Richard Dutcher’s Christianity Today interview has sparked a flurry of discussion on the AML List. Those interested in parsing the interview should hit the archives or sign up with the list. What I’d like to do is take up the larger discussion of whether or not membership status should matter when it comes to evaluating Mormon art.
In part I, I briefly explained why an artist’s Mormon-ness matter to members of the Church and why an artist’s official relationship to the Church is a matter of speculation and gossip. The short take is a) like any other ethno-religious group, Mormons tend to feel kinship with other high-profile members of their group and take prided in their achievements and b) although there is a certain spectrum, the demarcation of whether one is or isn’t part of the LDS Church is fairly clear**.
In part II, I presented 3 answers to the question of whether a Mormon artist’s membership status matters. An oversimplified recap for those to lazy to click through the older posts:
1) It does matter because LDS artists create work that is inspiring whereas the world is doesn’t.
2) It doesn’t matter — people should just judge the work itself and not worry about the personal life and beliefs of the artist.
3) I agreed that both of those stances are valid and have, but — it matters to me because I have this hope that “works that are created by a believing Mormon will subvert artistic discourse while at the same time being morally and aesthetically rich enough (i.e. successful as artistic discourse) to validate LDS beliefs and practices as a vibrant, legitimate source for art.”
Reviewing the two posts, I’m pretty sure I stand by them. But I think it’s time to add an additional idea — one that this whole Richard Dutcher thing has highlighted for me:
It matters because art and its production and consumption has become so tinged with marketing that separating the art from the artist has become difficult. The cult of the author/auteur isn’t yet dead [YouTube notwithstanding]. Artists life stories, creative process and personal philosophies are a huge part of how art is talked about, written about and marketed. And this is true of both popular and highbrow forms. Or to put it bluntly — artists are celebrities. What this means is that both in their life (or rather how their life is presented) and in their work they are giving cues to who their audiences are — who they run with. It’s present when Lane Twitchell sends in a letter to Dilogue; when Richard Dutcher or Brandon Flowers or Neil Labute does a Q&A; when.
And the omnipresent artist as celebrity discourse can’t help but impact how consumers choose and react to the works these artists create. This is not to diminish the aesthetic and entertainment properties of an individual work. Indeed, I think that all consumers, Mormons especially, should focus more on the work itself. But with so much to choose from, it is no surprise that many consumers want to include all the factors they can in how they spend their money and time. It is, after all, what the market has taught them to do (a market that incidentally allows more people than ever to profit from creative work).
To take a slightly different tack — because art and commerce are tied together, consumers feel that they deserve to know who their money is going to support. Both conservative Christians and liberal activists deploy this method of cultural activism and although I’m not really fond of it, it is a valid form of consumer choice and cultural influence — it’s a way to influence the market. The unfortunate side effect is that it also means that some folks act the part in order to keep the money flowing in (indeed, there is one anecdote on the AML List already about an author who writes for the Mormon market who acts more LDS than he/she is). But the incentives of the marketplace are such that they will continue to attract hypocrisy. I don’t think there’s anyway around it, and it also makes the case for why . I suppose the argument could be made that there would be no hypocrisy if there were no expectations attached to artists and/or if only the works of art were part of the decision, but as I have pointed out, the current marketplace (Mormon, American and beyond) creates and these expectations and this culture of celebrity.
All that said, I’m not sure how far I’m willing to take this. I’m highly uncomfortable with the practice of “outing” for example, and I don’t like the schadenfreude that erupts whenever a celebrity (politicians included) is proven to be a hypocrite. I wish Mormons of all stripes would cut each other more slack and that there was more dialogue via artistic discourse taking place in the world of Mormon culture. This is something to think about. And I will do so and see if that leads to another blog post on this topic — indeed, my thoughts are already turning to concepts such as sincerity and authenticity and charity.
* From back in 2004. Man, I’ve been slacking. I used to write some really good stuff. I’m glad my co-bloggers have picking up the slack.
** Of course, there is room in Mormon culture for art and artists where the LDS Church doesn’t really come into play (either because the artist is culturally Mormon but has made it clear that they are not part of the Church or because the art is created by non-Mormons but includes Mormon characters, elements, etc); However, there is no doubt that the LDS Church (as an institution and a body of members) is a dominant part of Mormon culture.