Artists and Mormonism

Motley Vision has been playing host to an interesting discussion on Mormon aesthetics. The question du jour from the Sunstone Symposium seems to be whether or not one can be a Great Artist (or any kind of Artist) and still be a member of the Church. Two out of three panelists were apparently skeptical. For myself, I suspect that we are operating with a rather parochial definition of Artist, furthermore one that is ill suited to both the theology and demographics of Mormonism.

Generally speaking, our understanding of what it means to be an artist is rooted in Romanticism. There are any number of features that characterize our modern concept of Artist, but two of the most salient are authenticity and originality. Rousseau posited that human evil was essentially a human and — more importantly — a social creation. We are bad by convention. By nature, however, we are good. Translated into artistic terms this basic stance takes the form of a hostility to tradition and authority. True art consists of an escape from the traditional and a probing out of the truth that lies buried beneath the inauthentic and soul-destroying layers of convention. This hostility to tradition and convention gets coupled with another Romantic idea: the genius. The genius is a person who knows by virtue of pure — and frequently demonic — intuition. They do not learn by study or reason but by pure, unmediated confrontation with the Truth. Translated into artistic terms, this becomes the cult of originality. In effect, the highest kind of artistic creation is a form of ex nhilio creation whereby the godlike Artist presents to humanity a new creation never before seen or heard.

There are two theological problems that Mormons will run into with this view of the artist. The first is the primary place of community in Mormon theology. A central part of what pursuit of the good life means for a Mormon is the pursuit of a particular kind of community. We are to build up the Kingdom of God and establish Zion. Indeed, there is a sense in which salvation consists in the realization of a particular vision of community. This, however, places nature and convention in precisely the opposite relationship that one finds them in the thought of Rousseau and his unwitting modern artistic disciples. Society is not the original stainer of our souls from whose sins we must escape, but rather “good society” — to use Joseph Smith’s phrase — is central to the creation of a meaningful life. This requires, however, a commitment to an order that is always in some sense given, that is an order that exceeds our intentions or creations. To be in a community is to give some kind of authority to a social order that is beyond ourselves.

The second theological problem for Mormon artists who want to buy into the Romantic conception of the Artist is that the model of artistic genius that it offers is ultimately modelled on an apostate vision of God. In this vision, the great goal of the artist is originality, to call forth new truth from nothing, and thereby liberate oneself from dependence upon the past. Of course, any thoughtful artist will admit that such true originality is not possible, it nevertheless remains a goal. Even when the quest for originality does not degenerate into a stale celebration of novelty, it nevertheless models the Artist on the God of the creeds. He is to be the person who creates something from nothing. The organizer God of Mormonism, however, is something quite different. He is not even a great first cause, let alone a font of being. He organizes matter unorganized and works with eternally self-existent intelligences as co-authors of the cosmic story. In other words, Mormon theology rips the spiritual heart out of the model of creative divinity on which the Romantic vision of the Artist rests.

The modern vision of the Artist that we have inherited from Romanticism is also a demographic problem. First, it is quintessentially a Western idea and not surprisingly it has a difficult time making sense of non-Western art in anything other than superficial and patronizing ways. Consider, for example, how one might think of a Navajo rug weaver in these terms. One seems to have two options. First, one could find innovation in Navajo rug styles and techniques and then celebrate the innovators as the “true Artists” labelling the other weavers as merely derivative. Such an approach, however, would misunderstand the role and value of innovation within Navajo weaving. For example, it would miss the fact that — as I understand it — particular stylistic innovations are generally associated with particular regions and families, and hence serve as markers of community, rather than as markers of the break of heroic individuals from their communities. Second, one could imagine the Navajo weavers as noble savages whose art is valuable precisely because it has not been contaminated by the culture and civilization that true Artists seek to transcend. Aside from the blatant historical and cultural inaccuracy involved in such a claim — Navajo weaving is itself a product of cultural contamination, most obviously in the form of sheep brought by white traders — it requires that we deny the basic humanity of Navajo artists, assigning them instead to an imaginary ideological category.

The inability of the modern conception of Artist to deal very well with artists outside of the late Western tradition of the “fine” arts is a problem for Mormons. The reason is that the Church is growing most rapidly among the poor of the developing world. Among these converts their are many artists, but so long as our sense of what constitutes an Artist is straight-jacketed by the narrow and rather confused set of categories that we have inherited from the Romantics, their work and contributions will remain invisible or patronizingly marginal at best. Theologically, such a vision of the Artist requires that any artistically ambitious Mormon set him or herself at war with the theological assumptions of her own spirituality.

Fortunately, however, the Romantic vision of the Artist is not an eternal truth to which we must conform. It is simply another historically contingent set of concepts that we ought to jettison without guilt — e.g. angst about artistic integrity — when it ceases to be intellectually or spiritually useful.

101 comments for “Artists and Mormonism

  1. Ivan Wolfe
    August 14, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    Very good post.

    I can’t really think of much to say at this point, but I do recall something Orson Scott Card said along these lines when he spoke at BYU’s Life, the Universe and Everything symposium (this is, of course, paraphrased):

    “The problem with most LDS artists who see a conflict between the church and art is that the real conflict is NOT really between ART (writ large) and the Gospel. It’s between the demands of the different communities. The artistic ‘community’ they belong to demands one thing from them, and the church community demands another. At some point, they have to make a choice between the two. And too many so-called artists decide their loyalties lie with the artistic community rather than the church.”

    He also went on to say too many artists produce art for other artists in their particular community, rather than for the public. Whenever an artist claims to be “challenging the public” with his or her art, that artist is really just playing to the tastes of fellow artists.

    Anyway, your post made me think of Card’s comments.

  2. Jack
    August 14, 2006 at 6:50 pm


    I think, on a more pragmatic level, some artists tend to buck at conventions not only because they’re conventions but also because many of those whom they would like to reach are so terribly ill informed by said conventions.

    Also, looking at where we are today and considering how far we have yet to go in our goal to establish the ideal community, one could surmise that the artist has plenty of room to kick at sorry traditions without destroying the vision of the ideal–think Nibley.

  3. August 14, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more, the panel of judges needs to think out side of the question. LDS art is defined by a different set of rules than say modern art, or tattoo art.
    Artist integrity would depend on who your audience is. When you change your audience you then change the art to fit that audience. Thus integrity becomes completely relative to the rules in which it is being held accountable to. Thus can an LDS artist sell their art work to people who respect the same values (set of rules) as they do, which is reflected in the art?
    I can yes many LDS people have done this, sadly I do not know any painters or sculptors. However, I do know that members of the Aqua Bats are LDS and I would consider them to be Great within their Genre, also Gladys Knight has had an Grammy Award Winning album recorded with the Saints Unified Voices Choir, and of course Michael Balaam, who graced opera halls all over the world in more than 600 performances.
    I would call these, people LDS and Great Artists, how about you?

  4. August 14, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    I agree, Nate. But the problem is — what do you after the jettisoning?

  5. Kent K
    August 14, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    Nice post. You point up nicely that authenticity and originality are really just passing fads in the world of artistic taste. They come in and out of fashion. Authenticity was of almost no importance in the Baroque period. “Art” meant “artifice”. Artists and musicians aspired to produce the divine and were not troubled with accurately portraying the real or banal. The more ornamental and artificial, the better.

    Originality currently is the king of art, but it was not always so. The word “composer” initially connoted a “cut and paste” style of putting things together. Renaissance artists and composers did not trouble themselves with originality but copied each other and themselves quite freely–plugging in stock cadences and passages according to established forms. Palestrina might even have been offended if you had called his motets original since he eschewed the forward thinkers who were borrowing from instrumental and folk musical forms. It’s quite funny to read his self-castigations over the homophony(!) he wrote in his youth. Communal art tends to flourish. Masters emerge, but basic forms and values in art are held in common trust in the artistic community.

    Tom Benjamin, a composer and professor at a conservatory in Baltimore has posited that over the past 1800 years there has been a pendulum effect in artistic values swinging at least 5 times between the two extremes of Classicism and Romanticism. Classicism tends to be characterized by an almost mathematical obsession with elegance of form. Originality is less important than facility and mastery of form. Simplicity tends to predominate over ornamentation. Authenticity while sometimes a goal is never as important as formal considerations. Think high Renaissance, mid to late 1800s and 20th century minimalism.

    Romanticism on the other hand worships the twin gods of originality and emotional evocation. About authenticity, Romanticism is ambivalent. Often romantic eras will see a flourishing of ornamentation and artifice, but not always. Sometimes romanticism will be obsessed with unearthing the essentially real. Think Baroque, the impressionists, or modern “found art”.

    The importance placed on personal ownership of one’s artistic production as opposed to communal artistry also seems to fluctuate. Gone are the medieval days when artists never signed their work or anyone was satisfied to be simply from the Rembrandt school. Lately we’re obsessed with intellectual and other property rights. But there may come a time, or rather, a time may yet return when we esteem any Navajo school of rug weaving as as legimate an “artist” as, say, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

  6. Jack
    August 14, 2006 at 9:17 pm

    I think, in some measure, we’re dealing with a different problem today. There’s a sort of eschewing of everything foundational as if it were a styfling influence–something to be avoided like the plague. Whereas in the past (say) in days following Mozart (sticking with Romanticism in music as an example) the Romantic composers seemed to have a comparatively healthy respect for their artistic predessessors–think of Beethoven adoring Handel and what-not. Of course there were the more “full of themselves” types like Wagner, but still, one can hear the foundational strength of Bach even in his stuff.

    I think what we have today–rather than a “noble” breaking away and rising above an oppressive societal dogma–is a shameful adolescent selfism. It’s basically (imo) a product of atheism. A good analogue might be a comparison between the American Revolution and our modern “Rebel Without a Cause” attitude. So you take atheism and add a little materialism to the mix and, voila, you have the perfect recipe for a bunch of artistic ninnies who think they have the right to be themselves at the expense of every virtue.

  7. August 14, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    William Morris: I think that you ask the most important question. For what it is worth, my father — who has spent essentially his entire adult life struggling with the question “What is Mormon art?” — has concluded that the best places to go looking for models for Mormon aesthetics are medieval art, folk art, and tribal art.

  8. August 14, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    what do you after the jettisoning?

    Hmmm. Study law?

  9. August 14, 2006 at 10:13 pm

    Or maybe physics.

  10. August 14, 2006 at 10:15 pm

    A fine post, Nate. But, as usual, you pick on Rousseau. Why? Just because so many other people have misunderstood him–from Voltaire on–must we continue the trend? Rousseau believed that advancements in the arts and sciences had brought us into a world defined by competition, inequality and dependency, and that such was woven into the fabric of modern, property-based society. His wasn’t an argument against social existence in principle (for that would be a call for either individualism or anarchism, neither of which is anything like Rousseau’s communitarianism); rather, it was an argument that the social existence we tragically ended up with is pretty miserable and impossible to justify on the basis of any argument from nature. Far from showing “hostility to tradition and authority,” Rousseau wanted desperately to re-introduce them, by way of the general will, into the Enlightened world. The same held for most of the romantics that read Rousseau mostly closely: Herder, Novalis, Schleiermacher, etc.

    I don’t think you’re wrong, generally speaking, about the flaws of capital-R Romanticism as a movement. But really, if anyone messed up (insofar as arguments about art are concerned) the post-Rousseauian romantic argument, look to late 19th-century English liberals. For them, art was all about eccentricity, unconventionality, shocking the bourgeoisie, etc. The genius, remember, was for Mill by definition a loner, a critic, a rebel, a nonconformist. Compare that to Goethe’s line about how true geniuses (re)discover for the present that which they had already inherited from the past. (Talk about “organizing matter unorganized”!)

    Just humbling trying to do my bit to preserve some shred of respect for the romantics….

  11. Buckeye the Elder
    August 14, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    The way I see it, as an aspiring writer, is that, one has to think “outside the box” as it were, to come up with fresh, creative ideas. Now, having been a member of the Church for a little over a decade, my experience has been this – that in our somewhat insular Mormon culture,”thinking outside the box” is a trait that isnt exactly encouraged or looked upon as a good thing. That, I think, might be one of the reasons why there arent too many prominent writers and poets, as say, Catholic or Methodist poets and writers. Mormon culture can be repressive- that has been my experience, and that is certainly one reason why perhaps we dont have many dreamers and artists and writers and poets in Mormondom.

  12. August 14, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    Russell: I will meet you half way, and happily concede that when ever someone tries to translate liberal political philosophy into an aesthetic the result is a train wreck. As for poor Jean-Jacques, I figure that he did such a tremendously good job of feeling sorry for himself during his own life time that there is no reason for anyone to feel sorry for him after his death. To be sure, Rousseau’s ideas have been misinterpreted, but at some point after the third or fourth set of disciples has degenerated into mass executions, one is entitled to skepticism about his ideas. To be sure, liberalism has birthed more solipcistic artistic nonsense than most, but at the end of the day I will take the evils of market democracy and Walmart over Robespierre and Pol Pot any day.

    When it comes to aesthetics, however, I don’t think that I am misreading Rousseau particularlly badly. Certainly, the cult of sensibiltie that he sparked in the arts was not the midwife of neotraditionalism. Shelly was much more of Rousseau than Ruskin.

  13. August 14, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    Buckeye the Elder: Why is fresh creativity the sine non qua of great writing?

  14. Kent K
    August 14, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    Good point Jack. Another sad phenomenon is the advent of celebrity without mastery. Too many people have realized they can use shock value to shortcut their way to notice or notoriety–bypassing all the rigors of skill mastery and artistry. Certainly there is such a thing as truly inspired art that is also deconstructed/provocative/challenging to our expectations, but it swims in a sea of mediocrity in originalism’s clothing.

    Mayakovsky, one of the great Russian poets of the 20th century, said: “Throw the old masters from the ship of modernity.” He felt stifled by the foundations of form laid by Pushkin and Tolstoy. But he was able to create his own masterful forms and style to replace them at the helm. Far be it from me to begrudge the Cubist painters or Serialist composers their breaks with their formal training. If you do throw the old school off the boat, however, you’d better have something artistic and in some way appealing to replace them with else it’s just aimless wandering.

    Performance and visual arts are powerful tools for good or evil in the world. The Mormon artists and composers I’ve been exposed to seem to value emotional response, sentimentalism to be blunt, over technical mastery, authenticity or originality. (How’s that for over generalization?) That’s not what’s in vogue at the moment. They may, therefore, be doomed with Rachmaninov and Berlioz and Thomas Kinkade to be long dismissed by the establishment as trivial, but you don’t fault the marksman for not hitting the bird when he was aiming at the rabbit.

  15. August 14, 2006 at 10:58 pm

    “To be sure, liberalism has birthed more solipcistic artistic nonsense than most, but at the end of the day I will take the evils of market democracy and Walmart over Robespierre and Pol Pot any day.”

    I confess, Nate, that I have no idea what this has to do with the thread, seeing as how I didn’t even go into the political implications of Rousseau’s ideas, much less defend them. (Are you saying you want me to? Because I can, you know.) But, for what it’s worth, in whatever theoretical world it is that consists of only those two stark choices as you present them, I am, like, totally on your side, man.

    “I don’t think that I am misreading Rousseau particularlly badly. Certainly, the cult of sensibiltie that he sparked in the arts was not the midwife of neotraditionalism.”

    I’m not sure what movement you’re referring to by “neotraditionalism.” But if you’ve read, for example, Rousseau’s letter to Alembert on the theater, then you know that Rousseau admired formalistic, pedagogically explicit, deeply traditional (in a civic sense) art; like Plato, he was just plain suspicious of artists exactly because they think their “genius” gives them insight into something that the rabble need to have “revealed” to them. For such characters (like the muckracker Moliere), Rousseau had only contempt. Yes, you can draw a line from Rousseau’s self-indulgent autobiographies to the self-indulgent artist, but you’ll have to do so without Rousseau’s help.

  16. August 14, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    Okay, I admit that Pol Pot was a cheap shot…

    I just don’t like Rousseau.

  17. Mark Butler
    August 14, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    I am sure Rousseau had some balancing tendencies, but I think there is a lot in his general philosophy that is contrary to the gospel. For example on education, he really didn’t want children to learn the traditions of their fathers until they were old, for example fourteen or fifteen before teaching them the first principle of religion.

    I think some of the problems Rousseau identifies with existing culture and civilization are very real, but how can one fix them without being familiar with them? It is is either like having an idiot perform heart surgery or scrapping the acheivement of millennia and starting back with the savages. The savages may be nice guys, but culture they have little.

    The more fundamental problem is the idea of nature. Strictly speaking, Hobbes had the right idea – there is no nature to be sought after, except chaos, conflict, death, and destruction due to a never ending conflict of wills. Everything better than chaos is of social or spiritual origin, not natural at all. Even after the body, the natural man is an enemy to god unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. The natural man corrupts the second nature God has given him. A return to nature is a return to perversion, lust, sin, and death. Salvation comes through humility, cooperation, obedience, and liberty under law. No one has inspiration of themselves. Anything truly inspired is a communal enterprise. The proud and self-willed are reprobate unto every good work. Originality without inspiration is dead.

  18. Carolyn
    August 15, 2006 at 12:36 am

    Boy is this a subject close to my heart. As an active latter-day saint who has earned my living working in the arts most of my adult life a couple of things spring to mind.

    First of all you guys are way over intellectualizing this. With all due respect, you sound like a bunch of lawyers talking about art. May I suggest that you step back and use your aesthetic sense instead of just your intellectualism.

    If you did you would see that there is no conflict whatsoever between artistry and spirituality. That’s because God the Father is the Great Artist. If you doubt this just look at the universe, which was not “cobbled together” as has been suggested. Then consider that He didn’t have to make it beautiful. He could have just made it functional and we His children wouldn’t have known the difference. But He didn’t. He chose to make it beautiful.

    I believe this was for a reason. He wanted us to value beauty because developing a sense of the aesthetic is uplifting and enobling.

    Then consider the infinite variety in terrain, plant and animal life. And that’s just on the earth we know about. If your wondering where the idea of originality as an artistic standard comes from, that would be a good place to start looking for it. When artists endeavour to be original they are following an unconscious divine impulse and imitating their Heavenly Parent.

    I was taught that the job of the artist was to take a journey, gain truth and knowledge, and then come back and express that truth in a form that others will understand (think Beethoven’s 9th symphony). The ultimate goal being a quest for truth and beauty, which is also completely in harmony with the gospel as I see it.

    Where it becomes depressing for me as a member of the church is how often we give lip service to the importance of art but then say the exact opposite through our actions.

    As an example, consider the stark architecture of most of our chapels. The sameness and plainess, inside and out. (In my ward there is burlap on the walls! Honest-to-goodness burlap. I’m told it acts as a sound barrier.)

    You don’t have to look very far to see that other religions, (not just other Christian denominations, but other religions in general) place a higher level of importance on beautifying their meeting spaces. It was not always like this. The early Saints knew the power of a beautiful environment on the human spirit.

    This has been disjointed. Forgive me if this has come out wrong. It’s very late here. But as I said earlier, this is a subject close to my heart so I couldn’t go to bed without at least saying something. But I am going to bed now. Feel free to go back to your nit-picking!! ;D

  19. Mark Butler
    August 15, 2006 at 1:40 am

    Carolyn, My point is that the Spirit is social in nature. Indeed Elohim himself is social in nature. If God did whatever he wanted without consulting others as to their needs and wants, he would not be God. In other words, God’s creation is of collective, not individual authorship. There is only one true and living God. Some artists think there can be two, and that is wrong. We become truly free by building upon the work of those who have gone before. Liberty in law, and in harmony with the the Spirit, not in contravention of it.

  20. Ivan Wolfe
    August 15, 2006 at 2:13 am

    #7 ends with one of the most true comments I’ve ever read.

    The individual artist is overrated. The folk arts are where we will find true art, because it is communal. I find that movies where the director or an actor overshadows over the other participants – well, it’s just not as good. The best movies may have a strong director, but more often then not, they are collaborative in nature.

    Which is another reason why I think good writers need good editors. I am not a fan of recent attempts to recover the “original” texts of books before those nasty editors got ahold of the manuscript and forced the author to abandon parts of his/her original vision. In nearly every case I’ve come across so far, the editor improved the author’s work. But we have such as culture of worship over the individual authorial genius that modern critical editions now often ignore any contributions the editor may have had.

    I’m also going to go out on a limb and say that if Michael McLean had started off with a top notch producer (rather than producing a lot of his own music himself) he would have been an amazing songwriter. He has the talent and some of his songs are brillant – what he (still) lacks is the ability to tell when he has a good song, a great song and a waste of a song. He needs/needed a producer to go “Michael – this song is just no good. Rewrite it or get rid of it.” Instead, we have too high of a signal to noise ratio in his corpus.

    Too many cooks can spoil a pot, but the ideaof the lone genius inventing art is – well, almost worthless. Comment #19 explains it very well.

  21. August 15, 2006 at 2:44 am

    Carolyn, I don’t think Nate is decrying art, more just a particular romantic view of “the artist” as the highest good. And I think it’s a great point even if Russell is right that Nate gets Rousseau a bit wrong. Of course the solution for that Nate is to simply say, “the Rousseau followers” rather than Rousseau. (Much like some argue that Platonists bear only passing resemblance to what Plato wrote)

    Whether Rousseau deserves the blame this certainly is a phenomena that I’ve seen a lot among artists. What’s funny is that sometimes bad artists partake of it the most. These discussions always make me bring out my favorite analogy. Far too many artists privilege being an artist so much that they never try to reflect a bit more dispassionately on what they are actually producing. Ed Wood thought himself a great driven artist. But he wasn’t good at it. Likewise many seem to place “being an artist” as such a high value that all the other things that are arguably more important (i.e. practically serving others, being a good parent) are neglected. And that’s sad.

  22. Kent K
    August 15, 2006 at 8:31 am

    Carolyn, my wife is an opera singer, but I am an attorney, so forgive me for talking about art like a lawyer.

    Regarding the question of whether the Creation is the model for the lone artist genius or communal art:

    Neither camp can make a strong argument from this analogy since we have so little information. We don’t know for instance whether those who helped form the world gave creative input or strictly followed instructions in a paint-by-number way. Also, Carolyn, I’m not sure we can say that we know whether everything here is “original”–whether it’s all God’s brainchild or whether it’s as templated as one of the new small temples or those dern burlap-clad walls.

    I’m certainly with you that the Church could stand to value aesthetics a lot more. Some say it is a slippery slope toward materialism, but I find a little beauty goes a long way toward encouraging spiritual communement. My wife as a soloist and conductor has performed in dozens of churches of all denominations, and I as a supportive husband have been to most of those performances. I think I can say that of all of them, only the Church of Christ Scientist chapel was as visually uninspired as our current ward building. On the other hand, there are many stunning temples in the world. I guess beaut in the surroundings for worship is a privilege only the temple-recommended enjoy?

  23. August 15, 2006 at 9:45 am

    “The question du jour from the Sunstone Symposium seems to be whether or not one can be a Great Artist (or any kind of Artist) and still be a member of the Church.”

    Perhaps we can turn this question on its head a little bit and ask if the Church can fully achieve its purposes without producing a Great Artist or Great Artists. It occurs to me that some could argue yes. But it seems to me that to express its message as it should or in expressing its message as it should, the Church should inspire Great Art.

    Perhaps for altruistic reasons we are slower to create great art, because we have other priorities. Sometimes I go into the cathedrals or chapels here in New York City and I am awed at the luxurious and expensive detail of the stonework, sculpture, artwork, stained-glass windows, etc. … much of which is so high up in the air that it is unlikely many will ever get to fully appreciate the detail that has gone into the work. When I see this work I am impressed but I also can’t help but think of the scriptural denunciation in Moroni that says:

    For behold, ye do love amoney, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.

    If the church itself, as an institution, was paying out massive funds to talented artists, they could no doubt have Great Mormon Art in a fairly short period of time. But our object in creating buildings of worship, even temples, seems to be less about art and more about ordinances.

  24. August 15, 2006 at 10:32 am

    Carolyn: Law is art. There are few things as beautiful as a well-written appellate brief…

  25. August 15, 2006 at 10:44 am

    I like this post and agree with much of what Nate has written, but I also follow Russell and agree somewhat there, too. Let’s not forget that there was more than one manifestation of Romanticism, written large. It is true that one, characterized by French Romanticism and, yes, influenced by its adherents’ understanding of Rousseau (whether that understanding was correct or not, but I side with Nate in thinking that they didn’t really get him drastically wrong), espoused this warped notion of the genius, was essentially reactionary in nature, and put as the highest good shocking the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. I’m not saying that what they produced was entirely nonsense — in fact, as a matter of taste, I personally like much of it. However, I cannot deny an observation made in The Fountainhead that at least some of the artists that create such art and those who promote such art are fundamentally devious in their motivations, essentially mocking their own audience through their art as they prey on the masses’ ignorance and intellectual envy. This artist seeks the type of audience that will watch some atrocious, consciously bad play and have that play reinforce the audience’s own pretensions at being an elite class that can enjoy such vulgarities and degradations. The play can mean absolutely nothing, literally, and the audience will leave feeling educated because, having seen the play, they are in on the secret and are of a higher sensibility and can appreciate such deep material. Such an artist is indeed cynical, and our society too often promotes this kind of cynicism, precisely because we feel intellectual by virtue of engaging that art. In a sense, we are conditioned precisely by our understanding of this raunchy Romanticism, for lack of a better word, so that we think that art has to shock us, like a crucifix submerged in urine or feces thrown on a canvas, or a toilet bowl struck by a hammer, to be real genius. What nonsense.

    But there is another expression of the spirit behind Romanticism, in my view. It looks back to the Golden Age of a nation, or of an admired nation, and takes inspiration from such roots. The art thus produced seeks a connection with a collective or national spirit, could be described as nationalistic if that word had not inherited such negative connotations by virtue of its twentieth-century abuses. “Genius” can be found in this art too, but it is perhaps somewhat more humble, more willing to avoid deifying a very flawed imagination or individual set of inclinations. Russell made an excellent point in mentioning Goethe in this connection because he exemplifies the type of genius that can exist in this Romantic expression. Goethe is also instructive because his work spanned the transitions between eighteenth-century sturm und drang (the feeling behind which got resurrected in French Romanticism and turned into an end in itself, the highest ideal for the artistic genius who must reveal such truth to the masses), neo-classicism, indeed, German High Classicism, and then the beginnings of this Romanticism that emulated Golden Ages of national character. Perhaps this is the reason why Nate’s father suggested looking to medieval art as an example for a Mormon aesthetic; it is an impulse shared by some early Romanticists who did not endorse the Romantic revolt against all convention that, I would imagine, informs Nate’s post here.

  26. MLU
    August 15, 2006 at 11:00 am

    I enjoy the fact that the film, Joseph Smith The Prophet of the Restoration, produced under the direction of the First Presidency, ends without a credit roll. . .it seemed to me the product of a different and more hopeful culture, somewhat more free of the cult of the individual artist (though not one without powerful art).

    All this seems quite related, in my mind, to the world of scholars, where at present originality and novelty is the reigning ideal. Plagiarism is the cardinal sin. I note with interest that copying others’ work is rampant in Mormon speaking, where saying things that are good and true is of far more importance than saying something nobody else has said before. . .

  27. Kent K
    August 15, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Danithew: “turn this argument on its head?” Fair enough. At first blush, to the extent that I agree with you per our previous discussion, please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any further assistance, very sincerely yours….

    There is a difference between opulence for the sake of mere show, and the sort of aesthetic beauty in music, architecture and eloquence that produces the kind of visceral and emotional reactions we associate with the Spirit. The former is a waste of resources, the latter can bring one closer to God.

  28. Ben
    August 15, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    If we take portraiture as an example (which many art-forms attempt) I would say the good portraits are those that both reflect and reveal the experience of the audience. (Rembrandt\’s Old Man looks recognizably like an old man, but also suggests more about our experience with old men, or old age, etc.) So the members of the audience recognize their own experience, but also some aspect of that experience (and that aspect can be as slight as tone or as heavy as a denunciation of core beliefs) is exposed or shown or unveiled. I think in this light there is plenty of room for the Mormon artist (informed by her membership in the community of saints) to reflect and reveal human experience in ways that can be appreciated by members of the church community and the artistic community.

  29. queuno
    August 15, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    OK, let me approach this from the perspective of a computer scientist married to an artist: Define “great art”, and why couldn’t Teichert et al, be considered great artists? You need to properly define great art and great artists, and I don’t see why that it has been done here.

    There are a number of Mormon artists studying Mormon themes. Do we require great Mormon artists to study Mormon themes or to just be great artists (whatever that is) who are also Mormon? Do we impose a “litmus” test on the quality of their Mormonism or the quality of their art? Are they a a great Mormon artist if they no longer go to Church, but were once baptized? [This is similar to the “how many great LDS football players can you name?”]

  30. JKC
    August 15, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    This idea of the Romantic concept of the artist is probably where we get mucked up in the question of whether one can be a great artist and a faithful mormon. For the Romantics (at least for the English Romantics, i.e. Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron), it wasn\’t just originality but inspiration that made a great artist. The idea of the Old Testament prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness, (\”his flashing eyes, his floating hair\”) was very much a part of their idea of the artist (especially for Blake, and less so for the latter three). This still survives in our culture\’s value of the artist as a social critic, which is probably why so many artists see the need to buck the establishment. The conflict is that mormonism sees prophecy (at least culturally if not doctrinally) as a feature of the establishment and not of the rebel or critic, at least when the establishment is defined as the church. Since we have cultural and historical memories of Sidney Rigdon, William Strang, William Law, and others who claimed prophetic gifts without the blessing of the establishment, we are wary of such individuals. On the other hand, I suppose we also have had our \”lay prophets\” like Lowell Bennion, Gene England, or perhaps Nibley. But these were more often thinkers and writers than artists.

  31. S. P. Bailey
    August 15, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    I agree (see the Motley Vision thread to which Nate links) that great Mormon artists should not arrogate themselves into struggling romantic geniuses who compulsively attack the church.

    However, Nate’s response to William’s significant question seems unsatisfactory to me. As an art-lover and would-be artist, I certainly hope that “struggling romantic genious” or “medieval artisan/Navajo weaver” are not the only alternatives. I may reject the “struggling romantic genious” as the model for Mormon artists, but I do love and respect much of the western artistic tradition (before, during, and after the romantic period).

    Orson Whitney (and contemporary Mormon authorities like President Kimball, whose “arts” sermons seem to follow Whitney’s) longed for Mormon artistic achievement. They mentioned Shakespeare and Milton as models—artists who fit in neither category that predominates the discussion here.

    John and Russell’s insights are also encouraging. Like Nate, I am suspcious of Rouseau and what his followers have wrought. But I am not such a true believer in liberalism that I can’t see the good (or atleast the “eligible for redemption”) in romanticism. Goethe may fit comfortably with Shakespeare and Milton as potential models for Mormon artists. Indeed, if I understand properly some things Terryl Givens has written, Joseph Smith himself can be understood as a romantic of sorts. And of course he is the prototypical modern kingdom and community builder and restorer.

    I think it is a mistake to reject all art that challenges its audience or the community from which it emerges as arrogant and apostate “romantic genious” stuff. Contra Ivan (no. 1), some artists “challenge the public” in good ways. A favorite example is Flannery O’Connor: deeply and seriously Catholic and quite challenging to her community. She frequently received letters from priests and nuns and ordinary co-religionists appalled by some of the shocking details of her stories. Yet she she shocked to tell very moral, very Christian stories. Her great quote was: “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.â€?

    Mormon authorities have made a similar point. Shoddy art—particularly shoddy art that treats holy subjects explicitly—is in a sense sacreligious. Does God appreciate or desire maudlin, sentimental, and trite praise? Why do we so readily accept maudlin, sentimental, and trite holy art? There are bad things out of which great art can shock us: poor taste, moral ambivalence, etc.

    Anyway, I don’t think we can cut the gordian knot of the problem of great Mormon art by turning to the “medieval artisan/Navajo weaver” model. Even if they do not assume the role of “struggling romanic geniouses” I think great Mormon artists will tread a difficult path. Not unlike faithful scholars who choose Mormonism as a field of study. Perhaps Mauss’s guidelines for being an alternative voice (see an earlier post of Nate’s at apply equally well to Mormon artists who would be great.

  32. August 15, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    But our object in creating buildings of worship, even temples, seems to be less about art and more about ordinances.

    I would agree with this.

    I also get a little uneasy with aspects of discussions like this because art is very subjective. I think there was a discussion about this a few months ago. Who decides what is “shoddy art”? (Or “maudlin, sentimental and trite” art — using words from a previous comment?) I suppose I might be “ashamed” to share what art has inspired me. I know there are technical ways to examine “good art” but in the end so much of art is a personal experience. What you like may not do anything for me and vice versa. I think there ought to be some room for that individual experience when analyzing art.

    However, I realize that is not the point of this post. I personally find it very, very sad when someone chooses art over God. That seems a form a idolatry to me, along the lines of missing the mark. If anything, art should be something to inspire and lead people to God, not something that pulls the artist (or those who “enjoy” the art”) away from God.

  33. Steve L
    August 15, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Jack #6 is absolutely right. If thinking of Wagner, just look to his “Pilgrimage to Beethoven”–none adored Beethoven as assiduously as he. These supposed Romantic megalomaniacs who only value originality were deeply concerned with the past and living up to its standards. Nate has surely oversimplified the problem of the anxiety of influence.

    Did someone really call the Aquabatics and Michael Balak “Great Artists?”

  34. JKC
    August 15, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Re: my other post, I do not mean to suggest that thinkers and writers cannot be artists. Just the opposite. Coleridge, for example, if we take the English Romantics, was at the end of his life much more a theologian and philsosopher (at least in his own eyes) than a poet. I just mean that the “lay prophets” that mormonism has produced are usually seen primariliy as intellectual giants rather than as inspired poets. We see them as dedicated scholars who use their minds to produce something that inspires us, not (usually) as visionaries through whom the holy ghost (or the artistic genuis) speaks.

  35. queuno
    August 15, 2006 at 2:12 pm


    Here is a website devoted to Mormon artists and Mormon art.

    You might find it interesting to actually see the work, as opposed to talking about it theoretically.

  36. S. P. Bailey
    August 15, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    “What is ‘shoddy art?’ Or ‘maudlin, sentimental and trite art?'”

    I know it when I see it. And I see it all too often in official and unofficial Mormon venues. It would be unkind to mention names or particular venues.

    Art is subjective, but within limits that both amateurs (in the positive, non-specialist “lover” sense) and specialists alike recognize. Let’s not use this subjectivity as an excuse for “anything goes” or “what I like is art to me.” When our Prophets call for great works of Mormon art, I assume that the word “great” means something. Not something specific, but at least a range of artistic achievement and moral importance.

  37. Kent K
    August 15, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    What the world needs now is more paintings of glowy faced Anglo-Saxon Jesuses with bushy auburn moustaches interacting with birds, butterflies and well-fed Anglo-Saxon children in bathrobes.

  38. August 15, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    S.P. Bailey writes:

    “As an art-lover and would-be artist, I certainly hope that “struggling romantic geniousâ€? or “medieval artisan/Navajo weaverâ€? are not the only alternatives.”

    To defend Nate’s dad a bit, I would imagine that he was talking more in terms of visual art, his particular area of expertise. That makes a some sense to me — and there are Mormon artists who are drawing on Mormon folk traditions and/or medieval art to create visual works.

    I think it gets a bit more complicated when we’re talking about narrative arts. [Although I have talked a bit in the past about Mormon art and reviving the epic.]

    S.P. Bailey’s mention of Orson F. Whitney is interesting. Whitney was a neo-Romantic, and can comfortable be grouped, in my opinion, with all of the neo-Romantics of late-blooming 19th Century national literatures (Italy, Greece, Romania, Argentina, etc.).

    For Whitney, the appeal of Romanticism is that it brings to aesthetics what Joseph Smith did to theology. Whitney equates and sometimes even conflates artistic inspiration with religious inspiration — poets and propehts. For him, Romanticism seems to be an apostate version of the “true” way to create art. Of course, I’m a bit more skeptical about the Holy Ghost’s role in the creation of art.

  39. Stevie
    August 15, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    I have believed that the church would be slow to encourage great artists for several reasons. Some of these have been stated in direct, and indirect ways already:

    Significant or great art is often a response to tension of some sort. Our church seems to seek to avoid tension. Why would we have angst about life and its deepest questions? We have all the important answers (we imply) … so there is nothing left to say. There is simply no room for existential angst, and anger at the inane-ness of life. There is no railing against the establishment, because we love the establishment (sort of Orwellian isn’t it?)

    We do not seek creativitity as a church. Look at the art-work in church. I have often wondered why we can’t encourage local artists, even ward members, to contribute to art in our buildings. There are many answers to this question (un-professional art, art that hasn’t been scrubbed clean by the church correlation committee, art which may be offensive to some.) However, none of these reasons for me justifies the complete lack of interest we (as an institution) have towards true creativity.

    I was just at the church museum in SLC, and it was fun to see the wonderful works of art there, but there is no room for dissonance, anger, depression, frustration. There were lots and lots of pictures of Joseph Smith’s first vision, partly because this is the 200 year anniversary of his birth. Don’t get me wrong. There is a real time and place for that. But, like the piano player who only plays a few keys, this art-work is uncercut by the lack of the entire range of emotional experiences.

    There are other reasons as well, but I suppose that we are not discussing the church’s artwork (including architecture, visual arts, music). However, the church’s very narrow window of approved forms of art sets an example of restraint that squashes most real forms of expression.

  40. Mark Butler
    August 15, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    I do not see the tension in the best art as primarily a matter of angst, or tension within one person, but rather the tension between the spirit and society of God and the spirit and society of the world.

  41. S. P. Bailey
    August 15, 2006 at 4:07 pm

    Or if it is tension within one person, it can be cast in terms of the plan of salvation and the atonement. The mortal suffering of the individual and that individual’s possible redemption. In general, the contrast between the mortal and the divine is the best source of tension for great art that is religious (or that atleast emerges from a religious tradition).

  42. JKC
    August 15, 2006 at 4:34 pm


    I completely agree. Societal art, or in other words, art based on some grand view of society, can be great, but often degenerates into some kind of political agenda. I think this happened with art within the communist tradition–Yevgeny Zamyatin, a russian novelist at first embraced the bolshevik revolution because of its critique of the inequality of society, but was later rejected by the bolsheviks (both the artistic community and the repressive state apparatus) because he refused to submit his individual artistic vision to the “greater” needs of the party and the state. This is not to say that art based on a grand societal view, or the “tension between the spirit and society of God and the spirit and society of the world,” as Mark says, cannot be great, only that it is easily hijacked by political polemics.

    On the other hand, tension within the individual is more specific and therefor harder to pin down into a political or social agenda. But I don’t think that mindless angst, or rebellion with no cause is a very fruitful place for great art.

    Great art often is based on the tension that arises from an incongruity that creates a psychic dissonance. This could be the fact that a religious society espouses certain doctrinal values in theory and in devotion but rejects them in fact and practice as in much of Blake’s early poetry, or the be more contemporary, the incongruity that arises from good latter-day saints doing evil things like in Labute’s Bash. Likewise Shakespeare often explores incongruities and tensions.

    But in the church, the like to have all the answers. Since the gospel is perfect and since our leaders are inspired, we should never have to experience any kind of psychic dissonance (we think). It is in exploring the incongruities, however, that art happens. But in exploring the incongruities, there is also risk (Like Hopkins puts it “Oh, the mind, the mind has mountains”). J. Reuben Clark rejected a rationalized view of revelation because he saw that it would lead to a loss of faith. Because of the risk involved in exploring incongruities, the brethren are wont to discourage it, or if not actively discourage it, then to decline to encourage it. Perhaps this is the source of tension that some mormon artists are experiencing that leads to the question we are discussing. Perhaps it is this tension that leads Labute to assert that Dutcher will eventually have to reevaluate his membership in the church if he is going to take his art seriously.

  43. JKC
    August 15, 2006 at 5:06 pm


    BTW, since you have mentioned O.F. Whitney, and the epic, have you read Whitney’s “Elias: an Epis for the Ages?”

    Just curious, though I have to admit some selfish interest in it since Whitney was my great-great-grandfather.

  44. Sasha
    August 15, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    Stevie’s comment in #36 states “I was just at the church museum in SLC, and it was fun to see the wonderful works of art there, but there is no room for dissonance, anger, depression, frustration. There were lots and lots of pictures of Joseph Smith’s first vision, partly because this is the 200 year anniversary of his birth. Don’t get me wrong. There is a real time and place for that. But, like the piano player who only plays a few keys, this art-work is uncercut by the lack of the entire range of emotional experiences.”

    My wife is one of those artists whose painting of Joseph Smith hangs in the church museum. She also did one for the last competition (which got a merit award, but that’s not the point, I am just bragging). The point is, the other painting was also of Joseph Smith. And that is the theme that interests her. Can she do abstract work? Yes. I think it’s awesome. Does she enjoy and appreciate unconventional forms of artistic expression? Absolutely. Does her work “lack the entire range of emotional experience?” Maybe so, but I can tell you that she put her heart in those paintings and it is was an emotional experience.

    Yes, there are multiple styles and not all of them were represented in the exhibit. But I don’t think that absence of certain types of art diminishes its value or emotional experience.

    As far as your analogy of a piano player who only plays a few keys. I am a piano player and music arranger. I am familiar with most styles of music. I can tell you that our hymns, while stylistically very conforming to the traditional 18th-19th century, emotionally affect me a lot more than Stravinsky or other more modern composers. They are very edifying, while, perhaps, not very challenging to play or sing.

    People relate emotionally to simple things, things they can understand. It’s like speaking in tongues. The scriptures teach that it is profitable to speak in tongues only if there is someone to interpret. Something that is impossible to interpret is impossible to relate to emotionally. The language that is spoken through the works at the church museum is the language of faith, spirit, and religious devotion. That language is beautiful because it reaches deep and is easy to understand.

  45. August 15, 2006 at 5:35 pm

    “Significant or great art is often a response to tension of some sort. Our church seems to seek to avoid tension.”

    I don’t think that’s true in the least. It seems the key aspect of our church is the tension of being in the world but not of the world.

    Regarding great artists might I suggest that figures like Isaiah are probably put in that category?

    Regarding some of the “bad art” that besets not only church illustrations and even paintings in chapels and temples there is a difference between having good illustrations and good art. I’d love to have more good art. But at least the church makes healthy use of classic art that most consider great. The move to use more local artists though who, often as not, aren’t terribly “great” is sometimes a bit disheartening. But at the same time can we raise up great artists if we don’t support the attempts to make it?

  46. August 15, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Undoubtedly there is great art that has come from angst, but given the relatively late emergence of that concept as an important element with art or artistic self-understanding, using it as a marker of great art will inevitably mire us in silly anchronisms, ie try to find existential angst about the inanity of life in Chartres, or equally silly narrow mindedness.

    The question is not whether or not all types of artistic expression and self-understanding are available to Mormons — clearly they are not (although the options are wider than most assume) — but whether there are types or artistic expression and self-understanding that are fully consonant with Mormonism and simultaneously allow for the creation of great works.

  47. Rosalynde Welch
    August 15, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    Nate, do you think the theological assumptions of Mormonism are sufficiently robust to compete with the modern assumptions of Romaticism for the souls of the Saints? It seems to me that, even in the heart of Zion, in a fully active, gospel-centered—heck, even home-schooled–family, most members’ self-concept is drawn along thoroughly modern-liberal lines; liberalism is simply too totalizing a system for Mormonism to have any real purchase on the most basic limning of subjectivity, it seems to me. So I think we may find ourselves well and truly mired.

  48. Kent K
    August 15, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    “but whether there are types or artistic expression and self-understanding that are fully consonant with Mormonism and simultaneously allow for the creation of great works.”

    I don’t see why not. I think there are many many examples of all types of “great” artists whose works are “consonant with Mormonism” whether they knew it or not. For example, Bach was a devote conservative Christian who dedicated all his works to God’s glory. Purely as a matter of conjecture, I don’t think he would have written too many notes differently had he been Mormon. The world abounds with musical and visual masterpieces that are not subversive to the gospel.

    I’m not sure Mormon artists experience any more difficulty reconciling their careers with their faith than Mormon businessmen, Mormon athletes, or Mormon scholars. All of those people may face the dilemma of how far can you go in the world without becoming of the world. As yet I have not seen anyone mention something that is both *essential* to the production of great art and contrary to the gospel of Christ.

  49. Kent K
    August 15, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    I meant “devout” of course.

  50. JKC
    August 15, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    I would wholeheartedly put Isaiah in the category of a great artist. And like most other great artists, Isaiah was responding to the incongruities and tensions around him–the fact that his community, Israel, which was supposed to be God’s chosen people, was not living up to the standards of mercy and justice that he understood to be attributes of a godly people. Wrapped up in that is the implicit idea that nobody else does either, which brings in the whole idea of the necesity of the atonement–hence the prophecies of Christ. In Isaiah and other prophets are indeed great artists, then maybe that opens a door to understanding the role of the spirit in art. I would venture to say that that is a changing role adaptive to the individual artist.

    But would the rest of the worled consider Isaiah a great artist? That’s another question. Certainly the romantics probably did, those acquanited with hebrew prophecy as a literary genre (as opposed to the LDS view that prophecy is anything spoken under inspiration) would probably include Isaiah among great artists. I’m not sure about the rest of the world, though. To the extent that our idea of a great artist is related to the romantic ideal, we would probably include Old Testament prophets like Isaiah. It isn’t uncommon to hear the words “prophetic” or “visionary” applied to reviews of art, so maybe we are more indebted to Isaiah & co. (or at least the perception that the romantics had of them) for our artistic ideas than we think.

    This is probably an irrelevant tanget, but is anyone familiar with Blake’s prophetic books? Are they inspired? Are they prophetic? Are they great art, or is Blake insane?

  51. August 15, 2006 at 6:28 pm


    I have only read parts of Whitney’s Elias. However, I have read his other epic “Love and the Light” and have written an essay on one section of it that I will be submitting soon — it’s also the work from where my Mormon arts and culture blog A Motley Vision takes its name.

    I am familiar with Blake’s prophetic books. I think they are are great art and even inspired. They reflect such a personal cosmology that it’s often difficult to figure out what he is talking about, but I think he gets at some fundamental truths about the need for freedom in order to come closer to God.

  52. August 15, 2006 at 6:30 pm

    Of course, those who take a wholly naturalistic view of Joseph Smith would probably connect Blake to JS via Swedenborgism (but that’s not something I know a lot about).

  53. Richard O.
    August 15, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    A few random thoughts…
    God not only did not create ex nihlo, he also apparently used some historical patterning, “like unto worlds heretofore created.” That kind of respect for historical tradition that was apparently used even by Creator of the world is often in short supply in today’s art schools that are trying to teach students how to create.
    Another thought about art, but using a scripture that we usually don’t think of as a model for art… “and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Could turning the heart to the fathers perhaps be a way of affectionately looking at historical tradition as a teacher? Could turning the hearts of the fathers to the children perhaps bring with at least a nudge to artists to create things that will aesthetically, intellectually, and spiritually speak to untold following generations?
    Carolyn lamented the uninspiring architecture of many Mormon buildings. I think that danithew has a point about ostentatious places of worship. But with that caveat, where did the sterility of contemporary architecture come from? Much of it can be traced back to the German Bau Haus which was based on rejecting the historical tradition of our civilization’s architecture. The Bau Haus also rejectied almost all architectural ornamentation (hence the steel and glass box). Architecture used to be the mother of the arts. That is where we had murals, stained glass, mosaics, sculpture, etc. Gropius turned architecture into the abortion clinic of the arts. Most architects today, including those that design for the Church, got their training within those mental constructs that rejected the historical memory. School of art and arcitecture that used to feel an imperative to pass on the historical memory of our civilization too often presented an enforced historical amnesia on their students. We pay a price for that.
    As to the medieval… Have you seen a lot of buildings in our great cities that rival Chartres Cathedral? Has our civilization made many buildings in the last century or so that will be treasured in 800 years? And keep in mind that when Chartres built their cathedral, it was a town of about 15,000.
    Many of the artists of the past look like giants because they were standing on the shoulders of those that went before. When artists choose (or are forced) to climb down off the shoulders, they often look like pygmies. That is not to say that each generation, and each artist should not try to add to the tradition, but when we discard the collected artistic experience of our civilization (in favor of an artistic model that only has a couple of hundred years experience among a few in a rather small segment of the world’s people) much is lost.
    And finally, it is illuminating to read the Lord’s words to the Prophet Joseph in teaching Joseph how to build a temple. Bring those with ” knowledge of antiquity…” (D&C 124:26
    If you look at the vast sweep of world art, connection with tradition, community, and religion is often a common denominator.

  54. Richard O.
    August 15, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    Sorry about the spelling and grammer errors. I rushed too quickly.

  55. August 15, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    Nate (#46): Undoubtedly there is great art that has come from angst, but given the relatively late emergence of that concept as an important element with art or artistic self-understanding, using it as a marker of great art will inevitably mire us in silly anchronisms, ie try to find existential angst about the inanity of life in Chartres, or equally silly narrow mindedness.

    Let’s not be too quick to pooh-pooh angst. It was Joseph’s angst, after all, that brought forth the great creative/artistic achievements that constitute the Restoration. The fact that angst is only relatively lately recognized as one driver of art does not mean that it has not played a role throughout human history. It’s just that what we now call art (and also science/technology and medicine, that is, understanding and controlling the workings of the world) only relatively recently cut themselves loose from the overarching hegemony of religion and became self-aware of their methodology. Even without explicit self-awareness, however, human angst has surely always played a significant role in the art that is religion-making.

    Perhaps the solution for committed Mormons is to see the question-raising and problem-solving functions of art in a manner akin to Kuhn’s canonical discussion of the way science proceeds: by periods of “normal science” in which the reigning paradigm is fleshed out, with occasional revolutionary paradigm shifts when an abundance of outlying data induces a crisis. Joseph established the paradigm and answered the big questions, and now is a time for celebration and elaboration and fleshing out, not revolution. When a scientific theory is fruitfully accounting for more and more data, it is foolish to go creating some random new theory just for the sake of novelty. Similarly for believing Mormons, with Joseph having established the right and fruitful answers governing the human condition (and authoritative successors to elaborate him), it would be seen as foolish for your random artist to raise fundamental questions about behavioral choices and the meaning of life.

  56. Jack
    August 15, 2006 at 8:07 pm


    Not all of us here are intellectuals–at least not by profession. I work in a machine shop.

    Perhaps we’ll need to agree on what mormon theology is before we can agree on how compatable or incompatable modern approaches to art are with said theology–even though coming to such an agreement is about as probable as being struck by a meteor originating from somewhere outside of the local cluster. But even so, it is probable that while in the process of settling the dispute mention will be made of the implied uniqueness of quality and dimension that exists between separate intelligences as per the Book of Abraham.

    Somewhere there’s got to be a little room for originality in our theology–and if there is, well, how can it not cascade into something that smacks of romaticism?

  57. Carolyn
    August 15, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    Kent K —

    “I think I can say that of all of them, only the Church of Christ Scientist chapel was as visually uninspired as our current ward building. On the other hand, there are many stunning temples in the world. I guess beaut in the surroundings for worship is a privilege only the temple-recommended enjoy?”

    I agree that many of the temples are beautiful. But if you go inside those temples the artwork on the walls is very similar to what you find in almost every other church building. The same prints over and over again.

    I believe this springs from a corporate culture that values efficiency above all else. The same kind of thinking that says that every McDonald’s should be like every other McDonald’s. (There are some people who actually take comfort in the fact that all our chapels look alike. We can feel sorry for these people. But I digress…)

    danithew —

    “If the church itself, as an institution, was paying out massive funds to talented artists, they could no doubt have Great Mormon Art in a fairly short period of time. But our object in creating buildings of worship, even temples, seems to be less about art and more about ordinances.”

    It doesn’t have to be expensive. The church could extend callings to local artists as it did in the 19th century. Back then the church (which had considerably less resources than it does today) sent a number of artists to France on “art missions” to study Impressionism as preparation for painting the murals in the Salt Lake temple. (Can you imagine that happening today?)

    But there are LDS artists today who already have the skills and who would probably be thrilled to have the opportunity to use them to contribute to the kingdom, especially to do something like beautify a temple or chapel. Some of them would probably be willing to do it as part of a calling or contribute their work for little more than the cost of the materials. But they’re not being asked because there is no cultural environment to support it. We don’t have to choose between having a visually inspiring environment in which to worship and getting ordinances done. We can have both.

    But of course, it would probably take a little more time and effort. And art is so subjective anyway. And probably not everyone would like everything that was produced. No, perhaps bland, repetative, one-size-fits-all art is the answer after all. Inoffensive, cost-efficient. Yup, fits all those nice corporate values. It’s just too bad that kind of art has no power to lift the soul.

  58. Jack
    August 15, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    I need to learn how to spell compat[i]ble.

    To the best of my knowledge, all of the church’s most recent efforts in the performing arts–Savior of the World, Light of the World, The (new) Nauvoo Pageant, etc.–have been created in a highly collaborative manner without credit or compensation to the writers/creators. While (imo) there hasn’t been a marked improvement in the art per se, it seems quite evident that those participating in the production process have been greatly edified by the experience. And so, as one who has had more than his fair share of painful experiences in the theater, I shout my three cheers for such a victory!

    That said, when will we see great original performing arts in the church’s venues? Will it be when great artists are able to bow themselves to the sceptre of art by counsel? Or will it be a product of a collectivist inspiration of sorts?

  59. Bill
    August 15, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    “For example, Bach was a devote conservative Christian who dedicated all his works to God’s glory. Purely as a matter of conjecture, I don’t think he would have written too many notes differently had he been Mormon.”

    If he had been a Mormon, since he didn’t live in the cosmopolitan center, he would have probably been expected to play three hymns every week from the same fifty or so that were familiar to his congregation. If he was a little adventurous, he might be told that it was inappropriate to celebrate the glory of God in a manner too loud or too fast, or otherwise irreverent. He certainly wouldn’t have been expected to compose a new cantata every week, or to teach the choirboys latin. Then again, he wouldn’t have been compensated for his services either.

  60. Jack
    August 16, 2006 at 12:24 am

    Bill, that’s hilarious.

  61. August 16, 2006 at 2:51 am

    But they’re not being asked because there is no cultural environment to support it.

    I don’t think this is entirely true. I remember reading about a guy who was asked specifically to do stained glass for one of the newer temples (Palmyra or Nauvoo, perhaps? too lazy/tired to look it up right now). I am sure there have been other craftspeople involved along the way with the temples as well.

    Efficiency may be part of the focus, but not in a corporate mindset. (Comparing to McD’s — yikes!!)Pres. Hinckley wants to streamline things as much as possible so that as many people as possible can have a temple by them and partake of those ordinances. It’s that simple. He also has encouraged artistic expression along with those temples, like having the youth participate in festivals/extravaganzas/celebrations. (Not exactly the art you are thinking of perhaps, but it is a celebration of art forms like music and dance. I went to one celebrating Joseph Smith and it was extremely inspiring to see the youth share their talents.) It feels to me like you speak as though our leaders have no sense or desire for art, and I don’t think that’s fair. It may not be what you want or think should happen. But they also have priorities, and that comes with the territory of their callings.

    And, frankly, I’m one of those people you can feel sorry for, I guess. I think there is great value in having consistency throughout the church, in all parts of the world. It’s not that I couldn’t appreciate a painting that was different if it showed up on a wall in a chapel somewhere, but I don’t believe church is the place for that newness and exhibition. I enjoy going to the art displays at the Church museum, for example and personally find a great deal of inspirational work there. I find testimony in form and color and shape and descriptions. I can find art in places where art is the focus and should be the focus. I don’t feel the need for that at church. I’m actually quite fine with the way things are. Art is a means to an end anyway, and I don’t think it should be made an end in and of itself.

    Incidentally, I can’t imagine the Church sending people overseas because our world is so small and our people so much more educated that there is no need for that. We live in a different era, with a different focus anyway. I don’t think we should expect things to be the same as they were when the Church was new.

    A last thought: If there is ever an either-or clash between an artist and Mormonism, maybe it’s because the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Art can inspire and express, but it can never save or resurrect or exalt. I’ll never understand why someone would abandon one’s faith to choose to pursue what is, in the end, a career. It makes me sad. (Just a general comment there as I have read reviews of the Sunstone discussions, etc. — not necessarily directed at anyone here.)

  62. Sue
    August 16, 2006 at 2:55 am

    And also true.

  63. Kent K
    August 16, 2006 at 9:15 am

    Bill, you’re talking about Mormonism as a culture, I’m talking about Mormonism as a belief system. What you’re really arguing is that Bach wouldn’t have been “Bach” if he were born in say 1950 in Sandy Utah. And by extension, there will be no more great religious artists since the old framework of church sponsorship has been replaced with a looser system of patronage from the private and academic sectors. However true that may be, what I’m saying is that Bach did not need to rage against the machine to be a great artist, and that if he had had the opportunity in his lifetime to be Mormon (he died about 80 years too soon), that Mormon beliefs would not have been dissonant with his creative genius. I’m arguing that Mormonism as a belief system does not essentially prevent folks from being great artists.

    If you’re arguing that Mormonism as a culture does hinder, or at least doesn’t tend to foster artistic genius, you’re probably right. If you’re arguing that there are no great Church composers because there is no official Church sponsorship program, well, again I can somewhat agree. You could make that point about the entire Church system of amateurism. With lay clergy and sermons by the masses, we will tend to foster few great orators and sermonizers because they can’t focus exclusively on their craft and they don’t get weekly practice, for example. The Church as an organization takes an egalatarian approach to sermonizing and music making which tends to produce greater numbers of better than average singers and public speakers, but does not foster genius in the way a full-blown patronage system might.

  64. Richard O.
    August 16, 2006 at 10:47 am

    Being strongly connected to religious faith and community can enrichen and deepen artistic expression. Two good examples in the history of Mormon art are C.C.A. Christensen and Minerva Teichert. In the present, this shows up in the work of such LDS artists as Walter Rane, Brian Kershisnik, and Wulf Barsh.
    There are a great many LDS artists today whose work is being very well recieved outside of the Mormon community. Finding these artists “out in the world” may depend a lot upon where one looks. We may not have lots of LDS artists making big splashes in SoHo, but try Santa Fe, the second largest art market in the USA. In the leading galleries of Santa Fe we are very well represented.
    I mention the art market, because it is one barometer of how people are responding to art by LDS artists. This art is often quite traditional and possitive in its message. When the public votes with many thousands of dollars for a single work of art, that voting is sometimes more serious.
    Thirty years ago I only knew of about ten or so LDS artists who were able to support themselves and their families full time as visual artists. Today there are dozens and dozens.
    Don’t expect to read about many of these artists in N.Y. art publications or see their work at the M.O.M.A. or the Whitney. The stylistic and philisophical proclivities of those publications and institutions are usually oriented toward different artistic paths than those of most LDS artists.
    On the other hand, perhaps we put to much emphasis on external validation of our own artistic traditions. Maybe this post simply feeds that.

  65. JKC
    August 16, 2006 at 1:30 pm


    I wonder if Minerva Teichert’s relationahip with the LDS community (not always the same thing as the church) wasn’t more conflicted than that. Surely, her religious faith did enrich and deepen her art, but I have been told (a huge vague ambiguity, I know) that she was often exploited by those in the church who pressured her to produce more and more and did not compensate her at qhat would be considered a fair rate. I confess freely that I have no idea on the details on this, I only heard it mentioned once by a professor at BYU. Maybe someone else has the whole story and my insufficiencies can be fleshed out or corrected.

    Personally, I think her art is some of the best we have produced. I know a lot of members who don’t like it because they see it as a bit more abstract, but that’s what I love about it. I would much rather see her stuff hanging in a chapel or temple than Greg Olsen’s, but that’s just me.

    William Morris:

    I think I agree with you on Blake, though at times I wonder if the emperor is really wearing any clothes. I find many of his statements remarkably similar to LDS beliefs. For example, compare Blake’s “without contraries is no progression” to Joseph’s “by proving contraries is truth made manifest.” Also, Blake’s statement that “therefore God becomes as we are that we may be as he is,” I personally like better than Wilford Woodruff’s couplet “As God once was, etc.” because it works the role of the atonement into the idea of eternal progression more centrally, and probably because I haven’t heard it repeated as many times. I think Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job are some of the most moving pieces of art I’ve encountered. Now, lest I get accused of proof-texting Blake to make him post facto mormon, I also recognize that he was not a mormon even in spirit. I don’t think Blake would have been too keen on polygamy, (no real evidence for that, just a hunch).

    I wonder if perhaps one reason why we don’t see more great mormon artists is the fact that it often takes a long time to be considered a great artist. When Grandpa Whitney hoped for a mormon Milton, Milton had been dead for like 4 centuries. It took not only Milton’s individual genius, but also the fact that he had been read, imitated, recognized, analyzed, (validated?) by the literary community for so long to be as great as he is. Same thing with Shakespeare. The church is still less than two centuries old–to produce a Milton that fast would be prodigious indeed.

    Another possibility is the fact that we as a church are so focused on doing and going. Are we doing temple work, are we doing missionary work, are we doing our home teaching, are we going to church are we going on a mission are we going to the temple. Let’s face it, it’s hard to find time for comtemplation and meditation that often creates art. Maybe the monastic element in the Catholic church is a good contrast to our busy-ness (it was no mistake that we took the beehive as a symbol)–it might explain why there are more great Catholic literary figures than great mormon literary figures. I confess I have Gerard Manley Hopkins in mind.

  66. S. P. Bailey
    August 16, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    Richard (no. 64):
    I would like to know more about these dozens and dozens of financially successful Mormon visual artists. Do you have a list of names? A title of a coffee table book (or books)? Online galleries? Incidentally, I spent a summer month in Santa Fe a few years ago and got to know in the ward a couple of artists who spend each summer there marketing their works. Alas, I don’t remember their names. Anyway, what a great town if you like visual art (what, isn’t there something like 100 little galleries?) And opera. And Mexican food. Dang. I should go back. Maybe next summer.

    Your point about outside validation is interesting. Going back to the sermons that call for great works of Mormon art, it seems that the definition of “great” is troublesome. It could mean many things: mastery of forms, contribution to community, and so forth. Yet can we really dismiss outside approval as an intended meaning of “great” in those sermons? Part of the idea seems to be that “great” Mormon works of art will show the world our genious and thus add to the glory of Zion. Doing so would seem to require meeting at least some of the world’s criteria for greatness.

  67. D. Fletcher
    August 16, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    I’ve made the point before — the Church has no great artists because the Church doesn’t want them. It needs artists of a certain level of craftsmanship, for hymns and primary songs, and magazine covers. But no artist should ever call attention to their own expressive needs.

  68. August 16, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    What do you mean by “expressive needs”?

  69. D. Fletcher
    August 16, 2006 at 8:20 pm

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear.

    I recently set The Articles of Faith to music. It’s meant to be for children, as a replacement or optional setting to the ones which are in the Primary songbook. Some people have bought my music, out of some kindness to me. Whether or not the music is “great,” it doesn’t really matter — it is of little use to anyone. It can’t be used in Primary, because it isn’t part of the correlated group of songs, and it takes too long for children to learn these songs, anyway. My music can’t be done as a vocal solo (it’s got counterpoint) so it won’t be needed in recitals, or Sacrament Meeting. The Church doesn’t need great art — it doesn’t need plays, movies, novels, poetry, visual art of any kind (though Minerva Teigart (SIC) worked at a time when the Church needed murals) or even interpretive art skills like singing, conducting, dancing, acting. Even pianists/organists are becoming less needed, by virtue of automatic accompaniments played on electronic instruments.

    The Church doesn’t need artistic works, because it doesn’t use them. Additionally, the Church doesn’t want people to express themselves artistically, which draws attention to the artist and away from the community. Hence, all art created with LDS themes might be considered “subversive,” and indeed, much of it is exactly that, in that it is critical of the Church and the small culture which it has engendered.

    P.S. The only art the Church has actually needed over the course of its history is architecture. Somebody must design these buildings. And many of our buildings, certainly the older temples, are quite striking and unusual. The Cardston Temple is the greatest work of art ever developed intentionally and specifically for the LDS church.

  70. Jack
    August 16, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    D., I think you may need to qualify that a bit. While the church, in an administrative sense, doesn’t seem to have an overwhelming need for great artists, many of its members sure seem to be aching for it.

  71. Jack
    August 16, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    Sorry D.,

    My comment (#70) was in response to your first comment. I had this screen up and then walked away to do a couple of things before typing. I should have refreshed it.

  72. D. Fletcher
    August 16, 2006 at 8:46 pm

    Jack, to what end? Do members really think we’ll have paintings on our walls or musical “masses” in our SMs? All LDS-themed art is presented outside Church, and I don’t really see this changing any time soon. This is the chief reason I think that artists “fall away,” because they need at least “potential” for presentation, and they’re not getting it in the Church.

    And when one presents one’s art outside of Church proper, it’s regarded as subversive. I know, it’s a conundrum, one I’ve been dealing with for 48 years.


    P.S. Twenty-five years ago, the Church sponsored a contest for a musical. All you had to do was send a treatment for a show to the judges (one of whom was James Arrington, I believe) and they would hand over $50,000 grant money to write the show. They suggested a Mormon Fiddler on the Roof, as a good example of a show upholding religious values.

    Of course, Fiddler itself comes from a great artistic source, stories by Sholom Aleichem. But in Fiddler, the 3rd of the daughters finds a husband outside the faith, a conflict which would never pass muster in the LDS arena. The potential show would have to be safe from worldly conflicts (i.e., not dramatic).

    No winner was found, no prize given or show produced. And where would it be produced, anyway? The Church itself is… antithetical to art, like some religious entities of the past.

  73. Mark Butler
    August 16, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    I don’t think the Church is antithetical to art, I just think that it has extremely high standards. Perhaps it is a little perfectionist, wanting something great right now, where it should probably shelter the good to lay the foundation for the great. There is some reasonable evidence of the latter, however.

    One other thing – if one wants a great culture, it simply will not do to dumb down the gospel. Great culture comes from great thoughts. Great thoughts are laid on a foundation of an intense education. Theological and educational minimalism is probably more responsible for the LDS cultural deficit than anything I can think of.

  74. D. Fletcher
    August 16, 2006 at 9:30 pm

    Extremely high standards? Boy, do you and I disagree on this point Mark.

  75. Carolyn
    August 16, 2006 at 9:33 pm


    “And, frankly, I’m one of those people you can feel sorry for, I guess. I think there is great value in having consistency throughout the church, in all parts of the world. It’s not that I couldn’t appreciate a painting that was different if it showed up on a wall in a chapel somewhere, but I don’t believe church is the place for that newness and exhibition. I enjoy going to the art displays at the Church museum, for example and personally find a great deal of inspirational work there. I find testimony in form and color and shape and descriptions. I can find art in places where art is the focus and should be the focus. I don’t feel the need for that at church. I’m actually quite fine with the way things are. Art is a means to an end anyway, and I don’t think it should be made an end in and of itself.”

    I *do* sincerely feel sorry for you. Art, especially visual art, is so much more than a means to an end. It has to do with beauty — like that breathtaking feeling you have when seeing a mountain or a scenic vista. It seems as though you are willing to confine your experience of beauty only to certain times and places. And because of that I feel sorry for you.

    “Incidentally, I can’t imagine the Church sending people overseas because our world is so small and our people so much more educated that there is no need for that. We live in a different era, with a different focus anyway. I don’t think we should expect things to be the same as they were when the Church was new.”

    I wasn’t implying that the church should still send people overseas to study art. My point was that in the early church when there were far fewer resources, church leaders went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the interior of the Salt Lake temple became a beautiful space. They didn’t say this will be far too much trouble, so instead let’s just focus on the ordinances and leave these walls blank. Having a beautiful space in which to worship was important to them. Today, when relatively speaking, it would require far less effort, it seems less important.

    “A last thought: If there is ever an either-or clash between an artist and Mormonism, maybe it’s because the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Art can inspire and express, but it can never save or resurrect or exalt. I’ll never understand why someone would abandon one’s faith to choose to pursue what is, in the end, a career.”

    I can’t speak for everyone who works in the arts, but my artistic pursuits are so much more than a career. They have to do with the way I express my soul. If I was not paid I would do it for free. (And believe me I *have* worked for free far too much!!)

    To ask an artist not to express themself is like asking them to go through life without speaking or thinking — very hard to do. I do understand the dilemma LDS artists sometimes face between staying true to their art and true to their church (as opposed to their faith which is a separate thing) especially when the church prefers that artists not address anything too uncomfortable. But unfortunately, that is the artist’s job — to take their heightened awareness and then bring that awareness to other people. If the artist shines a light on something that people would rather not see, it’s easier to blame the artist than it is to address the issue in question.

    Of course, like anything else, art can be corrupted. When an artist — let’s say a film maker — produces a work that offends me, how do I know if the inspiration for that work was from the pure place of his artistic soul or that of a more base motive? The answer is I don’t. Unless I can look into his soul I can’t judge his intent or whether his “ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”. All I have to go on is the work and my own subjective response to it. And that response is affected by my life experiences and spiritual awareness that the film maker may or may not have.

    I have met and worked with people whose work I personally found questionable. But after talking with them I realized that, from their perspective, they were sincere in their self-expression. (This is, of course, not true in all cases. Some people are just jerks.)

    But my point here is that I understand the tension between doing my job as an artist, which may make people uncomfortable, and reining myself in, in order to do what’s expected of me as a member of the church i.e. not rock the boat too much.

    As a final thought, remember that our church was built by visionaries. Joseph Smith rocked the boat quite a bit in his day. We may want to keep that in mind the next time we judge artists or any other visionaries whose insights make us uncomfortable.

  76. Carolyn
    August 16, 2006 at 9:46 pm

    D. Fletcher,

    “But in Fiddler, the 3rd of the daughters finds a husband outside the faith, a conflict which would never pass muster in the LDS arena. “The potential show would have to be safe from worldly conflicts (i.e., not dramatic).”

    I couldn’t agree more. There is no drama without conflict. We are not going to have great LDS drama until we are willing to admit that as a people we are less than perfect. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in this regard!

  77. Jack
    August 16, 2006 at 11:11 pm


    You ask, “to what end?” I understand that you’re being a bit rhetorical here–implying that it doesn’t really matter what the members wish for in terms of art because “it ain’t gonna happen.” But still, I think the fact remains that many in the church would like to see improvement in the arts. (though perhaps their hopes have been dashed–what with the last five or ten years of LDS film)

    That said, it seems clear that the church is making *some* effort to utilize the arts more fully. Have you been to the Conference Center Theater? Not the grand assembly hall, mind you, but the adjacent 900 seat theater. Let me tell you, it is full-on “state of the art.” I mean it has *everything.* The sound booth alone looks like the bridge to the freakin’ Starship Enterprise. And what’s more, they’re doing real live shows there! Nothing that compares with the caliber of “Fiddler,” but at least there’s something going on–and it’s fairly well produced. They’ve got a live orchestra in there. They’ve got a nice looking set and talented players. What they ain’t got? They ain’t got very compelling material–but they’re trying.

    The church is constantly in the throws of producing plays, films, music and visual art contests. Now I understand that none of this has as yet added up to “great art” in the church. But even so, I think it’s probably a little cynical to imply that the church doesn’t want anything to do with artists.

  78. D. Fletcher
    August 16, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    I’m not making my point very well, but I suppose it’s highly complex. I’ll try again.

    There are probably great artists who are raised in the Church. Here are the conundrums they face: since Church itself doesn’t require art, they must present this art outside of Church. If the art is life- and God-affirming, it probably will not be perceived of as great by the community of art-lovers, including those who are members of the Church. If the art is critical or even just observant of the Church and its culture, it will be perceived as “subversive” and the artist might have some difficulty with Church leaders. The artist might have some difficulty convincing people that the art is in fact engendered by a life of faith. It seems to me, most artists given these constraints, will fall away (as Brian Evenson has said).

    If great art is to come from members of the LDS Church, particularly if it extols the virtues of faith and a faithful life, it must be appreciated by those objective audiences who are *outside Church affiliation.* Our non-member art critics are the only ones who will be able to say whether our art is great, or not. (On a side note, I think this actually applies to the art itself. Only a Spielberg, or another quality filmmaker standing outside the confines of faith, will be able to make a great film about Joseph Smith, or Mormon history).

    P.S. Yes, I know about the CC Theater, run by David Warner, right? Just imagine any great works of art, say, Oklahoma!, or Sweeney Todd, or the St. Matthew Passion, or Guernica, or American Gothic (quietly subversive) or The Great Gatsby, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or… really any masterful work, produced by the LDS Church itself. It just isn’t ever going to happen. The St. Matthew Passion was created specifically for a Lutheran audience of listeners. We do not have the same needs as they did, even if our Bach exists — he will not be able to get his work heard in its specifically-sourced context, Church itself.

  79. Mark Butler
    August 17, 2006 at 12:06 am

    My opinion is that one can be critical all you want, as long as one is substantially echoing the criticism of the Spirit, and not some personal point of view. That is what I mean by an extremely high standard. Art is held to the same standard as prophecy. If an author really wants to create great literature, he or she should acquire the gift of prophecy by study and devotion first. Anything else is unworthy of endorsement by the body of the Church.

    What we accept now is simple prophecy – I know God lives and loves me, Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God, and will return in due time to judge the quick and the dead and so on. If we want greater art, we need greater prophets – people who understand by the spirit of revelation what the Lord would say to the people and then reflect that understanding in their creations.

  80. Carolyn
    August 17, 2006 at 12:16 am

    “The church is constantly in the throws of producing plays, films, music and visual art contests. Now I understand that none of this has as yet added up to “great artâ€? in the church. But even so, I think it’s probably a little cynical to imply that the church doesn’t want anything to do with artists.”

    Okay, I’m going to be a little cynical here. It’s great that the church is putting so much effort into performing arts including state of the art production values. But I would argue that much of that effort is due to the fact that these productions are intended as vehicles for missionary work. It’s art with a job to do. Art with a measurable outcome — more converts to the church. As opposed to just art for its own sake. When you saddle these productions with so much baggage is it any wonder that the material is less than compelling?

  81. Carolyn
    August 17, 2006 at 12:20 am

    In no way did I mean to imply that missionary work is not a worthy endeavour. I just meant that missionary-minded art should not be the only kind of art sanctioned by the church. (And I sometimes get that feeling.)

  82. Richard O.
    August 17, 2006 at 12:53 am

    Two conflicting responses…
    Isaiah and David were pretty good writers. Yet I doubt that the cultural elites of Egypt of Greece gave them much possitive aclaim in their day.
    Mack Wilberg is getting a pretty good response to his musical arrangments. Oxford University Press is publishing most of his work these days and they aren’t publishing it as an act of charity. it seems to be selling quite well to a large non-LDS audience.

    As to the Church not wanting art…
    As an institution the Church actually purchases and commissions quite a bit of art. Perhaps you should visit some of the new temples and see the murals and stained glass. The murals by Jim Christensen, Robert Marshall, Chris Young, Gary Smith, et. al. in Nauvoo are really quite wonderful. You might want to see the stained glass window in the San Antonio Temple. And there is a superb bronze high relief sculptural panel over the entrance to the Newport Beach Temple. Walk around the huge lobby areas of the Conference Center and enjoy the art. Check out the Walter Rane painting of Christ Healing the Blind Man.

    Every three years the Church Museum sponsors a Church-wide International Art Competition. There are around a thousand entries from all over the earth. About 200 pieces end up in the show (because that is all the galleries can hold). The logistics of getting out the word and bringing in the art from around the world is quite an amazing feat. I’m not aware of many (any?) other religious institutions that regularly have exhibitions that include art from China to Africa, from Russia to Chile, from Sweden to the Phiippines.

    But isn’t the Church more than the institution? Can’t we as individuals acquire art for our own homes? Wouldn’t this help build a demand for more LDS art? More LDS artists creating art increases the odds that good art happens. The Church simply can not be the only art patron. I doubt that the Dutch Reformed Church was a major patron of Rembrandt. I know that Durer’s wife used to peddle his woodcuts to the locals at the fairs in Nurenberg.

  83. Richard O.
    August 17, 2006 at 1:37 am

    “art with a job to do…” Welcome to the history of world art. Does giving art a “job to do” make it impossible to create greatness?
    Try the Sistine Cieling, it wasn’t just art for art sake. And the process of its creation would make most contemporary art professors break out in a cold sweat. Pope Julius forced the artist to move from Florence to Rome (at the time Rome was still “the pits”), shift from sculpture to painting, work in a new medium (fresco instead of tempera), paint lying on his back, and paint the story that the Pope asked for. Every “rule” of how “great art ” is supposed to be created was broaken (ast least the rules that most artists are fed in most art schools today) . So how was the product?
    Sometimes the last animal to discover water is a fish. I think that one of the interesting points of Nate’s original post is that there are more paradimes of how to create art than the Romantic model. Especially when that model has certain flaws, among them a framework that is somewhat at odds with the celebration of shared religious faith, especially as it relates to community. If we want great religious art, we might have to spend more time looking at periods and places where some great religious art was created. This is where history and a broader geographical perspective become especially useful.
    And lest this be interpreted as focsing only on large wealthy religious institutions long, long, ago, and far, far away, check out contemporary Hopi pottery and kachinas which come from a small (c. 10,000) poverty stricken tribe, isolated on wind swept mesas in the deserts of northern Arizona.

  84. Jack
    August 17, 2006 at 1:42 am


    Two things: 1) Your not making your point very well probably has less to do with your not making your point very well and more to do with my being a little thick headed at times. 2) Now that I understand your point a little better let me just say that I think I’m naive enough to believe that great art can find it’s way into the church through the back door, so to speak. Irrespective of whether or not it originates from church head-quaters, if a work of art resonates with the members they’ll receive it (and I think most members are open to a healthy range of drama) And if it’s well done it should stick long enough to become an enduring cultural artifact–simple as that. The only problem left is to let time tell whether or not the work is great. And with enough time even those outside the faith will, at the very least, acknowledge the cultural merits of the work–there are some who have done so with the Book of Mormon, for example.

  85. Jack
    August 17, 2006 at 1:59 am


    I agree that most LDS works are too didactic. And I certainly agree that art has more functions than missionary work–though I can’t think of a higher motivation than wanting to help people obtain Eternal Life. But still, Van Gogh’s Starry Night has a lot of value for me in the way it sooths the soul even though it doesn’t pretend any kind of religious prosyletizing.

  86. D. Fletcher
    August 17, 2006 at 8:40 am

    I find it very ironic that these conversations come up again and again, as if Mormons don’t feel cultural validation without “great” art, and yet, we are the ones who judge most of our art mediocre.

    Mack Wilberg is the most published choral composer in the world today, and his work is paid for by everybody except the Church!

  87. Richard O.
    August 17, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Actually Mack recieves a nice income and good benifits from the Church every two weeks for his work. He also seems to really enjoy his present work arrangement. Regular performance of his compositions by the Tab. Choir also probably helps the sales of his music.
    Thinking back to your early post about composing a work for children and not finding a place for it to be performed… Have you tried some of better LDS regional choirs? There are pretty good ones in Wash. D.C., L.A., and lots in Utah. There are even some regional children’s choirs that sing some pretty good stuff.

  88. D. Fletcher
    August 17, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Yes, I know, Mack is one of about 7 musicians actually employed by the Church, the Tab choir people and the Tab organists.

  89. Anon
    August 17, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    There is no good LDS art simply becasue, the general culture of the Mormon community is to be totally conformist. And to not want to be seen as a dissident. Every piece of art produced must pass muster by the powers-that-be at temple Square, as well as by a lot fo average members, who seem to be only too willing to find fault with anyone who deviates from the \”standard\” line of thought. Great art comes from people who can and are willing to \”think outside the box\”, and you all know what happens to members who engage in thinking outside the box. I bet this subtle thought control and internalised repression is what kills the artistic spirit. Everyone is required to have the standard opinions, and standared ideas about doctrine, cultural and social viewpoints. can you imagine the Church being \”a big tent\” with space for all manner of opinions. For example – will our Church ever allow , say , a group that are like the Catholics who espouse ideas of \”Liberation Theology\”? Unless our Church, and the greater LDS culture becomes less conformist, I doubt, there will be many artists, writers, poets, filmmakers etc, coming from amongst members. Who will produce work work that will be respected by non-Mormon and secular world.

  90. John T.
    August 17, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Mormon Art, including architecture and music, accurately reflects Mormon vanity.

    I disagree with those who think it’s mediocre; for the intended consumers, it’s perfect; for those not members of the Church it provides an accessible window to the collective Mormon psyche.

    One Freiburg illustration is worth a thousand words of Ensign admonitions and explanations.

  91. Jack
    August 17, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    One could say that Harlequin Romances are “perfect” for the intended audience–or readership. Does that mean they should be considered as something more than mediocre? Or as, perhaps, ranking up there with Jane Austen?

  92. Carolyn
    August 18, 2006 at 12:30 am

    Richard O. —

    “art with a job to do…â€? Welcome to the history of world art. Does giving art a “job to doâ€? make it impossible to create greatness? Try the Sistine Cieling, it wasn’t just art for art sake. And the process of its creation would make most contemporary art professors break out in a cold sweat.”

    I agree that Pope Julius made Michelangelo’s life very uncomfortable but was Michelangelo’s membership in the Catholic church ever at risk or in question? If the finished product had failed to live up to Pope Julius’ expectations would Michelangelo have been excommunicated? I don’t know the answer to this.

    But that’s what we’re really talking about here — getting back to the original post that Nate Oman linked. That’s the dilemma facing LDS film makers today. Granted we don’t know the details of Neil LaBute’s private life, because these things are kept private, as well they should be. But that’s just it. If Richard Dutcher goes too far in his next film will his church membership also be in question? Not for breaking any commandments, mind you, but merely for portraying latter-day saints in a less than favourable light. And how far is too far?

    That’s the chill in the LDS film community who wonder if they need to censor themselves so that they can retain their church membership or even just their temple recommends. As long as church discipline is used or even hinted at being used as a way to censor artists then as a people we are not yet ready for “great art” because that requires being real and being willing to look at ourselves openly.

    Rather than putting their church membership at risk, LDS film makers may choose to avoid LDS topics entirely, leaving our stories to be told by outsiders, or even enemies. (I fear this has been the case much of the time up to now.) Or worse yet, they may choose LDS topics but confine themselves to only safe, maudlin, unchallenging stories — the aforementioned “bad art” of which I think we’ve all seen enough.

    You can’t ask LDS artists to produce “great art” without first creating a safe environment for it to happen. You can’t say tell us “great stories” just don’t say anything negative. Who wants to stick their neck out in that kind of environment?

    As a sidenote, I went to school with Neil at BYU. I remember him as a nice guy. I’m kind of glad it’s him out there breaking this new ground and not me. In a way, he’s doing us all a big favour.

  93. Anon
    August 18, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    Following Carolyn’s post – this is the reason, I make sure that no one in my Ward and Stake find out about the few short stories I have had published inliterary journals, and why i write about non-LDS topics. I dont feel safe, in the sense that that I am sure what I write is most likely to be misunderstood, and I dont want folks with no appreciation of the literary art, jumping on me, accusing me of blasphemy or worse. E.G: I was once ‘reprimanded’ by my previous Bishop, a week after I mentioned a Cd by the Crash Test Dummies, where the title song is titled “God Shuffled His Feet”. Unless people with artistic tendencies can feel safe, our Mormon community will be reduced to producing art that is the equivalent to velvet paintings of Elvis, or Dale Earnhart commemorative plates!!!!!

  94. JKC
    August 18, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    How about velvet paintings of the 12?

  95. John T.
    August 19, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    I don’t think that the intended audience would say that Harlequin Romances are perfect in any artistic sense. Most see them for the escapist pablum that they are.

    Freiburg, on the other hand, is reserved a reverential place in many LDS homes. I remember seeing a picture of Mormon? not really sure who it was, with a chest containing plates about to be burried, looking upwards in prayer, prominently displayed in the “Celestial Room” (that’s how they referred to their living room) of an LDS colleague who invited me over for dinner. I saw these Illustrations in other homes, along with shelves of Nibley books. I think for the Genre, Freiburg is actually quite good.

    I wonder what the same colleague would have though of my print of “Scream” by Edvard Munch?

  96. Mark Butler
    August 19, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    I don’t think anyone is in any danger unless they openly advocate principles that are perceived by the majority of the members of the Church as radically contrary to the fundamental doctrines of the Church, or are given explicit instructions to cease and desist the advocacy of some certain principle, and then purposely ignore and defy that counsel.

  97. Jack
    August 19, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    John T.,

    Far be it from me to rip out the artistic rug from under the feet of those who are truely edified by any work, no matter how lacking it may be according to the critics–or hifalutin for that matter.

    That said, I’m a believer in bad art.

    PS. I think that was a picture of Moroni burrying the plates in the Hill Cumorah.

  98. Anon
    August 20, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Mark B. – what if I wrote s short story, based on the experiences of a former Bishop who has finally come out fo the closet? About the conflict going on in his mind? And in such a situation, it is very unlikely that the Church and its teachings might come off looking kinda shabby? Do you think this kind of artistic expression would be tolerated by the Church Authorities and members of the writer’s Ward? Most probably not.

  99. John T.
    August 20, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    Tom Lovell, not Arnold Friburg, was the artist of the print I referred to in 95.

  100. Mark Butler
    August 20, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    Anon, It depends on what you mean by “coming out.” If you mean becoming sexually active, divorcing his wife, and (likely) getting excommunicated from the Church, and present the whole story as if he is a hero for doing so, then no, you are not going to be very popular. Even then I can think of much worse distortions that you could write, that the pertinent authorities would be much more concerned about. The more closely a critique resembles actual experiences of members and implies gospel consistent solutions (e.g. instead of throwing it all away), the more likely it is to be approved of by some healthly majority of members. No one is subject to discipline for writing “questionable” stories – it is stories that are indistinguishable from anti-Mormon or anti-LDS literature that are the real concern.

    The basic principle here is God is in charge of his Church. As Cowper said, He is his own interpreter and he will make it plain. If someone has the gift of prophecy enough to know several years ahead of time of some change coming down the pike, more power to him. However, the Lord can do his own work, and really doesn’t need rabble rousers to stir things up. So these kind of things should be spoken of with great care, almost sub voce in the case of art work.

  101. October 23, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Arf… The art world is much more willing to repond to Mormon artist\’s then many Mormons think. I would even say in todays conteporary art world LDS people have an advantage. But just like every one else in the art world the work needs to be speaking in a certain language. Learn that language and you can participate too.
    James J. Peterson
    director: fifty50 gallery chicago

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