Restraint as a form of Artistic Pain

Eons ago (in 2006), I wrote a blog post about Mormon popular art. In it I suggested that the Spirit has a tendency to testify of sincerity (rather than artistic quality) and that this explained why so much Mormon art is bad. In the comments to that section, D. Fletcher (whom I wish participated more around these parts nowadays) suggested that the reason so much Mormon art is tepid is because we are, generally, happy. Art comes from pain (much like comedy or addiction) and unless one is tormented in ways that most Mormons won’t admit great art cannot come. At the time, I thought that this was needlessly reductive; today I’m not so sure. But, that said, I have a suggestion for our artists out there (I myself not being much of one): feel the restraints of Mormon life as pain.

When I was in high school, I did not see the point of sonnets and haiku. It’s great that some poet can fulfill an arbitrary rhyme scheme, but I want to SPEAK (I was overly dramatic in high school). Constraints prevent our inner voice…except that they don’t. No-one would argue that Shakespeare or Petrarch‘s inner voice was silenced by the sonnet and, further, no-one seriously argues that either wandered about speaking in iambic pentameter every day. Placing constraints made the work harder, more painful, but that was the point.

Another example might be Iranian cinema. In Iran, there are censors who judge films on their moral worth and their sense of Islam. This sets constraints on Iranian directors who wish to discuss sensitive subjects or question the authorities. Therefore, such directors have trained themselves to speak in metaphor, in disjointed narrative, in misdirection in order to get their point across. Even the most frank of Iranian movies has, it seems to me, a kind of magical realism, because the point is often found in what is missing onscreen but implied by events. One of my favorite Iranian films, Children of Heaven, is an inoffensive story of a poor boy and girl sharing a pair of shoes. It is also a critique of class in Iran, a call for the education of women,and a pious morality tale. The movies contain multitudes because they cannot be explicit or direct.

The restraints that Mormonism places on our behavior and our comportment should be viewed as the rhyme scheme in a sonnet or the censors in Iran. The pain is in using the limits to force yourself to look inward and work harder with the available material. If we accept the limits, and the necessity of the limits, that should inspire us to find ways to transcend them. So much Mormon literature is about the maintenance of the limits; so little seems to find the value that comes from the struggle with them (that’s what they are there for, after all).

In offering this suggestion, I am woefully arrogant. There may be Mormon art that meets my criteria (The Giant Joshua comes to mind as a possibility, but I haven’t finished it yet). Certainly, James Christenson‘s work is popular and metaphorical (although I don’t like most of it). I just think that it is in the constraints, the ones in which D. Fletcher suggests we find our happiness, that we may find the pain necessary for great art.

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  1. I think artistic greatness comes from a variety factors. Pain can surely be one. Maybe one reason why the conflict of pain is not explored more often in art/lit is because Mormons are not comfortable admitting or recognizing pain to begin with. It could be seen as a personal flaw in the cultural expectation of perfection. But pain, conflict, experience, and imagination can contribute greatly to some good art, even great art.

  2. John, I heartily agree. While I’m still chafing at the restraints, perhaps it would serve art (and me) better if I tried harder to allow that restraint to motivate…

    Way back in the Eons, I followed your post on popular art with my inaugural BCC post- about this very subject. You inspired me then, too!

  3. Having just married a landscape artist, the beauty of her paintings is just nice. Has nothing to do with pain and struggle.

    I have been encouraging her to paint evil still life, however. But that would be created out of irony rather than anything else. (She seems to have a secondary talent in that direction.)

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    Someone should make a movie where Rodin’s The Kiss sculpture comes to life, its two members are anonymously referred to the BYU Honor Code office for PDA and public nudity, and they are summarily expelled from campus, only to find freedom and acceptance at UVSC.


  5. Kristine says:

    There’s a lovely essay on precisely this point by former BYU English professor Marden Clark:

    It even contains a very excellent sonnet!

  6. The restraints that Mormonism places on our behavior and our comportment should be viewed as the rhyme scheme in a sonnet or the censors in Iran. The pain is in using the limits to force yourself to look inward and work harder with the available material.

    I must have missed the “restraints” memo.

    As a (admittedly not great) writer, I’ve found great propects in the field of “shalls”: Mark 12:30-31.

    The restraints would be where?

  7. Children of Heaven is an excellent movie — a must see. It is available through Netflix.

  8. Cynthia L. says:

    Agreed #8.

  9. Nice post.

    I think the requisite pain is there because of the unique demands placed on people in Mormon society. This is evidenced by the fact that Utah leads the United States in the per capita use of anti-depressants. It also leads in the “non-prescription use” of prescription drugs.

    Whether this is due to the unique nature of Utah culture or to the LDS religion is always up for debate, but it suggests that the “pain” is still there. I think a bigger problem is actually admitting it. It is suppressed in the need for being the perfect: father/mother, spouse, home teacher, volunteer, parent, relief society president, neighbor, member missionary, businessman, etc.

    Ironically, therefore, I think one of the main things that causes the needed anguish for art in Mormonism (the lack of ability to be perfect) is also the same thing that keeps it from being expressed (the attempt to keep up the image of perfection).

  10. As a follow up to Krstine in #6. Clark has a whole book of essays called Liberating Form.


    In regards to work produced under a regime of censors: although it is true that censorship can lead to creativity within the forms and boundaries of the censor, putting specific works through the process of censorship (as opposed to letting social mores and consumer behavior creating artistic boundaries and preferences) tends to have a warping effect on both the art and the artist. Indeed, the work is often too much about the fact of censorship and how to respond in the face of such intrusion.

  11. When you say “Mormon Art”, are you talking about art created by Mormons or art that addresses a Mormon theme? Because I can agree to an extent that pain can be something that helps an artist create (though what inspires creation can very vastly from one artist to another). But maybe when an artist who is Mormon feels pain (or feels whatever it is that inspires them), they just don’t express themselves by creating images of pioneers on the plains or children playing at Jesus’ feet.

    I guess my point is that a Mormon can create great art (inspired by pain or otherwise) that would not be considered “Mormon Art”.

    And as to why there is not better “Mormon-themed art”, I would agree more with your original post about the distribution being a reason only a certain kind of art would be accepted by the community as “Mormon Art”. It’s a cultural thing.

    And if an artist can break away from the set rules of the culture, and create an inspired piece of art – I would say it would most likely not be accepted by the majority of the Mormon community. And almost certainly would not make its way into a church manual.

    But I don’t know anything.

  12. >”And almost certainly would not make its way into a church manual.”

    But would that be seen as a good or a bad thing by the average artist? Certainly, it may be initially good in terms of payoff, but is that really the forum that many artists would want their work displayed? Not being an artist, I don’t know the answer to that.

  13. I think it would be valuable to change the overall direction “Mormon Art” has been going in over the last 20 (30? 40?) years.

    And I don’t think it would be a bad forum. If it’s an honest expression of one’s faith, then why not in a manual that is used to help inspire faith in others?

  14. My advice is that we go back to the kind of art that used to be published in LDS magazines.

  15. Ardis,
    Is that a nipple?

  16. One pain that I am exploring in my own writing is the pain experienced by those who don’t fit in, but wish they did. It’s a struggle to be part of a Church where everyone looks so happy when you don’t feel that way yourself. And it’s even more painful when the issues that make you feel like an outsider (abuse, addiction, apostasy), are ones that the general church membership shuns discussing, except to condemn them.

    I remember the day I made the decision to stay in the Mormon Church. Because of some experiences, I believed that God wanted me to stay a Mormon, and my only chance to reconnect with God would be through Mormonism. I decided to stay, and then I sobbed because being a Mormon hurt more than I can possibly explain (see above paragraph about not fitting in because of hugely awful issues).

    Even though it’s tacky to promote your own blog in a comment on someone else’s, here’s mine:

    It’s fiction. When I try to write about my struggles in the short personal essays that make up blogs and the bloggernacle, I find I still can’t talk about the pain I experienced in staying Mormon. God heals pain, but it sure doesn’t always happen fast. But I believe the worst is over for me, and I’m finding the joy in being Mormon.

    (I’m not claiming I’m writing great art or anything – just fiction inspired by the pain that’s determined to hang in there until healing comes.)

  17. I would have no problem with that, Ardis.

  18. As an artist professionally and by avocation, I’ve thought a great deal about this. Emotional art comes from strong emotion. Some art is just pretty.

    Art is how the world as seen by the artist is communicated to the world.

    GOOD art does this in a way that leaves the world changed.

  19. I have so much to say on this topic, and in fact have said already much (see, for example,, but let me add just a little more.

    It strikes me to offer that pain can be a means to an end, but is not the only one. Experience, however gained, makes the artist. This is true of all people, in fact, for we are all artists in one sense or another — even if we paint in darker hues, whatever light glints off a surface and is perceptible to our senses or intelligence can be counted as art if it moves us.

    In a sense it is pointless to try and define “good art,” for how do I qualify my art as better than yours. But, coming back to the question of pain, *whatever* power moves us to a more beautiful and powerful artistic sensibility is worth discerning, and worth debating, etc. In other words, pain is certainly not the only vehicle to learn from, but it is a useful one.

    After all, the greatest manifestation of art — and if one doesn’t find it artistic, then one has a lot to learn about art — was found in Christ’s atonement, the pinnacle of all pain. In that sense, all good things, art included, are born of the greatest pain, BUT, ironically, we do not have to experience that pain to gain from it of retell it in art. Moreso, of is that particular pain most of all that we as artists ought to be learning from.

  20. <i?After all, the greatest manifestation of art — and if one doesn’t find it artistic, then one has a lot to learn about art — was found in Christ’s atonement, the pinnacle of all pain.

    I guess I have a lot to learn about art, because I’m not sure about this statement. The atonement as the most important event in human history and the center of our faith? Undoubtedly. The inspiration for much great art? Undoubtedly. But was the event itself art? I don’t know about that one. I’m not rejecting it out of hand, because I think it’s an interesting idea, but I’d have to see it developed a lot further to consider accepting it.

  21. I believe creativity is the process by which we solve problems, and therein lies the problem with so much LDS art. There doesn’t seem to be an attempt to solve a problem or state much of anything. Instead I see, and the exceptions to this are usually great, mostly portraiture of scriptural or historical figures. When the point of art is the technique or rendering capability of the artist at the expense of the subject, it is obvious. So I don’t think that pain is a necessity, but having something to say or a problem to solve is. Take that with a grain of salt, I’m about to finish up art school, but have chosen graphic design rather than fine art, largely because I like being happy.

  22. patricia k,
    Many people experience many of the commandments as constraints upon behavior. If that isn’t your experience, good?

    I think, as far as the visual arts are concerned, that Michelangelo and Leonardo (not turtles) are our Shakespeare and Milton. They were constrained by their need to please their patrons (popes). One wonders if their work would be similar if they first appeared today.

    Ars Poetica,
    I’m with Eve. I’m very interested in the notion that the Atonement as an artistic event (it makes a kind of strange sense; but I haven’t thought much about it).

    That is an interesting point. Is what I am considering pain just another puzzle to be solved artistically?

    I don’t doubt that there are a lot of good Mormon artists. I even like some of the links you posted (including yours). That said, there is, in some, including Bro. Christensen, a tendency to the twee and that is reflected in many of those links. Such just doesn’t move me, FWIW.

    I know that I’m no artist (at least not yet) and I know that I am speaking from some ignorance. I appreciate your patience.

  23. [re. to eve & john]

    Admittedly, I’m using the terms “art” and “artist” very broadly and liberally here, since some would curtail art as a mere representation of life, i.e. “still life,” fiction, verisimilitude, etc. But I don’t like to compatmentalize so easily. I have my own reasons for such a line of thought, but let’s just say that I think of God as the greatest creator — *the* Creator — and as such His “work and glory” is both the essence of not only immortality and eternal life for His children, but is also the greatest artistic expression found in all the world, hence Jesus becomes the divine manifestation of that show of God’s artistry.

    Hence, divine “passion plays,” and the ultimate archetype in all three act plays, i.e., the arch of perfect suffering, which is simultaneously the most painful thing to look on (His disciples slept), as well as the most beatifil expression of anything found anywhere in all time, in all the world.

    I confess it may be uncomfortable to think of the atonement in terms of art, but so is the notion of eating His flesh and blood, which, arguably is a definitevily artistic emblem, as not only expression, but symbol.

    I think we often don’t give the atonement its due, as it is inordinately multifaceted.

  24. I do think that pain is a problem that can be addressed artistically (although not necessarily solved, that’s what the Atonement is for). The best way that I can think of to explain it is through a potential example. Let’s say I want to paint the Savior’s Love for a piece. The problem to solve is how to portray this distinctly from other paintings, can I do it without using figures? How is my own experience reflected in the work? It is in that cerebral process that great, or at least decent art is made. During the Creation the Father and the Son obviously made the world beautiful, but those involved were clearly also intimately concerned with the purpose of everything they made. I believe art should be as concerned with the what is behind the work as the surface beauty of it. So, in my mind pain is one of many possible subjects to be dealt with but what is really needed is a commitment to approach work with a strong concept.

    I just don’t see pain as necessary to create good work. Constraints are good, but they are mostly helpful in the process of work, not necessarily in the subject of work itself. For example limiting myself to a certain typeface for a specific design piece forces creativity that complete “freedom” might not.

  25. That was kind of a ramble, but I hope it makes some sense.

  26. In regards to film, I completely agree with you about Iranian film, and in your post you sight one of my top 5 favorite movies. Everyone should see Children of Heaven and the Color of Paradise.

    Still there are some great movies made by mormons. Greg Whitely’s New York Doll and his newest film Resolved are to me necessary watches. Please put them on your Netflix cue, if you haven’t seen them yet.

    Jeff Parkin’s Jer3miah, that he created with his BYU class, is currently getting tons of recognition for his utterly mormon, groundbreaking web series.

    On another note, Matthew Barney, an ethnic mormon who happens to be married to Bjork, is hailed as his generation’s greatest artist by what seems the entire art world. His epic film series involves Gary Gilmore and uses LDS imagery.

  27. If you are lucky enough to find a painting of Christ by Bruce Hixon Smith, or to encounter Peter Myers Messiah Series, they may be the pinnacle of mormon religious paintings/prints. If you want this to be specifically about religious paintings.

    Generally, I am not drawn to paintings of Christ while visiting art galleries, centers, and museums.

  28. Susan,
    I think that the Cremaster series is what you get when a cult of personality overcomes art criticism. It is a bunch of self-indulgent tripe, in my opinion.

  29. Many people experience many of the commandments as constraints upon behavior.

    I think you might have hit on something here. If, in the context of this discussion, “many people” means “many Mormon artists,” little surprise Mormon art is hung up.

    I wonder what would happen to Mormon art if said artists experienced the commandments not as constraining, but as liberating.

    That is to say, I see no more reason to perceive the effects of living the commandments to be constraining as I see reason for the effects to be liberating. Saying that “many people experience” them that way implies that some people do not. What prospects for Mormon art might arise in that alternate commandment universe, among artists who experience the effects of living the commandments as rising awareness and freedom of thought, deed, and “experience”?

    However, in your post, there seems to be a difference between the effects exerted on art by living the commandments (submitting to God’s constraints, if that’s what they are) and the effects of living within a culture’s imposed expectations (which seems to be more what you’re posing, especially with your Iranian cinema example).

    The dynamics of those two realms—the workings of the world of God’s commandments and the workings of the world of men’s imposed constraints upon other men—I think it could be said they often come into conflict.

  30. Ironically, therefore, I think one of the main things that causes the needed anguish for art in Mormonism (the lack of ability to be perfect) is also the same thing that keeps it from being expressed (the attempt to keep up the image of perfection).

    Amen, brother.

  31. I disagree that Mormons in general are too happy and do not feel or experience great pain. We as a culture, may be taught to repress that pain and proclaim our happiness. Or perhaps we restrain ourselves in expressing that pain. I remember a conversation I had once in college upon learning that my grandfather was dying from cancer. I felt terrible anquish. My friend couldn’t understand why I felt such sorrow when I knew and understand the plan of salvation. I was a little angry that she wouldn’t acknowledge that I had the right to grieve my grandfather’s suffering and his eventual death. I don’t think that kind of approach is right. Do we need to wallow in grief or pain? No. But to deny that we feel or experience our share of real anguish or pain is naive and fails to address the variety of human experience.

  32. aloysiusmiller says:

    I believe that one reason we Mormons don’t create art is because an artist is a prophet (small p) and we tend to shy away from usurpation. We shouldn’t and finding a way to be a prophet without arrogating to ourselves the title Prophet (even by implication that is only perceived by one’s self) is a Mormon artist’s challenge.

  33. aloysiusmiller,
    I agree that art can be a form of prophecy, but I doubt it is the kind that can usurp. A tendency to build fences around the role of the president of the church may be something that is preventing our spiritual development.

  34. tesseract says:

    WHAT? Bjork is married to an ethnic mormon? How did I not know this.

  35. aloysiusmiller says:

    35. I don’t think that it is usurping but I wonder if sometimes one fears it as such in an unconscious way.

  36. Susan,
    Thanks for the links to my site and Amanda’s.

    Speaking as an artist that functions within the framework of contemporary visual art, I have a few things to say about this post.
    Pain is one thing of thousands that can inspire the creation of art. Human experience is vast and so should be the art.
    The real question is why Mormon artists feel the need to make a decision between being a Mormon or being an artist as if the two cannot coexist. There are plenty of ethnic Mormon artists out there who are incredibly talented and influential (LaMonte Young, Matthew Barney, Paul Thiebaud, Paul McCarthy, Lane Twitchell, and others). They left the church. There aren’t any successful mid-career artists that are still going to church in contemporary art. Jim Christensen and Brian Kershisnik are awesome guys and they make quality work, but their work does not function in a global contemporary art dialogue. Their importance is regional. There are plenty of young emerging artists that are on their way to a Whitney Biennial, but they seem to fall away as they gain more success. Why is this the case?
    Casey J S

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