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.