventists out there who dream of one day becoming the 7th Day Adventist Shakespeare? Do Mormons just channel American exceptionalism and cultural narcissism more efficiently than other social groups?”

    For the full piece, and the interesting discussion it sparked, go here: http://www.greatwhatsit.com/archives/722

  18. cut s dean says:

    “Artists do not become great simply by swinging for the greatness fence.”

    I am thinking about this.

    William Faulkner, a great artist? Sure. He said, “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

    James Joyce, a great artist? Sure. He met William Butler Yeats when Yeats was thirty-seven and was considered a great artist. Joyce, only twenty, had not produced anything of lasting importance. Joyce asked Yeats his age (“37″), and Joyce responded, “with a sigh, ‘I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.'” Yeats later said that “such a colossal self-conceit with such a Lilliputian literary genius I never saw combined in one person.”

    While true that “simply” swinging is not enough, as talent must play a role, I wonder whether that supreme vanity that Faulkner talked of and Joyce showed is not part of the essential mix. Does the great-accidental-artist, without supreme ambition, exist? I don´t know.

    Thank you for this interesting post.

  19. S.P. Bailey says:

    Greg: I am aware of Lane and the post you link. I am sympathetic to what he is saying, but his view is undoubtedly slanted by his relationship to the church. You can’t expect a respected ex-Mormon artist to write a post praising the genious of Joseph Smith and expressing hope that Mormons’ audacious dreams for their own cultural production are within the realm of possibility. He has a public (which no doubt generally thinks Mormons are stupid and backward provincials) afterall! (Of course, my views are slanted too! I believe. In the church and in the possiblity of good Mormon art.)

    The great truth available on the post you linked actually comes out in the comments where Lane said: “So come on Bailey! Get off your ass and DO SOMETHING!” It’s like he was chanelling my mom, wife, bishop, and employer all at once.

  20. S.P. Bailey says:

    Cut: My point is that greatness can’t be willed. Perhaps the examples you cite illustrate artists’ recognition of their own gifts, not the invention of said gifts through unflinching desire for greatness.

    Also, to my knowledge, a major part of being an artist is getting told repeatedly that you suck. Maybe those who remain artists are those sufficiently confident (perhaps even monumentally, irrationally confident) to blow such things off.

  21. kristine N says:

    veritas–there is a much better argument against my earlier suggestion than your suggestion that we “shift our thinking.” That is: there are people who are rebellious and those who are not. any one particular religion probably doesn’t have much of anything to do with it. A religious upbringing will probably not make someone who is predisposed to being rebellious less rebellious and more than it will cause a non-rebellious person to become more rebellious (I realize I’m arguing against myself here–didn’t take any haldol today ;) ).

    I think you could make a stronger argument that no great LDS artists have appeared because our culture isn’t revolutionary, at least not right now. If we do make the assumption that great art is revolutionary in some way (and I do think that is a good assumption. rebellion isn’t necessarily great art, but I do think revolutionary art is great art) we also have to say that the revolution has to be accepted. There have been millions of artists through time, I am sure, who are perfectly good minor artists who make their own minor contribution to creativity, but are basically following someone else’s lead. Among those minor artists I’m sure there are also a certain percentage who are more experimental, more creative. most of these get lumped in with the rest and are ultimately forgotten. Some few, for whatever reason, create a breakthrough. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are concurrent cultural changes that predispose people to elevate the new, “great” art instead of leaving it in the dustbin of history. So, maybe a great artist is, in addition to having talent and vision, also in the right place a the right time, and we LDS people, living mostly in what is commonly regarded as a backwater, aren’t in the right places.

  22. RE # 16

    Kristine, I will mention a couple off the top of my head. Dave Wolverton (writing as David Farland), Elizabeth Boyer, Tracy Hickman, Michael Collings (also a scholar of note regarding SF, and LDS/SF in particular), Kathryn Kidd, and others. For a more comprehensive list, see http://www.adherents.com/lit/sf_other.html#lds.

  23. Okay, I’ve got a wild thought here. I used to write poetry many years ago, and all of what I thought was good, was written when I was pretty unhappy (dare I say depressed?). My personal theory is that unhappiness, a sense of being an outsider, really lends itself to better art. Even when you read someone like Card, you find that most of his central characters, at least in his better stuff, are isolated, alone, and different, usually because of intelligence, or cultural issues, or like Ender in Ender’s game, super intelligent, and shunned because he’s a third child in a world where no one has more than two. I think not only Card’s religion, but also his own self image informs his work, like all artists.

    Since I graduated from college, got married to a wonderful wife, had six highly intelligent children, and moved away from Utah, I’ve been generally very happy, and never wrote any more poetry. I tried on a couple of occasions, but it was never any good any more. Maybe the depression enhanced what feeble talent I had, and now it’s all gone.

    But that does seem to play into the Lane thread, the theory that all the good artists are leaving the church. Being happy doesn’t necessarily drive you to spend all hours of the night agonizing over a sentence, 15 seconds of video footage, or a brush stroke. Sometimes economic realities will, but I believe most artists do it because it is what they are, and if they can make money at it, that’s even better. When I played in a band, the story was that we charged for driving to and from the gigs, setting up and tearing down, but the playing was for free, because it was what we loved. I don’t think the stereotype of the tortured artist is all that inaccurate, but some folks, with more talent than I, do manage to make a living out of their art on occasion.

    Those of us with church callings, families, and day jobs don’t have the time or the inner demons to drive us to create great art. At the root of every good or great artist is some sense of unhappiness, cognitive dissonance, or warped paradigm of some sort.

    At least that’s my excuse for not writing the great Mormon novel.

  24. Kristine, I don’t think I made my point very well. I was trying to say that our religion shouldn’t make us any less rebellious or innovative, nor should expressing such innovation in art drive us from our faith. I think you are saying the same?

    And I was saying precisely that our religion/theology IS revolutionary, even if it seems our culture tends to foster ‘following’ sometimes.

    These conversations sort of make me laugh, because I think many here are supposing that for a work to be ‘great’ it must be so according to some annonymous group of NYC intellectuals (anyone seen Squid and the Whale??).

    I don’t buy that great art can only come out of conflict or sadness or the rejection of faith in God…(tho sometimes maybe the juggling of faith and family and religion is exactly the conflict that may be a driving force behind our art). Art wouldn’t be great or innovative or lasting if all artists followed or lived according to the same tired formula for ‘successful art’.

    This is exactly why I always hated studying literature by studying an artists life…great art ISNT about the artist…its about the characters and journies they follow that are meaningful, and I have seen zero evidence that a person must be a starving, troubled, egotistical artist to create compelling characters or images that help us understand or think about our world in a different way.

  25. Veritas,

    I don’t believe that you MUST be tortured, starving, etc, to be a great artist. I just feel that having been that way sometime in your life may sharpen your perception and self image. Having gone through my exercise in #23, I also realize that my writing teachers in college (journalism and English dual major) all said the same thing. Write very day, so that you are in practice when the great idea hits you. There is something to be said about persistence and discipline.

    And yet, there is nothing more boring or hard to read than a piece of work written by somebody where the characters are all one dimensional, and behave in predictable ways. I also have grown tired of the didactic tone of voice in much of the Mormon fiction I have read. So often it leans toward telling rather than showing, and the subtle asides, as if nudging you in the ribs to say, “Did you get that? Do you know what I am trying to say?”

    Sadly, I just finished Orson Scott Card’s latest, Empire, about a civil war in the here and now between liberals and conservatives, and it is not up to his usual levels. It is a bit flat in terms of character development, and a little ham-fisted in it’s exposition (pass the mayo, please). That’s an example of a good artist, working for a buck. It’s not awful, but we all know what he is capable of, and as such it is disappointing.

  26. I subscribe to the “mulch” theory of great art.

    In the context of music, it was explained this way by Donal Henahan, in “Classical View: Composition As Compost? Rotten Idea”, NYTimes, Feb. 3, 1991 http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F20613FB3E550C708CDDAB0894D9494D81 (must be a TimesSelect subscriber to download)

    “Merciless historians remind us that 99.44 percent of all the music composed in any age is mediocre or worse. As if we needed reminding. But they also ask us to look at the bright side: though a new work may prove to have the shelf life of warm sushi, it serves an indispensable role in the creation of great musical art. Over time, these mountains of discarded scores act as the compost in which a few masterpieces can grow.”

    Henahan does not agree with the mulch theory, but I do. At least in the sense that the more work is created (some good, some bad, some mediocre), the more likely eventually some great work will result. And it may come in the form of satire, as Don Quijote came as a satire of the “mulch” of knight tales that had proliferated by that time.

    One thing that troubles me in our culture is the spectre of potential church discipline for writing, even fictionally, about church related topics. If it is true, as Neal LaBute reported, that he was disfellowshipped because of his Latter-day Bash play (and informed that he must stop writing negative plays about Latter-day Saints), this risk may create serious, and in my mind, unjustifiable, limits on areas about which Latter-day Saint artist could create excelling works. I say this not as a LaBute fan, because I do not care for his work, but as a Latter-day Saint who would like to see my co-religionists free to create works that may critique cultures (including our own) with no fear on ecclesiastical punishment. (However, I would not be troubled by a simple policy that LDS artists are not to violate temple covenants of confidentiality.)

  27. How about Neil LaButte? Or do former Mormons who weren’t raised in the culture not count?

  28. anon for this post says:

    My wife was a gifted artist (showings, awards), but she hasn’t painted (other than with the children) in 10 years. Mostly because she “doesn’t feel it”.

    We have another close family member who is an amazing practicing artist with some Utah notoriety; she’s being fueled by inner demons and a sense of “you bastards, I’m going to show you good art even if you don’t recognize it”. Of course, we don’t see it.

  29. I just read Elder Packer’s talk about the arts. Might make for a good blog discussion sometime. He talks about not feeling the spirit during some performances. Isn’t it possible that two people see or hear the same phenomenon and one person feels the spirit but the another one does not?

  30. kristine N says:

    Veritas, I think I disagree with the idea that religion doesn’t make us less rebellious, but I definitely agree with the rest of your thought. This maybe isn’t a relevant discussion to the original post, but I do think membership in a religion, or really just about any group that proscribes the actions and beliefs of its adherents, is going to encourage one to be less rebellious. I’m torn on whether that impacts creativity. I’m certain that some creative avenues are at least frowned upon (I was just reading Tracy Hickman’s site and he’s evidently had people question his faith somewhat because he writes dungeons and dragons manuals), but I’m not convinced that should prevent someone from doing good work. I can see that preventing others from finding or appreciating that work, though.

    this is definitely a fun question to think about. Good post!

  31. S.P. Bailey,

    Your thesis, as much as I agree with it, seems a little tainted by the academy’s fear of real talent.

  32. S.P. Bailey says:

    Jack: please do elaborate. For what it’s worth, I am not an academic, and I do not “fear real talent.”

  33. One of my pet peeves is to see art that does not harmonize with doctrine – particularily art commissioned by church leaders. The Sistine Chapel is a fine example of this – God depicted in human form as he touches Adam’s finger, and so on. If art is used for “official” church purposes (General Conference, Primary, Young Men’s etc.), it should be accurate. Case in point – pictures in the Gospel Art kit showing Jos. Smith translating the Book of Mormon without the veil separating him and the transcriber.

    We joke quite a bit about JW art. Talk to Action had a post on the new Am-centric trend emerging in Christian art, and linked to a few pieces:

    http://www.talk2action.org/story/2007/1/10/225646/395/Front_Page/Christian_Right_Art

    I’d love LDS comments, thoughts and ponderings if similar works might someday be integrated into our mainstream visual/print media, BYU galleries, or even the, albeit rare possibility of this art being added to the Gospel Art Kit.

  34. S.P.,

    Let me just say that the academy has a way of instilling ambivalence towards greatness in the arts by rewarding mediocrity.

    That said, I do agree generally with what you say—so long as it is tempered by the idea that most great artists are not entirely unaware of the fact that they’re work tends to push the envelope.

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