Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Stillbirth of Mormon Art

For many years now artists who are Mormon have tried to bring a different sense of the creative within the Church. The most recent incarnation of reaching beyond the "Deseret Book" and "Ensign Cover" material has been movies. Recently, the self-proclaimed creator of Mormon cinema announced he no longer is part of the Church, having gone a different direction. This is not surprising considering some of the things he has said for the past couple of years. What it has done is put once more into question if there can be anything called Mormon art.

To be honest, that question is silly. Of course there is Mormon art. It just doesn't reach to a level that some would like to see compared to masterpiece standards. More importantly, what is popular isn't going to be what is accepted by those looking for something worthy of historical grandeur. That is a fact that Mormon art triumphalists must face.

Keith Merrill in the "Daily Herald" on Sunday, April 14, said it best in response to Dutcher's parting words:
Even though, according to Dutcher, our movies at the Legacy Theater -- "Legacy" and "The Testaments" -- "squandered their chance to be powerful" and didn't leave viewers "weak in the knees, their minds reeling, their spirits soaring" when compared to his own unprecedented brilliance and talent, I will press on in good faith and endure the "limitations" of LDS virtues, values and sensibilities.

I am proud to say that every project in development at a new venture, Audience Alliance Motion Picture Studios, embraces traditional standards and tells the truth.

Here is the truth. More people have been inspired by "Mr. Krueger's Christmas," moved to tears during "Legacy" and walked out of "The Testament" with spirits soaring than the total number of people who have ever bothered to go to Richard Dutcher's movies combined. Your arrogance makes me bite my tongue to keep from turning a somber "goodbye" into a cheerful "good riddance."

From the standpoint of successful art, if there is no willing audience then there is only a hobby. Those who insist they must be enjoyed and respected while the group it tries to reach doesn’t feel that way are tipping at windmills. They will either break into acceptance or it will break them. For the record, no amount of preaching and chest thumping is going make anyone like the work any more or less.

As an artist, it is sad to not see your work reach an approving audience when you have spent so much work in finishing a project. As an artist, it can be satisfying (if you let it) to just be able to work on a project for the thrill of personal inspiration. That last part, I think, is what is missing in those who want Mormon art to be so much more. If you aren't enjoying it, if you are trying too hard, if you just want to make a buck or a name, then sometimes the intended audience can tell. They don’t like the condescension of a self-proclaimed elite.

What passes as Mormon visual art is something I have long been unimpressed with. There is very little LDS art in my house because I find the popular images to be repetitive and uninspiring. Did they all learn from the same school? Art that I put up is either from my own grandfather (a landscape artist) or masterpieces from history. I was happy to see someone put the name "Sunset in Arcadia" on the art done by the most popular LDS artists. It perfectly describes the sun drenched, nicely dressed, untouched landscape sold at LDS Bookstores and put on LDS walls.

Recently I have decided as someone who thinks that Mormon art is good in technique, but bad in aesthetics, to re-interpret the meaning of art in the Church. This reaches into paintings, novels, movies, etc. Why is the "Sunset in Arcadia" so popular among so many? Perhaps it is that "Art" itself is not a Mormon aesthetic or fit into its mission. The message of the enjoyed art is the message of the Restoration: Strive for Perfection having Faith in God (who is Love and Light). Mormons want the ideal because they are taught to reach for the Eternal. Anything that deviates from that represents going back and not forward.

I remember writing a short paper in college (not at an LDS school) about the history and hope of Mormon literature. My teacher read it and enjoyed what she learned. However, when we got into how to make good religious literature she said there has to be some kind of doubt, or challenge, or lack of an easy answer. Looking back, I now see the purpose of art, self-exploration or rebellion, is not consistent with Mormon theology. Within the faith we already know who we are, why we are here, and even where we are going. Allegiance to God is the highest priority, with a rebellious Satan as the example of Evil. Therefore, most Mormons are moved by art that either shows someone reaching for the perfect or having already arrived.

My hope is that there will finally be Mormon artists who branch out and explore other ways to do art. However, they must also be aware of the reason a particular style in LDS art is popular. Perhaps instead of completely breaking with "tradition," these artists-to-be should see how to incorporate what is already enjoyed into new expressions. Already in the LDS Museum Art Contests there are vistas to be expanded in the more world regional "folk art" works. Writers still seem to not have learned anything from the success and talent of Orson Scott Card, who reaches both within and beyond Mormonism at the same time. There can be hope for a better artistic future. It is just going to take more than trying to break the hand that you hope will feed you.


Anonymous said...

Nice take on the topic.

Anonymous said...

This is really brilliant, the best two cents on the topic i've read. Thanks.