Let’s Talk About Art

Yesterday, Steve Evans informed me I have the honor of following Richard Bushman as a guest-poster at BCC. OH! Cool! The Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman? Sure, I’d love it if you posted me right behind him- me, sitting here with kids five, three and not-yet-one, in my fuzzy pink bathrobe with baby-spit spots, ignoring my kids’ pleas for more apple juice as I try and string together coherent thoughts? Greeeeaat. Yes, do let’s follow Mr. Bushman.

My name is Tracy M, and I am a convert. An adult convert, going on four years now. Married with three Monkeys children. In a former life, I was an artist who got paid for making art, now I just make art to stay sane in a household where I am allegedly in charge, but really the Monkeys rule the roost. I write for myself and for Mormon Mommy Wars, as well as run a design company from my home. In my spare time I ignore e-mails from Steve Evans asking me to write for him, too.

So let’s talk about art. A few weeks ago, J. Daniel Crawford wrote an intriguing post on how terrible and shallow the pool is for LDS art. I have to agree with him- and his thesis. My own thesis is a little different, but I am looking at it from the vantage point of the artist: Happiness does not beget fine Art.

Art, brilliant, moving, earth-shaking, societal changing Art comes from the planes of agony, broken dreams, pain, suffering and torment. The gospel brings joy- it, to a large part, normalizes our lives and connects us to a larger network of souls who, in some recognizable form, believe as we do. This is not the stuff of great Art.

The very best art I personally have ever created came from the darkest times of my life- it is how you survive when you don’t have the light of God. That doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t like art- but the pictures I painted to survive, while they may (or may not) be brilliant, I guarantee they are not something Sister Johnson would want to hang over her davenport.

The great artists in history created because they had to in order to survive- and I speak of spiritually, not just of getting their next meal. They were driven to create; Art is a madness of sorts. Look at Mozart and Beethoven, look at Shakespeare. Look at any of the great painters- especially the great painters. Their best, brightest works come from the darkest days of their lives. There are always exceptions, but by and large, angst begets Art.

But here is the thing about Art born of spiritual darkness- it really can be a flashlight to find your way out. My paintings, nowhere near masterful, but full of rage and beauty and questions, while likely offensive to many church members, are what led me out of the darkness and into a real relationship with God.

I don’t paint like that anymore. I don’t need to- and this is the very reason so much LDS art is “bad” or “kitschy”. There is also the threat of social stigma when you belong to a large group who subscribe to similar beliefs- but that’s another thought entirely.

People want happy pictures for their walls. People want sunshine and flowing robes. Most people don’t want to see the inner workings of another soul’s struggle to find the light- it’s not pretty.

My old paintings are a roadmap of sorts- a tangible record of my own searching for God- and as thus, are my treasure. While no one in the LDS world would want my paintings next to their FHE chart, they are nonetheless, still a testament of the Lord. In the darkest hours, crying with rage onto a canvas, I found God already there, waiting for me.

But no one wants to hang that over their sofa


  1. D. Fletcher says:

    Interesting, Tracy. I agree with the theoretical point that the Church is comforting to many people, and therefore antithetical to the making of great art.

    I might go further, and say that the actual impetus for making art comes from pain.

    Additionally, some artists actually seek pain in order to enable their art.

  2. D. Fletcher- I agree completely, and evidentally did not make my point very well if that didn’t come accross!

  3. Wow. That’s some good posting.

    Thank you, you’re saying something really interesting here.

  4. D. Fletcher says:

    I think there could be better art in the Church, and it would most likely come from converts like yourself. The expression would be juxtaposing the light of Christ with the pain of the artist’s previous life.

    Artists raised in the Church (like myself) seem to have to look for the negative qualities of membership, in order to enable their art. Or, in order to make their art any good.

    Sorry, this is incoherent…

  5. Interesting idea, Tracy. The problem I have with angst-creates-art, however, is that, more often than not, angst-ridden art is as bad as kitschy art (see, for example, any teenager’s poetry). Some artists seem to transcend the self-absorption of angst to create something truly masterful. I think it’s harder (because art needs conflict and dissonance), but is there any reason to think that an artist couldn’t also transcend happiness to create great art?

  6. Welcome, Tracy. Do you have any pictures of your art we can see?

    I don’t completely follow your argument, because I think (a) there are many Mormons in pain (who could theoretically produce angsty art), and (b) art produced through pain does not have to be dark and gloomy.

  7. (As examples of great happy art, how about Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” or Stevie Ray Vaughn’s album _In Step_ (which he released after getting out of rehab to celebrate partying sober)?)

  8. D. Fletcher says:

    But that brings up an interesting question, Ronan.

    If somebody created dark and gloomy art for the Church, wouldn’t it be ignored or even censored?

    I’m not saying you’re not right — I’m saying the Church doesn’t want art, and doesn’t recognize great art anyway.

  9. Art produced from pain certainly does not have to dark and gloomy- case in point- Eine Kliene Nachtmusik from Mozart- penned in the darkest days of his life. But that doesn’t change the fact that pain was the impetus… and the Gospel brings peace.

    And yes, I do think the Church, by and large, would ignore painful/dark art. The Church is in the realm of uplifting- and like I said, Sister Johnson doesn’t want my soul-seeking over her couch.

    Unfortunately, this forum would be entirely inappropriate for me to post photographs of my paintings, but thanks for asking.

  10. I agree that pain fuels art. I painted and drew regularly in my confusing late teenage years, but as I began to develop a spiritual life, I slowly stopped painting and drawing. I tried a few spiritually-fuelled pieces, but never got past the rough sketch phase.

    However, I also have to believe that art is not merely the overflow of the soul’s pain. It is and can be an impetus for social change. It can make a point, it can draw the viewer’s attention to some problem or societal ill, it can push for change. Art isn’t always done merely “for art’s sake.”

    I’ve wondered whether or not this type of art and literature has a place in LDS culture. On the whole, we don’t react to dissent very well, and I have a feeling that if a work of art or literature were overtly critical of even culture, if not the Church itself, it would be quickly marginalized and wouldn’t enjoy the wide, mainstream audience it was intended to address.

  11. If what you write is so, then art is sick and ought not be sustained through a lifetime. Don’t bleed for my consumption. I recall some interview with the Police singer Sting about how his mother died, so he wrote an album. His father died and he wrote another album. Then he realized he was waiting for the next tragedy to illuminate him and that that wasn’t a healthy basis for a career.

  12. Heck, I don’t want my soul seeking over my couch! The painting are vaulted at the moment, because my children should not see them until they are much older and able to comprehend more…

  13. Steve Evans says:

    John Mansfield, was that realization by Sting around the same time that he started doing movie duets with Bryan Adams? Cuz maybe he should have stuck with the tragedy instead of putting out complete pablum.

  14. Steve M- Certainly Art can be the impetus for social change- but again, I say, the basis is railing out against somthing perceived as injust, a desire to change the status quo- again, angst in it’s own colors. VERY seldom is Art just an overflow of happiness.

    I never bled for someone else’s consumption- I bled trying to find my own soul and a way out. The same way and reasons most Artists do.

  15. See, in Art created this way, product is incidental. It’s the process. The process is everything…

  16. S. P. Bailey says:

    There is some truth in there, but I have to disagree. I agree that Mormons tend to shy away from the kind of conflict that animates art. But is that tendency distinctively Mormon? In a sense, such shying away seems antithetical to our understanding of the Atonement–it leads people to paint rosy pictures that seem to question whether the Atonement is necessary at all!

    Mormonism–and more specifically the access Mormonism grants to the full blessings of the Atonement through the priesthood–does not instantly immunize people from the suffering and darkness of mortality. Mormons have hope of Salvation, but for now, we still feel pain. Accordingly, I think there is nothing essentially Mormon that prevents Mormon artists from energizing their art with real pain-born conflict and tension.

  17. Let me just be the first to point out that this is a pretty Romantic view of “Art” and Nate O. will come along soon to kick over your sandcastle. But I love the post, Tracy. My mom’s an artist and her sources of inspiration are a constant surprise to the rest of us.

  18. Sure it’s romanticized- but I don’t have the space or resources to write a dissertation about the subject- this is the Readers Digest version of my take.

  19. VERY seldom is Art just an overflow of happiness.

    I never said that it was…

    Self-expression is at the core of art. I know that very well. I, too, am an artist. Although I don’t paint as much these days, I still do quite a bit of writing (particularly when I’m upset or depressed), which has always had the same therepeutic effect as painting and drawing used to for me.

    But I don’t think that art should be strictly viewed as an outlet for pain or a means of working through that pain. I think many artists use their work as a tool to draw attention to things which they perceive are unjust, in the hopes of encouraging change. I know this wasn’t the point of your original post, but as somewhat of a tangent, I thought I’d ask the question of whether or not this type of art can exist in LDS culture.

  20. C’mon Tracy, at least post a link or something!

  21. no, by “Romantic” I didn’t mean it was lovey-dovey or through rose-colored glasses; I was thinking more of Romanticism.

  22. Sorry. I just can’t. The purpose of the post wasn’t to draw attention to my own work- I only used it as example because it’s what I know.

    Back on-topic now.

    Steve M.- Your point is well taken. i hope my reply did not come off as dismissive. Art is not only an outlet for pain- I still make art almost daily- but it isn’t the same calliber nor medium of what I used to make. And that’s OK.

  23. D. Fletcher says:

    I don’t view art as an outlet for pain.

    But I do think that pain is the main enabler of art. When one feels happy, comfortable, secure, tensionless… one may not need to get that across to other people.

    Creation is friction. Having a baby is so painful, one would think no one would ever do it twice. And yet, that friction makes a valuable creation, so valuable that people want that feeling over and over, which is tantamount to “seeking” the pain involved.

    I think a case could be made for art being “born” in a similar way.

  24. YES!

  25. Tracy,

    So this is why so many of the best artists seem like they are in so much pain? My casual reading about some of the worlds best artists reads like a tragedy. The suicides, drug addictions etc. The pain begats the best art?

    How does say a musician play into this? Same basic format? Or is Music less so. Or do differnet types of music have different levels of pain associated? What is your take?

  26. bbell- My take, which I considered adding, is that music is no different… So many of the very best artists reside on what I think of as “The Heroin Plain”- medicate…dose…make art. Not healthy, not happy, but the product, in music, is as breathtaking as a flame to a moth.

  27. But D. Fletcher, the pain of birth you speak of is just the fact that hard work is hard, not that pain is inspirational.

  28. Thomas Parkin says:

    Not only does the Atonement, or mebership, not immunize us from pain – because we become more alive we can actually become more sensitive to our pain. I was immunized from my pain by drinking, porn, strippers, etc. I now feel my pain because my connections have had a good scrubbing. I also feel my joy, and I see beauty where I’d forgotten how to see it.

    I don’t think it’s that Mormons have less pain. I think it is simply a fact that the culture of the church has recoiled from difficult communication. As I’ve said before, I think that is changing, and changing fast (as quickly as the turning radius of a big conservative organization that is more than anything concerned with doing the right thing will allow), and that in time we will see better art, more difficult and satisfying art.


  29. D. Fletcher says:

    As I’ve said twice now, I don’t believe art is an outlet of pain. Pain itself is not inspirational. The pain of childbirth doesn’t make you want to have another child (unless you’re really a weirdo).

  30. D Fletcher- I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but Art absolutely IS an outlet for pain. I would likely be dead or insane if not for my ability to paint. Pain may not be “inspirational” but to get away from it, you delve in and make Art.

    Am I misunderstanding you?

  31. Tracy you could at least post some pics of the work you do now. Designing fabrics, isn’t it? Or textiles? My brain’s a lame one.

    I wonder if there’s a difference between the drive to create something and the drive to express something.

  32. Susan, you know how technologically stunted I am! My current work is designing textile patterns and baby accessories. Much more “design” based than fine art.

    There actually are not even any digital images of my older paintings, thus, no links. They are vaulted, and I would have to go to a tremendous amount of work to get them out and have them photographed. Something I need to do for posterity, but not gonna happen today.

    I’m really sorry, but I REALLY was not trying to draw attention to my own work… It was just the example I had to draw (sic) from to support my thesis.

    Thanks for all the interest, though.

  33. D. Fletcher says:

    I guess you’ve misunderstood, but I’ve never been comprehendable my entire life. Particularly not when talking about art.

    I think we make art to work through our pain. That’s why we make art. Any art, not just great art. In order to make great art, you’ve got to have a great talent, you need something to inspire you (the Church could be this), and you need something to keep you working at it.

    A happy feeling is less conducive to motivating one to complete art. It can be done, but it’s just less motivating.

    Pain is something you want to be over. You do what you can to have it end. Happiness is a less urgent state.

    An artist in pain will work through the pain to create something great, with the idea that the fulfillment of greatness will help alleviate the pain. Ironically, even when this happens, the artist will “seek” more pain, in order to start the process over again.

    So, this is why I say, pain isn’t inspirational, but it is enabling. Clearer?

  34. MikeInWeHo says:

    I lead art therapy groups for seriously mentally ill patients from time to time. Their work is remarkable. Many of them cannot articulate their feelings very well (verbally), but can do so through art. They often feel better after they do so.

    The link between creativity and madness is well established and increasingly well understood. Went to a wonderful lecture once that showed how clearly Vincent Van Goth’s art tracked the cycles of his apparent bipolar disorder.

  35. D Fletcher- I have a feeling we are basically in agreement, only using different language to communicate… clearer. Thank you.

    MikeWeHo- I would have loved to see that about Van Gogh… He was one of the examples I was going to use, but I soon found myself way over my head. Thanks for the comment.

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    Has anyone else been watching “Heroes” on NBC? The guy who can tell the future in his paintings has to get high for the process to work.

  37. KathleenP says:

    I read your post, then went off to clean bathrooms, and found in the time I was away, 31 posts have appeared. But I am going to write what I was thinking about in my housewife-philospher mode. It was when I read (age unremembered) George McDonald’s At the Back of the West Wind–specifically his comment that goodness is rarely portrayed well in literature while the bad characters are frequently compelling–that I began thinking about how often it is that pain propels art. It always seems to be the most interesting. For some people the art stops when the pain is resolved, but others do go on to explore life from another platform. Think of the mature Rembrandt or Matisse. And no, I don’t want dark pictures over my sofa. I am in a position to watch middle-aged and elderly volunteers. I know what they are facing in the way of health problems, declining abilities, financial woes, family troubles, but what they do when they are together is laugh, a lot. When the pain is no longer news, then I think true artist, in life and art, finds his or her way to other subjects.

  38. Kevin, you came around just in time. I was about to say that we should call this the Heroes art paradigm.

    I don’t understand why a person should think that an artist has to be hurting to do great art. Pain can drive a creative urge, but there are a lot of other powerful emotions in the human psyche that should be as influential.

    Greed for example.

  39. How many artists do you think paint their greed? ;)

    …there are a lot of other powerful emotions in the human psyche that should be as influential.

    Should, maybe, but by and large, aren’t.

    I’m not argueing for wallowing in pain, by the way, I’m just sayin’, much (not all, mind you) of the great art through history has pain as the impetus.

  40. Rosalynde says:

    Tracy, I’m intrigued: what do you have in mind when you cite Shakespeare? Also, what do you make of the fact that all sorts of troubled folks put out crappy stuff, too? Thomas Kincaid, for example.

  41. Gilgamesh says:


    The difference is that greed is not admired by others. The ability to express the anguish of a soul is. There is a difference in art that is made through greed and art that enters and explores the soul.

    This discussion, and the role of art, is similar to the idea of religious ecstacy, which was highlighted in the movie The Apostle. Basically the low times highten the freedom that “grace” brings. This is why many pastors/clergy fall in and out of sin (i.e. the “preacher” in States of Grace). It is not to be a sinner, but to be in relationship with the experience of redemption on a consistent basis. I see this similar to the artist that cannot stop self-destructive behavior. It is not because they want to self destruct, but they want to be in tough with that creative/tredemptive side of themselves.

  42. Gilgamesh says:

    That was “be in TOUCH with that creative/redemptive side

  43. Ugh — Rosalynde, the Painter of Light (TM)? My eyes!!

  44. Rosalynde- Admittedly, literature is not my strongest point of reference in the Art world, but I was, in particular, thinking of Hamlet, and how Wills lost his son in infancy, how he moved away from his wife to live in London for years… it’s not a jump to suppose there was internal strife for him to create. Of course, I am only supposing.

  45. As far as Kincaid- I second Steve- AGH! MY eyes! Maybe he is living proof of evil? (of course I jest!)

  46. Rosalynde says:

    Er, yeah, I said Kincaid was crappy. And troubled. Just to point out that trouble is not reliably the stuff of good art.

    Tracy, thanks for clarifying. We know so very little about Shakespeare’s personal life that it’s mostly fruitless to try to psychologize his work.

    What’s interesting about this discussion is that artists so often promote a version of art very similar to the one Tracy has laid out here, while critics mostly reject it. So whose a more reliable guide to the work itself—the artist or the critic? Dunno. Artists have a strong interest in propagating a glamorized and mystical idea of art, and often they will deliberately mislead or obfuscate. On the other hand, critics have a number of vested interests, too.

  47. Hmmm… I hope I’m don’t come across as trying to promote anything here, Rosalynde. I’m not trying to glamorize or mysticize art- it really is quite the opposite. In attempting to theorize why so much LDS art is kitschy, this is the working conclusion at which I have arrived- based on my own experience.

    Perhaps I should see this as more of a challenge- to create some better LDS art ( and there are some good ones- just not very marketable ones, and that’s another fish to fry altogether).

    Artists, throughout history, in order to make a living at their craft, must be marketable. It is a perenial problem- since ususally the art that is marketable is not the art the artist is interested in making. And then the artist dies, and suddenly his/her work is in high demand. And off I go glamorizing… ;)

  48. S. P. Bailey says:

    Detailed psychologizing of the bard may be fruitless, but the commonplace that Shakespeare had a dark period that gave birth to the great tragedies (Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth) seems uncontroversial to me. And these plays grapple so strikingly with all kinds of ambiguity and suffering. Surely there was something personal and painful behind it all…

  49. Rosalynde says:

    LOL, S.P. Any formulation that refers to Shakespeare as “the bard” ought to be tossed out without any ado at all, in my view! Yours and Tracy’s may well be the common wisdom—I honestly don’t know, and I haven’t read any of the popular biographies of Shakespeare. But it’s far from the consensus in the contemporary critical literature. Anyway, this is way off topic. Apologies.

    Tracy, no worries, I know your post was written in good faith, and I don’t doubt that it reflects your experiences. But like I said, I wonder whether artists’ experiences are really the best guide to art. I really don’t know.

  50. Ros: “I wonder whether artists’ experiences are really the best guide to art.”

    Rosalynde, in what sense? what is your guide to art attempting to show? How it’s made? What it’s for?

  51. S. P. Bailey says:

    RW: you didn’t notice the smile on my face as I typed the words “the bard?” (I suppose consensus in the contemporary critical literature holds that I should have used the extended “bard of stratford-upon-avon,” right? I mean, help me out! I am no bardologist and only an amateur bardolatrist!)

  52. It’s just one fragment of the same picture, but a long time ago I wrote on T&S that Mormon artists seem to have an Iago problem. They don’t really have the capacity to portray pure evil, and that might lead to an inability to create Shakespearean level art. See http://www.timesandseasons.org?p=349 ; for a follow up, see http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2390 .

  53. a lago problem?

  54. I’m an idiot that’s an i no an l. hahaha!

  55. William Morris says:

    Re #46:

    The critic, of course.

    Steve: I am deeply hurt that Nate gets credit for the Romanticism argument. I at least deserve some of his reflected glory.


    Here’s the thing: Any Mormon who doesn’t feel deep pain at the travails of this world (personal, familial, communal, etc.) isn’t paying attention. We have a God who weeps, a Saviour who mourns, and an enemy who plots. We live in a fallen world — there’s plenty of pain and anger and evil.

    Although I am willing to concede that the drive to art may be greater for those artists who believe that that is the only way to express themselves, this whole canard about Mormons not being able to create great work because they are somehow sheltered or not angsty enough needs to be retired.

    Also: Here’s my take on Mormons and kitsch. Simply put, I think if any, the theological/Church practices and rites factor is much, much smaller than the economic one. Mormons like kitsch because they have become bougie — joining the middle class has moved them away from their folk art roots (as have 20th century changes in the marketplace for art). Mormons also like post-punk and cool design (speaking for myself and many other Bloggernacle participants who have made their tastes known) because they have become bougie.

  56. We’d have plenty of mormon shakespeares, Van goghs, and whomever if mormons weren’t so dependant on reassurance from the church and church members. Don’t worry about making safe art for Mormons and just create honest, thought-provoking, emotional art. Why does it need to be something that the church would distribute, or members would want to hang in their homes. I think we need to seperate our standards for living and for entertainment, from our standards for art. I mean, we all love shakespeare, but his work was hardly PG rated, and neither is life. If our art truly represents/characterizes life in an honest and meaningful way, its not going to be squeaky clean. These discussions pop up on the ‘bloggernacle’ all the time, and I don’t really understand why anyone cares about salt lake giving some sort of stamp of approval to their work.

    Sorry, that wasn’t meant to sound so harsh.

  57. I go to Costco, and look what happens!

    Whoa. I don’t care about SLC giving my work any approval. However, as a side-note, if you are going to make a sustainable living as an LDS artist, the facts are you need to be widely marketable. Painting LDS themes already narrows your market substantially, and if you are supporting your family, you darn well better sell some artwork. But that’s another tangent.

    This whole cannard about Mormons not being able to create great works of art becasue they are somehow sheltered…

    Whoa again. I never said that. I am not filled with angst anymore- and my art still can rock the boat. I said:

    Happiness does not beget fine art.

    and I stand by my thesis.

    I think we have gone tangentally from a broad spectrum of emotions, which is where I was at in OP, off into just the realm of “pain=art” and that is not what I meant to convey.

    The human gamut of emotions manifests in a kaleidoscope of ways… the pressures, highs and lows of life are something we universally deal with. The same emotions that might make one person write, another gossip, another be violent, another turn introspective, just to name a few, are the same pressures of life that an artist expresses in paint (or a million other medium).

    I’m Mormon. And, I am fully capable of creating art. And, now my kids are crying and I need to go be mama.

    Carry on.

  58. Tracy, I’m late to this discussion but I want to agree with this post and the points that you made. I used to be “an artist” of sorts. I made experiental films and they were okay — but full of pain and angst and the mental images that go along with emotions that are in despair, sin, self-hate, and all that other stuff. They had weird sexual undertones to them and used disturbing imagery (for the time period I guess). Since I’ve been married, and especially since I’ve had kids I don’t think I could get to that place to sustain a project like that anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t have despair — it just means that I’m not in the same constant turmoil I used to be in on a nearly daily basis! Just yesterday some of my self-hatred images came into my mind because I was having a cruddy day, and my film images popped into my head. So, even though we all have our dark hours or days, my best art was created when I was viscerally in a different place. I don’t think I could make the same films now as I did then, although I could try (but I wouldn’t really want to put my head back into that space – you know?)

    I’m not sure if it’s a matter of “good art” vs. “bad art”, but in general, I think Happy Campers don’t make art that is as interesting, because when all is well, all is well, and there’s just not a lot to say about it.

  59. We’re a hundred years on in the cult of the artist–more actually. The artist is the advance guard of human consciousness, creating original insight and expanding our understanding, at first replacing the priest as the mediator between us and the divine, and then replacing the divine as the source of value.

    I quite like the fact that the new film showing in the Joseph Smith Building about the early history of the church runs no credits. There were many artists involved in this work, but it wasn’t about them. Such little things give me hope that Mormonism can contribute to a new (and ancient) understanding of art.

    Another detail that I quite like is the extremely widespread “plagiarizing” that goes on in the church, which is facilitated by the church–all those conference talks online along with encouragement to use them as sources for other teaching, but without much mention of credit. Ghastly, from the world’s perspective, but quite nice, I think, with its emphasis on getting things true and nearly no emphasis on getting credit.

    Modernism may be a huge mistake somewhat like communism, which make take us a century or so to work through. Part of the working through may involve a rethinking of the artist’s role–not as a challenger of established values or the bringer of new ones so much as a singer of deep and abiding truths.

    Angst is for children. The greatest artists die in bed, quite happy.

  60. Thanks for your thought provoking post, Tracy.

    There are good Mormon artists. Most of them are at the margins of the Mormon community.

    There are a lot of Mormons who are unhappy. Someone is taking all the anti-depressants in Utah.

    The problem is with the audience. Typically, it is not acceptable to express unhappiness or even questions in Mormon company. Exhibit #1: the infamous lead balloon moment in Sunday school.

    That’s why good Mormon artists such as Helaman Ferguson can neither stay at BYU nor remain active. They are given to understand that they are not welcome.

    Rhetoricians know that the audience determines the quality of the argument. The same is true of art.

    The kitsch will end when we refuse to support Afterglow or self-portraits maskerading as Jesus. Mormon art will prosper when we recover faith from the illusions of knowledge.

    Art will prosper when we embrace ourselves rather than the cartoon of who we are supposed to be.

    Like prophets, artists will always be at the margins of society. That’s the nature of the enterprise.

    The problem with the Utah brand of Mormonism is that respect is our idol. We try to buy it with conformism. When we give a little respect to outsiders then we will be a quality audience. That’s when art will return the prophetic spirit in our midst.

  61. Hellmut, do you know any other university math departments with full-time sculptors on the faculty?

  62. I have developed and idiosyncratic definition of “good” art:

    It is a critical mixture of the expected and the unexpected.

    If there is not enough unexpected, it can not be interesting. If there is nothing expected, it is confusing.

    There are plenty of people who like only the expected. These people are often the funders of large scale religious art and architecture.

    In terms of religion, people do not like the unexpected. We expect God to be regular. We do not like the intrusion of conflict and contradiction, which are the easy forms of the unexpected. If faith is our model of beautiful then there is nothing wavering, no doubting. But, in artistic terms, it is the wavering and doubting, the unexpected, which can help create the art.

    The unexpected does not have to be negative. It can be just odd and disjoint, or a new vision of an old thing. We have a really nice print by a local artist in our living room of Lighthouse Point, a local scene, but done with new insight and slight distortions and interpretations which make it a pleasure to see. (Of course, tastes vary.)

    Didactic art, by definition, contains no unexpected or interpretive elements. Therefore all Ensign art is going to look like the art from the Watchtower. Not good.

    Of course all unexpected components are not equal. When we first came around the corner of I5 in San Diego and saw the neogothic temple, I was shocked, and not in a good way. It was unexpected, alright. When the unexpected does not fit, in some way within the framework of the expected, tasteless art is the result.

    I guess I expected the temple architecture to augment the beauty of the city, the open, sunny space where land and water meet. Instead, there was this hulking, spiky, formidable building with battle turrets and archer slits, not inviting. The symbolism of the temple, the unexpected components of the building, reflected the exclusionary processes inside.

    Cultural art will reflect the culture. If a religion will tolerate no new insights, its art will be repetitive and bland, containing none of the unexpected and interpretive.

  63. The point to keep in mind is that Helaman Ferguson is doing well. He seems to be better off without us. We are the losers when our society does not enjoy his work. It’s a loss to our culture and a loss for our children.

    To answer your question, John, I don’t see a problem with a sculptor in the math department. Contributing to the arts is no different than consulting engineers full time or publishing in computer science journals.

    A discipline as fundamental as math applies to anything. Mathematics is essential to the university because it is a universal discipline.

    I can see how art would be less prestigious in the eyes of administrators than engineering. But that’s a philistine attitude that fails to recognize the essence of the university.

    Whatever the merits of other department members, the work of artists such as Helaman Ferguson remains relevant for generations. Why wouldn’t we embrace that?

  64. MikeInWeHo says:

    Yeah, what’s up with all the anti-depressant use in Utah anyway? Is that true or just DAMU legend? Probably just smart big-pharma marketing. Maybe they customize their ads for the SLC market: “Can’t have a martini? Try Paxil!” or maybe “Wellbutrin and The Word of Wisdom: Perfect Together!”

    Hellmut started me a’thinkin: A conservative, highly conformist environment such as the Wasatch Front LDS culture is an incubator for angst and depression in the significant percentage of people who can/will never fit in. Some of these people even wind up flipping out. Ergo: great artists must be born there. So I conclude there are many great Mormon artists. Where have they all gone?

  65. Art will prosper when we embrace ourselves rather than the cartoon of who we are supposed to be.

    This is a beautiful statement. Thank you.

    Bob W, you definately provide some food for thought… thanks for your comment.

  66. Who says we don’t embrace Ferguson’s work? His works received prominent display on BYU’s campus at the time. I was only a bystander taking a class from him his last year teaching, but it appeared to me that he decided to shift away from teaching and math research to spend more time on art production. You see no problem with a sculptor in the math department, but a sculptor who wants more time for sculpting may.

  67. So I conclude there are many great Mormon artists. Where have they all gone?

    I would be hard pressed to name contemporary gentile artists as well. There are some Mormons whose work I enjoy:

    Carol Lynn Pearson’s plays and poems are top notch.
    I like the painter Brian Kershisnik or however you spell his name.
    The illustrator James Christenson is interesting.
    The other day, I run into a guy who makes silk screens in Tokyo. I may have even posted a link here but can’t find it right now.
    Then there is Neil LaBute, of course.

    Anyone who is a little bit more appreciative of art will be able to find more Mormon artists who are not kitschy.

    That’s not shabby for a small population.

  68. Doesn’t all go down to the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I happen to think that inspiration can come in many forms. As a musician I can tell you what peices I play are inspired, they come in many forms and in many different eras.
    So what defines “great” art? I’m not an artist not even close, so appreciate those works that I find lovely and beautiful, where others may deem them as “terrible” because it does not fit their narrow definition of “great”

    I for one can not stand expressionistic work, whether it is art, or music, I see and feel no mode of insipiration or at least of what I define how I feel insipired. Does it work that way for someone gifted with art. I love TK, work, not that I have any in my home, but when I look at it I feel warm, invited, and wish that I had that feeling all the time.

    I love listening to the happiness of Mozart, and the wonderful works of Beethoven, give me them over Stravinsky any day!

    All in the eyes or the ears of the beholder.

    One a side note, you really are making a name for yourself Tracy, I’m glad to see you posting in so many places.

  69. I think William Morris is right. Delving into the gospel brings as much pain as it does joy. I for one would feel dishonest calling myself a disciple if I didn’t experience at least some degree of sorrow for the Savior’s suffering. I am facsinated that the Book of Mormon acutally encourages us to dwell on Christ’s sorrow: “we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world” (Jacob 1:8) That is so interesting to me.

    Does the joy of the gospel make us unable to feel sorrow? Or does it just make us not need to express it artistically? I don’t know, if there’s a shortage on sorrow in Mormondom, I wonder if it isn’t more cultural than doctrinal.

  70. So did I miss it, or has TracyM still not posted samples of her work? I, for one, would stand in line to buy a print, if it’s as good as it sounds (I mean that seriously).

    DW was an artist at one point (but for the last decade, got frustrated with art and so has put it away, which is a temporary condition, I hope). She has a lot of her own Mormon-themed art in our home. It’s not necessarily happy, but then again, she doesn’t hang signs with “UNHAPPY MORMON ART” under them.

  71. I know a visual artist who used his art to work through some “issues.” He produced a lot of crap, IMO. And then he fell into the mode of having to make a living with his art. More crap. Ah, but if you look at his earlier stuff–awesome! He did it because he loved it. Art for art’s sake.

    Most LDS artists are so hell-bent on fulfilling their “calling” as artists that they loose the true spirit of amateurism. I wouldn’t be suprised to learn that some of them haven’t a clue as to what their true artistic sensibilities really are.

  72. I meant to add that making a living with his art led him to do works that were more “conducive” to the goals of the church. Alas, more crap.

  73. I am a little late on this thread, but I HAVE to comment. As a painter myself–I studied it in college if anyone cares–I can see where Tracy is coming from with the whole Mormon Kitsch thing, it is very pervasive in the Church. However, I tend to separate religious art from spiritual art and I believe most of what we see in churches, The Ensign, etc is religious, not necessarily spiritual. Do I think there’s a reason for this? Sure, but I’m not going to go into that right now.

    My main problem with this post is the idea that all great art is born out of anger/pain, etc. I’m not saying that no great art stems from that, but that I disagree that it must be the root of all great art. (And even if the artist him/herself was in pain during that period of their life, I don’t think the “pain” neccesarily has anything to do with their art). I’ll be the first to admit while I studied fine art itself I was not a great student of art history and will not be able to back this up with Leonardo this and Michelangelo that. . . But here is my point (without going into much depth) God, being the great creator, is (as in everything) that which we truly strive to become. God, the original creator (artist, if you will) did not create out of anger or pain (yes, I know He weeps). Art has a divine purpose and is has little to do with emotions. In my experience I have never tapped into my pain (and I’ve had some) for the purpose of creating art. I’m not saying that my art is “great” but giving a different perspective here. I could really say so much more, but at the same time I can’t. Art is more than just a process and it IS about the final product as well. Pain can only get you so far. And good Mormon artists need not stray out of the Church for acceptance either . . . Maybe check out Wulf Barsch if you want some good Mormon art that is produced by someone who is also still in the Church.

  74. Miggy, thanks for chiming, even late. My original thesis was actually “Happiness does not beget fine art”. “Pain” is the emotion most often singled out by the commenters, and that is the track the discussion took. It’s not necessarily what I feel. If you scroll back up to my comment, at #57, I it sums up my feelings.

    I will check out Wulf Barsch (anyone with a name that German is worth checking out!). Thanks for the comment.

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