Is the Spirit the reason that so much LDS art is terrible?

In writing this post, I must first admit my personal limitations. I am not familiar with much LDS art. In fact, the mediums with which I am most familiar are film and visual art and most of the visual art I know, I know from wandering the BYU bookstore and perusing the Ensign. So this cannot be read as a condemnation of all LDS art.

It is often the case that LDS art is accused of being treacly or kitschy. In part, this is because of the nature of its distribution. LDS art seems to be created to be sold and, as such, reflects the interest of the market. Average consumers don’t want difficult art or morally complex messages. They want to be assured that Joseph loved Emma, that Jesus will take care of them, and that their little girls will grow up to be beautiful brides. The quandary is that they feel the Spirit when looking at that sort of art.

Let me give you my favorite example. A few years ago, the Church made a movie called The Testaments. They played it in the Joseph Smith building and used it as a missionary tool. It told the story of a group of Book of Mormon peoples and it was clear that the creative minds behind it had gone to great lengths to generate a culturally appropriate setting for the movie. However, it was a terrible, terrible movie. The acting was stilted, the sets and script were absurd, the make-up was horrible, the directing and scoring were distracting, and Christ was played by a kind of Nordic wisp. Nonetheless, at the end of the movie, when Christ appears to the people and heals them, I felt the Spirit. I felt it very strongly.

The thing is that the Spirit isn’t meant to help you distinguish good art from bad art; generally what the Spirit offers you is an idea of the sincerity of the artist. So The Testaments for its multitude of flaws still managed to bear a sweet, uplifting testimony of the reality of Christ and the Book of Mormon in spite of its being a bad, quasi-Mayan, after-school-special rip-off. The art we find for sale in Deseret Book really does inspire those people who buy it and it isn’t because they have no taste; it is because it is genuinely inspiring. For something to have the Spirit, it does not have to be great art, as anyone who has heard a humble, sincere testimony will tell you.

It seems like, if my read of the market is correct, most art consumers are happy to just feel the Spirit. Which is too bad, because we are never going to get Shakespeares of our own at this rate. With no motivation to improve, why should the artists among us bother trying? If they can feed the kids with spiritual kitsch, why not? There is a reason BYU is known for its design department, not for its art department.


  1. JDC, you raise an interesting set of ideas. I worry about an alternative interpretation: perhaps familiar aesthetic experiences encourage people to feel the Spirit, or something like unto it. Maybe art in the stereotypical official Mormon styles evokes a learned aesthetic response that mimics the experience of the Spirit? If this alternative version is right, then the art isn’t merely aesthetically uninteresting, but also a spiritual shortcut that serves as a substitute for, rather than an enabler of, genuine spiritual connections.

    I worry about this most with official Mormon cinema, because such art is heavy on emotionally manipulative techniques. A film about baseball players or deep-sea divers that used the same devices as “Legacy” would, for most audiences, elicit a powerful emotional response — perhaps the same response as the explicitly religious film.

    But perhaps this is merely me fretting.

  2. I understand the concern, JNS, but by that point in the movie I was thoroughly irritated with several elements of it. I laughed through several “emotive” moments in Legacy, which I am pretty sure was not the reaction they were going for (and yes, I am a cynical ol’ cuss). I felt the Spirit there, too. I don’t think much emotional manipulation is possible if you aren’t suspending your disbelief.

    That said, I agree that a lot of Mormon art feeds off of itself. How often have you seen later depictions of Lehi in that same red and black kaffiya that Friberg put him in?

  3. It depends upon how you define “LDS art”. If you mean art sanctioned by the Church and made expressly for religious purposes, then I agree that most of it is bad. But there is a lot of good art out there by Mormons. I often really enjoy the art that is included in the issues of Dialogue. I’ve also known a number of Mormon artists who actually do very good work and make a living at it.

  4. Well, obviously, I am much more familiar with Church sanctioned art. So, yes, that is what I was talking about. But the thing is that church-sanctioned art doesn’t have to be bad. There are examples of good church art; there are even examples of good didactic church art. I really like most of Friberg’s stuff, for instance, and I am occasionally moved by Minerva Teichert’s work. But most of what I find is dull, dull, dull.

  5. HP/JDC, I actively hated Legacy; I really don’t like being manipulated in such a straightforward and (in my view) unearned way. On the other hand, pretty much everybody else in the theater with me was sobbing at all the “right” moments.

  6. JNS, whereever you are will always be Zion to me *sob*

  7. Growing up I really enjoyed Friberg’s stuff. Looking at the pictures in my scriptures was all that could keep me awake during sacrament meeting. The one of Samuel the Laminite was always my favorite. But yeah, most everything else is really bad.

    And your right that it doesn’t need to be that way. There is so much non-Mormon art out there that depict Christianity so beautifully.

  8. My favorite Friberg piece is the one with Abinadi and King Noah. If you go to the conference center and look at the original, there is a little demon visible in the air above Noah. It is pretty cool and completely invisible in the reprints.

  9. The best way to avoid the feeling of being manipulated by church films is to simply not watch any of them. Remember, President Hinckley has never challenged us to watch all the church films between now and the end of the year. And, Lehi wasn’t commanded to send his sons back to Jerusalem to get the VCR.

  10. People, the argument here isn’t that the church films are manipulative; they patently are (as is all good propaganda). The question also isn’t why they are effective on people who can clearly see them for what they are? I am going with the Spirit there, although individual results may differ. The question is, is the fact that the Spirit is present in such inferior art, the reason why there is no market for good church art and good church artists?

  11. Seems like there ought to be a discussion about distinguishing mere sentimentality — and the emotional response that self-consciously sentimental films evoke — from spirituality and bona fide manifestations of the Spirit. JDC, you seem awfully confident that the response people get to LDS film and LDS “art” is the Spirit.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Dave, the distinction you evoke is a vital one, but an impossible one. We simply lack the tools to outwardly express the distinction between emotions and the Spirit. Clumsy metaphors are all we have — and what’s more, emotions ARE a means of feeling the Spirit, so then all lines are blurred.

  13. Yeah, what Dave said.

    It would be interesting to hear if European Mormons were as inspired by Legacy as most Utah-Mormons were.

  14. Interesting questions. I imagine a relationship with the Spirit something like some relationships between two adults in love. It may start with infatuation and strong emotions. But this subsides over time yet if two people are truly in love and work at their relationship, what is left is deeper and more meaningful, while less physical and overtly emotional. Likewise with the Spirit. When we first feel the Spirit it may invoke strong emotions, perhaps we are moved to tears easily. But if we continue to grow in the Spirit, those emotions are replaced by a more challenging yet ultimately more meaningful experience. In Hollywood, what generally sells are unrealistic stories about people who fall madly in love. That’s what sells. We don’t often see movies about seemingly mundane, yet committed true love. Perhaps many Mormon artists produce art that is feel good rather than challenging because that’s what sells. But it seems a more shallow Spirit than the challenging kind.

  15. I don’t think the distinction between sentimentality and the Spirit in this case is a useful one. I have no means of knowing what other people felt, no do I have any effective means of control. I only have my own experience to base this on: I know that The Testaments was a terrible, terrible movie, but I felt the Spirit in it. I believe that I felt the Spirit as a result of the sincerity of the bad actors, bad director, bad score, bad writing, and horrible make-up. It certainly wasn’t the beauty of the thing itself. Indeed, I would find any attempt to distinguish Spirit and sentimentality on behalf of others problematic.

  16. I think this post is entirely applicable to church choirs. Most often I cringe when they sing–but I can still feel the spirit. I have even noticed if I am in another room and hear it I cringe more than if I am in the room where they are singing-and there am more likely to feel the spirit.
    But HP are you saying you felt it because you cast your own sentiments upon the actors, make-up etc –you feeling personally like they had the best of intentions and were sincere? Or that their sincerity made you feel the spirit? I am more inclined to say it came from your own compassion than from theirs, maybe even your compassion towards these sincere individuals?
    One more question–are you really into movies and theatre? Because it has been my experience that when I was highly involved in theater myself that I viewed things with a much more critical eye, just as an artist would likewise view a painting or a musician listen to a piece of music this way.
    I had a particular problem with this when I first went through the temple. It had to be very conscious so as not to critique the scenery and horrible plants in what I was viewing. So–do you consciously allow yourself to feel the spirit–and push all of your critique of Testaments away?
    And do you think this compassion is making us create bad art without being objective enough?

  17. Mark Butler says:

    A misunderstanding of the Spirit maybe. However, many artists idea of what is morally complex doesn’t seem to be too inspired either. And if I had a choice between the art that hangs in the halls of the Conference Center and the common themes of most art and literature for about the past century or so, I would choose the former.

    Absurdism, skepticism, doubt, and amorality may be morally complex and intriguing, but it is certainly not inspiring (let alone uplifting) in the way that say Bach or Wordsworth or Austen or Sargent is inspiring.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    The current issue of Dialogue has a nice article about the New York-based Mormon Artists Group. I recommend it.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    Mark Butler, thanks for demonstrating the ultimate point: subjectivity is our commonplace substitute for the Spirit.

  20. I really liked “On the Way Home.” and Love “The Lamb of God”. I think they are great films. I like a few others also, but those are the best ones, outside of Johnny Lingo. I shocked the missionaries when they invited me to watch “Lagacy” with them when I was investigating. I even made one sister missionary cry because I pretty much openly mocked the love triangle relationship. She accused me of not having a testimony. She was right. I didn’t have a testimony of those elements of church history. I didn’t even care about them. Now that I know more, I do appreciate legacy more, not for what is shown, but for what I know about the history that is attempting to be shown, albeit not very well.
    For Lamb of God, I weep almost everytime I see it at the part where the Apostles run to meet their savior. I think Lamb of God is better than Mel Gibson’s movie…

  21. Mark Butler says:

    Steve E.,

    I imagine that is a criticism, but either way I think we can be sure that the Spirit has a point of view. Somehow I don’t think the Lord thinks as much of the Beatles music as he does of Beethoven, as much good as there may be to be said about the former.

    Once upon a time, not so many generations ago virtually every literate and educated person shared roughly the same ideals – they were the common currency of civilization. Now it seems that the primary aim of the the thought leaders of society, especially in the arts, is to show why all those ideals are either worthless or an illusion. I suspect I have an idea which side of the fence the Spirit is on.

  22. I wept like a baby when two of my daughters sang at their young women’s “New Beginnings” fireside. The song of choice was a horrid piece of sentimental trash. But, watching those two sweet souls and hearing their clear bird-like voices, I couldn’t restrain my emotions.

    Of course, I wasn’t responding to the art per se. This is what I think Daniel is getting at. Most LDS simply use crappy art as a vehicle for something that is far more important to them.

    Me? Nah-ah. I can’t do it. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is worth a thousand pieces of “Ensign art” in terms of inspiration. And the same holds true for any other medium. I’ll take Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” over a thousand LDS religious pop songs.

  23. Mark Butler says:

    I can’t say I was a big fan of Legacy though. It seemed essentially gospel free, a tale of people doing strange things for no visible reason other than some vague religious sensibility.

  24. Mark,

    Doesn’t that “fence” meander a bit?

  25. Mark,

    Your analysis is correct. That is, if you mean that Legacy was driven by irrational characters marking time on an incoherent plot driven by countless sentimental turning points.

  26. Mark Butler says:

    Of course, as I would say that the witness of Spirit is the sum of the witness of the heavenly host, it is certainly not going to lead to more than a partial ordering, according to the unity of feeling on any given composition or subject. I think it is naive to suppose that the relative superiority of any two compositions is always a decidable question. Angels have taste too, but I imagine the agree more than we do, according to the working of the Spirit that is within them.

  27. And there is the question of “immediacy.” If some crappy LDS pop song is helping someone to draw nearer to God then in that instance it is far more valuable than Beethoven’s “Nineth” being perfectly performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (and chior) in the recording studio.

  28. Once upon a time, not so many generations ago virtually every literate and educated person shared roughly the same ideals – they were the common currency of civilization.

    Not really true. Educated people in China and the Middle East during the period under discussion had totally divergent tastes from those of the European elites. Even in Europe, different aesthetic movements were almost always in competition among the elites; debates over musical forms, art styles, and so forth were ubiquitous. They look unimportant to us now, from a distance, but the uniformity being imagined here is really an illusion.

    Furthermore, it’s an illusion based on the idea that what the upper classes like is best. Why should we privilege the music of the rapacious economic and political elites of the 17th-19th centuries over the artistic expressions of their victims?

  29. Steve Evans says:

    “Somehow I don’t think the Lord thinks as much of the Beatles music as he does of Beethoven”

    Mark, do you really have any basis for this assertion? You’re just transposing your own point of view as God’s. And you describe a vision of the arts that is certainly far from accurate, btw. “the primary aim of the the thought leaders of society, especially in the arts, is to show why all those ideals are either worthless or an illusion.” Let me guess — you’re not an artist? or a “thought leader.”

    And yet, you’re right about Legacy. See? common ground actually exists.

  30. Mark Butler says:


    If you look closely, I don’t think you will find a fraction of the deviation between the heights of classical Chinese culture and the heights of classical Western culture as is commonplace within Western culture today.

    Steve E.,

    What about rap? Does rap rank up with Beethoven? What about American Beauty? Does that film (which I only know about second hand) rank with say Mansfield Park? The Lord’s point of view on a long list of topics is illuminated all over the scriptures, and it doesn’t seem to me that he is likely to feel that much of the work of the Beatles is particularly inspiring, and that some of it is downright disturbing. And the Beatles are an unusually mild example.

  31. Steve Evans says:

    “What about rap? Does rap rank up with Beethoven?”

    Some of it can, yes. Get yourself some Grandmaster Flash, Mark.

    Does American Beauty rank with Mansfield Park in the Lord’s eyes? I haven’t seen either in His Netflix queue; both are ponderous and overwrought films, however. At least American Beauty wasn’t based on Austen.

    My point is that you are simply putting your opinion of the arts forward as if it were God’s. You could make a general claim that unclean things are not in His presence; but beyond that, you’re on shaky ground. Perhaps you were too ambitious in your selection of the Beatles vs. Beethoven. A more dramatic example of, say, Bach vs. Destroyer 666 would have served you better.

  32. I don’t think you will find a fraction of the deviation between the heights of classical Chinese culture and the heights of classical Western culture as is commonplace within Western culture today.

    Actually, I find this statement totally jarring and bizarre. Western culture today shares extensive aesthetic ties with the elite culture of 19th-century Europe, although it has also incorporated extensive concepts from non-elite European culture, as well as African and other influences. High Confucian culture, by contrast, is strikingly different from either 19th-century European culture or contemporary American culture.

    And European elite culture wasn’t as diverse as contemporary American culture — but European elite society wasn’t nearly as large as current American society. On a per capita basis, you might find a jugdment of diversity rather more difficult.

  33. cj douglass says:

    In my opinion, the spirit thrives in church produced films and art work in spite of them not because of them.

  34. Mark Butler says:

    JNS, I didn’t say it wasn’t different, I said (elaborating) that the deviation in the motivating values of what each culture would have considered to follow the admonition of Paul is far less than the deviation in what is now considered praiseworthy and of good report, where good is often considered evil, and evil good. I think Paul has something to say on the subject in his epistle to Timothy:

    This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,

    Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
    (2 Tim 3:1-5)

    Now realistically, did either classical Western or Chinese culture celebrate any or all of those things the way they are celebrated today?

    Steve E.,

    Here is a question: As a general proposition is the Spirit offended by the content of most R-rated movies or not? And is anything that offends the Spirit truly great? Or was President Benson just out to lunch, reflecting his own hopelessly narrow parochial opinion contrary to the will of the Spirit when he counseled against watching such things (as a general rule at least)?

    Is there an ongoing R-rated movie festival in the celestial kingdom, where the Saints get to enjoy all the things that they were oppressively denied the pleasure of while in mortality?

    And how would we distinguish the content of an average R rated movie from much of modern art, music, and literature? Is this prophetic obsession with the media just a contemporary anomaly, or is contemporary culture actually harmful in many respects?

  35. cj douglass says:

    What about rap? Does rap rank up with Beethoven? What about American Beauty? Does that film (which I only know about second hand) rank with say Mansfield Park? The Lord’s point of view on a long list of topics is illuminated all over the scriptures, and it doesn’t seem to me that he is likely to feel that much of the work of the Beatles is particularly inspiring, and that some of it is downright disturbing

    These assertions are too irrational to be Mark Butler’s. It must be someone else. I mean your talking about films that you haven’t even seen. And which of these songs do you think God finds most reprehensible, “Piggies”, “Yellow Submarine”, or “All you need is love”?

  36. Mark Butler says:

    American Beauty was one of the mostly widely reported on films of the the past decade. Does one need to consume venom to know that it is poisonous?

    I readily admit that most of the Beatles music is harmless, and much of it is entertaining. But if one was to assemble a committee of the greatest musicians of world history in heaven to evaluate the relative merits of each, I am quite certain that work of Beethoven would be considered to have greater lasting and eternal merit than any collection of Beatles ditties.

  37. I’d say yellow submarine as its inspiration was a drug induced haze.

  38. Steve Evans says:

    “venom.” LOL — Mark, you’re a fairly reasoned guy on occasion, but in this topic you are out of your depth.

  39. Steve Evans says:

    “As a general proposition is the Spirit offended by the content of most R-rated movies or not?”


  40. HP, to help me out here on the art part of this, instead of making blanket accusations, please direct my to what LDS art you consider “crap”

    The Ensign I use has lots of diverse religious images that are beautiful. Carl Bloch, Rembrandt, etc. These are classic paintings.

    Are you referring to Del Parson, who painted the picture of Christ in the red robe? He’s LDS. Who’s paintings are you refering to.

    I already commented on LDS film. It seems you only mean Legacy and Testaments by this, judging they are the only sampels you site. Watch “Lamb of God.” it is very good.

  41. But if one was to assemble a committee of the greatest musicians of world history in heaven to evaluate the relative merits of each, I am quite certain that work of Beethoven would be considered to have greater lasting and eternal merit than any collection of Beatles ditties.

    Well, this is a little tautological, isn’t it? I mean, how do we pick the committee?

    Also, are we really talking about Beethoven’s music here? Or are we talking about Beethoven as some sort of cultural emblem? Did you have some particular works in mind? And what about them is innobling to people? They’re, um, pretty?

    Also, it shoudl be noted that Beethoven wrote some crap, too. Sgt. Peppers kicks the crap out of Wellington’s Victory, for example.

    And of course, this brings us back to the original question. Speaking as one with a vested interest in the works of Beethoven (and the Beatles, for that matter): I feel the spirit when I listen to great music. It’s not the same thing as when I listen to bad Mormon pop or watch a non-very=well=made church movie.

  42. Mark Butler,

    But what about the wondrous beat and chilling cadences of Mormon Rap? Don’t be dissin’ on the homies from the Salt Lake hood.

  43. Mormon Pop is not Sanctioned by the Church. Further Mac Wilburg, the assistant directer of MoTab, is currently considered one of the greatest living writers of musical arrangements for choirs in the world.

  44. Also, Mark:

    Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but personally, I say that Beethoven just wasn’t that good of a movie. I mean, the dog was cute enough, I guess, but the bumbling-dad routine got kind of old. Personally, I’d prefer Yellow Submarine most days.

    And don’t even get me started on Beethoven II or (shudder) Air Bud . . .

  45. Mark Butler,

    You got 99 problems, buddy, but knowing rap ain’t one.

  46. I guess we could argue about absolute greatness and try to quantify which artist’s works are ultimately more “good” than others (in which case Led Zepplin gives Mozart a run for his money). Ultimately, isn’t this post about what the Saints find in their art. You need an education to find God in some of the great masters. I imagine that there are many genres where we all would need an education to find God.

    I was planning a post on why I wept during the latest Joseph Smith movie (the name escapes me). It was because I brought with it my knowledge. When I saw Joseph and Emma all shmaltzy and tragic, I remembered everything I knew and the tragedy was intensified. I doubt anyone else in the room knew the full history, but the characters have become in some measure my friends. And the shmaltz triggered in me a reflection on everything that I have read. The question for me is was it worth it. I don’t know, but many people find pleanty of worth in the shmaltz and who am I to say that their experience is crap, even though their media demonstrably is. Their experiences are not crap.

    I was classically trained and have had many transcendent moments in the genre. But I find more consistent transcendence in the gritty folk genres of the past and present. There was a time when I thought you could find more God in the “great” arts, if you worked for it. I’m not so sure anymore.

  47. I agree with Dave’s assessment about sentimentality. Not everything that feels good is divine.

    The reason why there is so much bad Mormon art is that we do not demand quality. You stick the label Mormon to anything and some of us will swoon over it. Worse, they will even spend money.

    Unfortunately, quality is not a tribal category. Until we recognize that and hold “artists” accountable, garbage will prosper.

  48. HP/JDC,

    The answer to your question is yes.

    Since God speaks to us in our weakness and after the manner of our language and understanding, it shouldn’t be surprising that people feel the Spirit under conditions that might surprise others. Almost every popular country and western singer puts out at least one gospel album, and lots of folks are moved to tears when they listen.

    God used Balaam’s ass to make His will known. Why can’t crummy art fill the same purpose?

  49. The difference between participitory art and spectator art is a huge one that I think needs to be taken into account. Participatory art has a lot more power from the fact that we are creating it ourselves. I think that is one reason we feel so moved by bad art done by our children (for instance) and also by the church. Because it is us doing it, we see it with different eyes and hear with a different heart, maybe. When I see things that are Mormon, I do cut them more slack, give them more credit for sincerety, and so on. That is part of being able to feel the spirit even with amateurish stuff.

    Didnt the Nazis love Beethoven? Some of our love of stuff (and I do love Beethoven) comes from associated cultural baggage as well. Dead white northern European dudes uber alis, and all that. =)

    (Every time I type a comma, firefox is throwing me into search mode. What is up with that? Ima reboot. Apologies to grammar nazis for lack of commas.)

  50. My wife, who is too smart for her britches, was reading over my shoulder. She said she is often moved to tears by my c&w music, but it isn’t the spirit she is feeling.

  51. cj douglass says:

    The great masters of classical music were just as drugged up as the Beatles if not more. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Yellow Submarine” might have drug undertones but who’s to say that the work of Mozart, for example, wasn’t influenced by a haze of opium and wine? After all many classical works are more angry and dark than they are “spiritual”.

  52. CJ is right. Johann Sebastian Bach has even written a Coffee Cantata (BWV 211).

    The truth of the matter is that art has nothing to do with righteousness. On the contrary, great art will engage the human condition. And since the fall the human condition is about sin . . . at least in part.

  53. Mozart sucks, though. Bach rules. And there is an objective standard of goodness in art, even though we are limited and can’t know it perfectly. We can approach it through eternal progression. Cheesy art is just a marker for how far we have left to progress. =)

  54. Didnt the Nazis love Beethoven?

    You might be thinking about Wagner. And compared to Bach, Beethoven is bourgeois chit chat.

  55. J.,

    Zepplin will die within a generation or two. I don’t think Mozart will die as long as the world continues in its temporal state. For that, I can muster up a cheer (just one mind you) for the academy.

  56. Tatiana,

    I agree that Bach rules. But I don’t think that Mozart would “suck” by any objective standard.

  57. Jack, it may just be one of my limitations. I know that some people sincerely like Mozart. I sincerely and persistantly think he sux. =)

  58. It would be interesting to see a thoughtful semiotician’s view of the Spirit-conjuring process that J. Daniel Crawford writes about. I’m not remotely capable of rendering such a view, but I suspect that if one were sufficiently skilled at noticing one’s own thought process, one could trace the interaction of elements perceived in Legacy with one’s own thoughts, memories, perceptions, ideas, beliefs, and experiences. And by following the linkages between those elements, perhaps one could find out what set of them (contained in propaganda, High Art, or whathaveyou, inspires spirits that we associate with The Spirit (of God, right?).

    But doesn’t the Spirit connection have to be something cognitive, and relatively common (as in frequently occurring within a given population, not as in “low-brow”)?

  59. Jonathan N says:

    Daniel’s original post stated that “The thing is that the Spirit isn’t meant to help you distinguish good art from bad art; generally what the Spirit offers you is an idea of the sincerity of the artist.”

    Several others have touched on distinguishing spirituality from emotional reality, but the discussion has dwindled into statements of personal preferences, but the original question, does the relative quality of art have anything to do with spirituality, remains.

    Successful art elicits a response because it represents a symbol of reality to the viewer/listener and expands understanding at some level. A viewer of Legacy or the Testaments who is unfamiliar with the background might be touched emotionally by the drama portrayed, but is this really the Spirit? Does the Spirit enlighten our minds or merely play with our emotions? Can we even expect art to create spirituality?

    How many have felt “the Spirit” while reading or watching Shakespeare?

  60. I think it’s helpful to draw a distinction between “folk art” and “fine art.” Although there is a tendency to place one above the other, both are important. Folk art is of the people, participatory, does not require extensive experience or learning to fully enjoy it. With fine art, the more you learn, the deeper, more fulfilling the experience. The less you understand, the easier it is to dismiss. Rock music is folk art, classical music is fine art. You can’t compare them. You can’t compare going to the symphony with front row seats to The Pixies. Much of Mormon art, regardless of what it is trying to be, ends up as folk art, or at least, is appreciated as folk art. I don’t think I’m out on a limb saying that a majority of the members, like the majority of non-members, don’t know much about fine art. They get the crossover hits, but something that is not immediately, obviously great, they’ll miss. It’s not a Mormon problem, it’s a people problem. I also think it’s a poor argument to compare art of the past with the art of today. Of all that has come out in the last 50 years, who knows what will be around in 100?

  61. And I should add-It think a lot of mormon art stinks because the “artist” attempts to make fine art with folk art skills or attempts to turn folk art into fine art; or when the viewer expects a fine art experience from a folk art presentation. The hymns, for example, are pretty much all folk art. Some of the hymns know they are folk art and work well (e.g. Christmas carols). Some hymns don’t know they are folk art and usually stink because those singing them also don’t know they are folk art (I won’t name these, as some are among the “popular” and “beloved.”)

  62. Mark Butler says:

    There are a lot of factors that we could consider in what makes great art, but from a spiritual perspective we should consider whether something promotes principles compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ or degrades and destroys them. The eternal value of morally neutral works is probably beyond our capacity to debate, and I don’t think the Lord cares all that much what our preferences are in that regard.

    But certainly he cares what our preferences relative to morally substantive works are, for good or for evil. And certainly much of modern culture (and generally speaking the culture of the world in any era) has prominent themes and material that is contrary if not outright hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and which if we partake too much of we are liable to lose the Spirit of God, and become imbued with the spirit of the world instead.

  63. Thomas Parkin says:

    “It’s not a Mormon problem, it’s a people problem. ”

    I agree with this, and the rest of the post, 100%, heck-fire 1000%. But I’m not sure it’s a “problem”, exactly. It’s a probelm if the program is to get everyone able to appreciate superior art. Yep – it’s better to be able to appreciate fine art than not. But the truth is often a very simple thing, and can be effectively communicated in less than dazzling artistic expression.

    I think the ability to create or appreciate good art – to see and know what it is and when it is missing – whatever, is a lot like intelligence. It ought to be seen as a attribute rather than a virtue. * Intelligence can be used for good or ill, and so can art, great and not so great. Intelligence, unmixed with virtues which are virtues, doesn’t help one person come to an understanding of true things, and as often as not simply complicates and sophisticates one’s deceptions and self-deceptions. That doesn’t mean it isn’t far better to be intelligent than not – just like it is better to have hands than not. But what does with one’s hands has little enough to do with the fact that you have them. Likewise the constellation of traits, developed and innate, that allow a person to create or appreciate the reality that some art is ‘better’ – communicates with greater pointedness, depth and subtlety – are an attribute only, not a virtue. If they were a virtue, we might expect to see Roman Polanski in the first ressurection – and that seems, at the moment anyway, unlikely.

    I’d love to see more great art in Zion. I do think as we become more and more honest, and open, things that are very much happening before our eyes, we will have better art. In fact, I was recently in the church art museum across from Temple Square. There is an exhibit there depctiting scenes and associations with the handcart comapny’s troubles. Much of that art was quite good, and some very unusual. But, this has little enough to do with becoming like a little child. And nothing to do with the Spirit, which can confirm the truthfullness of a true story told badly.

    *I mean by intelligence the ability to synthesize information rapidly. I don’t mean Intelligence which is the Glory of God. I would tentatively say that little i intelligence is contained in big I intelligence, but, as the scripture goes on to say, is in other words Light and Truth.

    As to emotion and the Spirit: it hasn’t got much to do with each other, I don’t thik. Emotional repsonce is subjective. The Spirit is an actual objective entity which communicates truth, as well as sanctifies and comforts us. My experience of “feeling” the Spirit is closer to “feeling” the heat from a fire, only spiritual, than “feeling” sad or happy or angry. It triggers powerful emotions, to be sure. But the emotions themselves are not the Spirit. I feel the Spirit in my heart, but also as a presence around me. Recptivity to the Spirit may be related to personality traits that allow for empathetic etmoional responces – and in any case one’s “heart” mus be “soft” in order to experience any benefit from the Holy Ghost – but that doesn’t mean people having an emotional responce are reacting to anything other than subjectively to whatever is presented them.

    I would say I felt the Spirit at the new Joseph Smith movie. I certainly found it a moving experience, but that is mostly because I love Joseph Smith, I think. I wouldn’t say it is to be compared to the way I’ve felt the Spirit while alone in the temple, or after praying for an extended period of time and receiving very direct personal revelation, – or even what I experienced at the last session of Conference this last go.

    That’s a little more than 2 cents.


  64. #62, Great Art often isn’t about teaching moral principles. As Roger Ebert says, it’s not what the movie is about, but how it is about it that matters. A beautiful movie doesn’t convince me that a bad moral is good any more than a bad movie convinces me that a good moral is bad.

  65. Going back to a point made earlier. It seems to me that what Church movies do well is make you feel emotion. What I haven’t decided is whether “emotion” = “the Spirit.” Didn’t Joseph say the Spirit was like “pure intelligence” flowing into the mind? If that’s true then Mormon movies suck.

  66. OK The elitist intellectualism view of art and music on here is starting to very much resemble Frasier and Niles–full of pomp and circumstance

  67. which, I might add, is an ok piece of music

  68. We have to be a little bit patient. The restored Church has only been around for a few centuries. There will be great LDS artists and LDS art. I’m sure of it.

    I remember beginning to double-major in Art at BYU. During the first week of classes, one of the prominent teachers in the department said to us, as a group, “if you can do anything else (besides major in art), do it.” That surprised me.

    I didn’t end up continuing in that major, but it wasn’t because of what that professor said. Still, I thought that was a little bit shocking. I wonder how many other majors have professors who would say something like that.

  69. Danithew,
    Seeing as aspiring Mormon artists often have (or soon will have) many mouths to feed, this was probably good advice. But therein lies the problem.

  70. “All bad art is sincere.”–Oscar Wilde

  71. danithew, I understand your perspective on this. But I also remember reading an assessment in Dialogue that found that Mormonism has produced an unusually low percentage of truly influential artists and scientists, per capita, in comparison with other US religions — some of which, we must remember, are no older than or are even younger than we are.

  72. There is good Mormon art.

    I like Helaman Ferguson. His work marries mathematics and sculpture. Of course, they figured out some way to get rid of him at BYU. Now he lives in Laurel, Maryland. I need to visit his studio.

    In the early twentieth century, there were a number of sculptors that produced geometrical statues. Their work was generally minimalist emphasizing elegance.

    Ferguson adds a Mormon flavor. His work is ornamental and in some ways more refined and complex.

    Just yesterday a friend recommended Allan West who works with textile surfaces in Japan. Click on the thumbnails and you will get to see complete screens, which are much more impressive.

    I don’t know West’s story. It would be fascinating to hear him on Mormon Stories.

    Everybody will know about Carol Lynn Pearson.

    And then there is that infant terrible movie director. Does anyone remember his name, please?

  73. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Coming in this conversation late…

    LDS folk art like Jesus with the children or a mother on a rocking chair with her kids or movies like Legacy trigger a deeper knowledge that we, members of the church, have. Like J. Stapley (#46), when watching a depiction of Joseph and Emma, at the least we are touched because we have the knowledge of their relationship that we’ve been taught or learned through our own research, and going beyond that, maybe because we know how tragic it was, how full of trials. Art like this may not seem deep but it’s able to function at a different level than most fine art. So while it may not be striking or innovative, it still triggers a response in us that draws on our knowledge. It’s an “ah-ha!” response of comfort and identification, something I might identify as feeling the Spirit.

    That said, I still wouldn’t hang most of it on my wall. So is it possible to create LDS art that doesn’t look like what you see in Deseret Book but still makes us feel the Spirit? I don’t know but I like a good challenge.

    It is suprising though that there aren’t more LDS artists (not necessarily creating LDS art). Any ideas why?

    Jack (#55) Blasphemy!

  74. J. Nelson-Seawright:
    Can you throw me a link to this study. I’d love to see what kind of Bull crap standards were applied to define concepts as suggestive as “Infleuntial” and “Art”. It’s kind of like the blog post. It doesn’t define “good art” and only says LDS art is “bad”, but then defines the genre it is speaking about as LDS produced films, but limits itself to Legacy, Testaments, and if J. Stapley’s Comment counts, the new JS movie. It touches on printed Art, but vaguley defines that genre as “Church Sanctioned” pictures, but Church Sanctioned pictures are typically not even by members of the Church (Think Harry Anderson, Carl Bloch, Rembrandt, John Scott), and doesn’t compare the art in an apples to apples fashion, or any fashion for that matter. It just says LDS painters suck, without qualifying the statement in any way shape or form. Personally, have you looked at contemporary religious art from other groups?

    Commenters then go on to turn the subject to music, and turn away from the concept of “Church Sanctioned” (Where the church excels) and instead jump into the gutter of “Mormon Pop Music”.

    1. I’d Stand our Hymn book up to any other hymn book in the world. I’d do the same with our contempory religious printed art compared to other church’s contemporary religious art.

    2. Mac Wilburg is no Handel, but he is one of the most popular producers of musical composition in the world today.

    4. Napolean Dynamite was a knock out phenomena in the year it was produced, reaching “Rocky Horror Picture Show” like frenzy at it’s height in the modern film epoch. I’d still argue that the simple Lamb of God video is head and shoulders above Passion of the Christ, or any other Life of Christ film. The lated production of the Church is a reality-TV type of show following missionaries in San Antonio which is made to supplement missionary training in the world. Living in San Antonio, we were allowed to see three episodes of it here rescently. It was really good.
    5. Church Commercials are really good. I’ve never been embarrassed by them, and have always been pleased.

  75. D. Fletcher says:

    Mormonism is about conformism. Art is about individualism. The Church may foster some great artists, but they will only become great by turning away from the Church.

    It’s a simplistic theory, but generally true.

    Additionally, the Church itself doesn’t need art to function (doesn’t need paintings, music pieces like masses, literature or poetry, etc.).

    One thing the Church does need is buildings, and it is in architecture that Church members have shined as artists. The Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle, the Cardston Temple, and other buildings — these are our only claims to fame.

  76. Manipulating the elemnets of art to produce a spirtual experience in the viewer.


    Propaganda or pronography?


  77. My view,

    “Fine Art” only interests a small portion of the population in urban centers. LDS tastes are suburban hence all the “folk art”.

    Art don’t pay that well on average unless your are a Corporate artist(AKA graphic designer, video game designer etc). We have to many kids and to to send to college and missions to afford to dabble in non paying fields. Plus SAHM’s Its econ 101 for most of us. OUR YM leaders do not encourage art as a career. We focus on Busines, Law and medicine.

    Most professional LDS artists I know either teach art or work in the business sector. There are few that actually create art and depend on it for a living.

  78. I think that an artist can distinguish himself/herself without turning away from the church. It seems ridiculous to me that we can’t be faithful and individual. Some people think art has to be rebellious … and maybe to some degree that is true. But rebellious against what? Does it have to mean rebellion against righteousness? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not.

    I remember reading about how President Hunter was a musician who could play a variety of instruments and how at one point (I think before he was married) he played in a jazz band on a cruise ship. He then decided that this wasn’t a serious lifestyle for him and he pretty much put his musical instruments away, got married and went to law school. Maybe not in that order. But close. I’m sure that was the right decision for him.

    But is that the right decision for everyone?

    I think we often conclude that people who are creative can’t be stable, can’t have families, can’t be active in the church. But I think the really creative and talented people can find a way to do it.

  79. I went through a phase of life where interest in doing artwork almost consumed me entirely. It actually scared me a little bit because I didn’t know where it would take me and the artists I read about didn’t seem to have normal family life.

    To break the spell it had on me, I destroyed a bunch of artwork and followed some different paths. This was years and years ago.

    However, I’ve never been able to entirely stop thinking about drawing abstract artworks and the like, experimenting with line and color. It really interests me. And my conclusions have changed. I think there is a spiritual value to what I do and that maybe in time I can learn to train its direction a little bit. I’d love to learn how to incorporate scripture into my artwork. I just haven’t gotten there yet. And, after all, it’s more of a hobby right now to me than anything else.

    As anyone can tell, I probably care about this question a little too much.

  80. D. Fletcher says:

    “But I think the really creative and talented people can find a way to do it.”

    Who are these people, Dan?

    I actually think stability in life (something the Church is said to provide) founders the need to make art. Art isn’t just…creativity. Stable Church members will still need to draw their drawings and write their poems. But this isn’t art.

    I’m not suggesting that one needs to be miserable in order to be a great artist. But one does need cause.

    Anyway, this is my standard explanation as to why there is no great art in the Church. No cause for it.

    There may be great artists that come from the Church, but unless they have cause to develop their art, they will never be discovered (or discover it themselves).

    But leaving the Church becomes a cause for art.

  81. Matt #73:

    I’d still argue that the simple Lamb of God video is head and shoulders above Passion of the Christ

    No way. Just no way.

  82. D. Fletcher asks: “Who are these people?”

    I don’t know D. You may have a point. But I wonder too if we are overlooking art that already exists. I do think Minerva Teichert is a positive example. Not everyone will agree. But I think she succeeded.

  83. D. Fletcher says:

    I too love Teichert’s paintings (which were done to adorn buildings, which I think are the only art the Church has needed).

    Do they compare favorably to Van Gogh’s, Matisse’s, or even Norman Rockwell’s?

    Great art is somewhat subjective, but I don’t think Minerva is at that high a level.

    And of course, it’s “great” only after the fact (her death).

  84. bbell –
    Please tell me they still aren’t feeding YM these lies about you have to work in business, law or medicine. I think it is irresponsible to mislead ym in such a way.

    Whatever happened to just doing what your talented at and being happy? I have a cousin who loves playing the trumpet and joined the military to be a band memeber. He loves it and has two kids. My dh was misled his whole life, like bbell talks about, and when we got married he thought he had to abaondon all his art and passion and become a dentist (no joke). I convinced him thats not true and he now has an excellent artistic career that affords him plenty of free time (and as I am an artist, me as well) to produce more fine art.

    Basicly, the reason mormon art generally sucks isn’t because it isn’t a lucrative career path. I think it probably has more to do with anyone ever seeing the art…we are generally only discussing commercially produced work. There is only one place to sell ‘mormon art’ (deseret book)…and so I think the problem is more with them than anyone.

  85. mami (#16),
    I think that in order to feel the Spirit, one must be at least a little willing to feel the Spirit. That didn’t mean that I turned off my critique; it meant that I thought the Spirit might be there and I tried to remain open to it. There is, I think, a lot of give and take between the audience and the artist and I believe that the Spirit can facilitate that. I suppose that I settled on focussing on their sincerity, because I couldn’t believe that it was endorsing these movies based on the quality of the work itself.

    Mark Butler (#17 and following),
    I fail to see your point. First, it is not as if Beethoven was morally upstanding in the modern LDS sense. Second, the point of the article is that people feel the Spirit whether or not the quality of the art is good. I would discourage classifying someone else’s spiritual experience as sheer emotionalism or sentimentality. Third, as I hope to explain below, I think the Lord’s standard of art has more to do with truth than with morality, per se, although I agree that he wants us to be moral.

    Matt W (#20 and following),
    I think that The Lamb of God was a great film, one of the best religious films I have ever seen. I never saw the Passion, so I cannot compare, but it is a very important film for me (I am also a big fan of Called to Serve). On the other hand, I don’t really care very much the Michael McClean era of LDS movie making. Of course all of those movies were propagandistic (which isn’t necessarily a pejorative) and you could feel the Spirit in any of them.

    I don’t want to get into a laundry list of artists that I can’t stand. In part, this is because I don’t know all of their names. In part, this is because I don’t want to offend someone’s grandchild. In part, this is because I believe it is beside the point. Of course, subjectivity is an important factor in choosing art (someone’s genius is another person’s hack). Since you brought up Del Parson’s “Christ in the Red Robe” I would say that I think it is a beautiful piece (though I have only ever seen it in reprint form). In fact, it has become iconic. So much so that I was told that the dude chosen to play Christ in The Testaments was chosen, amongst other reasons, specifically because he didn’t look like “Christ in the Red Robe”. The urban legend held that the Brethren wanted to move us away from that icon. I agree; I feel like I have seen a thousand, thousand paintings derivative of that piece.

    When it comes to music, I am a low-art philistine. I know that I heard MoTab at conference this past week and assumed that it was a younger, tighter choir than my impression of MoTab normally is. I am happy to ascribe that to Bro. Wilburg. That we produce a lot of garbage does not prevent us producing gems; it just makes the gems harder to find.

    J (#46),
    I kinda liked the latest Joseph Smith movie. It was better cast and better written than the previous temple square efforts. When Joseph and Emma had that awkward conversation in the moonlight by the river, I amused myself by assuming they were actually talking about their personal struggles with keeping the commandments as they understood them, rather than the attempt to note that Emma would really miss Joseph when he was gone that it was. I felt the Spirit in that movie, too, but I helped it by shifting the context of conversations around, as you seem to have also done.

    Hellmut (#47)
    The danger in bringing sentimentality into the conversation is that we tend to find the stuff we like spiritually uplifting and the stuff we don’t like sentimental. That is too subjective a standard to judge other people’s reactions. I am willing to say that people can feel the spirit looking at Liz Lemon Swindle’s work (ooops, there’s one for Matt) even if it always bothers me that she cannot figure out where ears and noses actually go (maybe she’s a secret cubist).

    I agree with you about quality (obviously) as does apparently bbell. Now, doesn’t that make us a neat set of bedfellows.

    Mark (#48),
    I couldn’t have said it better myself (although, I did try).

    greenfrog (#58) and Jonathan N (#59),
    I wrote this to a friend today who was concerned about my concern with the Spirit as a marker of artistic sincerity. I think it probably as close I will get to explaining my theory of great art. I am no semiotician, so take it for what it is worth:

    I think that I think the sincerity of the artist’s vision that the Spirit testifies of. We know of a lot of great art that was produced by horrible people. I don’t think that if we feel the Spirit while watching their works, it is an endorsement of their lifestyle or of their being. I think it is an acknowledgement that, in this case, they tried to do something true and came close. As a result, I would prolly disconnect the individual person (and even the person’s beliefs) directly from my sincerity test. Movies, for instance, are often the work of a multitude of people. I don’t know that one bad egg should spoil their effort.

    That said, the reason great art is great, I think, is because it enables us to feel the spirit. Not in what it teaches (although it can teach us profound things), but because great art produces Truth (with a capital T) or, at least, a reasonable approximation thereof. Truth, when encountered, puts us into a relationship with God and with those around us. The Truth one gets from great art is not always the truth the artist intended to convey; it is a form of revelation, deeply personal to both the recipient and the revelator. Great Art is a medium for that revelation, much like testimony or scripture. As such, I think God approves of it, no matter what the source.

    Danithew (#69),
    I agree about the patience issue. We are a young church and, what’s more, a church that seems to have undergone several revolutions in its lifetime. I don’t think we’ve really settled down on a “Mormon” aesthetic. That said, we have bought (for the moment) wholeheartedly into the notion that money drives the market and so it feels like we have confused what sells for what is good, which is great for young artists looking to support families, but is bad for our art as a whole, I believe.

    D. Fletcher (#74)
    “Mormonism is about conformism. Art is about individualism. The Church may foster some great artists, but they will only become great by turning away from the Church.”

    You know much more about music and movies than I do and normally I would defer to your opinion on such matters. But the above strikes me as asinine.

    Thanks to all for their responses thus far.

  86. I don’t know which YM program bbell hung out in. I don’t remember any advice from YM leaders about choosing a career–certainly not “law, medicine ro business.” If I had wanted to be a hunting guide living in a cabin the woods next to Ted Kacziniski, I don’t think they would have told me not to. (And if they had, I would have told them where to go.)

  87. I remember seeing a cartoon by Calvin Grohndal (Ogden Standard Examiner) where the prophet was giving an address in General Conference and he said, “one of the first signs of apostacy is stating that our church art is tacky.” I thought it was funny, but maybe some people actually believe that.

    It reminds me of the reaction to Richard Dutcher’s film States of Grace (a masterpiece in my opinion, and one that I felt the spirit many times while watching). I talked to some family members who said they weren’t going to see any more of his films because they were offensive and didn’t show “real life” in the church. IMO this is the biggest challenge to LDS artists who want to be taken seriously. How do you create high art that doesn’t at least challenge someone a little? Is it possible?

  88. There are people out there who won’t think anything is great until someone else (that they trust or respect) tells them it is so.

    I’ve had a few funny experiences with gifts (not speaking of art) that were not appreciated until the receiver went to someone else’s house and saw that another friend/relative had the same thing – at which point the gift was suddenly esteemed in an entirely new light.

    I bring this up because I think a lot of people determine what art they like because someone else taught them to like it or appreciate it. Maybe this informs their dislikes (in the area of artwork) as well.

    Someone once told me that Van Gogh didn’t sell any of his artwork in his lifetime. That doesn’t sound right to me, but it should tell us something about art and how long it can take for art to become “cool”.

    It’s entirely possible there are some artists around now (or who have been around in the past) who are currently unappreciated, but will be greatly appreciated in the future.

  89. Veritas,

    You and I have discussed this before. Your husband appears to me to have a Corporate business career based on his art skills like lots of other people I know.

    This idea that YM need marketable skills and that specific sectors of the economy offer more stability is pretty common in the white bread suburban YM’s programs I have worked in for the last 10 years.

    This is one of the resons we as a people struggle to create “Great artists” We are to practical.

  90. D. Fletcher says:

    Boy, I haven’t been called “asinine” in awhile.


  91. cj douglass says:

    OUR YM leaders do not encourage art as a career

    wow, we really are a cult.

  92. cj douglass says:

    This idea that YM need marketable skills and that specific sectors of the economy offer more stability is pretty common in the white bread suburban YM’s programs I have worked in for the last 10 years.

    see above

  93. Ronan- Maybe it’s my Catholic Heritage, but I just hated the way Passion depicted Mary. hated hated hated

    HP- Thanks for the response. I want to say sorry for getting a little uptight on this. You’d laugh if you saw the first and second draft of my other comments.

    As for Liz Lemon Swindle :)…, my wife hates her stuff with a passion and calls it priestcraft… I like some of her pieces (Mary holding the newborn baby.) and actually went to a fireside she gave in San Antonio. She used to be fairly apostate, she says, and made a living by being one of the most famous painters of Mallards at hunting and fishing shows. I can’t remember all the details, but she had a conversion experience, and shifted venues. She selected her model of Joseph Smith because he was in her ward(or stake?) and he played Joseph Smith in the movies that were shown in Nauvoo (maybe they still are. They weren’t great either, TV quality at best.) Anyway, He had been given a blessing by an Apsotle, that as he portrayed Joseph, a special dispensation would be given to him to truly convey who joseph was (or something like that), and it made for an excellent story. She went on sight to Jerusalem to research her paintings for her Jesus series, and many of her models for that were just local kids in the area. (Some of them are inactive kids.) As best as I can tell, she paints from photographs, which may explain why some of here stuff comes off flat.

    Anyway, while I don’t like a lot of her work, she was a pretty cool lady, and she definitely didn’t have any pretensions of being the next Michaelangelo.

    She’s not commissioned by the Church though. So she’s not a church sanctioned Artist.

  94. D,
    generally I respect you to bits. I just think you are dead wrong here.

  95. Matt,
    If she has an audience outside of the church, I would be shocked. I have seen her work up for display in Temple Visitor’s Centers, I could walk down the hall right now and see a bunch of it on display in BYU’s religion department, and I have seen it often enough in the church magazines to have no doubt that it has been thoroughly vetted and approved by those at church magazines who do such things. She may not be commission by the church, but it has bought a lot of her art and members take notice of such things. For that matter, she may be a regular Mother Theresa, but until she can draw a face that doesn’t remind me vaguely of Dali’s clocks and watches I will not consider her a good artist.

  96. D. Fletcher says:

    I’m happy to be proved wrong, but don’t just call my comments asinine, which is never very good for a debate.

    I’ll state my position again, to help you out.

    Mormons are just humans. There must be people born into the Church with the talent to create great art. But that talent must be developed, nurtured.

    The Church as a growing place doesn’t nurture art, or artists, because it has no particular need for great art. In order to develop one’s talent, it seems to me, one might have to be nurtured outside the Church — hence my comment about “leaving” the Church.

    And “Leaving” the Church, with a capital L, might actually provide good “cause” to create great art.

    Do I advocate a position that artists ought to leave the Church? I don’t. It’s all just a theory.

  97. When D. asserts that Mormonism is about conformism and art is about individualism, he is generalizing, of course. IMO, he is on to something.

    Just look at all the lists that LDS leaders provide at general conference. Lists, the antithesis to principles, are probably the most common rhetorical device in Mormon speeches. And there is no shortage in nosy enforcers.

    One thing that struck me about social life in Utah is that Mormons don’t hang out with each other. They go to church but they don’t visit each other. Unlike German Mormons, Utah Mormons are intensely private. That is probably a response to social control.

    When one reads the exit stories on RfM, the common thread is that people where afraid to talk about their feelings and convictions to their spouses, children, parents, and neighborhoods.

    Silence is not conducive to art.

    One of the great aspects of Internet Mormon communties is that they break through the silence. The led balloon moment is definitely a threatened species, at least on the web.

    Mormon society has trouble fostering artists. On the other hand, taking a minority perspective almost always inspires. In that sense, Mormon conformism is one of those weaknesses that can become a strength.

    IMO, that applies to Carolyn Pearson. Some of the best texts that I have ever read where in Mormon women journals such as Exponent II. If we can figure out a way to sustain these efforts without expelling the artists from Mormon society then there will be no shortage of quality Mormon art.

  98. D,
    My position is that you are right about the Church and its current perceived need for great Art. It seems to be going along just fine with the drek we currently have.

    I also believe that the thing that convinces people to shift from bad art to good art is exposure to good art. I don’t really see it as the Church’s role or perogative to tell people to go look at good art, so I don’t see much help coming from that angle.

    That said, I believe that every life contains sufficient struggle to give someone cause. People struggle with cancer, unrequited love, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of unfocussed anger, and so forth both within and without the church. Even though the Church may be a good way of getting rid of these emotional issues, that certainly doesn’t mean that art is not a way of working through them. Cause is where you find it.

    In other words, I find fault with the a complacent market more than with a rash of complacent artists (of which there may or may not be many).

  99. HP: LOL, But Dali is sweet. I don’t expect his portraits of Christ on the Cross to make the ensign any time soon though…

    You make a good point, I was drawing too narrow a line on what Chruch Sanctioned means. Even if she’s been in the Ensign once, I’d say she’s got Church Sanction for at least that piece showing. Several of her pieces have made it in at one time or another. My wife and I were discussing this last night when I was in a bit of a nasty mood about it, and she said she appreciates how many of the Olson, Swindle, etc. are sparingly or not used.

    Walter Rane and Del Parson seem to be the current ensign Favorites, as they have more than one painting in the months ensign. Swindle didn’t even make it in, and their was a huge picture essay on Smith in the middle with plenty of opportuntiy.

    I think the Church trys to have diversity in the pictures in the magazines and not use the same pictures over and over again.

    Anyway, I guess there is evidence that Swindle doesn’t make the Famous LDS artist list…

    As an aside, since we are having this conversation and you are at BYU, and this seems important to you, have you been through the Art Gallery at BYU, or the student galleries in the HVAC? I go every time I’m in Provo (Once an eon, it seems.) They had some great stuff in the Art Gallery last time I was there. (January)

  100. Also, I would love to prove you wrong, but you and I both acknowledge a lack of evidence contrary to your position. :(

  101. My last was directed to D, not Matt.

    I have been to many of the exhibits at BYU. My general impression of the art department is that they have given up on teaching drawing and are more interested in abstract and installation art in attempts to see what is a hit with the local bourgeosis (sp) or local industry. Please feel free to prove me wrong, o BYU art department.

  102. D. Fletcher says:

    Great artists are rare, of course, and the Church is relatively young. There may be discovered great art by Church members, but this might not happen for another hundred years.

    I agree, that cause is where you find it. But there’s nothing preached in the Church that says, if you find cause to express something creatively, you should do it. The Church basically says, don’t do it. You wish to write and sing your own hymns? Don’t do it. You wish write your own Sunday School lessons? Don’t do it. Your ward wishes to decorate its own building, because of the plethora of great carpenters in your area? Don’t do it. You wish to work in film or theater or fashion or any line of work where hedonists abound? Don’t do it.

    Great art doesn’t have a chance in the Church.

  103. D. Fletcher says:

    An adjunct to my last post:

    Great art doesn’t have a chance in the Church, even if the art PRAISES the Church and faith in general. The only place for such art is the Church itself, its building and meetings, and the Church so far hasn’t shown any need for such.

  104. “The Church basically says, don’t do it. You wish to write and sing your own hymns? Don’t do it. You wish write your own Sunday School lessons? Don’t do it. Your ward wishes to decorate its own building, because of the plethora of great carpenters in your area? Don’t do it. You wish to work in film or theater or fashion or any line of work where hedonists abound? Don’t do it.”

    Which why we should be producing great artists, how much more cause do you need ;)

  105. D. Fletcher says:

    But you’re not understanding the irony. Yes, we need great artists, but if they do these things, they are doing them *against* the Church’s wishes. They are being contrary.

    You’re agreeing with my asinine point, JDC.


  106. D., I’m not convinced as to an essentially individual nature of art. But I know better than to argue with you!

  107. I see hints of a willingness to accept/embrace modern art in some of the stained-glass windows I’ve seen in the temples.

    I don’t know if that means anything to anyone else.

  108. I would encourage those who have doubts about Beethoven’s morality to read his letters. Beethoven was one of the great apostles of freedom, but not of some kind of irresponsible freedom to do whatever one pleases. Rather, the freedom to develop one’s abilities in order to be better able to benefit humanity.

    Although he contemplated suicide as deafness threatened, ultimately he resolved to continue the struggle, to work for his art and for the greater good.

    On the broader point of the post, let me quote Beethoven’s contemporary, Friedrich Schiller:

    The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is a combination of woefulness, which expresses itself in its highest degree as a shudder, and of joyfulness, which can rise up to enrapture, and, although it is not properly pleasure, is yet widely preferred to every pleasure by fine souls. This union of two contradictory sentiments in a single feeling proves our moral independence… . [A]s it is impossible that the same object stand in two opposite relations to us … we =ourselves stand in two different relations to the object, so that consequently two opposite natures must be united in us…. We therefore experience through the feeling of the sublime, that the state of our mind does not necessarily conform to the state of our senses…, that we have in us an independent principle, which is independent of all sensuous emotions.

  109. D. Fletcher says:

    Steve, if you’re not convinced, convince me otherwise.

    The best example of a conformist artist I can think of is Bach, who worked as a Lutheran church musician for his entire career. Bach, in his time, was an old fuddyduddy, an organist and big family man, who created very old-fashioned music. After he died, he was quite forgotten for 50 years, until Mendelsohn resurrected Bach’s music in London.

    Of course, Bach has a claim to being the greatest artist of all time, certainly one of the greatest intellectuals in the history of the world.

    Bach was a Church musician during a time when church music was really in its heyday. Bach’s very greatest works may be the chorales and cantatas, written strictly for liturgical purposes, and his Passions and Masses are perhaps the greatest artworks ever produced. All for his Church.

    Our Church doesn’t use music in our service. Someone wishing to create great Church music has to go to a different Church to get it even considered.

  110. Actually, D, I was attempting irony. I think we would both be enjoying this conversation more face to face (I would probably have been nicer up there, for one thing).

    I don’t think that I agree that they are doing them “against the church’s wishes,” but, not being a potentially great artist myself, I don’t know for sure. If the church can embrace J. Golden Kimball, I believe it can embrace a Dutcher.

  111. D. Fletcher says:

    J. Golden Kimball wasn’t an artist, and he died a long, long time ago.

    And Dutcher… well, if that’s our great hope, then I fear the situation is hopeless.

  112. Think of Dutcher as either a young artist (which he is) or as the beginning of an upward trend (which, hopefully, he is).

    You missed my point about Kimball. It’s the problem of the genius and the mob all over again. Kimball is like that. Uncompromising LDS artists could be, too.

  113. #104 is probably right on. But is it 100% for sure a wrong thing?

    To the average TR holder in the pew our current situation regarding art/artists is just fine. In fact they would say…. “Check out these awesome Greg Olsens on my wall.” “Us LDS produce some great art eh?”

    Art Elitists amongst us would turn up their nose at this and laugh at the art tastes of the average member. This seems almost to be a Spacious building attitude from Lehi’s dream. “Look at those stupid Mormons with their Greg Olsens and green hymnbooks” I am smarter, better educated, then those people.

  114. James Christensen is world-known and is definitely IN the church. While much of his art is fantasy or comic, he has amazing Christian work as well.

    Before joining the Mormon Tabernacle Choir soprano Joann Ottley was supposedly extremely successful worldwide as a vocal professional.

    Oh, and um what about the LDS winner of the reality show “So You Think You Can Dance?” Benji Schwimmer (whose father Buddy was known as “The King of Swing”). Four of the top 20 in that show this year are LDS.

    OK, the last two were performing arts. More on the creative arts:

    Sally Deford ( is not world-known but I think she should be–and her music is FREE!

    Rob Gardner ( is a young, incredibly gifted musician who can compose and direct for choirs, symphonies, a cappella groups or individuals and then direct them all. He has worthily filled the Grady Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, Arizona five or six times (6000 seats). Watch for his name!

    BYU’s animation department is starting to win awards for their work. Chad Erickson won the Student Emmy for his work in “Faux Paw the Techno Cat: Adventures in the Internet”. View at

    What about the PBS show “Signing Time” done almost entirely in Utah by the de Azevedo girls? It is an extremely clever and professional show that teaches sign language.

    Also, the 5 Browns are five famous pianists, siblings, who went to Juliard together and now perform together. I saw them on the Martha show. OK, another performing art example.

    What about the show done in the Conference Center during the Salt Lake Olympics? That was well-designed. Currently available on DVD from Church Distribution, I might add.

  115. bbell, yes. It is for sure, 100% a wrong thing. When is it a bad idea to ask for quality in the product you purchase?

  116. D. Fletcher says:

    About J. Golden Kimball, he did seem to be accepted in his contrariness.

    Do we think he would be so accepted today? Somebody who swears at General Conference?

    Um, no.

  117. bbell, I could just as easily offer another interpretation of that dream, with those who have tasted the precious fruit of good art earnestly desiring to share it (without any condescension) and a big group of philistines in the spacious building, sneering “look at those Art elitists. Don’t they realize that we already have everything we want.”

  118. D. Fletcher says:

    Many disagree, but I just don’t find anything to like in Dutcher’s films. They’re not good films by film standards. Perhaps they are good Mormon films, but this isn’t saying much.

    There are a few good pieces of art in the Church. The Cardston Temple. Some of Minerva Teichert’s paintings. A few of the Primary songs are surprisingly artistic (one by Reid Nibley, in particular). And I do think that Napoleon Dynamite was ingenious, particularly coming from a Church member.

  119. HP,

    Is it not the free market that decides what is good and what is not good? If Greg Olsen (using him as an example) art is horrible it would not sell eh? But if it does sell well then what implications does that have?

    A. Greg Olsen is a good artist
    B. Mormon art tastes suck
    c. Greg Olsen’s style appeals to the widest possible market and he sucks by Art critic standards even if he is popular

    Its probably some of A-C I would lean towards C

  120. I’m not sure D. J. Golden Kimball is the only one I know of who ever dared to do so – and maybe he was onto something. I suppose these days if a general authority swore in general conference, they might find some way to release him. But it would create a tricky situation. You certainly can’t get excommunicated for saying damn and hell, especially if it makes everyone laugh.

  121. These sorts of conversations always seem about as pointless to me as blogging about politics.

    And off topic: For me, there was a lot to like about States of Grace, but enough not to like to ruin it for me. I certainly wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. (And I’m not the type to be bothered by showing church blessings or ordinances in film, like a lot of people I know.)

  122. Art is about being an individual? Crap, I thought it was about expression. I’ve had it all wrong for so long! Dang it!

  123. D. Fletcher says:

    The GAs have to write their talks in advance, have them approved by the Correlation Committee, etc., and timed just so.

    I’m waiting for the day when somebody in GC doesn’t say what’s on that paper.

    Susan, you’re a good, objective judge of such things. Do you think there’s any “great” art in the Church?

  124. John Cline says:

    I am a Mormon, painter, college art teacher. I received the terminal degree of MFA and included some of the issues surrounding growing up as a Mormon artist in my thesis paper. My committee, all non-members, really found that to be the most interesting part of the paper.

    The reason there is no great art, music, or literature being produced is because:

    1. Great art is about being human, in other words, vulnerable. Mormons generally flee from human vulnerability, as it has a way of leading to apostasy or sin. So a good Mormon would have to walk a fine line to create great art. It can be done, though.

    2. Mormons, like the rest of public, lack education on artistic matters. Mormons are all about FEELINGS, and emotion is all they want from their art. They don’t want art that stimulates their intellectual capacities. The Catholic tradition has a rich artistic heritage, on the other hand. They also have a rich heritage in philosophy. Scholasticism, for instance. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm–all of these men were attempting to build a solid and LOGICAL foundation for the Christian theology. The art reflected this. Mormon history offers no counterpart to Scholasticism. Mormons flee from philosophy because of the erroneous belief that it is “man’s reasoning,” thus carnal and devilish.

    3. Money. Hey, let’s admit it. I’ve lived in Utah for a while (didn’t grow up there). My first impression of Utah Valley was that the goal of that society was money, money, money. I saw it, felt it intuitively, on my first day there.

    So, take an artistically uneducated, yet wealthy, population that craves feeling and emotion and what do you think is going to happen??? You’ll get mass produced, sentimental kitsch.

    By the way, I did a year in the BYU art program. They DO teach drawing and painting there. They do teach the traditional skills.

    I left BYU because Utah and me were not getting along. BYU has a great art program. Design programs are always bigger and better funded. (They offer students the illusion of future financial success.) I teach introductory studio courses in the fine arts and always at least half of my classes fill up with design and digital media majors.

  125. bbell,
    The market doesn’t determine what is good, it determines what is popular. The argument that what is popular is what is good is not one that I expected to hear coming from you.

    D (and Susan),
    We’ve gotten off topic (for which I blame myself). There is some art in the church that I consider good, but nothing comes to mind that I would consider great. My argument is that this is because people in the church think art should produce feelings of the Spirit and that art doesn’t have to be good in order to do that. Do you think that is a bad argument? All the rest of our argument is about potentialities that do not yet exist (we seem to be argue about whether they could).

    I don’t have an opinion on most of the artists you mentioned because I don’t know a think about them. I can say that Sally Deford is the bane of the existence of the Orchard Third Ward bass section, because she always does funky things with rhythm and multiple parts and the basses in our choir (of which I am one) are all rhythm-impaired. Also, the one Rob Gardner production I attended sounded quite a bit like he was ripping off Les Miserable.

  126. D. Fletcher says:

    John, what would you say are the great works created by Mormon artists?

    I had a relative in the art department at BYU, by the way. His name was Dale Fletcher, a son of Calvin Fletcher, I think?

  127. D. Fletcher says:

    JDC, I don’t know how to react to your idea about “feelings of the Spirit.”

    There are things in the world that “move” me, human tragedies and foibles, and yes, the human “spirit” — optimism in the face of great difficulty.

    Are these attributable to a feeling of the Spirit, or the Holy Ghost? I don’t think they are.

    So, even if art moves me, it isn’t necessarily great art, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Mormonism or faith in general. A story about a human helping another human will suffice.

    I did sidetrack the conversation a bit, but it’s partly because I don’t really think Mormons trying to produce feelings of the Spirit is the main reason we don’t have great art in the Church.

    I continue to believe that we don’t have great art in the Church because the Church doesn’t need it, doesn’t foster artists to create it, and doesn’t want people to feel contrary to the standard teachings, and certainly doesn’t want them to *express* their contrariness.

    Hence, the only avenue for those people to create great art is somewhere beyond the Church boundaries.

    I had some hope for a writer in the Church, Neil LaBute (a convert). I still think he’s the best writer/dramatist we have, and he continues to make interesting work, if flawed.

    He has left the Church, though.

  128. HP:

    My anser is C. He is popular because he appeals to the widest portion of the LDS population. What is good art is not always what is popular eh?

  129. “There are things in the world that “move” me, human tragedies and foibles, and yes, the human “spirit” — optimism in the face of great difficulty.

    Are these attributable to a feeling of the Spirit, or the Holy Ghost?”

    For me, these are attributable to a feeling of the Spirit. It is one of the reasons why I look at/for great art.

  130. D. Fletcher says:

    Maybe we’re sort of saying the same thing. I may feel moved by a story, but that doesn’t necessarily make it great art.

  131. No D. Just because Bach did religious music does not mean that he was a conformist. There is a difference between a genre and an art form.

    If you listen to Bach and his contemporaries you will notice that his use of orchestras was revolutionary. To this day, Bach laid the foundations for symphonic orchestras.

    Bach was forgotten because he was ahead of his time. It took fifty years before the common taste had caught up with his vision of music.

  132. I often find myself agreeing at other people in online debates (as I apparently was with bbell). I agree that I don’t need great art to feel the Spirit, but I always feel the Spirit in the presence of things that I judge to be great art. Of course, museums are usually quiet places, so…

  133. I would argue that Joseph Harris Ridges was a great artist. He built the Tabernacle Organ in Salt Lake, which is regarded as among the finest in the world.

  134. One of the best discussions of the spirit was with a schizophrenic woman. I tried to explain that it was an emotional response to a powerful message. She said that emotions were not really good to follow, too tricky, in essence. She obviously knew from first hand experience.

    So, I have tried to figure out what really is the Spirit after being shot down with my ad hoc definition. Being overcome by emotion might be part of it, but, like she said, emotions are too dangerous to be counted on.

    What is Mormon art? What is art except a spiritual experience. Spirit is that which appeals to the largest number of receptors in the brain at once, I think. It is emotion, reason, pleasure, pain, sex, taste, warm, cold, a symphony of reaction. The more the better, just like good chocolate melting on the tongue.

    The Church does not like extremes. If you are carried away by the spirit, you may not tell anyone. Not chocolate on the tongue, not a full brain experience. Mormon folk art (vis. the early temples, etc.) is the exception, being too early and too full of passion. Otherwise we will just have to wait for Mormon artists to make great art outside the box.

  135. Mark Butler says:

    John C.,

    I agree that great art is about being human. However it is also about overcoming the weaknesses in one’s humanity. And that is what the gospel is all about.

    As a secondary matter, it seems to me that the best art does not conform to the world, or any subset thereof, but to the voice of the Spirit more or less. Now as the voice of the Spirit is generally different than the voice of the world, or even the voice of the (mortal) members of the Church, one can both appear to be an individual genius, and conform to or be inspired by the Spirit at the same time.

  136. “However it is also about overcoming the weaknesses in one’s humanity.”

    Not always. Sometimes it is about accepting them. Sometimes it is about cataloging them. It is entirely possible to be uplifted by something that isn’t uplifting.

  137. I didn’t read through all of the comments to see if someone already posted this, but the Dialogue article mentioned is by John and Kirsten Rector and is available here.


    I have yet to see any art or any criticism or line of reasoning to convince me that a great art will or will not arise within Mormonism.

    The indvidualists — D. Fletcher and Lane Twitchell etc. are stuck in the narrow post-Romantic discourse about artistic production and art products.

    The apologists don’t talk enough about craftsmanship and form for my tastes.

    The folkists I have a lot of sympathy for, but there’s not enough of a collection of work and criticism for me to really decide on this approach.

    The market-ists don’t really know what they’re talking about because we just don’t have the data and studies and information on the market to really know what’s going on and what has gone on.

    The spirit-ists have a difficult time separating out the spirit from sentimentalism (and it’s appendages).

    etc. etc. etc.

    Of course, I find myself in all of the above categories.

  138. Mark Butler says:

    Yes, but I said great art.

  139. Let me just add that no art is made outside the box. It’s simply a matter of choosing boxes (and what you do inside the box with the materials that it comes with).

    I also say this: Alan Rex Mitchell’s _Angel of the Danube_ is better than Saul Bellow’s _Henderson the Rain King_. Mitchell is not a better writer than Bellow (not even close). But his debut novel (and only published novel — and the fact that his second novel isn’t published is an indictment of both the Mormon and the American publishing cartels) is better than one of Bellow’s early novels.

  140. Great art is overrated.

  141. Wm, I’m going to disagree with you about Mitchell vs. Bellow.

  142. How so?

  143. Pardon me, but the box is not THE BOX, it is Mormonism.

    Thinking outside the box of life is to destine yourself to poverty or martyrdom, at least distain.

    But if you want an interesting treatise on what the box looks like from inside a really controlling religion, read “My Name is Red” by our newest Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk.

    Art and the Ottoman empire.

  144. D. Fletcher says:

    If I’m in the same category as Lane Twitchell, that makes me very happy. He’s arguably the finest fine artist that was raised in the Church.

  145. D. Fletcher says:

    Hellmut, about Bach, I agree and disagree. Bach’s music, in a Baroque style, was considered old-fashioned, even in his own time. His own sons were more famous composers than he ever was. But it turns out he was the culmination of a great tradition. I think his music is sublimely perfect, and I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a contrarian, or a revolutionary.

  146. My Name is Red is a fascinating novel, but it is

    a) a novel
    b) a post-modern one at that [not that there is anything wrong with that — I love its narrative techniques, but it is a choice that has repercussions].
    c) a novel that other academic/artist Turks say is calculated more to appeal to Western European elites than to speak to or represent Turkish culture [not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s a large part of why I can relate to it. But if one finds oneself outside of the culture, one might not always recognize the value/issues of a work — I’m not saying this is the case with anyone who has posted in this thread. But it is a factor.].
    d) even if one accepts that it is an accurate aesthetic response to art and the Ottoman empire — the key word here is empire. The LDS Church is just one competing discourse in American life and its’ own discourse is highly influenced by American artistic, academic, business, political, cultural, etc. discourses.

    I guess I’m not sure exactly where we’re going with box metaphor, Bob. Is the box life? Is it Mormonism?

    It seems to me that the rewards for going out of the box of Mormonism are far greater these days than for staying inside and trying to work with what’s there. I greatly admire those LDS artists (esp. writers) who are willing to try and reach the culture from within the culture (albeit on the margins).

  147. Great art in the church = Gladys Knight.

  148. D. Fletcher says:

    Well, there’s some truth to that. Great art might come into our church via the missionaries. Gladys Knight, Neil LaBute, etc.

  149. I generally don’t talk about Art with people because I don’t actually believe in Art. So I tend to piss people off who takes it seriously.

    I think there’s such a thing as artistic genius, and it’s very rare. But most artistic endeavors I view as basically the same as crosswords, knitting or playing Tetris: something fun to do that occupies your mind.

    Is there artistic genius in the church? I have no idea. I don’t pay attention to LDS art.

  150. D. Fletcher says:

    I think very much like you, Susan.

    Usually, I find these discussions to be more about *better* art. People who attend our meetings want better songs, better lessons, better decor, better anything we can get. We don’t really need great art, and many wouldn’t know it was great anyway.

    Anyway, when I like some artistic, I don’t usually look for it in Church, or by Church people.

    I am watching Dancing with the Stars, which is partly “written” by Brian Gibson, so I guess I’m still interested in Mormons and what they do.

  151. D. Fletcher says:

    I think very much like you, Susan.

    Usually, I find these discussions to be more about *better* art. People who attend our meetings want better songs, better lessons, better decor, better anything we can get. We don’t really need great art, and many wouldn’t know it was great anyway.

    Anyway, when I like some art pieces, I don’t usually look for them in Church, or expect them to be by Church people.

    I am watching Dancing with the Stars, which is partly “written” by Brian Gibson, so I guess I’m still interested in Mormons and what they do.

  152. I really liked the Dale Fletcher paintings that I saw. I don’t know what this means about whether I can or can’t recognize great art. When I was in Provo, there were days when the lighting was almost perfect, and the mountains seemed to be almost close enough to touch. Some of Dale Fletcher’s paintings captured the same illusion in a masterful way. Instead of building a painting from shapes and outlines and altering colors deliberately to suggest the distance of distant objects, he set out to copy the colors in front of him and their locations onto the canvas, and I think that he did it well.

    According to AML-List Review: Utah Painting and Sculpture, he joined a pyramid cult in 1978.

  153. One of my favorite definitions of Art is anything we do that isn’t for survival or reproduction. I read it in a book about comics a long time ago by Scott McCloud.

    Going to Church is art, and I like that.

  154. I think the reason that we don’t have great art is because a great artist often has to be sponsored so that they can dedicate their every moment to art. The Church would not sponsor someone, and “dedicating every moment” would possibly not be looked on favorably in our Church. We are largely a Church of “well-rounded” individuals (think Personal Progress and Scout badges and Home Enrichment), dabbling in Choir and Road Show sets.

    Besides, similar to what D. Fletcher said, there are so few in the Church who would know great art if they saw it. It would be very difficult to be the inspired art genius when surrounded by people who are jumping to buy that violin and roses print. You certainly would have a small circle of appreciators.

  155. Usually the best art appreciators I know in the Church are men (maybe that is to JDC’s point that emotions get in the way of the judging). The Finlinson brothers that I know are incredible interior decorators. Bruce Finlinson is the head interior decorator for the large temples in the world, one of the most notable being the Nauvoo temple. These guys know art. And they know of the best artists inside and outside of the Church around the world. Their comments would be interesting here.

  156. John Cline says:


    That comment about art basically being the same thing as tetris or a word puzzle is a comment made from an unfortunate position of ignorance.

    The Sistine Ceiling Fresco = Tetris

    Does anyone else see the problem here?

    If all you get out of art is the same pleasure of a tetris game, maybe all you have to bring to a work of art is the intellectual strength of a tetris game.

  157. I found the short book, “On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art” by James Elkins useful in understanding some of the broader issues of art history and criticism that bear on this topic. Elkins teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

  158. The best current Mormon author I’ve read is Brady Udall; I have no idea if he’s practicing, but he’s good.

    I wonder if the problem with Mormon artists is the focus: we’re aspiring (if I remember Orson Whitney’s and Pres. Kimball’s statements correctly) to be Shakespeares and Beethovens. Both are timeless, and will presumably resonate with people forever. However, if I were to write Shakespearean plays, or compose Beethovian music, today, it would be derivative and forgettable.

    Could our problem be, instead of conformity, a fear of confronting contemporary culture? While I accept that there are timeless themes to be confronted, those timeless themes have to be contextualize aesthetically; again, releasing Sgt. Pepper’s today would be a yawn, because it was done (although Brian Wilson’s Smile sounded pretty darn good).

    If I’m right, the solution is to immerse both Mormon artists and Mormon consumers of art in today’s art world, so that we know how to produce and, when it’s produced, appreciate and be uplifted by (note that I felt uplifted by Wilson Pickett this morning, so I’m not advocating a narrow definition of “uplifting”) Mormon art that isn’t derivative or lame.

  159. I don’t know samb, it seems to me that most LDS art is derivative of current art–though right behind the crest of the new wave. I think artists should have a comprehensive training beginning from the “beginning” and working right up to the present. Then let the chips fall where they may as LDS artists *both* live their religion and are true to their artistic sensibilities–in that order. “That order” because the former will inform the latter.

  160. John Cline, read my comment again.

    Artistic genius = The Sistine Ceiling Fresco

  161. D. Fletcher says:

    samdb has an important point, though. One of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with Mormon pop music is that I’d like to have some distance between Church and the radiowaves. I don’t like to think of our Church as bowing down to popular trends.

    And a lot of gospel music reminds me of a culture overwhelmed by hedonistic images and ideas. Not that the gospel music itself is sinful, but the sounds of gospel have been widely incorporated into secular, popular music.

    I don’t have any trouble with any of that, except when someone decides to use it in our services. It just seems wrong, to me.

  162. “The Church would not sponsor someone, and “dedicating every moment” would possibly not be looked on favorably in our Church.”
    At one time, the Church did do this. They sent young LDS artists to Europe in order to train them to work on temples and what not. Isn’t that how Minerva Teichert got going?

  163. D., Perhaps I misunderstood samb, but it sounded like he(?) was saying that LDS artists need to be informed as to current artistic trends (including those of the more popular variety) so as to not produce “lame” mormon art–the “lameness” being the result of “derivative” work.

  164. D. Fletcher says:

    Yes, that’s what I think he’s saying too. (He?)

    I was just chiming in that I agree. I’m not opposed to pop music per se, but I wish the music for our services to be… something different, though I’m not at all sure what it could be.

    I’ve tried to merge a couple of things in my church music — a folk heritage we get from the Pioneers, who were just white anglo-saxon protestants, for the most part, with a richer hymnody found in modern Protestant churches, in a throughline from Vaughn-Williams, Benjamin Britten, etc.

    It sounds mostly like John Rutter, but that’s the kind of church music I like best, admittedly.

    I think Mac Wilberg does the same thing.

    The music is very American, middle-class sounding, so it probably won’t work well across the world. Oh well.

  165. Oops, I need to finish.

    However, it seems that samb was suggesting that the lameness will come of derivative work which reflects a more distant or removed style or genre. Whereas I was suggesting that mormon art tends to be derivative of current artistic trends though just behind the crest of the wave.

    At any rate, what we get big-time from most LDS artists is extremely derivative work from current trends. So I guess I don’t exactly see how samb’s proposal will work.

    Maybe I’m reading too much (or not enough) into samb’s comment. I don’t know…

  166. Sorry, D., we’re leap-frogging.

    I see what your getting at, and I agree. Though I’m all for anything that reflects the likes of Vaughn-Williams–call it “derivative” if one must.

  167. D. Fletcher says:

    I was mostly commenting favorably on samdb’s paragraph about being afraid of contemporary culture. I think we’re not so much afraid of it as, we would like to remain separate, somehow. I would, anyway.

    As to copying Beethoven, if somebody could actually do it successfully, more power to ’em! If you’re gonna copy, copy the best.

    I’m not advocating Beethoven’s sound as appropriate for our meetings, though.


  168. Someone wrote earlier that art is about being vulnerable. I like that.

    I know how I feel when I stand in front of a Rothko and I know how I feel when I see a Del Parson work. There is no comparison in my mind.

    I remember the first time I saw Picasso’s Guernica. The inhumanity and tragedy. Maybe it’s not great art, but it moves me. I find myself vulnerable and I embrace works that make me feel connected, that my fears, my doubts are shared by another. another who can express it better. Perhaps its all subjective.

    In varieties of Religious Experience William James discusses the different personalities in religions. Perhaps Lamb of God and such films are great art for some. I only know that for me, I am a brooding dane. My joy in art almost always comes from a sense of being part of humanity, warts and all.

    I dont see why the spirit cant operate with Beethoven as well as Mos Def. I think what matters is what the person feels and thinks inside. We bring our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs to any work (art, literature, music, etc.)

    I find the spirit moves me more based on whats going on inside rather than any external art form. Its not testifying as to the art, but the way I see the art.

  169. Oh and some of you might like stuff by Matt Harding, an LDS musician. Check his stuff out on itunes.

  170. or

  171. The problem with religious visual art is that it aims for the impossible. Truth can only be conveyed by the Spirit and (in my opinion) the Spirit does not work through representational art. If the Spirit worked that way God would never have commanded us not to make and worship graven images. (I am not against art, just opposed to any notion that visual art can invoke the Spirit. )

    My reservations about music are not as encompassing but I do have reservations about the role of music in conveying truth and invoking the Spirit. To say more would jeopardize my anonymity.

    But poetry and literature have real potential….

  172. Mark Butler says:

    George D.,

    I do not see that as a necessary limitation in either case – it is a more difficult task perhaps, but the work of the Spirit seems to be to be completely dependent on the viewer / listener / reader realizing or at least feeling the significance of what is being represented or conveyed.

    In the visual arts, it seems to me that significance or meaning is usually derived from non-visual sources, especially cultural ones. But some sources such as the common experience of humanity or the glories of God’s creation or the way we fall short are so universal that words of any kind are hardly necessary to be brought to mind at all.

  173. Jeffrey Royal says:

    These arguments of religious experience trumping all art are simply ridiculous. How often does the Spirit actually communicate a definate message? Meaning, showing you an image or speaking to you in the English language. I can think on the top of my head of only a few. Those who think only the spirit teaches truth are bound to be led astray by their own ecstasies, interpreting some passing feeling as God’s truth to whatever they feel is valid. It’s like missionaries who are so bound to be led somewhere that God leads them to a street to tract with no homes on it. Relying solely on religious or spiritual experience is dangerous, and you will seek to invent such experiences just to receive your subjective “truth.” And to clarify, these experiences ought to be more than waffling impressions or strange ineffable feelings; they ought to have some substance and meaning to them.

    Look at how God communicates in dreams and visions, aiding our understanding of truth with our visual senses. Words themselves are art and convey meaning. Art is needed and we would not understand as much truth without it (by the way, art need not be only visual, as I know you know, just clarifying this).

  174. Jeffrey Royal says:

    Pingback, this feeling of the spirit, is indeed a subjective term. It generally is referred to as a feeling of “sugar, spice, and all things nice” a la Galatians fruits of the spirits. Of course, that verse has nothing to do with how the spirit feels, but rather the effects of following it in your life, but it is applied this way. Hence, wading away from this spiritual sensationalism and evangelism, being touched by the Spirit ought to be less a striking of chords on one’s spiritual strings and more referred to as a mental illumination. It involves a specific communicable and pragmatic message from God that involves guidance through one’s life or an impression to do something for another person or make some decision. If this doesn’t come, one might question if they are indeed experiencing God’s illumination and not just indigestion, or a personal bias or fear which keeps them from accepting something which is quite fine in the eyes of God.

  175. One problem in this thread (and often in the university) is that what constitutes good art is never defined. So we can just go ahead and say, “That was a terrible movie” or “That painting is just kitch” without bothering to define what we mean.

    There are at least two issues at stake here, one involving communication of an idea or of a truth and one involving the purposes of art (which may include communication but may not).

    Resolving those issues is necessary before the question regarding the Spirit can be resolved.


  1. […] What does it really mean when Mormons say they “feel the Spirit”? According to this thread, “feeling the Spirit” equates to positive emotional reactions to bad art. If this is true then the Spirit is particularly adept at pulling heart strings. Let’s call this “feeling the Spirit” via a lump in the throat. […]

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