Review: Banner of Heaven

Disclaimer: It is not my desire to bring any of the many piles of refuse from the fall of Banner of Heaven within the pristine walls of A Motley Vision. If you want to read or comment on the ethics of the situation, you can do so here. (Or here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, or here.)

I am absolutely fascinated, however, by the advent of the fake blog as an art form. We here at AMV are all about Mormon arts and being as Banner of Heaven is Mormon and art, I’m gonna review it. (Although I see I’m not the only one with the idea.) Naomi posted this blurb from an email which describes the BoH’s intent in its creation: “we want to explore blogging as a way of telling Mormon stories, and more specifically than that we want to tell stories that reflect back on the bloggernacle itself.” I think Banner of Heaven successfully did exactly that.

Take, for example, The Continuing Story of SeptimusH. It’s fiction. But there’s no other forum or format in the world where this type of story would work other than a fake blog. It’s serialized in fairly short bits, each episode of which tells of a new event, or a twist in former events. It’s played out in real time, as if it were actually happening, and even comments are open so that the reader can intereact directly with the character. Simply put, it’s the exploration of a single character in the first person who, under the pretense of being real, invites us to share in his experiences as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption.

19th Century British novels were largely serialized by chapter and gained a large following in the build up between selections, usually about a month apart, that resulted in massive popularity. I think we see some of the same effect today in Harry Potter books and Star Wars movies. Whether real or admittedly fictitious, I think there’s definitely room for a genre of serialized fiction that comes in blog form.

The pretense of reality adds an extra weight to the story in that it ups the stakes. If we believe the events we are reading are actually happening to someone, little anecdotes of strange events are all the funnier and touching moments are all the sweeter. We’re all the more engaged in the story. Part of my problem with what I currently read and see in the media today is that authors, in search of larger audiences, are constantly seeking out more and more outlandish stories with less and less realistic characters and situations. Granted, many of SeptimusH’s stories pushed the limits, which is actually what first caused the skepticism of its reality in the first place. But even still, it’s not often you get great stories about a relatively uneventful night at a country dance with your elderly neighbor.

Frank briefly mentions believing in the importance of historicity, and as far as scripture goes, I agree. But I think there’s a big difference between scripture and blogs, part of which is that the value of scripture, in part, is its historicity itself. I think non-scriptural literature is different. A first person novel could claim to be an auto-biography, but I have no way of knowing if the text represents the author’s life or the character’s life. In the end, the authenticity of the story is meaningless. What matters is the story itself and my reaction to it. I love, for example, the end of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Pi offers two versions of his story to his rescuers (and to us, his readers) and we never learn which is true. But what we’ve learned from Pi’s initial story is in no way diminished if it turns out that the second story was the true one.

I think the same goes for blogs. For example, there are only two people in the entire bloggernacle whom I have seen with my own eyes and whose existence I can personally testify of ““ Jim F. and Ben H. of T&S. As far as I know, everyone else could be fake. Jim and Ben could be writing the personalities of everyone else in the bloggernacle (pause for a moment to imagine Jim and Ben writing Steve EM and Kurt), for all I know, it could really be just the three of us blogging. But my personal experience is no less real. My laughs have been actual laughs and what I’ve learned and gained is completely authentic.

Rusty has suggested that Septimus’ experiences with the Sisters was a metaphor for Banner of Heaven. Now, I’m the last person to try to push metaphors onto a text, but there’s something about this one that intrigues me. We were all abhorred by Septimus’ deception of the Sisters, which was undoubtedly wrong on all counts. But you’ll notice that criticism of Septimus’ behavior waned over time, in part, I think, because we began to see that Septimus wasn’t just playing with the girls. It wasn’t a joke to him. Though established under false pretenses, the relationship between Septimus and the Sisters was a real ““ and mutually beneficial ““ one. I think that if Septimus had confessed to the Sisters and told them his story, including his desire to return to activity, they may have been stung at first, but I believe they would have forgiven him. And I don’t think they would have considered their time with him a waste.

What does the future hold for fake blogs? It’s hard to say. If they come too often, anything strange or anonymous will immediately come under suspicion ““ especially in the current bloggernacle community, where we’ve all been had once already. They also have the trouble of gaining an audience. Most journal-bloggers have an audience of primarily friends and family. If you were fake, you’d probably start out with no one. Banner of Heaven had the distinct advantage of a group blog which received support of the Archipelago and the larger blogs. But I think there’s still potential, if done craftily enough.

Perhaps what has a stronger potential are blogs which admit to their fabrication from the start. This, of course, would avoid any ethical dilemmas, but it’s hard to say what kind of audience they would gather. I’m optimistic that, if well written, such a venture could be extremely successful.

But without further ado, my take on the characters of Banner of Heaven:

Allison as Mari. I’m afraid I have to admit that Mari was the one blogger whose posts I occasionally skipped. If Allison was trying to create a very ordinary Mormon woman then it seems to me that she did too good a job. I just wasn’t all that interested. Looking back, I see now the internal dilemma that she was working up and I think it’s well done. But compared to so many crazy things going on among the other characters on BoH, Mari kind of got lost in the fray. Grade: B-

Christian Y. Cardall as Aaron. I think it’s widely believed, and fair to say, that the biggest misstep with Aaron was going overboard with the satire. He was the character that led a lot of people to quickly disbelieve the reality of the blog. But you know what? I wouldn’t change a bit of it. If Aaron had been weaker, he wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

What I found particularly fun was not so much the satire itself as the character developed behind it. We received very little personal information about Aaron, but I feel like I got to know him just as well as any of the others. I personally enjoyed him because, for me, it was a stirring reminder of so many guys I met on the mission. It’s so funny to see young, uneducated 19-year-olds get on a spiritual power trip and begin to preach and act like they’re ancient apostles. As crazy as he was, Aaron was all too real for me. And the little touches such as the absence of question marks was brilliant.

The interesting part of all this is that there were times when I thought the satire wasn’t nearly strong enough, but because of Aaron’s reputation, it was treated as if it were. For example, and call it my conservative bias, but I found absolutely nothing objectionable in the content of Aaron’s post on Katrina. All Aaron was saying is that multiple GA’s have warned of natural calamities, and that now they’re happening. I really struggle to see what’s offensive about that.

But regardless of the degree to which you sympathized with his points, Aaron was always a riot. Even when we knew it was fake. Aaron’s final post, which came after a point where we were all pretty convinced of the blog’s falsity, was still absolutely hilarious. As such, I think Aaron, of all the BoH characters, has the greatest potential to remain a viable commenter in the bloggernacle if he wanted to. As a more realistic, more textured version of Prudence McPrude, we would probably still all enjoy his comments just as much as before, even knowing he’s not real. Grade: A-

Naomi Frandsen as Greg. Naomi played a non-Mormon boy who had some great stories. I think she pretty successfully did the boy part. But the non-Mormon part was sometimes more difficult for me to buy. For example, it seemed kind of odd to me that a non-Mormon ““ even one who lives with Mormons ““ would remember the names of so many famous members and alleged members. The bigger problem was that he just felt too Mormonish. I think the idea of having a non-member was a great idea, and when BoH fell to perverted comments of all varieties, it was always amusing to hear the non-Mormon tell the Mormons that they are sexually-obsessed. But Greg simply wasn’t non-Mormon enough. He has Mormon roommates, knows a whole lot about Mormon culture, is dating a Mormon girl, occasionally goes to church and conference, and is even considering accepting a church calling. He blended in too well. Of course, what else are you going to blog about on a Mormon blog other than Mormon stuff? I don’t know. It just seems to me that he would have been more effective if he were a little less Mormon-esque. Grade: B
[P.S. Now that Naomi has posted her response on Greg, I see him in a slightly different light, but I didn’t want to change what I had written. I think the idea of a quasi-Mormon who doesn’t accept the church is a good one, and I had overlooked that aspect of it.]

Brian G. as SeptimusH. The bulk of SeptimusH’s story involves his decision, as an inactive member, to accept missionary discussions from the sisters while pretending he’s not a member. We learn of some psychological problems early on, and later we learn that he’s divorced with a child that he hasn’t seen in a long time. Despite problems which appear to be his own doing, he’s a very sympathetic character and there’s something very real and affecting about his desire to return to church and become reconciled with his family.

SeptimusH was by far the least believable character in BoH, and I remember discrediting his reality very near the beginning. And yet, even now, knowing beyond a doubt that there is no such thing as SeptimusH, I still believe. I still see him”¦sitting there, in a Ramones t-shirt, with Dale, drinking kool-aid. The red kind. Though I never really believed in him, I still don’t believe he’s not real. Bryce made a good point about wasting our thoughts and concerns on fictional characters, but I think it’s worth wasting our thoughts and concerns on characters like SeptimusH. There’s something almost sublime about an offbeat character slowly, awkwardly making his way back onto the beaten path. Though I often treated him flippantly, his stories softened my heart on a number of occasions. He may not be real, but his humanity is real, and I think I am very genuinely a more compassionate person for having gotten to know him. Grade: A

DKL as Miranda PJ. Miranda blogged less about personal issues and rarely told personal stories, but the success in her persona was the satire. And while there was a little satire in all of the bloggers, DKL was unsurpassed in his execution. Miranda was a satire of everything in the bloggernacle from the utterly banal, to the result of hot-tempers, to the completely irrelevant. Although clearly, it’s not all satire ““ some things look like they could be a genuine DKL post.

Most successfully, Miranda was a full blown satire of the extremities of Mormon feminism. What amazes me is that it wasn’t picked up as strongly as Aaron’s satire, but perhaps that’s to DKL credit for making it so realistic. Rosalynde evidently picked up on the satire, but I sense that a lot of people didn’t. As outlandish a character as Miranda was, it appears that DKL needed to up the volume even more to get the point across. But I’m glad he didn’t; doing so would have turned Miranda into a cartoon and part of what made Miranda work was her verisimilitude.

Ironically, while I myself was heavily critical of Miranda’s hatred towards DKL, I now find it was one of DKL’s most inspired moves. Before BoH ever started up, I noticed that there was a lot of undue revulsion towards DKL/AT throughout the bloggernacle, and his creation a character who so unreservedly hated him without any good cause is a genius response to all those people.

I would have liked to see more from Miranda about her personal life and her relationship with her x-box playing, toilet-paper making husband. There could have been (and still could be) some great stories about a divorce and her inability to accept any responsibility for it. But I have to say, getting the self-righteously liberal take on Harriet Miers was worth it. Grade: A-

Steve Evans as Jenn. I think that Jenn most successfully captured what the blog was trying to accomplish and told the kind of stories that it wanted to tell. Jenn is an average LDS single struggling with jobs and boys in the Big Apple. She struggles with finding happiness when she’s down on her luck and then quickly falls for a boy she doesn’t seem to like too much. And there’s a great deal of humor going on when you have a fairly Molly girl trying to keep up in the big city, and then questioning her future with her boyfriend because of his left-wing politics.

Even though I think Jenn was the most realistic character of the group, there were a few moments that were kind of stilting in its realism. At times the naivety was a bit strong and some of her struggles felt a bit overplayed. I remember distinctly thinking her reaction to some comments made by Steve Evans was really strange, but now, well, I guess it makes sense. But overall, Jenn was a fun character and led to a number of lively conversations. Grade: B+

I hesitantly used grades simply to identify more outstanding achievements, but honestly, they were all fantastic. And by fantastic I mean far better than anything I could have done.

With all the resentment and subsequent apologies, the remarkable achievement in maintaining voices independent of themselves and keeping everything under wraps for so long has also been almost completely overlooked. Christian once slyly remarked that “If it’s fake, the author(s) are being pretty careful.” True enough, Christian, we’ll give you that. And responding to conspiracy theories on Nine Moons prior to the fall, DKL asked the question that perhaps says it the best, “These guys have been lying all year and this is the best you can come up with?”

43 thoughts on “Review: Banner of Heaven”

  1. As far as I know, everyone else could be fake 

    Same goes for life, man. How do I know that I’m not the only real person alive?

    Did you see the Truman Show? Did you like it? Great art, or a cruel hoax? 

    Posted by Ronan

  2. Great review of the whole blog. I agree with Steve that a B+ seems low, especially considering your statement that “I think that Jenn most successfully captured what the blog was trying to accomplish and told the kind of stories that it wanted to tell.” On those criteria, Steve would have an A or A-. But I agree with giving SeptimusH and A. His stuff was hilarious and the character itself was so creative–a real hit. The posts seemed to come out of nowhere and carried their own background, skilfully interwoven into the character, allowing small glipses at a time. 

    Posted by john fowles

  3. I’m happy for the good treatment, but I don’t think that the grades are a good idea. It was more collaborative than that.

    If Miranda was real, it was largely because I was careful to run the posts by my co-bloggers, and every time I received great input and feedback–that kind of evaluation took a lot of time on their part. Sometimes the differences it made were subtle and sometimes dramatic, but they were always important. I’m not saying this to sound magnanimous or because I’m not happy with my grade or because I’m jealous of Brian G (he deserves an A no matter what we get). 

    Posted by DKL

  4. Ouch. Perhaps that sounded a little down. I didn’t mean it to. Let me try again:

    Bravo! I love your review. It made me smile and laugh, and I read it out loud to my wife. Thanks, Eric. 

    Posted by DKL

  5. Eric,

    Thanks for writing this. I deeply appreciate it and not just because of the flattering things you said about my work.

    The other people who have taken a critical approach to the Banner (and by critical I mean actually considering it the way you would a work of art or entertainment) have focused on the dramatic events that led to our unmasking: the investigation, the bounty, the trial, and the public punishment and admission of guilt, but all that was about five exciting days out of five months. As a loyal reader I know you saw a bigger picture than that.

    As Rusty, arJ and others will tell you we encouraged this race against time, thinking we would win in the nick of time, of course, but it would be unfortunate if the spectacular, yet premature conclusion over-shadowed our goal of showing the potential drama in the day-to-day of Mormon lives, and the fact that showing Mormons with all their warts can be compelling and at times uplifting.

    Thank you for focusing on the five months and not the last five days. It makes me think that we all (not necesarily the six of us) should write more Mormon fiction, and if our blog is to have any legacy at all, I hope it would be that–slightly more and slightly better Mormon fiction on the ‘net.

    P.S. Please tell William Morris that Steve and I now think we should have listened to him.


    Posted by Brian G

  6. Eric, thanks for this thoughtful review–unique, as far as I know, for its attention to content, the actual storytelling. Or lack thereof, in the case of Aaron; I really did have a plot in mind for Aaron, and had laid some groundwork for it, but didn’t get to finish. At least, not yet.

    Mari’s character was very important in “keeping it real,” allowing there to be a normal center to the whole thing while some of the rest of us went off in weird directions. I thought she generated some interesting discussions about realistic concerns that brought in an important segment of readers.

    As Rosalynde admitted publicly, she had inside knowledge of this thing early on, and was thus aware of DKL’s mild feminist satire. (Of course, she’s very bright and may well have detected it anyway.)

    I agree with you about a reflexive prejudice building up against Aaron–I was genuinely surprised by this sometimes. I think I perceived this most directly in Ye cannot overthrow it . Aaron was essentially defending the church against antis, and still got no sympathy whatsoever–except maybe (and ironically), as I recall, from an atheist with Mormon roots, who offered a legitimate, substantive point in Aaron’s favor. 

    Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

  7. OK, so maybe the grades weren’t such a good idea. But honestly, they were really more just a reflection of how into each character I got, rather than an assessment of writing abilities.

    Ronan, I don’t know. Truman Show  did cross my mind as I thought about it, as well as Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, which is even more cruel and even more explicitly in the name of art. Obviously there is a point where even art with the highest aspirations can be cruel enough that it is not justified. Where is that line? I don’t know. I know the psychology field faces a similar problem. Maybe I’m just a cruel person, but I think it’s too bad that psychologists can’t do stuff like the Milgram experiment anymore.

    P.G., I think that’s probably a wise way to approach it. But I also understand the concern that to the degree that we assume the fictionality of the words of other people blogs, the more difficult it is to become emotionally invested in each other and that that weakens the community effect.

    Supergenius, fair enough. Let’s see it.

    William, did you know about this too? Man, it seems like half the “˜nacle was in on it.

  8. John, Ezra Taft Benson called me on a mission to Fukuoka (Foo-koo-woe-kah), Japan when I was 21, but the Mission president at the MTC thought better of it. After about 11 days, he sent me home with the admonition that, “People like you shouldn’t go on missions.” (He should blog at T&S, right?) I’m in the young men’s program in my ward, and I still joke with them that my mission was the best two weeks of my life–it’s probably a bad idea, but if they wanted a role model they were barking up the wrong tree.

    Anyway, I went right back to school, attending BYU until they kicked me out for not attending church. 

    Posted by DKL

  9. Thanks for this review, Eric. It is *very* AMV.


    I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be right. And though I haven’t read much of what was posted on BofH, I stand by Eric’s review of it and am pleased that he took the time to write it up.

    Eric (and everybody else):

    Yes, I knew about it. I was approached very, very early on in the planning process [and really I was a tiny bit surprised that my name never surfaced amidst all the conjecture — I don’t know whether to feel complimented by the possibility that people wouldn’t think me willing to do such a thing or miffed that I apparently am not on people’s radar.].

    I declined to participate. I did think it was a funny idea [note that the idea wasn’t completely formed at the time — what I thought funny was the idea of a fake blog created by Brian and Steve].

    I provided some analysis of the idea, including feedback on an early draft of characters and story arc (I thought it was too soap-operish). I also warned that it was possible that the project could harm the fragile ecosystem of the Bloggernacle.

    I now regret not monitoring BofH more closely, but to be honest I had neither the time nor really the desire to do so, popping in only three or four times when a BofH post was linked to from somewhere else. 

    Posted by William Morris

  10. Something that made me believe the speculation that SeptimusH was not real was that I found it hard to believe that anyone would take their deception of the sister missionaries so far. What did SeptimusH have to gain from leading them on? But then I wondered if maybe he was a real guy that was stringing them along just so he could write about it in his blog. I wonder if Brian considered blogging to be part of the motivation for SeptimusH’s decisions. What better theme for a fictitious blog to explore than the influence that recreational blogging has on the real life of the blogger? 

    Posted by Tom

  11. Is it really possible to separate art from ethics like you are trying to do here, not altogether successfully? It seems to me that wrongdoing is a form of ugliness.

    Lets leave aside the Bannergate context for now. Am I wrong? 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  12. As to my existence–

    you have, William Morris, corresponded with me from official government email addresses, right? You have to be pretty skeptical to discount that, and my bio on Notre Dame’s website.

    Adam Greenwood

  13. Tom, that idea is fascinating, but I never considered it. I think it’s a great idea though. Do you want to start a fake blog? Not right now, of course, but maybe in a couple of months.

  14. Adam:

    I don’t have a good answer for you on the question of ethics and art. I’m not sure that either field is fully equipped to deal with the other and have the suspicion that those who plant themselves strongly either camp develop major blind spots when they look across the way. I do believe that all good art must, at its core, be moral. How it is moral is a question best left to close readings of individual works. And inspite of some critics attempts to kill off the author, I do believe that intentions matter (while at the same time being more on the side of the audience).

    But in brief: wrongdoing is a form of ugliness, but the problem with reflecting that term of ugliness from ethics onto art is that it then pushes us back into questions of aesthetics. Which is not to say that I buy the conventional schools of thinking on aesthetics — which is why I have tried to develop (and will continue to try to do so since I keep failing in my attempt) a Mormon one.

    I endorse Eric’s review of BofH because this is the most appropriate place (imo) to discuss the aesthetics of the experiment. And because he was an active part of the BofH community.

    I’m quite certain that you and I are both real (in the sense that we are who we represent ourselves to be). I’m not sure about everybody else though. I’d really like to believe that Kristine, Wilifried and Rosalynde are written by a committee of top-notch writers (so I wouldn’t feel so lacking in comparison), but

    A) there seem to be others out there who vouch for them
    B) you and I both know what committee writing ends up being (c.f. your comment on official government addresses) — i have one of those too. I’m going to e-mail you from it now. Perhaps we can at least verify each other and from there this question of ethics and aesthetics can develop into a fruitful conversation.  

    Posted by William Morris

  15. Tom, about the deception of the Sisters. I mentioned earlier that Septimus was unbelievable, but I meant in the context of the blog ““ that all those things would occur just as he started blogging. But I think Septimus is very real as a character, and the situation with the Sisters was part of his complexity.

    It seems to me that Septimus wanted to return to church, but he didn’t know how. I think it was a little bit fear and a little bit pride. Showing up at church out of the blue as an inactive might be a little humiliating ““ at least from the perspective of someone as insecure as Septimus. It would require admitting ones fault in explaining to members that you were inactive and might involve confessions to the Bishop in order to get back into good standing. I can see how the whole thing might be a little overwhelming.

    The Sisters allowed him a new beginning. He was intrigued by the idea of a rebaptism because he didn’t want to face up to his past. He just wanted to start over. Even the idea of someone who has been long since excommunicated ““ as he leads Rita to believe ““ is an easier path than admitting that you’ve just been wandering around in the fog.

    I also think the blogging aspect is an interesting one and you have to wonder how much that plays into his character. He certainly got a reaction from the commenters as to his behavior. Maybe he liked it, and he kept it up so that he would still have something interesting to blog about. That’s one significant way where a blog entry really does become different than reading a series of journal entries, because the blogger is blogging for an audience. Some entries, such as the Black Sabbath , were clearly for an audience reaction ““ you wouldn’t normally see a journal entry like that.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  16. Adam, it’s a good question without an easy answer. Suppose Hitler commanded a score that would be performed while the Nazis killed Jews. Would the circumstances that motivated its creation as well as surrounded it once it was created necessarily mean that the score was an ugly work? Or suppose a man writes a novel and in so doing fails to fulfill his family obligations, thus creating the work only at the expense of the well being of his family. Is the book necessarily poor? I don’t see a necessary connection between the aesthetic value of a work and the ethical circumstances of its creation.

  17. I’m not a film scholar, and I’ve never seen Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, but it seems to me like it’s very difficult to discuss those works as purely aesthetic exercises. 

    Posted by Bryce I

  18. Is it really possible to separate art from ethics like you are trying to do here, not altogether successfully? 

    Adam, as you point out, Eric did not completely separate art from ethics in his review, he just tried to screen out a certain kind of discussion about ethics which has already raised voice in all the places he lists.

    It seems to me that wrongdoing is a form of ugliness.

    And yet wrongdoing, such as lying, may lead to ephiphanies and other sorts of higher understanding just as well and sometimes better than being pierced by the bright beam of pure truth. It would be interesting for someone to do a review of the respondents to the BofH storylines, those who weren’t in on it and discuss them in a fashion similar to how Eric reviews the BofH characters. At any rate, maybe it’s time for one of those famous bloggernacle polls?
    (First question: “Did the Banner of Heaven drama weaken your testimony, strengthen your testimony, or have no effect upon your testimony?” hehheh)

    I don’t know what Eric’s first thoughts were when he realized the BofH was a “hoax,” but now he’s standing back and thinking about the phenomenon rationally. That doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude ethics, but neither should we assume that because he hasn’t tackled the ethical questions in the expected (and rather typical) fashion he doesn’t think the ethics matter. “I think I’m a more compassionate character for having gotten to know him” is not an ethically devoid statement, it’s just … well … ethically unusual perhaps.

    About the fact that for some readers the relationship they had with the BofH characters wasn’t what they thought it was: this is the essence of irony, which is a vital literary trope. Such turnabouts between flesh and blood readers and fictitious characters happen all the time when the reader knows the character is fictitious! Regardless, irony is an omnipresent player in many levels of our lives, leading Schlegel to cry out, “What Gods will rescue us from these ironies!”

    I myself have a different view of my stewardship of language and Mormon art and wouldn’t have performed in such a way. But that somebody did provides us a remarkable chance to explore art and relationship, a chance to think about things in a new way, including ourselves! And given how many of us probably gain wisdom the hard way, with much more heartbreak and maybe even danger involved, the BofH drama was all in all a relatively safe way to test our boundaries.

    So I’m throwing in with William here and endorsing Eric’s review, too. (Can I do that, William? I know it’s your sandbox.) 

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  19. Eric,
    Yeah, I can see how Sep would find that posing as an investigator might be a relatively comfortable way to come back to church. Of course, there would inevitably come a point when the poop would hit the fan, so to speak.

    This Septimus character really was/is great. Brian has sucked me into caring about him. None of the other characters had the same appeal. They weren’t supposed to, I guess. There was much less narrative with the others.

    I wish I was creative enough to do a fictional blog. I’m a scientist with delusions of artistic grandeur. I vacillate between wanting to be a filmmaker, a rockstar, and a novelist. I have a great idea for a novel about Einstein’s clone growing up in modern suburban America. Sadly, though, my brain works in the analytical mode and not so much in the creative mode.

    Here’s  how Roger Ebert deals with ethics vs. aesthetics in discussing Birth of a Nation

    Posted by Tom

  20. Your idea for Einstein’s clone sounds great, Tom. It reminds me of the idea that I came up with for a movie in which Ashton Kutcher (played by himself) discovers that he’s actually a clone of Adolf Hitler. It’s an inner conflict kind of story, but I’m still working out some of the particulars. 

    Posted by DKL

  21. LOL DKL

    Thanks, PGK. I think that’s a pretty good assessment of it.

    For the record, I do think that BoH was a lie and that to some degree or another, it was wrong. I’m sort of agnostic still as to how wrong exactly. But I think it’s fairly comparable to the lies told to the recipient of a surprise birthday party. Sometimes those lies can be pretty extensive and sometimes the recipient is fairly hurt about it, despite the surprise party that follows. Are those lies wrong? I don’t know.

    While I agree that the lies of BoH are much greater and more severe than the lies of a surprise birthday party, I think the overall product of BoH is also much greater and more valuable. So are the BoH lies justified? I feel that it was worth it for me personally, but I realize that it’s not the same for others. But as PGK pointed out, my argument is not that the lies were indeed objectively justifiable. My argument is that, whether the lies were justified or not, the party was fun.

  22. Tom, don’t let the fact you’re a scientist get in the way of your artistic ambitions. Christian is a scientist and he did an amazing job creating Aaron, who of all our characters I feel had a unique voice, and a voice dramatically different from Christian’s (read any of his comments made as himself and you’ll see what I mean). Initially I thought all the characters would have more traditional narratives, and as my collaboraters/co-conspirators can attest, on more than one occasion I encouraged them to advance storylines, but we discovered it’s not that easy of a thing to do in the middle of living a real life. In the end I think that the blog had much more versmilitude because some characters didn’t have regular advances in plot. I’m glad it turned out that way.  

    Posted by Brian G.

  23. ” Is the book necessarily poor? I don’t see a necessary connection between the aesthetic value of a work and the ethical circumstances of its creation.”

    I agree that there’s not a total overlap between ethical and aesthetic questions. Do you agree that there’s some overlap? I see you taking the position that there isn’t, so your methodology in approaching BoH, for instance, is to make an independent judgment of the aesthetic merits and of the ethical merits and then to see if the one justifies the other. But I see them as overlapping to some degree. That is, ethical wrongdoing really is ugly in an aesthetic sense, and so it detracts from a work to some degree if the circumstances of its creation and so on are ethically wrong–e.g., a musical score or a poem that was first written on parchment made from Auschwitz skin.

    The overlap is greater where the ethical problems aren’t just in the intendant circumstances but in the work itself. Still, its surely possible to speak of the aesthetics of Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will as in some sense separate from the ethical views that they have or are trying to promote, but surely those diminish the beauty of the work in some way too?

    I think BoH is in the latter category, where the ethical problems are intrinsic in the work. You’ve pointed out that one of the valuable parts of it was the irony of commenters thinking they were responding to real people, but this is precisely where the ethical problems come in. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  24. Got your email, “William Morris.” Your credibility is enhanced.

    Unf. I have to think Wilfried D. and Rosalynde W. are real. Jim Faulconer knows him and, if you google his name, you’ll see that he shows up in some BYU publications doing European-type stuff.

    and John Fowles, whom I know, appears to have met Rosalynde W.

  25. Adam, I concede that, in a situation such as this, the ethical problems do taint its value. But the issue seems to be how  tainted it is, and you seem to be saying that it is wholly corrupted. I don’t think that it is. Due to the circumstances of its conception, its authors’ original intentions, and their subsequent apologies, I tend to think the taint is very faint ““ and that despite its taint, there is still much of value, both aesthetically and morally.  

    Posted by Eric Russell

  26. “But the issue seems to be how tainted it is, and you seem to be saying that it is wholly corrupted”

    Maybe I am, I don’t know. I do think that BoH would have been extremely interesting if they hadn’t tried to persuade people that they were real. But what I am saying is that in a piece of art where the ethical problems are part and parcel of the art work, its impossible to evaluate the aesthetics of the art without also coming to some conclusion on the ethics. Your conclusion is that BoH was a problem, ethically, but a fairly minimal one. That’s fine, and that informs your aesthetic judgment, necessarily so, even though your review claims to be setting ethical questions aside. But it really doesn’t, nor can it, which is why I was completely unsurprised to find that you thought the ethics of if were bad but only marginally so. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  27. Brian,
    But Christian is also a Spinozist. Who can compete with that?

    I like it. Punk’d at Birth. Being Ashton Hitler. Dude, Where’s my Reich?. Who’s Mussolini’s clone? Tom Cruise? No, he’s Napoleon.

    I got way more ideas where that Einstein one came from: Einstein’s clone growing up in the inner city, Einstein’s clone as a carny. It’s a gold mine.

    Adam and Eric,
    I’m pretty comfortable judging the aesthetics independent of the ethics. I have no qualms saying that I find the SeptimusH story and character interesting and instructive. I don’t think the deception of the readers was right but that has no bearing on my judgment of the work itself. In the case of the Auschwitz music, the music could be judged independently and found to be a work of beauty but the questions as to how to regard the artist and how to use the work would be independent, ethical judgments. 

    Posted by Tom

  28. Adam,

    How do you feel the level of familiarity with a work plays into having a basis on which to judge it both ethically and aesthetically? I think it’s safe to say that Eric’s familiarity with the Banner far exceeds yours, and whether we’re discussing BIRTH OF A NATION, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, or our stupid little controversial blog something beyond passing familiarity is, in my opinion, needed to make any judgment aesthetic or ethical. 

    Posted by Brian G

  29. My thanks to you all for keeping this discussion civil and, just as important, fruitful and interesting.

    I really don’t have much to add to what I have already said. Other than to agree with Adam that it’s clear that ethical considerations do (and should) affect how we view the aesthetics of a work. But also to wonder how much it should be a two-way road. In other words, would Adam consider the aesthetics of a work in his ethical considerations of it? This is not a call for ethical relativism. And I don’t think that you should let aesthetics rule your ethical life (we’ve seen the dangers of that). But rather, in what cases should you let the aesthetics of a work impact (soften perhaps?) your knee-jerk ethical reactions to it?

    As I touched on a bit in my post Mormons and media consumption , both camps need to be careful and rigorous when making such decisions.


    It is not my sandbox. It’s our sandbox — that’s the beauty (and risk) of taking on co-bloggers. Yes, as founder I set a scope and tone for AMV, and I suppose that to a certain extent it falls to me to be the main arbiter and advocate of the AMV mission, but I really see this as a team effort. And so far, it’s working fabulously. This doesn’t mean that the four of us are always going to have similar opinions on every post. But I certainly feel that you, Kent and Eric have all acted with true AMV-ness over the past few months.

    Thank you.  

    Posted by William Morris

  30. I haven’t passed an aesthetic judgment (well, I have, in that I’ve expressed my belief that it would have been an engrossing project if honest–do you think this assessment of mine has no merit?). I have passed ethical judgment. I reached the same conclusions that you once did in your apology. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  31. I know, Adam, and I think although you may now doubt the sincerity of my apology, I can assure you that my conclusion remains intact. I hope you don’t think any comment anywhere on my part invalidates that apology, because from some of your comments I think you might feel that way.

    All I am asking is to what degree do you think familiarity is important and you didn’t really answer that question. I think familiarity is crucial, particularly when the ethical judgments are such that they truly threaten to create much more damage and pain and lasting effect than the initial work itself did. Saying this in no way invalidates my recognition that I did something wrong, and as I’ve said before, I was blinded by artistic ambition, but I insist a threshold level of familiarity with a work is necessary before judgments, particularly strident ones, are made. The more heated, public, and vicious the judgment, the more familiarity should be required.  

    Posted by Brian G

  32. William: . . .it’s clear that ethical considerations do (and should) affect how we view the aesthetics of a work.

    I disagree

    Adam: I agree that there’s not a total overlap between ethical and aesthetic questions. Do you agree that there’s some overlap?

    I don’t think so.

    If we know nothing about the circumstances under which a work was created, we are still fully capable of judging it based on our aesthetic sensibilities. Ethical considerations influence only the extent to which we embrace the work, promote it, praise it, etc.

    Say you come across a piece of music that you find beautiful, but you have no information about who wrote it and how or why. You have already made a fully informed aesthetic judgment as to the quality of the piece. You didn’t need any outside information to make that judgment, all you needed was the piece. If you then find out that the piece was written for nefarious purposes by a sociopath, your aesthetic judgment should stand. The music is still as beautiful as it was. The difference is that now you probably won’t feel right embracing and sharing the music. What if you found out that the piece was written by a 6-year old? Would it become more beautiful? No, but you would probably embrace it more enthusiastically.

    It becomes complicated when you learn the backstory at the same time that you encounter the work. Prejudice would then taint your aesthetic judgment. You might find beauty in a painting by a quadriplegic that you would find ordinary if it were done by a paraplegic.

    I still can’t figure out how much of my love for music by the band Low is influenced by the fact that they’re LDS. I know I would like their music if I didn’t know that fact, but I don’t know if I would embrace it as wholeheartedly as I have. 

    Posted by Tom

  33. William:

    It is not my sandbox. It’s our sandbox — that’s the beauty (and risk) of taking on co-bloggers. Yes, as founder I set a scope and tone for AMV, and I suppose that to a certain extent it falls to me to be the main arbiter and advocate of the AMV mission, but I really see this as a team effort. 

    OK Boss.

    In many of these comments I notice an assumption that the creator of the work bears almost the entire ethical burden. Even in Tom’s comment just above the reader’s/connoisseur’s approval/disapproval of a work is focused not on what moral or ethical base the reader/connoisseur makes his/her choices from but in the circumstances of the work’s creation.

    What ethical burden does the reader bear for how he or she responds to, participates in, or interpret’s a work? What is the aesthetic parallel of caveat emptor? Or are we all about whatever the artistic version of caveat venditor may be?

    Hope not.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  34. The consumer’s own moral sensibility certainly should come into play when judging the value of a work and deciding whether or not to embrace it. When you willingly become a part of the audience of a given work I think that in a way you become complicit in its production. So I can’t in good conscience embrace a work that my moral sensibilities would prevent me from producing. There are, of course, varying degrees of moral objection. So elements that are only slightly offensive affect the extent to which I can embrace and praise the work only slightly. 

    Posted by Tom

  35. “Say you come across a piece of music that you find beautiful, but you have no information about who wrote it and how or why. You have already made a fully informed aesthetic judgment as to the quality of the piece”

    You are avoiding the issue by shoving all the ethical questions into the context of the work and away from the work itself. What if the music was beautiful but ir evoked dark passions? What if a poem was gorgeously put together piece about the frolicsome joy of springtime and killing Jews? 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  36. What if a poem was gorgeously put together piece about the frolicsome joy of springtime and killing Jews?  

    And then what if the above-mentioned poem is satirized, made into an anthem, and put into a ridiculous context where we all laugh at it? What happens to the “work itself” then and all the accompanying ethical questions? 

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  37. Adam,
    You’ve raised two issues:

    “. . . ethical wrongdoing really is ugly in an aesthetic sense, and so it detracts from a work to some degree if the circumstances of its creation and so on are ethically wrong–e.g., a musical score or a poem that was first written on parchment made from Auschwitz skin.”

    On this one I disagree with you. I don’t think the circumstances of a work’s creation have any bearing on the aesthetic qualities of the work itself. They should, however, affect how we value the work, the extent to which we embrace it, and where we place it in our culture. These are ethical, not aesthetic, considerations.

    “. . . in a piece of art where the ethical problems are part and parcel of the art work, its impossible to evaluate the aesthetics of the art without also coming to some conclusion on the ethics.”

    This one is more complicated. I agree that when one’s aesthetic and moral sensibilities are challenged at the same time by elements in the work itself it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate aesthetics and ethics completely separately.

    So I would qualify my response to your question: When ethical problems are part and parcel of the art work, yes, there is some overlap between ethical and aesthetic questions. When the ethical problems are limited to the circumstances under which a work was created, no, there is no overlap.

    In the case of the characters and stories from the Banner of Heaven, I don’t think the ethical problems are part and parcel of the work itself. The problems are in the circumstances under which it was created. 

    Posted by Tom

  38. As far as “the frolicsome joy of springtime and killing Jews,” you seem to be talking about The Producers. I don’t think that’s a complicated one at all.

    I’m more comfortable calling it bear-knuckled ridicule than satire, but that’s just a matter of emphasis. The question is simply, “Who does it ridicule?” If it ridicules Hitler, then ethics never enter the picture. If it ridicules the Jews, then (of course) we are morally obliged to suppress our laughter and whole-heartedly object. In this case, since the ridicule is part and parcel of the production, there’s simply no separating the moral from the aesthetic value.

    For my part, I think that ethics are definitely tied up with aesthetics, but only with regard to clear-cut issues that are worth making a statement over. Nit-picking ethical objections to otherwise decent productions is the work of fanatics. It is possible to invent moral objections to Hollywood movies for any number of reasons. For example, one might object to the movie Fiddler on the Roof because it is directed by the same man who directed Jesus Christ Superstar (I actually know a guy who does!). I personally support right-to-work laws, because they provide the only ethical way to treat labor–but Hollywood is a union town. Ticket prices have gone up and up–are consumers getting gouged by profiteering corporations?

    I could go on and on, but you’d have to have a pretty skewed moral compass to get hung up on these kinds of things when assessing the quality or value of a given movie. In other words, one should say things like, “This movie sucks because it makes light of the suffering of Jews during the holocaust” when they are true. But one shouldn’t say things like, “This movie sucks because it was made with union labor.” 

    Posted by DKL

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