Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ethics of "Mormon" Art

A comment in an Interview of Mormon playwrite Eric Samuelsen brought to mind some ethical and moral implication of religious writing. He said:

The public relations people for the Church have their job to do. Our job as artists is to tell real stories about real people, and not worry about ideology . . .


In Stake Conference, one speaker talked about seeing a movie with her husband, and she said something like 'we started watching the movie, and heard some bad language, and
immediately we knew we needed to leave the theater, and so we did, and it didn't even matter if we got our money back--we'd kept our thoughts pure.' We've all heard variations on that talk a thousand times. And I can't judge--maybe the Spirit was whispering to her, and maybe that movie, for her, would have been spiritually damaging. But just once before I die, I'd like to hear someone say 'I went to this movie, and I heard some bad language, and my initial impulse was to leave, but I stayed, and I had a life-changing positive experience.'
I hear all this rhetoric about 'worldly art,' and I never have any idea what they're talking about. I don't think 'worldly art' even exists. I don't think it's a meaningful distinction, between 'worldly' and 'unworldly' (or, I don't know, transcendent). I think art is a testimony, and I think it's pretty much always morally good. I do think that there's such a thing as poorly executed art.


I found his comments to be very disturbing as a religious believer. I now know I will never knowingly read, watch, or contribute to anything he ever does. A person who cannot be offended by small evils can never be saved from grosser evils.

What I mean is exactly what I said. When we give in to saying "this isn't bad because it only has one bad thing" or "this isn't bad because the rest is good," or worst of all,"this isn't bad compared to THAT thing," then it becomes harder and harder to recognize and stay away from those things that truely are bad. Too many people become sensitive to serious things by not avoiding the little things in life. Before you know it, your faith and morals are lost. Not that you think they are lost, and that is the worst part. You lose sense of right and wrong because nothing is wrong compared to THAT thing - whatever new "thing" you find worse than the other things.

I agree with OSC in his essays "The problem of Evil in Fiction" and "On Art, Morals, and Morality" in his book "A Storyteller in Zion," that we must accept that evil or wrong must be portrayed to make a story interesting and meaningful. What I don't agree with is that we must engage in evil and wrong in our stories (such as swearing) that can be described or even implied rather than used. It is a great bit of critical work on writing and religious audience. However, I don't think OSC ever said (and in fact he has said the opposite) that art was without ideology (or neutral). Anyone who uses that argument for anything is not on my list of people to support as artists.

Art is power. Those who hold power must recognize the need for judgement from every angle. Wanting the responsibility or not, artists are fundimentally PR people. If they didn't want to say something or make some kind of point about themelves or the world - no matter how trivial -they wouldn't be making art. Those who read Asher Lev might not be judging Judaism (who is to say they aren't?), but they are definantly judging the author in relation to Judaism. If you read any interviews or critism of the books, the relationship of Judaism and the author almost always comes up. I would imagine the same would happen with Mormon stories if they ever got known beyond the Wasatch Front. It certainly comes up with Neil LaBute.

Why I wouldn't want to contribute to Eric Samuelsen from his interview is that his views on art conflict too much with mine. As such, I can already tell, including the venue of where his work has been printed (a whole diff discussion), that I would be offended by his work. Even if not offended, at least uncomfortable and not in a thoughtful way. The power of any message would be soured by his approach.

I don't believe art should be institutional propaganda; outside of the institution. That is one of the reasons I think LDS art is still too conventional and boring. However, I do think there are "standards" that are tied to the institution as believers. And, tandentially, that translates into art as at least tentative institutional support.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that you can't decide what you what. You remind me of a friend who saw the documentary "New York Doll" and didn't like it because he felt that rock music was evil no matter what.
It seems that the big problem with LDS art is that it plays to the lowest common denominator in many cases. LDS art does not what to offened anyone and so it becomes listless and boring, full of simple cliches.

This is why it seems to me that choices on what a person enjoys, or creates, as art has to be made by that person, following the spirit. Who knows how a work of art which might offend one person (which is fine) influence another in a completely different way.

It just seems to me, as with so much in life, there are no fast and simple rules that can be used to define what constitutes 'good' or 'bad' art.

Jettboy said...

I actually know what I want. Just have seen it on the count of one hand. Orson Scott Card's short story "West," and his novel "Lost Boys" are examples of what I consider good representatives of what I want. Sadly, he is the only Mormon author who consistantly "gets it" when it comes to good writing.

You would have to say I am "particular" more than I am "confused" by what I would like to see. I wrote about Mormon film - a related article - expressing what I considered "good" representatives of that medium. Mind, I still think the ones I listed had a way to go to become truely good. I agree that there is no simple rule what is good and bad art. what I don't believe is that there are no rules.

Tigersue said...

I tried to get on Mormon Achipegalo also. I have a couple of blogs that I think would count. I was sure my personal one would not. In any case I did get on LDSelect, They seem much easier to work with, and I am also listed on mormon blogs. I know there has been alot of contriversy on the "running of the big blogs". That being said you could start a blog that I did that list the conservative LDS voice. I started one for LDS women, as they get locked out of the big lists because they don't deal with "church" issues, just family mind you.

I enjoy you blog, and I know my sister has the bigger conservative voice in the blogging world. I say do it for you and keep it up. We needed voices like yours out in the blogernacle.

Tigersue said...

I tried to get on Mormon Achipegalo also. I have a couple of blogs that I think would count. I was sure my personal one would not. In any case I did get on LDSelect, They seem much easier to work with, and I am also listed on mormon blogs. I know there has been alot of contriversy on the "running of the big blogs". That being said you could start a blog that I did that list the conservative LDS voice. I started one for LDS women, as they get locked out of the big lists because they don't deal with "church" issues, just family mind you.

I enjoy you blog, and I know my sister has the bigger conservative voice in the blogging world. I say do it for you and keep it up. We needed voices like yours out in the blogernacle.

Tigersue said...

Oh you might want to consider using Haloscan for your comments. I have it and I can do trackbacks. You might find that to be a good addition to your site!

Noelie said...

This was an interesting post given that my Co-writer in some fanfiction and I have a basic disagreement about our subjects.

I keep reminding her that the original set up of the creator of what we write is not that the particular people in involved were not celibate. .they just couldn't marry. Which from an LDS standpoint means that you could have some interesting discussion that "attachment' or declared love and marriage is also the ultimate in taking responsibilities for your action..the other is not.

We really disagree on this. She wants them to be celibate LDS missionaries. I want them to be as they were written. Doesn't mean we have to delve into specifics. I would of course prefer NOT to do that. I just want the discussion

Now here is where it gets interesting. This good LDS returned missionary, can write people being killed, murder, mayhem. ect.

Her excuse for being so afraid of the physical aspects of human love and relationships? The prophets words of course. Which would be all well and good if she can point out where murder and Mayhem come in as approved LDS behaviour

It has been funny dealing with it. As I said I am not interested in the specifying the acts... just getting to the point of what the original intent really means.. and maybe a few pointers that the right way.. is still the best way, even in fiction, and you don't have to be boring to do it!

Jettboy said...

hmmm . . . I am not sure of your co-writer's point myself. Of course, I am going at this blind - not knowing what stories you are talking about. I think this goes back to my point that we don't have to explain everything in detail in a way that makes it look like evil is approved. Yet, without conflict there isn't going to be a story. Motivation in a character is as important to defining the moral context of a story as actions and descriptions.

As "anonymous" said in so many words, its a tricky line between conflict and glorification of evil. Personally, if you think that rock music is evil no matter what, than you probably are not going to enjoy anything that doesn't agree with that idea. That isn't confusion. That is a choice. I don't like musicals, for instance, and therefore know I will not enjoy them. Sure, I don't think musicals are all evil. But, I know that I like to avoid them if possible.

Fanfiction is a very tricky subject. I am not a fan of such, although I have written at least two "tele-plays" with The X-Files world. Messing with other people's creations can be questionable. Are you writing to reshape or to continue the legacy? I think that is really at the heart of your disagreement, even if motivated by a moral stance. I think that portraying violence is less of a moral quandry than sexuality myself (that is not my position with reality). Again, depending on context. That is a different subject for another day.

Th. said...

.

I think no matter what an artist claims his motivations to be or not be, who he really is and what he really believes will come through. I presume you agree with me here, as you've thrown in with OSC and he has said the same thing.

One thing I love about being a Mormon--and not just in the artist portion of my life, but throughout--is how robust a structure we have. There is so much room for mercy and forgiveness and personal choice and personal interpretation without damnation that, to borrow thinking from the all-paths-to-heaven crowd, we can all find our own way home.

No one should interpret that statement to imply that I am saying heaven has no laws or that we can go ahead and eat/drink/bemerry and expect a few stripes and no more, but we were put on this earth and given a very long leash--if any leash at all. Pr Hinckely does not send me a weekly dispatch telling me how to behave this week. There is not a new letter from the poulit every Sunday further constricting me. No, we are taught correct prison and left to govern ourselves.

So it is with (Mormon) art.

God trusts us to do the best we can with what we have. Dean Hughes told me once about his decision to never include swearing. I've read OSC discuss his evolving attitude toward it. Mine too varies. I don't know what I would tell you if you asked me about it in six weeks.

But that is right and good.

We are left to figure out these things for ourselves.

That's the kind of father God is.

John Pack Lambert said...

I have issues with Eric Samuelson's take on the whole issue. I also have issues with Richard Dutcher's views that we need to stop avoiding evil, and try to find good art.
My problem is I want to see worthwhile and well done Latter-day Saint related works.
I have written at my blog mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com about how I like the film "Beauty and the Beast: A Latter-day Tale".
This film has a great message and is heart renching. It is not overly cheesy either. It could have been better done, but it was a low budget enterprise. I think it is worth while to support it.
There are too many movies out there full of sex scenes, violence and degradation. We need to support uplifting things.
My biggest complaint about the sample stake conference story is that people should avoid going to a movie and then finding they dislike it. When you patronise filth you reward its producers.