The utterly fascinating comments about rock concerts confirm one of my theories about BYU and Provo. I want to pass it by T&S readers for critique, criticism, comment. My theory is that the mid-1980s was a turning point for BYU-sponsored entertainment. The nuclear family is the point around which everything pivoted.
Recall that in the early 1980s church leaders began speaking more stridently against practices they believed to be tearing apart the family: divorce, abortion, abuse, abandonment, immorality, and, in Pres Bensonâ€™s famous talk, two-parent incomes. BYU, which often (but not always) mirrors official church rhetoric, followed course by looking for ways to create new forms of family friendly entertainment while, at the same time, squeezing out the forms thought to be destructive. Rock music, with its link to the sexual revolution, was among those squeezed.
Considered broadly, we can imagine the â€œfamily friendlyâ€? forms ascending from about 1980 to the present even as the destructive forms gradually decline. (Appearing at BYU after Billy Joel, the rock bands Boston and The Cars are like little spikes on a negative-graph EKG. Chicago’s trumpets are an even smaller spike.)
What are the â€œfamily friendlyâ€? forms? Well, one form is the big BYU art exhibits coming in from the outside. The first of these, Ramses II, arrived at BYU in 1985, the year before the Billy Joel concert. The exhibit lasted far longer than a rock concert (5 months), pleased many more people, drew in far greater revenue, and generated far more intellectual stimulation. Most important for this time, the exhibit was â€œsafeâ€? for families. Bus loads of school children came from all over the state. Parents brought their children. The mummies may have scared little children, but all in all, as a form of Mormon entertainment, Ramses II was considered an immense success.
At this point BYU realized they needed a modern art museum if they were to ever attract such exhibits again. Ramses II was held in the Bean museum. The lacuna was filled by the Museum of Art, built in the 1990s, which brought major exhibits almost immediately: the Imperior Tombs of China, the Etruscans, and Masada, all intellectually stimulating with the same family-friendly aura as Ramses. School children once again came in droves. The only negative came with the Rodin exhibit of the 1990s. BYU got hammered in the national press when it pulled a couple of nude pieces from the show. BYU offended highbrows by saying â€œThe Kissâ€? was ill-suited for families and school kids.
Another big â€œfamily-friendlyâ€? form was (is?) football. BYU stadium expansions came in the early 1980s, during the heyday of the teamâ€™s pass-happy years, in the same years the nuclear family was said to be disintegrating. Posters and souvenirs marketed to children brought fathers and sons to games. Cougar Stadium was billed as a place for families to get close. Families from all over the valley braved traffic jams to watch Godâ€™s children beat each other up (an irony, certainly) on crisp fall afternoons. It all seemed tame compared to domestic abuse.
One might argue, as I just might, that Ballroom Dance, the Young Ambassadors, and the International Folkdancers were all â€œfamily-friendlyâ€? forms rising in popularity by the late 1970s and early 80s (though some started years earlier). I happen to think these groups were more about missionary work and church image in lands where the church wasn’t a recognized presence than they were about creating alternatives to destructive entertainment, but I may be wrong about this. In an odd mix, these performing groups too might be paired with football and art exhibits in the larger family-friend trend.
The rise of BYU-TV, which I know nothing about, seems to function as an alternative to the trashy nightly fare on the networks. Perhaps someone can tell us about BYU-TV.
Finally, on the destructive forms ledger, consider also that BYU stopped showing edited R-rated movies at the Varsity Theater. This move happened in 1998. Now the Varsity shows old classic movies, the kinds families rent and don’t get embarassed watching together (which is also the reason, not coincidentally, the Varsity is not doing well financially these days.) The issue of editing movies at the International Cinema that has so riled T&S over the last few weeks may be part of the same trend. In a strange twist, BYU may be trying to provide alternative forms of movie entertainment for families through edited foreign (as opposed to domestic) cinema.
The big picture in all of this, in my view, is that BYU exists to serve the church, not the academic establishment. If the church says the family is important, BYU will wrap its programs around the family, even if the establishment says that looks weird.