Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Gateway to Mormon Artistry

It has been said that someday there will be Shakespeare and Miltons in the Mormon artistic community. Such a promise has been both inspirational for its greatness and discouraging for its lack of fruition. One of the most famous statements comes from a recent Prophet of the LDS Church who said:

Our writers, our motion picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever. Our own talent, obsessed with dynamism from a CAUSE, could put into such a story life and heartbeats and emotions and love and pathos, drama, suffering, fear, courage; and they could put into it the great leader, the mighty modern Moses who led a people farther than from Egypt to Jericho, who knew miracles as great as the stream from the rock at Horeb, manna in the desert, giant grapes, rain when needed, battles won against great odds.

"Take a Nicodemus and put Joseph Smith’s spirit in him, and what do you have? Take a da Vinci or a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare and give him a total knowledge of the plan of salvation of God and personal revelation and cleanse him, and then take a look at the statues he will carve and the murals he will paint and the masterpieces he will produce. Take a Handel with his purposeful effort, his superb talent, his earnest desire to properly depict the story, and give him inward vision of the whole true story and revelation, and what a master you have!"

Spencer W. Kimball, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, Jul 1977, 3

There are some important considerations for why such promises might not be applicable for the modern art establishment. One of the most important reasons this grand vision will have to wait is the condition of the Western world. Look at any number of best sellers and even award winners and it shouldn't take much to discover the disconnect. We are living in a highly secular world where any mention of religion is derogatory if it is included at all. The artists mentioned above lived in times and places where religion was as important as commerce and trade. They could easily incorporate direct theological and moral themes into the work because everyone shared at least some spiritual connections.

Even if they were great artists, the work still had to be recognized and produced. Often there was a select group of patrons willing to give financial support. This often meant that, like any craftsman and worker in other fields, talent didn't spring from nowhere. Work was often discovered after years of labor and training when a person with money decided they liked a particular style. For the most lucky of artists they came from a background where the money was easy to come by and education was never neglected. Above all, and completely different from today's focus on specialization, these artists also learned many other trades that helped contribute to the over all production of their work.

As it stands, competition and the very purpose of art has changed significantly. What used to be a way to encourage beauty, practicality, learning, and even high-class propaganda has become mere entertainment. This atmosphere cannot be helpful in crafting masterpieces when the bulk of what people want is less than serious. Add to that a lack of diversification among individual artists, and it becomes probable that "Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares" will have to wait for another time. Because of the hostile religious climate things could be even harder.

But, there is hope. The answer to that is by going a different route. One that has been proven to work. Skip trying to focus on Mormons and Mormonism, at least directly. This has proven highly successful for a handful of bestsellers. Even Deseret Book is starting to get into the act with a set of popular books.

Sticking with the theme of writers, a small list of accomplished people include Richard Paul Evans, Tracy Hickman, Sherry Ann Miller, Anne Perry, Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, Orson Scott Card, and most recently Stephenie Meyer that has caught the attention of both young and adult readers. Only Orson Scott Card has done directly Mormon themes that have reached a wide audience beyond LDS readers. But, he had at first become known for and succesful at writing secular stories.

Regardless of the secular appeal of these writings, many of them still have Mormon themes that are part of the stories. As I had said aboutone of Stephanie Meyer's books:

. . . The reader is constantly, and with well-crafted scenes, reminded of how close death is from love.

. . . It is not hard to see the book is about keeping our desires in check. Giving in could bring about consequences beyond our control, even death. Falling in love, especially as a teenager, is a constant battle between what we want to do and what we ought to do. Those most worthy of love are the ones who recognize the danger and work hard to control themselves. It will be interesting to see if the next book continues this theme.

There might not be any recognizable Mormon theology, but bringing our emotions into check is a constant theme expressed by leaders of the Church. At least one of her intended books about an alien posessing the body of a human and having to live with that is similar to spirits having to live in the less than ideal physical world. Orson Scott Card has actually written a few books with Mormons as main characters that have become best sellers. Even the books without Mormons have included repentance, salvation, family, community, and etc. It is the reaching beyond our own faith that seems to set the simply good artists apart from the great artists.

Eventually there may yet be Mormon artists of great reputation and lasting impression. Before that can happen, those same artists must introduce themselves to a wider audience with mass appeal. Once that happens there is no reason why that same audience will not accept (as long as the quality remains good) a more directly Mormon subject.

Related Posts on Mormon Art

The Stillbirth of Mormon Art

Humor and the Gospel

Famous Writer in "Ensign"

Ethics of Mormon Art

Narnia, E.T., and Mormon Story Telling

Against Dutcher

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