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.