Where Are the Great Mormon Artists?

I participated in a BYU-Idaho student documentary about Mormon art (probably because I wrote a blog post agreeing with a Slate blog post about the lack of great Mormon artists). It’s well done and it’s embedded below the fold…give it a view and a good rating.

The documentary starts with a famous quote from Orson F. Whitney, a leader in the church about a hundred years ago: “We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”

The question the Slate article addresses and that I address during my comments in the video is simply “Where are they? Why hasn’t our culture produced them yet?”


If there’s one negative about the video, it’s that everyone doesn’t agree with me all the time like they’re supposed to. There are a few local/indie musicians and artists who participated, along with academics and writers. The creatives were understandably defensive about the idea that Mormons can’t create great art (and, seemingly, to the idea that they themselves aren’t creating great art).

But there’s a distinction between creativity and greatness that the documentary doesn’t make quite clear. Mormons can be creative…ANYONE can be creative. Write a song–any song–and boom, you’ve created. Write two songs and now you have a tendency to create, therefore you are creative. Get some friends to create bass parts and drum beats for your songs, and now they’re creative too. And you can book a show with your friends at a live music club and now you’re creative performers. Which is great, I encourage everyone to do just that! It’s rewarding and fun and I guarantee that your faith won’t stand in your way.

But that’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about great art. There are millions upon millions of creative people. There are millions of artists. But then there are the thousands of people who qualify for the moniker “Great Artist.” The question at hand isn’t WHETHER Mormons can make it onto that list, it’s WHY they haven’t.

A common answer (and one that was repeated by almost everyone in the documentary) is the proportionality argument–”there just aren’t that many Mormons out there.” To which I say “bah.” There are 6 million Mormons in the U.S. There are 6.5 million Jewish people. It ain’t about the numbers.

Anyway, I don’t want to retread all the stuff from the video and my earlier post, but read/watch/comment…I love talking about this stuff and would be interested in hearing your views. In particular, one question I wish they’d addressed in the documentary: Does the Mormon ideal of “faith, hope, charity, and love” even let us look at life in a way that non-Mormons would consider authentic? This Salon article from last week seems to be saying “if yes, then barely.”

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Kyle M is a frequent guest at BCC. This post is cross-posted at his personal blog.

Comments

  1. Ironic mustache guy, ftw.

    My general thought is that beyond boundary maintenance great art is produced through obsession. This relates to WVS recent post on single mindedness. We promote having healthy interpersonal relationships that take huge chunks of our time. Hard, or impossible, to do both.

  2. MikeInWeHo says:

    Great art is often the product of great inner turmoil. The nexus of creativity and madness has been observed since before the time of Van Gogh. The tormented outsider is often the most creative.

    Mormonism is a young, oft-besieged, and still insecure faith community. Orthopraxis predominates. There is little room for the odd duck to stay engaged, much less express her/his angst in a way that the community affirms.

    Thus it should be no surprise that there are few great Mormon artists. What room is there in Mormon culture for someone who wants to radically challenge prevailing views? And what great art doesn’t do exactly that?

  3. I agree somewhat, J., but there’s something about art in particular. Success in sports or politics or business generally requires similar obsession, and yet Mormons visibly excel in those fields. Sports is probably the closest corollary, right?

  4. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    The creators of Yo Gabba Gabba are all LDS. This is a sign of our creative greatness, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

    OK, really, I agree that one of the explanations (of many) could be that the human profile our culture promotes and values is one that does not value, appreciate, or celebrate the angst-ridden and challenges of the human condition. We artificially promote all the positive aspects of the human condition and, unhealthily, fear the negative ones instead of embracing them as a common bond. This results is valuing and promoting stuff like plein air compositions, Olsens, Kinkade, ballet, choir, pastels, etc. Bleh.

  5. MikeInWeHo says:

    I see little similarity between excelling in sports and the arts. On the contrary. They seem quite the opposite.

  6. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    (3) That’s because sports and business typically don’t reach down into and expose the defects of the human condition like art can. They don’t touch the soul and its vulnerabilities. And valuing art’s ability to do that is something I think LDS culture is uncomfortable with, given its other objectives and priorities.

  7. Brandon Flowers of The Killers occasionally infuses Mormon religious themes (or Mormon influences) into his songs.

  8. Jeremy Jensen says:

    First, you need to get a definition of “great art” to stick before you can even begin this conversation. I would argue that the band Low create great art. I would argue that Richard Dutcher made two great movies while a member of the church. I would argue that Neil LaBute made some great films while a member of the church.

    If you have a definition of “great art” that requires fame or “timelessness,” however that’s defined, I may or may not agree with you that Mormons have not created a great artist.

  9. Kyle, I think a guy who works 80 hours a week at a law firm or business being “a provider” and makes a bunch of cash is viewed as a success and gets a pass. The writer that spends 80 hours a week at his craft but can’t pay his bills is typically viewed as a bit of a failure, I think. Women have different roles that they have to struggle against. In the case of family relations, In some areas, I understand that there is a tremendous amount of pressure to not use child care, for example.

  10. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Could it be that atheletes are so well compensated, the reward for honing that talent drives some to do it? Not so much in the arts.

    Many of the great composers of the Baroque and Classical period were the product of significant patronages, also not part of today’s world.

    2. As for the F-H-C worldview — which art does that affect? The written word, perhaps, and maybe some visual arts (though not all), but perhaps not so much other media. And there is plenty of great art from earlier periods in Western Europe that is religious in nature.

    3. You’re right that in our highly democratic western culture we have gazillions of artisitic types who are ‘creative’ but may not be creating great art. I wonder if in Mozart’s time many people had time to play around with music in the garage instead of working the fields.

    Some of the issue may be that there are so many playing at creativity, it may be harder for the real art to emerge. (Or, even worse, the notion that real art will emerge from the playing around, instead of one’s devoting his life to the art.)

  11. 1. The idea of the tortured artist is Romantic clap-trap. It has its uses, but in general is way overstated.

    2. But even if it isn’t, there’s plenty of material for even Mormon artists who are faithful to work with and to get obsessed with and to brood over — agency and the mortal condition see to that. Language sees to that.

    3. As I have said several times before (for example here (see #6)), that Orson F. Whitney quote needs to be understood in a particular context.

    4. I’d say the proportion of bad (sentimental, didactic, angry, pseudo-rebellious) art that is specifically Mormon is the same as with other minority cultures and probably even less than American culture as a whole.

    5. The whole notion of genius is quite problematic bound up as it is in socio-historical, class, educational and other issues.

    6. “Artificially promote” is ridiculous — the founding texts of Mormonism, the language of Mormonism, even the most of the classic conference talks of the past 40 years don’t shy away from the challenges of the human condition.

    7. Angst is easy; joy is not. Neither is real (rather than MFA-short story style) epiphany.

  12. Sorry (5) (6) and (10), my comparing art to sports was purely a response to J. Stapley’s use of “obsession”…which I’d define as an all-consuming commitment of time, energy, emotion. Top-tier athletes should definitely qualify, and there are plenty of mormons in that group.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    Here’s a wonderful talk by Elizabeth Gilbert that I was reminded of when thinking about this post. It’s really good and speaks well to the topic:

  14. What does Orson Whitney mean by Mormons having their own Miltons and Shakespeares? Is he saying Mormons would continue being a distinctly separate group from the rest of society around them? That we’re going to, in some way, remain a peculiar people that will be in the world but not of the world? Exactly how well are we doing at that? In what way are we really any different than most other Americans out there? Why can’t Milton and Shakespeare be “ours” in the way Milton and Shakespeare are to the rest of society? Why must we have “our own?” Are not Milton and Shakespeare representative of “the world?” Or do we give exception to particularly talented individuals “of the world” and call them “other worldly”, maybe even “of heaven?” Was Mozart particularly heavenly? Or was he not truly “of the world?” What if we had our “own Mozart?” Do we just take the music talents but somehow not the rest of the guy?

    As for Great Mormon Artist, would not Stephanie Meyer be representative of that? I mean, she’s got some juggernaut going, doesn’t she? Would not Shakespeare be proud of her accomplishments? Wasn’t Shakespeare more concerned about creating a show that people would come to see so that he could entertain them? We love Shakespeare because it’s culturally correct to love him. He was an extremely talented writer, no doubt. He knew how to entertain a crowd. If alive today, he would be in the movie business.

  15. Did that guys say “We are Asians unto ourselves”?

    Sorry. Anyway…

    That was actually a very interesting documentary, and I remember reading the Slate article and Kyle’s companion piece here several months ago.

    This topic has my mind swimming, and there are a hundred different ways I could come at it.

    Initially, I think that Whitney’s quote is very inspiring. If nothing else, the idealist in me really wants to believe it’s true, and the optimist in me, and the more faithful part of me says its true.

    The pessimistic side of me says that it just ain’t going to ever happen because, arguably, it hasn’t yet.

    Trying to hold someone up to the standard of Shakespeare is awfully high, let alone Milton. But I think Kyle made a good point between what he’s trying to say and what this video said. I agree with Kyle in that no one is saying Mormons aren’t creative. But where are the great ones among us rising up and having their art speak for itself to the masses? Is that even possible today? There was a fair point in the documentary that maybe things have changed. Who are the great non-LDS artists these days? It’s such a subjective question.

    Are we talking about “LDS artists” or “lds ARTISTS”? That is, are we talking about someone rising up telling the Mormon story through art in a way that only great art transcends? I’m not sure we’ve had that yet. Or are we talking about a great artist who also happens to be Mormon? I think we’ve had a few of those already.

    Of all the voices in the video, Jack Harrell’s was the one I could relate most to.

    Great topic. Thanks for bringing the topic back up.

  16. or in other words, I agree with Mike in comment #2. The truly great artist is quite often at conflict with himself and his identity and place in the world. Mormonism doesn’t allow for that kind of life very well.

  17. Thomas Parkin says:

    Great art has the ability to point in many directions away from itself. A truly great work of art, say a Shakespearean tragedy, can seem to suggest the universe. Propaganda points in one direction. Mormon artists have, first of all, been treated as a dangerous anomaly. And they are accepted only on grounds that they produce propaganda. There’s your answer. :)

  18. Shakespeare great? That dude was a hack, man. He recycled plots (maybe even plagiarized). He sucked up to the Queen (have you seen how didactic some of the history plays are?). He was a closet Catholic and overcompensated for that fact. Much of his stuff is way flowery. He was a racists and a misogynist. He was a dangerous radical. He was a reactionary. He made words up. He totally played to the groundlings instead of focusing on purer expressions of drama. He violated the rules of drama. He didn’t do his research. And don’t get me started on the fact that he was actually the Earl of Oxford.

    And then there’s Milton….

    The point is: when it comes to the real stuff — the actual artists and their works — it’s always way more complicated.

    Mormon case in point: Orson Scott Card. Or: Low.

  19. Brady Udall, who’s surely on the short list of really good Mormon artists, got sort of annoyed when I asked him the question. He held back for a minute until I told him the author of the Slate piece was my cousin, not my husband, and then he was very clear about what he thought :)

    You can read the interview here: https://dialoguejournal.com/2010/an-interview-with-brady-udall/

  20. I tend to agree with Mikeinweho a lot on his observations of Mormon culture. We see things opposite of course and interpret the observations differently but I think he is spot on. It seems to take a lot of angst to be a great artist. Mental illness, drug abuse, extreme poverty, anger etc to produce great art. Those that self ID as Mormons and stay engaged and active tend not to be experiencing to much of these types of things.

  21. I think Paul in #10 is dead on in his assessment.

    Patronage is a HUGE part of success in the arts. It seems to me that Mormon culture doesn’t do much to support art, not that the culture is opposed to it, but that it isn’t willing to fully invest in it. I’ve always been the creative type and spent a huge portion of my youth making music, drawing, painting, and writing, but I was from a poor family and had no real opportunities to provide for myself in those efforts, so I essentially changed my course.

    Sadly, I think this failure to support these creative endeavors comes at a cost to our ability to convey the gospel to the world.

    On the comparison with our support for business or athletics, I find an interesting parallel since it seems the only sort of artistic endeavor we’re willing to support is also extremely competitive in nature, and that’s seen on any variety of music competition shows a la American Idol, which always seem to feature Mormons.

    Seems the common thread is our support of competition.

  22. I need a little clarification. When you’re talking about “Mormon art” do you mean art with distinctly Mormon themes or art created by a Mormon. I was a little confused by the Slate article as well when it was written. Is Mormon literature something that’s written by a Mormon or is it literature about Mormons? Anyone have a working definition for me?

  23. When this topic pops up in discussions I get the impression that we as a group assume that we will immediately recognize great art. There is the element of time. The Van Gogh or Kafka element if you will. Great LDS art may already have been created or written or performed and society may see its value at a later date.

  24. Eric Russell says:

    What William said.

  25. The beginning of this film clip states that Orson F. Whitney was not an apostle when he made his statement re future Mormon artists and thus that statement seems to me to be more a personal opinion that a prophesy from the Lord. We are all aware of statements made by apostles that are more their personal opinions. (E.g. Joseph Fielding Smith’s personal opinion that man would never land on the moon.) We need to be careful not to treat all statements from all general authorities as binding scripture, especially if made before they were so called.

  26. I can’t believe you equated Twilight with Ender’s Game!

    Mustache Guy was hilarious, for all the wrong reasons. Other than him, the documentary was pretty good. One thing I’m still not sure about is how we are defining mormon artists. Are we talking about artists who happen to be faithful mormons? Or are we talking about mormon art created by mormon artists?

    If the first, I think we do have some good examples already out there Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer (can’t believe I just did that) are good examples, since their target audiences are not just mormons and have been widely accepted by the larger population.

    If the second, than certainly Del Parsons and Greg Olsen fit the bill. Eliza R Snow would rise to the top for the number of hymns and poetry that have been accepted into mormon culture.

    I’m still not sure that popularity is a good measuring stick, though its the only consistent one we have, beuaty being in the eye of the beholder etc. The problem is somebody might one day consider Jon McNaughton a great artist because the constitutionalists might be buying his work in droves, but not because his art is any good. Its not. I guess that definition would also make Glenn Beck a great artist as well.

  27. William Morris says:

    It’s always good when Eric Russell has your back.

    So I know I come often come off in these discussions as a cranky dude — part of it is fatigue with these types of discussions; part of it is that I’m too lazy to write more in depth — but I think that I lose patience because the more I dig in to all of this stuff (and I’ve dug in just about as far as most people — although there are still major gaps), the more complex and interesting it all seems to me. I’d like some answers, but it’d take some hard work to even begin to get them (although Givens’ People of Paradox helps some). I do know where I’d start:

    1. If somebody can really figure out how American art and artists are shaped by markets and the socio-political and educational spheres then that gives us a framework to work with in relation to Mormon art and artists. I’m not aware of any scholarship that does this well (I’d be happy to hear suggestions) — although McGurl’s The Program Era is a good start.

    2. I think the key to starting to approach these issues with Mormon art is to get in to YA fiction and Mormon authors in both the LDS market and the national market. Figure out what is lost and gained; what hits and doesn’t; what the differences are between what appears in the LDS market and what appears in the national; trace out the genealogies and backgrounds of the authors involved; and do some close reading of the main works and then I think you can really start to maybe say something about Mormonism and art and greatness and American culture.

  28. Krystin Pipkin says:

    This is great to see the discussion this has sparked. I am one of the students who worked on it. Surprisingly, I agree with a lot of what Kyle says. I don’t think it is so black and white. We can’t all believe “if you can dream it you can do it!” It would be nice to think that way, but with situations in my own life, I have realized it isn’t always the case. I think our main point was to really explore people’s opinions and people’s ideas. I don’t think we all (those who produced the documentary) even agree on the same ideas. It was funny hearing some of the responses from the people we interviewed. I think the main point was this exploration. As much as I love Brandon Flowers (I LOVE HIM) and even though he seems to be more active in the church than before, I think his ideas and opinions would be surprising to hear. My guess, he would say its harder than we think. I would say that being successful and famous may take a toll on one’s faith. Kyle mentions that yes. its a hard industry to break into (Katy Perry sings about sex), but then look at Taylor Swift. Not Mormon, but extremely successful and doesn’t sing about sex. However, is she the worlds most amazing singer/songwriter? Don’t make me get into that.

    Defining Mormon artist, yes that is a very good question. We kinda tried to explore the idea of being creative and being successful, but we didn’t really want to go that route. It is interesting. I would love to explore more of these ideas!

  29. Isn’t it all a matter of time? I mean, Shakespeare et al have mostly been appreciated and inspirational to us as societies because we’ve had hundreds of years of cultural diaspora to evolve our notions. I guess I just see it as a matter of time. We’re not even 200 years old as a unique identity yet.

  30. Krystin Pipkin says:

    Tod, I like that point.

  31. William Morris says:

    Not only that, Tod, but there’s also that the 20th and 21st centuries have majorly disrupted how we (meaning mainly Americans, but perhaps all of Western Civ) think about, create, consume and theorize art and what sorts of art forms are dominant.

  32. “Surprisingly, I agree with a lot of what Kyle says…”

    surprise!

  33. Krystin Pipkin says:

    Bruce:

    We weren’t necessarily saying what Whitney said was prophecy, we just thought it was an interesting thought to explore to see if we do have what he would think we would have today.

  34. I agree that it can be hard for artists of any kind in the Church to allow themselves the kind of restlessness that they would need to peek under rugs and in corners where many mainstream members won’t. But I agree with #11.1. I had somewhere a quote by David Lynch to the effect that tragedy and depression are great in art, but destructive in real life – I have misplaced the quote, but maybe someone else reading here will find it.

    Philip Glass used to harp on how popular Mozart was in his day, in response to the attitude that great composers were never appreciated in their own time.

    One of my favorite examples of a happy artist would have to be Peter Paul Rubens. But he wasn’t afraid to paint naked ladies . . .

  35. Krystin Pipkin says:

    Kyle….. :) I think what I meant was that even though I want to have hope for Mormon artists, I had to agree with your views. Not that it should be surprising. I don’t know how to get myself out of this.

  36. 1) Perhaps we don’t see what is under our own noses as we have internalized the anti-mormon bias that exits around us.

    2) We also tend to look at our GAs as the standard of LDS achievment, yet haven’t seen a full-time artist in the 12, and I’m not aware of any in the 70. Just b/c an artist isn’t at the pulpit doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    3) General church sponsorship for the arts essentially ended in the early 80’s. We’ve cancelled RS literary journals (decades before), nixed roadshows, dance events, several pagents and much more. What do we even use the cultural hall stages for anymore? Many new buildings don’t even have them. Worship music in local meetings is regularly accomplished via digital keyboards and recordings. No more SL Temple architecture, no more unique tabernacles and buildings, only models A, B, or C. (Remember when Hugh Nibley cited temple worship as the pinacle of fine art and craftsmanship? We’ve erased the general membership’s need to contribute to art for temple worship by mass-producing the temple experience. We’ve moved AWAY from an active model where the creation of art was an essential element of LDS worship, to a model of passive observation!!!) Even the need for our development of rhetoric as an art form as was used by the early missionaries dissapeared as we produced the six discussions. See the pattern? We’re killing the arts with our growing pains!

    Oaks himself slashed the performing arts programs at the Y in a prioritization of academics. The LDS aesthetic revival of the 1960’s/70’s (C.L. Pearson, J. K. Perry, Saturday’s Warrior, etc.) is hanging on by a thread (primarily through visual art) and languishes for a new wave.

    We’ve turned away from creating the unique LDS aesthetic and instead have asked where the next Shakespeare is.

    I suggest that our preclivity to mainstream ourselves turns us away from the “peculiar”ity of genius and our need for mass-production has eleminated active participation in art as an element of worship.

  37. I see three specific issues WRT great art and Mormon disconnect. First, great art addresses universal human experience, and Mormons have spent a long time constructing and reinforcing the notion that we’re different. Second, great art requires a conflict to be solved. This may be angst, but by whatever name, we don’t like to witness or admit those very difficult problems happen to us. Job, pioneer stories and fantasy settings have a sanitizing distance to them. Third, great art often represents a significant shift from current practice, admittedly made by a skilled artist. I recall a comment some time ago to the effect that Mormons like to do new things, we just don’t like to be the first ones.

  38. There does exist a form of patronage in Mormon culture, but it’s one that weds top-down (and wildly reactionary) content-control mechanisms to extremely lowest-common-denominator market forces. I speak, of course, of Deseret Book and other firms that parasitically suck from DB’s cultural-economic juggernaut. This means we can have, for example, great artists (Patric Devonas, Kirk Richards), and we can have commercially successful artists (Greg Olsen, Jon McNaughton), but probably not both.

    Also, are there any clearly defined subcultures that _do_ actually produce modern equivalents, even just in terms of sheer talent, of Shakespeare (Pynchon or McCarthy)?

  39. Slight threadjack: Ya know where I’d like to see some good (much less great) Mormon art to emerge? In our architecture.

  40. Brad,

    Love me some McCarthy.

    End of line.

  41. Tod,
    First thing I do when they give me control over the Committee of Standard Works…

  42. There are some premises here that I think are silly:

    1) That great art can only emerge from being destitute or tuberculotic. That caricature is the result, mostly, of romanticizing opera librettists who were usually neither.

    2) That we will produce great art after we’ve been around longer. What kind of statement is that? Is it that our cosmology needs to ferment a little longer into myth? Or is it a simple statistical prediction: that eventually we’ll reach the mysterious threshold beyond which our sheer numbers will ensure that among the millions of Mormons there will surely be a good author somewhere among them?

    3) That Mormons haven’t already created great art. They have, we just don’t know about it. And we’re generally dealing with living folks here; it’s rare that anybody, Mormon or otherwise, wins their Official Immortal Genius epaulets while they’re still alive. Who is the Immortal Genius among living novelists? Salman Rushdie? Philip Roth? Jonathan Franzen? Is it that hard to imagine (or even place) literature by Mormons in that company?

    Let me expand on that third point. I consider The Backslider the Great Mormon Novel if there ever was one. Udall’s work is a close second for me. What percentage of Mormons have read either? I imagine only a tiny fraction. Those guys are great novelists (and, perhaps, Great Novelists), whether or not their faith community recognizes it. Because of demographic similarities, we often compare ourselves to Jews. What Jewish composer set out to be “The Great Jewish Composer”?

    That said, I do think there are things within our church culture that can stifle, or at least fail to foster, creativity. Certainly in the last few decades we’ve borrowed from the Church hierarchy a kind of managerializing culture that focuses on efficiency and functionality and thus celebrates accomplishment in areas that share that focus (law, business). What other Church has built a whole architectural style out of multi-use room functionality (crank up the basketball standards! It’s time to listen to the prophet!) and the aestheticization of painted cinderblock? This approach has certainly helped us immensely in dealing with the Church’s explosive growth, but, aside from the wonder we experience at the sheer scale of our operations, it doesn’t do much to inspire the heart.

    Elder Steven E. Snow, before he became a general authority, wrote an essay about this in the collection New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community in which he speculated that Utah’s ultraconservative environmental attitudes are an extension of our pioneer ancestors’ pragmatic survival instincts, and we’ve never gotten over that.

    I see that same attitude in the arts. They’re seen as extra. My wife teaches piano, and I bet if you asked any moms why they bring their 12-year-old sons into our living room for lessons, they’d say “So he can play hymns on his mission,” or “so he can play in priesthood meeting.” “So he can develop artistically” would be pretty far down on the list.

    Finally, a related cultural attitude, I think, is our equation of morality and virtue with sinlessness. We count “not doing anything wrong” as a moral triumph. But avoiding evil just makes us neutral, not virtuous. We’re supposed to “seek after” things that are lovely and praiseworthy. I don’t think we’ve learned how to be assertive in that regard.

  43. Thomas Parkin says:

    ” In our architecture.”

    Amen, And the example is instructive.

  44. StillConfused says:

    I agree with #2. Basically, I find Mormons generally to be my more boring friends. No room for a little “flava” or individuality. If you are raised to be a conformist in your culture, I believe that cuts against you in the arts.

  45. Haven’t watched the doc yet.

    That said:

    – “The Backslider” is, in my opinion, definitely one of the best American novels from the latter half of the 20th century.
    – “The Lonely Polygamist” is one of the American best novels of the 21st. Dozens of national literary critics have been throwing around the “great American novel” phrase in discussions of Udall’s book.
    – Sam Taylor’s “Heaven Knows Why” begs–and thoroughly deserves–comparisons to Wodehouse.
    – May Swenson is generally considered one of the great American poets of the 20th century.
    – Stephanie Meyer has been the most successful in terms of sales, but there are a number of other LDS young adult and/or sci-fi/fantasy authors that are getting well-deserved national recognition–Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Dave Wolverton, etc.
    – Other great Mormon writers: Douglas Thayer, Margaret Blair Young, Angela Hallstrom, etc., etc.
    – Richard Dutcher’s “Brigham City” and “States of Grace” are two of the better American independent films I’ve seen from the last decade. Box Office Magazine called the former the best American independent film since “Blood Simple”–which, y’know, was the Coen brothers’ first film, made almost twenty years earlier.
    – “New York Doll” has found its way onto lists of the best documentaries from the past decade. I’m wont to agree.
    – Low has been producing great, critically-acclaimed music for years, and developed a big following. There are lots more great Mormon musicians out there.
    – Neil LaBute is generally considered one of the most important contemporary American playwrights. “In the Company of Men,” which is probably still his most well-known and well-regarded bit of work, premiered on BYU campus of all places before going on to become one of the most critically-acclaimed independent films of the 90s.

    It’s certainly an interesting conversation, and there’s lots to talk about the place and potential of Mormon art–where it is, where it’s going, where it should be, where it should be going.

    I guess I’m just puzzled by the question.

  46. Davey,

    Touché.

  47. There are no Miltons and Shakespeares alive today, in any culture or nationality. This isn’t because there aren’t people who are as smart or creative as them, perhaps even in our own church. It’s that Milton and Shakespeare were a product of their culture and their important place near the pinnacle of Western artistic achievement. We no longer live along the Great March Forward of Western Art, where each genius built upon the greats of the past to create ever higher and more glorious achievements. That thread has been irretrievably lost in a multicultural, commercial society. Artists today borrow freely from the past of many different cultures to create new fusions. But there is no single school, no great march forward, no culture that fosters and encourages the kind of perfection and hopelessly elite nature of great Western Art.

    We’ll see plenty of geniuses, and we’ll see amazing stuff, even in our own church. But there will never be another Beethoven. If Beethoven were born into our church, he would never become what he became in the 1800s. The Mormon Beethoven’s genius would be diffused in entirely different ways than 19th Century Beethoven’s was, and he would never stand out as The Great Beethoven.

  48. There are probably great artists who happen to be Mormon who particularly see the need to combine the two, just like there are great scientists who happen to be Mormon…

  49. Er, *don’t* particularly see the need to combine the two.

  50. Additionally, what’s so great about Great Art and artists, and why should Mormons aspire to be counted among the artistic geniuses of the Western World? Sure it’s amazing, moving, inspiring, whatever. But look at the lives of those who created this greatness. They were a mess! If their art is so significant spiritually, how come these men were spiritual losers, abusers, depressed, narcissistic, proud, etc. etc. The Mormon Shakespeare will be applying his genius to his family, his Dental practice, his Ward, his LDS blog, his soccer coaching, his hometeaching. The Real Shakespeare ignored his family, and left his wife “my best bed” in his will. We can all enjoy Hamlet, weep and marvel at it, but can anyone seriously say that the works of Shakespeare brought a single soul to salvation? And the remarkable thing is, Shakespeare knew it! He wrote his Sonnets as odes to procreation and posterity, which he believed were the only real meaningful achievements in life, and which ironically, he never achieved. His posterity has died out. He’s a celebrity, no more, no less. A great mountain in a cold, lonely range of the great mountains of Western Art. Christ is not part of that range, and neither is Joseph Smith. I love Shakespeare, but I say it is the height of folly for Mormons to aspire to such a great and spacious goal.

  51. FarAway,

    That is one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever read.

    It is like saying that Mozart should be discounted because he was moral in his personal life.

    Or, that Hemmingway should be disregarded because his issues with alcohol.

    Great works create a legacy that outlasts the person.

  52. “wasn’t moral”

    . . .

  53. FarAway, a dental practice? Really?

    While I’m pretty tired of the whole Great Mormon Novel thing for many of the same reasons Wm. so expertly explained, I do agree with some of the assertions made by various artists in the documentary: Mormon artists can, and do, allow Mormon culture to stifle them in ways that affect their ability to acknowledge ambiguity, explore paradox, or plumb the depths of the full range of human emotion and experience. But not ALL Mormon artists are doing this. Jack Harrell, who is featured in the documentary, is extremely talented and willing to take all kinds of risks, and he’s also writing fiction about Mormon life for Mormon audiences. I could name many, many more writers who are doing the same thing. (Take a a look at Andrew Hall’s fabulous Mormon Literature Year in Review that he just posted at AMV today for a look at the breadth and depth of fiction offerings by Mormon writers in the national market: http://www.motleyvision.org/2011/2010-mormon-literature-year-in-review-national-market/)

    But many of the writers whose work would be widely considered artistically meritorious are publishing literary fiction or short stories, and let’s face it: Mormon or not, very few literary authors are making waves in the public in general. Ask any relatively well-educated person to name contemporary contenders for “Great American Novel” status and I’m pretty sure only a small percentage would be able to come up with a list of titles, and even then they’d be leery to attach the descriptive “Great American,” with all the baggage such a term carries.

    This makes Brady Udall’s achievement this year even more noteworthy, in my opinion. He is one of a handful of writers who’s been given the small sprinkling of national attention that literary novelists receive. Although I have absolutely no interest in anointing a novel the “Great American” or “Great Mormon” anything, Udall’s novel is a pretty amazing achievement. So when you ask where the great Mormon artists are, I’d venture to say that one of them lives in Idaho.

  54. What William Morris said.

  55. I agree with davey. If there *exist* great artists today (i think they do), then there are Mormons among their ranks.

    I also echo the mentions of Brandon Flowers/Killers, they are some of the leading/ most impressive musical artists today.

    Another one that should be mentioned is Aaron Eckhart. I can’t think of many actors that are more talented.

    I guess another thing that needs to be addressed in addition to “what is great art?” is the question of *what is a mormon?*. Do we not count them if they are inactive? I’d guess that most of the great jewish or catholic artists through time haven’t been what we’d call active (or often, even believing). Are we counting cultural Mormons, our solely religious Mormons?

  56. Mommie Dearest says:

    Steve #51: Which one of FarAway’s statements is the idiotic one? I’m asking in all honesty, though I thought he made an interesting comment.

  57. “…it is the height of folly for Mormons to aspire to such a great and spacious goal.”

    I’m not sure if that’s the dumb part, but it is the part that’s in direct opposition to prophetic admonition, so there’s that.

  58. Kristine, I understand your sentiments. As a professional classical musician and BYU grad, I read and zealously believed in Pres. Kimball’s inspiring admonition to strive for the artistic greatness achieved by people like Beethoven and Mozart. I still believe that we should all do our best to fulfill our individual missions in life, be they artistic an otherwise.

    What I object to is the romanticisation of these Great Western Artists, and the assumption that somehow Mormons belong in their ranks by virtue of the truth of our religion. After I left BYU, I went to New York and became consumed in the classical culture there, and found that all the artists surrounded and making a living in all this “superior, inspired and spiritual” art did nothing to make them better human beings. I’ve met and worked with “geniuses” and have to say the same thing about them. There is no virtue in genius. There is no virtue in writing great symphonies, unless it happens to be a true expression of God’s will for your life. But on that level, there is no difference between great composer, and the great mailman.

    The elitism of Great Art has nothing to do with the gospel of Christ. In our worship of Great Art, fifty or so great masters are endowed with the whole meaning of being, while millions of the rest of us are turned into meaningless grains of sand. I am glad to see that Great Art has finally died and with it, the insulting metaphysical inequality. Today, we have about a million singer-songwriters, all doing nice, wonderful work to replace that one Beethoven of the past. This is great progress, and I just think Mormons belong with the people, not with the elite.

  59. Seems that many of the worlds great artists (especially in fine art and music), were fireballs that made their creative mess and then either passed on or faded and never were able to capture that short spell of genius.

    I think it’s hard for many to be a vital artist throughout their whole life. Tough to keep up as we endure to the end.

    BTW, there are quite a few superstars in their field of American Indian pottery who are mormon.

    My own attempts at greatness are free to any who find them interesting:

    http://www.macjams.com/artist/Kicbal

  60. I just don’t buy the great artists are crazy and/or evil. That’s at least as much a product of Western mythologies (a pretty narrow subset of those mythologies, in fact), as the notion of the Great Artist or the Canon (which, btw, no one who has been paying attention for the last 50 years still believes in).

    Bach was a stodgy Latin teacher, Brahms lived in a dinky apartment and took the same walk every day, Dvorak summered in _Iowa_, ferhevvinssake. And I’m sure we could come up with a pretty good list of lawyers and dentists whose personal lives were/are a mess. To say nothing of politicians. It’s just silly to insist that artists are or must be debauchés, just as it is silly to assert that Mormons are never unhappy enough to produce art.

  61. There is no virtue in writing great symphonies, unless it happens to be a true expression of God’s will for your life. But on that level, there is no difference between great composer, and the great mailman.

    I was shoveling my driveway in December when the weirdest thing happened. My mailman got out of his car and came up to me singing Handel’s Messiah in perfect pitch. It was like he was singing with a choir of angels. Totally changed my life. . . . true story.

  62. #13: Mike that’s a wonderful video, thanks.

  63. Eric Russell says:

    Who needs artists when you’ve got the country’s greatest performer on the collegiate hardwoods!

  64. Two thoughts.

    1. What does great art look like in the non-Mormon sphere? Is there even a list we could produce and agree on in the larger culture?

    2. The fact that there is a lot of disagreement on what is great in Mormon culture is another layer to me.

    3. Isn’t some of this related to quantity? How much competition did Shakespeare and his theater have in his day? How many people in the days of classical and baroque periods were actually composing and recording and performing their music in ways that it became recognized? Could some of it be that true genius was easier to find because there was less production of art in the first place? It seems to me that with the prolific production of every form of at, and the way technology has made the creation of art available to pretty much everyone (at least in the first-world countries), to me it seems harder to sift through all the options to even whittle it down. Which ‘experts’ get to determine what is ‘great’ or is it sales that define it? etc.

  65. Has society at large produced any Miltons or Shakespeares lately?

  66. Cynthia,
    That was my question, but you phrase it better.
    And, yes, I can count. I started with two thoughts but then obviously added a third. doh

  67. Kristine, I’ll add to your list: My hero Wallace Stevens. Stable lawyer, married to the same woman all his adult life, vice president of the Hartford insurance company, greatest American poet.

    The myth of the tortured artist needs to go away and die.

  68. I think so. Example 1:

    I think the comments earlier about great art coming from inner turmoil is true and false. If by inner turmoil you mean “the human condition” which we all experience and is the point of this life, further explained and given meaning from the LDS perspective you’re right. If you mean great art like Michelangelo vs. Andres Serrano I think there is no contest to which is great versus who has too much of an obsession with conflict that they mistake angst, confusion, depression with yielding art. But I would fully agree that in as much as an artist takes their concerns, confusion, questions, faith, hope, love, or despair, and puts it into their art in a meaningful non-self absorbed way it has the potential for greatness. But really, I’m pretty arrogant for attempting to put a definition to great art, so I’ll just stick to my opening guns and say there is true greatness out there in the LDS community if you look for it and hold it up for the world to see.

  69. This all reminds me that I really need to get off my butt and finish my essay on Orson F. Whitney and the passage from his epic poem Love and the Light that gives A Motley Vision its name because it actually is an excellent demonstration of both the strengths and pitfalls and awesome possibilities of theorizing Mormon-produced art as Mormon.

    In regards to michelle and Cynthia’s thoughts: Quite right. As not all readers of BCC may be familiar with this context, I’ll repeat in brief this — that Orson F. Whitney quote needs to be understood in the context of ethnic/national literatures and the whole notion of a founding genius who legitimizes a people and their cultural materials (and language) through the creation of work that finds currency with the world at large. I have argued in the past in several different forums that Joseph Smith already fills that role (thus leading to major complications because he wasn’t just an artist — as Orson F. Whitney has pointed out, he’s a poet and a prophet). But there’s also the fact that our culture came of age so late that the world had changed so that role couldn’t be filled.

    I don’t know that society at large has produced any Miltons lately. Perhaps what it has produced is Coke, Nike, Apple, Disney, etc. Which is depressing, but at the same time frees the individual artist, especially the minority culture one, from fretting about (although as, I believe it was Givens but perhaps it was Harrell, points out in the documentary, there does seem to be quite a bit of fretting that has gone on about that whole Whitney quote) the need to produce universal genius (ala Shakespeare) and can instead focus on specific genius (genre genius, new art form genius [e.g. not literature or music composition], local genius, performance genius), which as has been pointed out here, can most definitely be found among Mormon artists, both active LDS and not.

    MCQ: Amen and amen.

  70. Jimmer aside..the athlete-artist thing is interesting to me. I think an athlete is perfection, self control, obsession and hard work. They don’t leave it all on the court, they’re only supposed to leave the best parts on the court.

    Some of those same words apply to a great artist..but there is a raw honesty and emotion involved. It’s been mentioned before that we tend to hide the raw emotions, struggles and doubts and come and bear our testimonies once everything is all tidied up. Sure an artist needs to work hard and be disciplined and edit, edit, edit…that effects the productionand how the art is expressed, but the actual art is honest emotion. It doesn’t have to be sex, because chastity is just as real. But it does need to be vulnerable-which sound like humility, but we tend to see humility very tightly strung.

    Shakespeares aren’t common. I think we are talking about classics here, not popular works. I’m pretty sure we should admit teenagers may not be the best judge of classics.

    I look forward to reading Udall

  71. Some of the most honest, raw emotion I have encountered in literature is: “Jesus wept” and “And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept;” and “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?”

    Somewhat conversely, It’s unclear to me how much we should define the parameters or truisms of Mormon art by devotional discourse. After all, there are plenty of acclaimed artists who don’t come across as very real or honest or vulnerable when they start using devotional or political (or any ideological) discourse.

  72. “This all reminds me that I really need to get off my butt and finish my essay on Orson F. Whitney and the passage from his epic poem Love and the Light that gives A Motley Vision its name…”

    Yes, please!

  73. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I am glad to see that Great Art has finally died”

    Me, too. Now I can finally stop feeling guilty for filling my hours with reruns of Charles in Charge!

  74. Thomas Parkin says:

    I would rather have done well in God’s eyes than be a genius. But I’d rather be a genius that has done well in God’s eyes than not. I’d also rather be a rich genius that has done well in God’s eyes than not. I’d also like to be a handsome rich genius that has done well in God’s eyes than not.

    I’d rather _you_ be a dentist that has done well in God’s eyes. But, even if you haven’t done well in God’s eyes, I’d still like you to be a dentist, because someone is going to have to replace this mouth of unfortunate teeth.

  75. Thomas Parkin says:

    Have there been any genius dentists? I mean someone who really took dentistry forward in a magnificent way? I confess I’m woefully uneducated on the history of dentistry. I know the Anasazi had bad problems with their teeth because of all the grit in their corn meal. They would probably have liked to have some good dentistry. The Anasazi also didn’t have anyone writing them symphonies. The cave paintings had become pretty derivative by the 11th century A.D.!

    I only go to dentists that will give me gas. I once went to a dentist. The assistant came to set me up and asked me, regarding the gas, if I liked it high, meaning turned up high. I thought she asked me if I liked the high, to which I replied, ‘oh, man, yeah … I really do.’ So she turned it all the way up. Best trip to the dentist, ever!

  76. Dunno if he was a genius, Thomas, but the guy who first used laughing gas as a dental anesthetic in Salt Lake put on a fascinating show for Brigham Young. Hmm — will have to post about that.

  77. John Mansfield says:

    How great are we talking about? How many great artists produced work through the 20th Century? A couple dozen? Three thousand?

    I like the ambition of figuring that anything 6.5 million Jews can do, 6 million Mormons can too. Is there any other group of 10 or 20 million Americans that could compare?

  78. I’m pretty sure we should admit teenagers may not be the best judge of classics.

    Michelangelo sculpted the Statue of David before he was 30.

    Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet sometime in his late twenties/early thirties.

    Mozart had already written a good portion of his body of work before he was 20 years old (he only lived to be 35).

    Beethoven was already writing his symphonies by age 30 (and starting to lose his hearing at the same time).

    Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon when he was 26.

    Dali painted Persistance of Memory at age 25.

    Why would we admit that teenagers might not be the best judges of classics, when many of the worlds greatest classics were created by people not much older than them (or in the special case of Mozart, as young as them)?

  79. oh they can be the artists…I just don’t want a swarm of them judging what’s best. One on one, or in small grouops, they may be grand judges, but as a swarm they tend towards things like Beiber and twilight and Taylor Swift.

    All of which in my snooty-know betterthanness, I tend to not appreciate.

  80. Yeah, but I’ve seen plenty of 35 year old women idolizing Twilight as well.

    I also imagine that Little Fockers beating True Grit at the box office was mostly due to people over the age of 20.

    I don’t think it has as much to do with age, as just universal bad taste. =)

  81. My grandfather was a genius dentist — he could do work on children with disabilities or other non-run-of-the-mill challenges for dental work that no one else could. And it took a very high level of technical and rhetorical skill and emotional intelligence and a skilled, captivating performance to do it. Try carving a sculpture when you also have to soothe the marble and work with its parent to provide the exact right level of and type of involvement in order to get just one hit of the mallet in.

  82. Oh, and then also be able to teach other people how to do it almost as well.

  83. Orson Scott Card?

    Mack Wilberg?

    I think the problem is that many of us don’t recognize our Miltons and Shakespeares when we see them.

  84. The problem isn’t whether there are great Mormon artists, the problem is what outlets are available for Mormons to find them? Where do Mormons go to promote their art? If we could somehow figure out how to combine art and multi-level marketing schemes, I think we might have solved that problem. Have Mormon painters tried using flip-charts, etc.?

  85. Was anyone expecting something more profound from me?

  86. NuArt

  87. I was discussing this with a friend earlier this week and he had an interesting take on it. Mormons are inclined to see themselves in a polarized world with Mormonism and all that is good at one end, and Satan, the World, and the natural man at the other. However, maybe Satan and the natural man are actually two different extremes. On one end, Satan is regimented, rule-obsessed, and merciless, wanting not just to turn us against God but to control and direct every aspect of our lives. On the other end, the natural man is creative and procreative, ruled by emotions, instincts and stimuli. God asks us to walk a strait and narrow line between the two, merging creativity and mercy with discipline and purpose.

    Current Western society has aligned itself so much with the Natural Man end of the spectrum, valuing expression, freedom, natural science, and a broad range of human experience. Mormons, in their need to be seen as distinct from the world, are arguably pushing themselves toward the more strict, close-minded end of the continuum. In the early church, when Orson Whitney foresaw great artists, society was in some ways closer to the Satanic side of the spectrum, concerned with enforcing a certain set of morals and laws; Mormons were seen as licentious deviants and radicals. If that arrangement had persisted, perhaps Mormons would be more comfortable with pushing the boundaries of mortal sensation and experience through artwork.

  88. Thus, the distance from the natural man to satan is just the square root of the distance of the natural man squared plus the distance of god from satan squared.

  89. Douglas Hunter says:

    Great art is rather rare. I don’t quite understand the attitude that Mormons should, or can, or will produce great art strictly on the basis on our Mormonism. Such thinking is pretty creepy, as it seems to have a close resonance to the use of art as propaganda that certain nations engaged in during their empire building phases of the 20th century. The point was to display cultural superiority, as a complement to what they understood as their industrial and military superiority. The quote that feeds the documentary seems to do something similar.

    Myself, I would like to create great art, I am working to become capable of doing so all the time. Greatness takes time, if I ever do produce a great work of art, why should I assume that it would have anything to do with my Mormonness?

  90. FarAway,

    I disagree with you pointedly. There is indeed virtue in genius. Otherwise we would not be admonished to activily seek after the products of genius. There is virtue in the creative act, because it emulates devine creation. I think the heavens weep when a soul foreordained to create art becomes a dentist (and, I suppose, vice versa…). Your own experience with “all” those artists you encountered in New York does not match my own experience in the least (I’m a music academic with lots of research interests and musician friends in NYC); in the music world, just like everywhere else, there are people with differing value systems, different ideas about personal morality, etc. etc. Your caricature of the decadent artist is just silly.

  91. Thomas Parkin says:

    *figure out how to combine art and multi-level marketing schemes*

    Laugh. Out. Loud.

    I’m really happy that you and your spouse have moved into the ward, Syphax. I wonder if you’d like to come over for a little dinner this week.

  92. Thomas, were you the one talking about a need for a Mormon Chaim Potok at Life, the Universe and Everything about 10 or 11 years ago? I remember there was a session specifically about being an LDS author.

    Douglas, you bring up good points about propaganda. In my more pessimistic moments I’ve considered writing an essay about How Mormons Behave Like Communists, even though we’re not supposed to like them.

    Can I bring up naked people in paintings again, or is that just gonna get me in trouble?

  93. Vader,
    Thank you for demonstrating that we do not recognize the difference between Shakespeares and non-Shakespeares.

  94. What do you have against Orson Scott Card, Brad?

  95. Nothing, William. I think he’s written some fine books and stories. What I have something against is the suggestion that the only problem is that we simply don’t recognize Shakespeare- or Milton-like genius in Card and Wilberg.

  96. it's a series of tubes says:

    I think the heavens weep when a soul foreordained to create art becomes a dentist

    What if said dentist uses a portion of his (likely larger) dental salary to address malnutrition in Guatemala via the Liahona Children’s Foundation?

  97. Thomas Parkin says:

    ” if I ever do produce a great work of art, why should I assume that it would have anything to do with my Mormonness?”

    I think, for me, the question isn’t whether or no a Mormon can produce great art. Or, if s/he does, it has anything to do with his Mormonness. For me, the desire is to have Mormonism well … expounded on, in various avenues of expression – openly, freely, deeply.

    We have an amazing cosmology. And the way that cosmology can infuse itself in our lives can be deeply human, not to mention divine. But we resist exploring it in our expressions – and that is at least in part because elements of our culture actively discourage it. It sometimes seems that if we have an experience that can’t be reduced to a catch phrase, preferably one already in the common library, then we resist telling it even to ourselves. I would like all Mormons to get past this sense that we must only express the realities that fall into the comfort zone. But, should an artist get past it, and remain tied to the ordinances – that is, to say, really and truly living the gospel rather than in the vicinity of it – then there is some potential to get something that is both authentic Mormonism and great art. This is possibly something different even than the honest self-expressions of Mormons, though that would clearly have to be involved.

    Our beliefs have philosophical, psychological, genuine human depth. But there is little enough expression of that dimension in our common discourse. We have lead the creators of the Book of Mormon musical to their gentle mockery of us with however many decades of homefront commercials. We have even fooled ourselves into thinking that is what we are. But we aren’t just ‘nice, credulous’ people who think that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri and that God lives on Kolob.

    The need is for expressers, artists among them, who can demonstrate the real position of the mockers with the range and depth of their Mormon expression. These people will need to have, however the democratic feeling chafes against it, talent.

    You might be able to talk Shakespeare into a bundle of identities, or misunderstand him in any number of ways, but there is still King Lear. We do have the Book of Mormon. But, are the heavens closed to us, have God’s words ceased. etc. etc. etc. We want enough and more than enough! Bring it on, heaven! :)

  98. I’m wondering to what extent “great” art is seen as an expression of someone searching for the answers to life’s great questions, whereas Mormon doctrine seems to say we’ve already got the big picture, the search is over. How does one create great art if one is satified that the big questions have already been answered?

  99. It’s long been my belief that the Orson Whitney quote needs some critical explication itself. In my view, if we’re going to have Miltons and Shakespeares, we’d better start first with what Milton and Shakespeare did and go from there. As I see it (and this is going to be hopelessly reductionist), Milton used a dead (or dying) mythology to explain a living one (Roman/Greek tropes to explain Christian themes). Shakespeare invented psychological literature–that is, he invented characters with motivation, more rounded than the stock characters that other drama of his time and earlier had relied on.
    If we’re going to create great Mormon art, it will be in those kinds of ways: using other tropes to explain our peculiarities to the world in general; and changing the boundaries of literature in ways that only Mormons can.

  100. Brad: Got it. I might be willing to trade OSC for Milton, but probably not.

    Thomas: I completely agree. Very well said even if it’s a little too grand. Not too grand for my natural tastes, but I’ve tempered my expectations or rather my sense of how to go about these expectations since I first became aware of Mormon culture as such more than a decade ago.

    H.Rob: I think you’ve made a good start with the aesthetic angle, but I think the Whitney quote is more bound up with cultural politics — the use of the “greats” to legitimize art in the English language and England as a producer of “timeless, universal” works.

  101. Thomas Parkin says:

    Wm.,

    I’m not even sure who said it … without vision, the artists perish. It took Enoch 300 years to build Zion, but it was still Zion, in the end. I don’t think we all need to be Kenneth Branaugh, though – all spittle and bombast. I’m quite pleased with the fact that most people play it a little closer to the chest than me. ;)

  102. I don’t think Milton was a genius.

    There. I’ve said it.

  103. Thomas Parkin says:

    Or is it vest? time to find a pillow.

  104. “There. I’ve said it.”

    And you can never unsay it.

  105. As a professional musician and arts manager, I submit the following “in the weeds” concerns regarding Mormon artistic expression.

    1) There are two distinct production values in the Church.
    -The “lay church” we pride ourselves on running using volunteer labor, amateur devotion and small budgets spread widely.
    -The “hired of the Lord” like Q12, 70, MOTAB, Bonneville Communications, church admin, and other well-funded, well-trained services that support their function.

    2) Despite rapid globalization as a church, weekly sacrament services involve virtually no artistic expression other than a limited musical practice derived from a narrow slice of Western European tradition.

    3) The image, sound and video holdings of the Intellectual Reserve are typically 30 to 40+ years out of style (see any chapel library, the illustrated BoM for kids, temple video, etc). To my knowledge, the Church only recently began seriously updating creative content (International calls for art and music, embracing Web outreach and social media, International Mormon Video Contests, etc).

    We are making progress but there is much more to be done.

  106. Have there been any genius dentists?

    I love this seed of thought. Makes me think of 1 Cor 12. We can’t all be art-artists, but maybe we can give our all to whatever gifts we have been given.

    Dunno if he was a genius, Thomas, but the guy who first used laughing gas as a dental anesthetic in Salt Lake put on a fascinating show for Brigham Young. Hmm — will have to post about that.

    Cool. That will be a fun post!

  107. Conceded. OSC is not in the same league as Shakespeare. But then no one else is in the same league as Shakespeare.

    I would gladly trade OSC for Milton, or Wilberg for Rutter.

    My point was not to suggest that OSC is the best writer around, or Wilberg the best composer. That would be the wrong metric. When we go from “We should have superb writers/composers” to “We should have writers/composers that are better than anyone else’s” we have crossed a line that should not be crossed.

    OSC is a superb writer and Wilberg a superb composer. Better than anyone else? Wrong question.

  108. Steve Evans says:

    “I would gladly trade OSC for Milton”

    ????

    Only you could be so bold.

  109. Wilberg for Rutter

    That’s like trading Thomas for Scalia.

  110. Eric Russell says:

    You people and your intellectual baseball cards. Just don’t forget that, whatever you’d trade for what, God still has the complete set.

  111. shakespeare was probably on steroids anyway. He’s just way better than anyone else, it’s the only explanation.

  112. Mommie Dearest says:

    I think the whole notion of coveting our “own” Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo or what have you says a lot more about our cultural elitism than it does about genius in any of the fields of the arts.

  113. Eric Russell says:

    To be fair, MD, while that may be true with respect to great artists who happen to be Mormon, there’s something to be said for the production of great Mormon art, for its own sake.

    That said, I would totally trade Dewey and Swindle for an MFA student and a first round pick at the next council of heaven.

  114. Perhaps I was wrong about saying “there is no virtue in genius.” Reading all these posts has made me realize that there is something about aspiring to greatness that seems intrinsic in Mormon culture, whether that greatness be artistic, worldly or otherwise. My own views are shaped by my own failure to realize the intense delusions of grandeur I had as a young musician. To cope with this failure, I’ve gone from being a snob to being a populist. I’ve rebelled against my elitist heritage, which continually seeks to compare and pit artists against each other. Now I prefer to appreciate artists within the context of their own gifts and culture, not within the arbitrary values assigned by Western High Classical Art. I believe this is how the Lord sees us, and how he would want us to try to judge others.

    That’s not to say that IF we are spiritually attracted to the values of Western High Classical Art, that we shouldn’t aspire to them. Our religion encourages us to seek after things that are “of good report and praiseworthy.” But at least in my experience, I find that artists and art lovers over-romanticize, and over-estimate the importance of their art and the art of these great giants, as I certainly did.

    Shakespeare and Milton can inspire, entertain, and refresh the soul. But they cannot bring a soul to salvation. I currently view the Arts as a vocation and a trade, as valuable as any other. But some others see the Arts as intrinsically superior, almost religious, and that great artists are prophets of the soul. I’ve run into this snobbery often in the attitudes of people who do music in Sacrament meeting, where Classical music is assumed to be “superior” to Mormon Pop, and therefore more worthy, even though the familiarity and accessibility of Mormon Pop to our culture makes it a more powerful vehicle for communicating a spiritual message then Classical Music could hope to be, as beautiful and inspired as Classical Music is.

  115. FarAway,

    If you knew me you’d realize that I’m the last person in the world that needs convincing of the importance of considering art within its cultural context. I never made this conversation about Western Classical art–except, perhaps, to the extent of not addressing Orson F. Whitney’s citation of Western artists. In fact, my main research and teaching interests fall well outside the Western Classical tradition.

    I find it said that you’re not able to separate art (or “Art”) from all the bourgeois baggage you’ve laden it with, for two reasons. First, when we treat Western Classical music as having value only to the extent that it articulates class distinctions or reinforces notions of highbrow status, we diminish the artistic and creative substance that, in my mind, is what houses its divine value. Second, the Western tradition is certainly not the only one with “classical” or “virtuosic” traditions (existing apart from vernacular ones).

    Finally, I take issue with your position that art can only have value to the extent that it is a “vehicle for communicating a spiritual message.” The best art isn’t a vehicle for words that convey a message, the best art is the message. In my opinion, Mormon pop that “delivers” a spiritual message can actually be less edifying–because it presents the gospel as easy, syrupy, uncomplex, unthinking. Artistic substance fosters prolonged and more careful consideration. Music that presents the gospel in too facile a fashion too often pretends to foster spiritual introspection when it fact all it fosters is self-congratulation.

  116. Great art like great science or great anything else is a paradigm changer. It gives us a new way to view ourselves. Otherwise it is pretty decoration or literature of diversion. Most often the tools used to generate a paradigm shift are deep archetypes which resonate in the common psyche.

    Great artists share this gift with great prophets. They may have a common Urquelle (spring).

    How can you be both a paradigm changer and a faithful member of the Church? How can you offer a different view of who we are when the D&C tells us who we are?

    There are few believers, like Dante or Milton, who can incorporate religious belief into something so epic and archetypal, to write in such a way, as to open religion into a larger context and a new paradigm.

    I do not think that an artist must be plagued with Sturm und Drang in order to be great. Sometimes it might help. New ways of looking at things are mostly required, which seems to fly in the face of orthodoxy.

    Put it this way, if anyone tries to inject novelty or a new paradigm in Sunday School or Sacrament Meeting they are likely to get their head on a platter. This seems to be an symptom of true things.

  117. I have just realised that there comes a time when there are enough comments.

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