21 January, 2009

Mormons and the Arts

Note: this might make some of my Mormon friends upset. If that is the case, I am sorry. Not that I wrote it, but sorry that you are upset, at least.

I wrote this for a class in response to this article.

If Spencer W. Kimball and I were to ever meet in person and have a conversation, I doubt we would agree on everything. I’ve read a great deal of his personal writings and I do not always agree with the way he looks at the world. However, it is a testament to the role of a prophet that I agree with what Spencer W. Kimball teaches over the pulpit (as opposed to in his living room), and this talk is no exception.

Several things intrigued me about the many artists and philosophers (using philosophers in the broadest sense of “great minds”) of whom President Kimball made mention in his talk. One, most were from several hundred years ago, although some had died in the early twentieth century. This could be further evidence of the trend I have noticed in Mormon culture to stay at least ten years behind the rest of the world when it comes to trends in fashion, art, music, and most intellectual endeavors. Or this could be simply because genius usually takes several decades at a minimum to be recognized. A recent worldly trend has been to attempt to recognize and reward genius while such people are still alive. It seems to be pretty hit and miss, and I doubt the Church will catch up with this trend in my lifetime.

Two, the vast majority of the listed men and women were geniuses not only because they were talented, but because they were innovative. Talent can be had by practice and sufficient imitation. I don’t mean this as a slam against traditionalism in any form of art, but with enough training and practice I am convinced a monkey could become a talented painter or a talented pianist (probably not an opera singer, though). In praising the likes of Bach, Wagner, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Einstein, President Kimball was not merely calling for talent, he was calling for innovation. For members of the Church to be real creators, which ties in so fabulously with the Plan of Salvation that it can’t possibly be a coincidence.

I love the gospel of Jesus Christ with all my heart, but there are times when the gap between the truths espoused by Christ and His representatives, and the way these same ideas are carried out, watered down, interpreted and misinterpreted, is so wide as to seem like two different religions altogether. I feel that something about Mormon culture—not the gospel, the culture, let me make that perfectly clear—discourages innovation, even when innovation is needed. Mormons fear change, and this cripples the Church’s relationship with art. Is it because we are told so often that as time goes by, the world gets wickeder until that wretched day of teeth-gnashing? Do we interpret that as all innovation leading to more sin and less virtue? What about penicillin? What about democracy? What about the microchip? We are blessed to live at a time when so many blessings are available to us, at a time of so many interesting changes, but too often our reactionary Mormon culture throws the proverbial artistic baby out with the bathwater.

The Mormon Church is an economic demographic in the same way that any sub-culture or ethnic group is, and it saddens me that we as a culture have made such a lucrative market of kitschy art. Greg Olson is, I am sure, a lovely person and I would be honored to have him as my home teacher. But his artwork is bland and unimaginative. Ditto Liz Lemon Swindle. Anyone with a paint-by-number kit and a lot of patience could create paintings just like hers. And it’s not a matter of talent, because both Olson and Swindle can paint. They just choose to create paintings that look like advertisements, in which Christ’s robe looks like an invitation to see the softer side of Sears, and the woman at the well looks like a reality TV star. I don’t know if they make these choices consciously or unconsciously, or for economic reasons, or maybe because they truly envision the gospel the way they paint it. But I doubt that last one. I’m certain that their paintings are by and large a byproduct of the culture that created the artists who made them. Also, sadly, we live in the kind of culture that fires a good, qualified English professor for writing about controversial political topics. At times, Mormon culture fosters a culture of fear. Fear of crossing the line, of being thought wicked, or even becoming wicked through the things that we artists create. Like an inverse Dorian Gray.

I’m not saying that the world needs more cubist paintings of Jesus Christ. But I am saying that the art world needs more Minerva Teicherts and Brain Kershisniks. Both of these artists create paintings on religious themes that do not look like postcards. Not all Mormons like them, but that actually gives me hope. Good art provokes reactions—not necessarily Chris Burden-esque reactions, mind you, but some sort of visceral or intuitive response. Both Teichert and Kershisnik have been influenced by traditional paint forms, but are not bound by some elusive vision of which Maxim model Jesus Christ looked like. Hopefully as other artists in various media get the chance to experiment with religious themes without being disrespectful, we will see a change in this trend. A paradigm shift is needed, but as anyone who has seen Fiddler on the Roof knows well, culture is hard to change, and the more insulated and orthodox the culture, the harder is it to sell new ideas.

What does this mean for us as writers? One, we need to be gentle on our Mormon target audience. The Mormon equivalent of Waking Life or even Moulin Rouge (sorry, I was trying to think of something both popular and a little different) probably have a long time coming still, unfortunately. But can we do a Mormon Little Miss Sunshine? Minus the cussing, I submit to you that we can.


mathistown said...

Elisa dear, you have captured well many of my sentiments! I just couldn't agree with you any more if I tried. It's really sad that those who should offer to the world (including each other, and the world at large) the greatest enlightenment, which in OTHER cases comes in artistic forms, do not. We know the ULTIMATE truth but at times we create the ULTIMATE in tacky, lame, shallow, hollow, and boring (think Single's Ward and the aforementioned artists you mentioned, as well as countless cookbooks and stories produced by members of the church--Christmas Jars, anyone??)

Anyway, thank you for articulating well an epidemic that I hope at least some of you (us? can I take part?) can do something about it!

Rebecca said...

Very interesting. I do agree. Though it is interesting to note that throughout history the generation that has painted Christ paints Him parallel to their generation and not as He would have appeared in His generation. In this sense Olsen and Swindle are no different. I believe I've heard Him referred to as the 'surfer-Jesus,' which seems appropriate. His clothes seem authentic enough but his face and wavy sea sprayed hair....anyway. There seems to be something about the masses that see the idea or even the testimony of the artist in the images and so are drawn to them. And who can blame them. The message is real, but I agree I do not think this is the innovation President Kimball was meaning or if it is, it is only a small part and hopefully a beginning and opening to what can and will come. Have you seen any work by J. Kirk Richards? I admire him as much as I do Kershisnik. Anyway, thanks for sharing your paper. I did enjoy it!

barratt said...

Beautiful. i love you.

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