Harold Bloom and Me against the World

Warning: what you are about to read may contain conservative content not suitable for all By Common Consent readers.

One of the most puzzling discussions I regularly have with other church members is about music. Because it’s a topic I care about, and because I’m the ward music chairman, the choir director, the Sacrament Meeting chorister, the RS pianist, and (until recently) the Primary chorister, I tend to be the go-to gal on music in my ward.

The most recent variant of this conversation occurred a few weeks ago, when I told one of the young women that a song from “Saturday’s Warrior” would not be an appropriate musical number for Sacrament Meeting. One of her parents was angered by my decision and suggested that I didn’t have the right to exclude a musical number just because I didn’t like it. I explained that, in fact, there are quite specific guidelines from the Handbook of Instructions about what music is appropriate, and that this song just didn’t fit. We talked for a long time, but I don’t think we understood each other any better at the end of the conversation.

The form of the argument is pretty common, but it always surprises me to have to have it at church (not to mention how odd it feels to be the one on the “conservative” side of the issue!). Basically, most Mormons (as far as I can tell) have completely bought the post-modern notion that aesthetic judgments are entirely matters of taste and social convention, even class oppression, and that what used to be called “high” culture is no more worthy of our attention than anything else. While Mormons may be concerned about the *content* of music, art, theater, or literature, and want it to be free of profanity, sex, and, to a lesser extent, violence, they are basically unconcerned with questions of form and artistic excellence. In fact, there’s a decidedly populist flavor to many discussions of art among Mormons–one shouldn’t need to learn about art to appreciate it; “don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” The resistance to the abstract and “academic” strains of late 20th- and early 21st-century art and music has morphed into a rejection of anything that smacks of elitism.

I think this is a strange position for Mormons to take. We vehemently reject ethical relativism and wholeheartedly embrace the idea of Truth with a capital “T” as well as smaller truths that can be revealed to human beings because of their divine origin and destiny. We proclaim that we seek that which is “lovely, virtuous, or of good report, or praiseworthy.” To me the belief that loveliness, virtue, or praiseworthiness are entirely matters of taste is antithetical to this project. It is also in decided contrast to the practice of Mormons in the early days of the church, and well into the 20th century, when there were strenuous efforts (art and music missionaries, Cultural Refinement lessons, performances by the Tabernacle Choir of the great Western choral literature, etc.) to educate members about the tradition of “high” art in Western civilization. Maybe the current de-emphasis of these things has to do with trying not to identify the church with American traditions, but I think it may be a far less conscious process than that, one in which Mormons have thoughtlessly assimilated some of the stupidest aspects of American postmodernism.

What do you think?


  1. Kristine says:

    This is not an April Fools’ joke!

  2. I guess I just have a hard time when someone tells me that the things that I find aesthetically pleasing are not of much artistic value. (Trust me though – I’m 100% with you on the Saturday’s Warrior thing). I often get into this discussion with my wife about music. Most of the music I listen to is kinda…well, weird. I find it beautiful, thought-provoking, and entertaining. My wife finds it to be an inadequate substitute for her FM formulaic music. I don’t want to tell her though that my music is of greater worth than hers though because I know some classical music connoisseur could reject my music as offensive to her depiction of beauty. (I actually do enjoy many classical composers.)

    So in the end I’m left defending this relativist position that beauty is in the eye of beholder. Maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to distinguish between the different levels of artistic beauty, and so relativism is my backup plan to boost my ego.

  3. Kristine says:

    Brayden, I’m not saying that taste is irrelevant, or that individual preference doesn’t count for anything. I, for instance, really like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry, even though I think most critics would agree on designating her a “minor” poet. I just think that *total* relativism is silly–I think it’s possible to say with some certainty that Bach is better than Janice Kapp Perry, even if we disagree about the precise ranking of Brahms vs. Bruckner. I think you *could* have an argument with your wife (though I agree that it is wise NOT to do so!) about whether your music is better than hers (at least within the genre–comparing rock to classical gets dicier, though I think it might still be possible). The point is that I think there are aesthetic criteria that can be arrived at by reasoned argument, and that we need not accept the ultimately nihilistic proposition that aesthetics are entirely a matter of irrational preferences.

  4. Kristine, I think your point that the church has abondoned many of its cultural arts education programs is the crux of the argument here. Education refines aesthetic relativism. Exposure to and explanation of “high art” leads to a greater appreciation of that art–and increases the ability to evaluate it on its merits, and to compare it to other *art*. (Like Saturday’s Warrior? Yikes. Could you have explained to your fellow ward member the whole false doctrine problem???)

    Besides the fine arts department at BYU, I think we would be hard pressed to find any institutional support of arts education in the church. Which is a shame–we’re missing out. Do you think that there is some level of suspicion keeping appreciation of the arts at bay? A suspicion that it is too much “of the world” or relying on “the arm of the flesh”?

  5. Kristine,

    You obviously have far more experience in this than I do, but I have not seen — in the church anyway — a widespread acceptance of the “nihilistic proposition that aesthetics are entirely a matter of irrational preferences.” Instead, what I tend to see are preferences (irrational to me) that favor art (of all varieties, from poetry, to music, to paintings, to sculpture, etc., etc.) that happens to be produced by and/or for members of the church, even when those works of art appear to me (as someone with very little artistic training) to be of unquestionably lower quality than that produced by others.

    One example: Some people seem to have this notion that MoTab is God’s Choir and that there is no other choir on earth that can compare. Well now that is just plain silly. Another example: My dad sings in the Utah Symphony Choir. From time to time, they sing Catholic Masses. According to my dad, some have pooh-poohed the beauty and majesty of these works on the ground that they are tied to the Catholic church. Again, silly. In short, if I were to overgeneralize, I would say that Mormons have a tendency to be irrational, but not necessarily nihilistic, in their view of art. [This would also explain why someone would actually want to perform Saturday’s Warrior in church. Shesh.]

  6. My random thoughts on the missing category of Mormon aesthetics.

    First, feelings get drafted into the Mormon prayer myth. Hear the gospel, pray with intent, get a feeling, the feeling means “the Church is true.” Pretty much any feeling will do. Feelings get enlisted in the great campaign to convince ourselves and anyone who will listen that the Church is True.

    To the extent there are autonomous feelings, these tend to be labeled natural-mannish invitations to follow murky paths that lead in the wrong direction, or really any direction not approved by the Correlation Committee.

    If Art and the aesthetic is in any sense about truth (or even honest human perception) then it is likely to be perceived as a threat by anyone with a Correlation Committee mentality (i.e., 80% of the Church and 100% of the leadership). To one who already has the Truth (all of it), what room is there for appreciation of alternate voices?

  7. Kristine,

    But at least Saturday’s Warrior is theologically correct, right?


    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking Janice Kapp Perry or Michael McLean. Calling it lesser misses the point — people everywhere gravitate towards likable, singable, hummable tunes. There is a reason why Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne sell lets of albums. It drives music purists crazy, but if you combine a catchy hook, a pretty voice, and a nice 1-4-5 chord progression, people will come to your door.

  8. I’ve never thought much about this issue, so I’m not sure I have much of value to say. I’m not particularly sophisticated on artistic questions: For example, I’m the type that doesn’t understand how a poem can be a poem if it doesn’t rhyme. :)

    That said, here’s one piece of advice that I hope will prove valuable. The next time someone raves about “Saturday’s Warrior” and it drives you nuts, just do what I do: Start singing upbeat renditions of “Voices” or “Zero Population.” Nothing disorients your fellow church members more than hearing:

    “LEGALIZED ABORTION is the answer, my friend! Without it, ….”

    Aaron B

  9. I’m going to weigh in at length on this one later this evening when I have more time…

  10. I think the reason Britney Spears is so popular is marketing. There are plenty of catchy melodies that escape notice because the singer doesn’t have a cute navel. I say it’s a supply-side effect.

  11. Kristine says:

    Kaimi, I don’t have a problem with people listening to and enjoying fun, catchy tunes (I myself once listened to a song just for fun :)). What I do mind is when people are unable to tell the difference between fun stuff and the real thing–when JKP and Michael McLean are thought to be the equivalent of Handel’s Messiah because they’re both about Jesus.

  12. Kristine says:

    Randy, I have to think about Mormon content trumping other considerations. That definitely happens, but I’m not sure if that’s a sufficient explanation, or if it could be related to my larger (i.e. pompous and overreaching :)) thesis.

  13. I thought the title of this post suggested we’d get to hear references to Harold Bloom complementing the Mormons. Way to let me down, Kristine!

    Aaron B

  14. Kristine, let me get a better idea from you on how you interpret the Church policy regarding music appropriate for Sacrament. It seems like you take the policy as promoting “high” music for the meeting. What does that entail?

    Are ALL of the hymns, for example, fair game in a meeting? What about beautiful classical pieces with pagan themes (or non-Christ related themes)? In other words, is artistic excellence the primary criteria? Is it the controlling one?

    I’m trying to figure out where the appropriate line is drawn, myself. I think I can rule out anything by Afterglow, or perhaps PDQ Bach.

  15. Mormon Pop and Janice Crap Perry are tantamount to PRIESTCRAFT.
    No wonder some bishops go completely berserk and only allow Hymns!

  16. Why wouldn’t Mormons reject the idea that one form of art is better than another? We certainly believe in Truth with a capital T–but art doesn’t equal Truth. Why would it follow from the fact that we believe some things are not subjective that art is not subjective? I can imagine scenarios where our aesthetic sensibilities can influence, even determine, our salvation, but at the end of the day, the art itself is not true and the membership has made that distinction.

    On a related, but different note, one of the negative (IMHO) side effects to the church as an institution cultivating artistic elitism is the exclusion of dilettantes that invariably results. We already know plenty of people with excellent voices who complain about people like me when the hymns are sung. Obviously when someone performs a musical number they ought to be held to a higher standard (although I swear to you that they aren’t in Kamas, Utah). Maybe the brethren share my view and thus are willing to showcase Boyd Packer’s work at the church history and art museum and in the Ensign despite the fact that you would be hard pressed to find a critic who thinks it has much artistic merit. I’m not making a jab at Elder Packer here–I really wonder if they aren’t encouraging us to explore our interests in the arts despite the fact that we may only be merely competent. That certainly seemed to be the message I got when I visited the church’s museum in SLC.

  17. Kristine says:

    Mathew, the point of the church’s earlier efforts was precisely to encourage education and participation by ALL members in the arts. Brigham Young sent at least one music teacher to outlying areas of Utah to teach people to read music so that they could have a taste of better and more skillful participation in the arts. Just because you say Elder Packer is no Degas doesn’t mean Elder Packer shouldn’t do his thing–it just means that we have a sense of what we might be striving toward. I agree that the kind of elitism that says “leave art to the professionals” is damaging–both to people who don’t get to do it and to the “elite” who would be left in rarefied and ultimately sterile isolation.

    I’m also not saying that artistic perception is not subjective (I’m not *that* stupid!). But on the Mormon view, the perception of all truth is subjective (at least in this life), involving the hearing of a “still, small voice” or a “burning in the bosom” or a “stupor of thought”, none of which, as far as I’m aware, meet any criteria for objectivity. But the fact that such subjective perceptions are not objectively measurable or quantifiable does not mean that our subjective experiences can’t be compared and can’t be evaluated by some rational criteria that say one work of art reflects more of what we (imperfectly) perceive to be the potential of human artistic expression to approximate the Truth and Beauty we believe in and hope to perfectly perceive as exalted beings.

    (phew–that was a hell of a run-on sentence. I’ll try to clarify later, after the enemies of all that is lovely, orderly and rational in my home (my kids) have been put to rest for the night!)

  18. Mat,

    You are crazy and wrong. You’re using the objective quality of truth in a funny way here to exclude art, but I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. Truth (capital “T”) may be objective, but if so, it is completely beyond our limited, subjective minds. Referring to it in that way is meaningless, and degrades the potential of art to perceive truth (lower “t”). Many have said that art is truth.

    Interesting, though, the message you got from the Church’s display of Elder Packer’s work. When I saw the Ensign spread of his stuff, I got a different message: “if he weren’t an Apostle, we wouldn’t be showing you this stuff.”

    I guess crazy and wrong were overstatements. Well, so be it — it’s been a long day.

  19. Kristine,

    I’m not arguing that art isn’t a useful means of expressing our ideals about hope and beauty, but I’m not sure it gets us collectively any closer to Truth than a crack in the sidewalk. I agree that perception of Truth in this life is also subjective and no doubt you can develop a set of criteria (although I’m not sure they would really be fully rational) with which you could evaluate arts ability to approximate your dim perception of Truth–but I don’t think it is necessary. We will find something to approximate it whether or not the church sponsors it–and whether or not it qualifies as good art. Who better than the person whose experience was subjective to determine what best replicates it? I would probably prefer that more people found meaning in Handel and fewer in Perry, but what purpose does it serve, from a Truth seeking perspective, to direct a person whose experience is subjective and personal, to an external outlet? Are we likely to see through the glass any less darkly?

    BTW, all this talk about truth and beauty inspired me to read Keats’ “Ode On a Grecian Urn” which can be found here: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem1129.html
    A beautiful poem.

  20. Sure Steve–you can perceive lower case truth through art. We don’t disagree. Except I don’t think I’m crazy.

  21. Kristine says:

    Mat, I want to argue with that last, but I also want to read what Jeremy has to say. He actually knows what he’s talking about, while I am just speaking, er, ex ano.

    Jeremy? You promised!

  22. Yeah, that’s right — where’s Jeremy??

  23. Some might say that Art and Truth are inexorably intwined and that our knowledge of the truth ends up being a kind of aesthetic judgment. That leads to relativism only if one adopts a relativist view of aesthetic judgment.

    Yet, I think there is a relativist judgment about enjoyment. We don’t enjoy all truths equally. For instance while I may find it quite enjoyable to wade through a few pages of tensor calculus to understand a physics problem, few others might. But I think everyone would agree it is truth. (Well, assuming the math is right) Further many of us might like to curl up with a nice thriller, even though as fiction, it is anything but truth. (Despite those who argue for a kind of literary truth in fiction)

    So perhaps we can agree that there is something “objective” about aesthetic judgments but still allow the relative in via enjoyment? For instance do you really want to tell the beaming mom with her 4 year old’s drawing, that it is worthless due to the lack of artistic training of the 4 year old?

  24. [The musicologist enters the room and clears his throat ostentatiously…]

    I knew I’d fret over this one, so I had to wait until I wasn’t blowing something else off to throw in my two cents. And I didn’t mean to imply by my earlier (non)comment that anyone would be waiting with baited breath to read my sagely observations—just meant to say “ooh, good post, can’t wait til I can get back to it.”

    So anyway, as I see it, two quite distinct strands have developed in this discussion: 1) artÂ’s effect on spirituality in general, and 2) more specifically, music in church..

    Discussing the former, Mathew said, “IÂ’m not arguing that art isn’t a useful means of expressing our ideals about hope and beauty, but I’m not sure it gets us collectively any closer to Truth than a crack in the sidewalk.” I would admit that this or that particular painting or play or book or composition may or may not have any direct effect on oneÂ’s ability or inclination to obey commandments or otherwise pursue the kind of heavenly aspirations that are articulated through doctrine. However, I would strongly disagree with the assertion that art has no ability to get us closer to Truth (and IÂ’m barreling ahead here despite my not being sure exactly what your capital “T” signifies). It does this by rendering ideas and relationships in an abstract (or at least non-representational or not exclusively representational) way that makes demands on our attention and our thoughts; we try to make connections, find patterns, decode symbols, reconcile incongruities, find meaning, in a way that exercises the same psychological/spiritual muscles that we use to tackle the Big Questions of life. In a similar way, I suspect the point of reading, say, Isaiah or Revelation isnÂ’t to decode all the symbolisms—if that were the point, why not just give us the decoder key up front and save us the trouble; making the journey, doing the thinking through, is a crucial part of the destination. The best art does this as well: shakes us out of shopworn modes of thinking, opens up new channels for us to communicate on. This serves, I think, to expand the ways in which God can communicate to us. As art historian Kenneth Clark famously put it, “Facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to a higher plane of reality.” It may sound new-agey, but he means something specific: Truth isnÂ’t fully discernable through “objective” reality, because Truth isnÂ’t an object—it exists on a different kind of plane (or, if you prefer, in a “more exalted sphere”). The arts, I think, are what allow us a glimpse of that plane. Often people complain that the arts are impractical, but I think that is their prime virtue: they give us a mode of discourse that isnÂ’t tethered to the mundane, and is thus able to address the ineffable (or, as one of my profs says, that which is “too utter to utter.”


  25. […cont]

    In fact, I think a kind of artistically-oriented, hermeneutic untangling is at the very core of our worship: we go to the temple, we encounter the wonderfully rich multimedia enigma that is the endowment ceremony, and then we go sit quietly and think about it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many of the same mental muscles one uses to wrap one’s brain around the endowment ceremony are the ones that the best art exercises.

    Now, all of this speaks to how I think “cultivated” arts can benefit members as they make it a part of their personal lives. By this I don’t mean art for the sake of “refinement” or “cultural literacy.” I suspect many upscale Mormon homes have Bach playing in the background and Matisse prints on the wall as a kind of status symbol which makes them muzak and wallpaper, respectively. Frankly, I’d rather have my kid listen with a critical and sensitive ear to Radiohead (y’know, like I do…), than to give him a phony-baloney sense of erudition by force-feeding him frequent but diluted doses of Beethoven.


  26. […cont]

    As to the issue of music in church: first, I have to say that I’m a hymns guy. I like communal singing, I like how the methodic contours of tension and resolution that govern four-part harmony put one in a contemplative state of mind, I like how the pretty voices blend with the not-so-pretty ones and how you usually can’t tell by looking which is which.

    I prefer hymns in solo numbers over Mormon pop tunes as well, because: they’re less likely to contain specious doctrine (Saturday’s Warrior, etc.), they’re less likely to show off the singer’s voice rather than convey a message through it, and they are less likely to foster the kind of non-doctrinal traditions and trends that bug me (like “Hollow of Thy Hand” and the cult of the missionary-hero–a topic for another time). Mormon pop is fine, I suppose, but like other commenters, I much prefer good, thoughtful, non-Mormon pop, and good, thoughtful, non-pop Mormonism.

    I wanted to address the “I know what I like” issue, but I’ve gone on far too long and stayed up far too late already…

  27. Jeremy/Kristine,

    Is sacrament meeting really an appropriate forum to try and develop critical or sensitive ears in church members? It would seem to me that such concerns would be secondary at best, to the overall concerns of keeping the spirit and keeping in line with church policies. In other words, there are certain conventions of accepted church music, which would seem to supercede efforts to improve music quality.

  28. Kristine says:

    Steve, that’s ridiculous. Good music is by definition (my definition, anyway) conducive to the spirit. If it’s obviously showy or difficult, then it’s a poor choice for Sacrament Meeting. You don’t have to “develop critical or sensitive ears” in members; they’ll respond naturally to good stuff. It helps not to try to start with a movement from Bach’s B minor mass, but you don’t really have to think too hard to come up with good music that is accessible and conducive to worship. It is hard to find good stuff that goes for cheap emotional thrills instead of actual spiritual experience, but that’s a long post for another day.

    I’m not sure I even entirely understand your question, Steve–do you really think BAD music (Michael McLean, etc.) is more likely to bring the Spirit into Sacrament Mtg.?

  29. Now, now, I don’t think it’s all that ridiculous — music that is artistically beautiful or complex is not necessarily going to fit members’ expectations of traditional sacrament music.

    I guess I’m saying that those expectations, more than anything, are the chief concern for church music, and that’s what the policy is really about: putting out a consistent ‘product’. When people go to SacMtg, they expect a certain type of experience, and the point of the policy is to keep the music within a specific range. I don’t think that bad music is more likely to bring in the Spirit; but I think that some really good music may not be felt via the Spirit in some members, because it is not what they had in mind.

    Not explaining myself very well, am I? Please, please tell me that at least I’m getting my gist across.

  30. Kristine says:

    If it’s just a matter of familiarity, then it shouldn’t take too long to get people familiar with the good stuff. And beauty and complexity are not synonymous!

  31. True that beauty and complexity are not synonymous; for example, I am very complex. Yet my beauty is debatable.

    It’s not just a matter of familiarity — you have more confidence than I do, I think, in the willingness/ability of church members to expand their horizons.

  32. Kristine says:

    I do actually have some experience:) I’m convinced, based on that, that most congregations can be “trained” in the space of a year or so to appreciate hymns well-performed and good classical stuff that’s not over-the-top. I have a pretty standard progression of stuff I do to move the choir and congregation away from JKP et al. and towards less popsy stuff which they end up liking better. Youth are a little harder, but it can be done–you still get that crappy breathy singing from the girls, but you can convince them to sing decent stuff. Some wards I’ve been able to get the boys to sing, some not–it depends on whether chorus is something cool kids do at their school or not.

  33. Jeremy's Fascinating Woman says:

    Sorry, I just need to pipe in…

    Brahms and Bruckner? I’d like to hear the argument for Bruckner.

    Also, I wholeheartedly agree with the comment equating mormon pop with priestcraft – just visit the Kenneth Cope website. He has his own little “study group” thing going on. One entry in his “daily journal” went on and on about how now he realizes his music isn’t his creation…it’s really the Lord speaking through him. So, reading this, I was wondering – if I don’t pay money for one of his CD’s, am I missing out on some important info?

    I had to teach a leadership training class on music in worship a few months ago, so I had to research this topic extensively. It’s pretty clear from the handbooks and from every message we’ve gotten from the general authorities that we should stick with the hymns, especially in sacrament meeting. I think the problem comes from performers thinking they’re too good for hymns (and who are too lazy to find a good arrangement of a hymn).

    So, Kristine, I would have to say you were right to stick to your guns on the Saturday’s Warrior, but, considering everything I’ve read from you along the lines of criticizing the church and the bretheren, (which, if I’m being honest, kind of creeps me out sometimes) I can understand why the parents might have been suspicious of you pulling the old “handbook says we can’t” card.

    From what I’ve read, most of the counsel on music in worship refers primariily to Sacrament Meeting. Maybe Young Women can get their scoopy, airy, pop fix in opening exercises just before they say the theme. Personally, I’d like to find an excuse to play Squeeze’s “Some Fantastic Place” in a Relief Society lesson sometime, but I’m not sure it’d go over that well.

  34. Kristine says:

    Hmmm. Sorry I creep you out. I’m much more circumspect at church than I am here about my disagreements with certain ideas and positions of the brethren (there’s a time and a place for everything), so there’s no particular reason why that parent would have been suspicious of me on those grounds.

    As for sticking to hymns: the handbook’s pretty clear that hymns should be the main resource, but it also clearly leaves room for other “appropriate” selections, and that’s the problem. It says “some music in a popular style,” rather than “music in a popular style” is not appropriate for Sacrament Mtg. It doesn’t define appropriate, and it leaves the final determination to the bishopric, even though the Ward Music Chairman is supposed to coordinate the musical numbers. So there’s a potential conflict set up by the policy which conceivably pits the Ward Music Chairman, who is supposed to know something about music, against the bishopric, whose members may or may not know anything about music. Fortunately, I’ve never been in a situation where I butted heads with a bishopric, but the policies are far from clear, and it’s easy to imagine why people have widely varying ideas of what’s “appropriate.”

  35. Kristine says:

    ps–you’re right; Brahms and Bruckner was a dumb example–no one in her/his right mind would argue for Bruckner except in some very limited sense (a couple of his motets are more interesting than “Warum is das Licht gegeben”, maybe)

  36. I feel sad that I missed out on this whole discussion. I vote for more of this kind of talk on BCC! Thanks Kristine and Jeremy.

    As for my personal opinions about art I think I (and most Americans) achieve what most people would find the worst of both worlds. I strongly believe that taste is culturally constructed rather than objective, but at the same time I enjoy an elitist feeling of superiority when I consider my own highly evolved aesthetic preferences. But seriously, I don’t mind making artistic judgements but I do think both low and high art can be great. I don’t think we see any greatness in contemporary mormon pop music though.

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