I’m glad Eric started with the basics in his post on Why Mormon Literature? I agree with his assessment, especially his final point, the need for an audience. The more I work in the world of Mormon books, the more I’m convinced that developing an audience for all the arts is what is necessary to build our culture.
But this idea of building our culture and the related idea of even working in Mormon art, literature and other cultural expressions begs the question “why?” Why do we need Mormon culture? Why do we need a ‘market’ for Mormon books, art, music and other cultural goods?
Beyond the issue Eric addressed that a lot of Mormon books, film, music, etc. are not very good, I’ve heard LDS Church members question the need for culture at all. “The Gospel is all we need!” say some. Others say that the Church gives us, in the scriptures, lesson manuals and doctrinal expositions, all the ‘literature’ we need. Why do we need books written by someone else? Still other members question the validity of anything written or created by someone who isn’t a general authority!
Of course these views are a little extreme. [I’m not setting up a straw man here, I have heard them, and I’ll bet others have also.] It is relatively easy to show that they aren’t doctrinally correct — we’re told to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and to “do many things of our [own] free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;” (D&C 58:27). Somehow the Church manages to pay the bills for the Museum of History and Art, so that the results of this work is collected.
Eric’s post addresses a lot of why we need to build our culture. Yes it helps to read, hear and see works that come from our worldview. Seeing these things clearly add to our experiences as members of the Church.
Let me go a little farther than Eric went and mention a couple more reasons why culture and cultural expressions are important.
1. Culture is a necessary part of any group, social organization or society. The Church is no exception. As a result, we have and will continue to have a Mormon culture regardless. If it doesn’t get expressed in the arts, then we are all poorer as a result. It is then harder for us to examine ourselves, our worldview, as Eric puts it, and it is harder to communicate that worldview to others.
2. Culture is a support to the Church. We all know cultural Mormons, members who stay members because of the culture they grew up in, or who sometimes even join the Church because of its culture. Obviously doctrine and testimony are better reasons to join and stay, but culture has a role in keeping some members here — and many times it keeps them members until they learn the doctrine and gain a testimony.
OK, so if we accept that Mormon culture is necessary, is it really necessary to have all this buying and selling? Can’t artists just contribute to the culture without extracting money somehow? Couldn’t the Church just provide the cultural goods?
To a great degree, the answers here are basically economic answers. The need for a ‘market’ actually follows the need for the culture — if you want art to exist, the artist needs to be able to live. Short of an idealized StarTrek world where food magically appears in ‘replicators,’ artists won’t create as much art without being able to earn from their art enough money to eat and live. As it is most artists of all kinds work non-art jobs to support their ability to create art.
While the Church has, since the days of Brigham Young at least, been one of the major patrons of the arts, it can’t possibly be the only conduit for culture. The need from members for cultural expressions is too large for limited resources, and the range of artistic taste is too broad for any organization to handle. [The market as it is can’t handle this range — but that’s the subject of a forthcoming post.]
So independent efforts must be made. That means publishers, music labels and film studios other than Deseret Book. It means stores and websites that sell LDS products. It means theaters that show films and plays and musicals. It means museums and all sorts of cultural institutions. It means the LDS Booksellers Association.
These businesses and organizations not only profit from our culture, but are some of its principal supporters. They are, in fact, the infrastructure of our culture. Without them it would be much, much more difficult to transmit cultural works from the artist to the public.
While the Church, through its distribution centers and through local chapels, does have a kind of infrastructure, this infrastructure isn’t really available to anything that isn’t directly involved with Church activities. That leaves everything else to the bookstores and other institutions.
So, yes we need a market.
I just wish the bookstores realized better how important their role is. In my view, they could do a lot more.