Mormon artists and membership status redux

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.

I have already discussed this in my two-part blog post* Mormon artists and membership status — Part I and Part II.

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 Chris Heimerdinger writes an op ed; when John Moyer writes a blog post railing against the Mormon literati, etc.

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.

11 thoughts on “Mormon artists and membership status redux”

  1. William, there’s another reason why my understanding of the artist’s life and personality figures in to how I view his or her work. I don’t think the marketing of the artist as a celebrity, or an activist desire to support only things of which I approve, matter much at all to me. I think that when we search a work of art for its meaning, everything we know about the artist factors in to our understanding of what the work means.

    For instance, I know that W. B. Yeats is a great poet. He wrote some amazing, unbelievably good stuff. And yet, though I can recognize that his poems are great, I can’t really like them, because of what I know about the way he thinks about women. His prayer for his daughter makes me furious at him personally. “Be beautiful, please, but don’t think or speak or have any opinions.” And his anger at that chick he was in love with. He disses her even as he’s praising her. Leda and the Swan? Come on! Maybe it was her intelligence that showed her she ought to stay a million miles away from old W.B. with his rage and intemperance dancing attendance. I think the fact that my family is Irish factors in too. I take these things too personally, and feel I know him too well because of that. =)

    But anyway, what we know about the person, to me that totally affects the meaning of the whole poem. When we talk to our friends, we understand everything they say in context of who they are and what we know about him. The same is true of artists. We develop very personal relationships with the people through their work. I’ve heard it said that the work should stand alone, and yet, I don’t think that’s possible. All communication takes place in a context that gives it meaning. Otherwise it’s just the wind in the trees.

    This sort of ties in with what Jorge Luis Borges was saying in some of his stories, for instance, the one in which “Don Quixote” was written again word for word only not a copy but meant again new now, and how it meant something totally different this time. A lame description but do you know the story I mean?

    Lastly, I want to mention a game we used to play in a chatroom which was frequented by friends and acquaintences, with also occasional random new people. Some of us would take a new name each time we went into this chatroom, in order to explore the process of how we recognize one another, and who we really are. (Where does the me-ness reside?) One thing that occasionally happened was that we would have deep and fruitful conversations with people we didn’t know we knew, conversations that would never have taken place if we had known who each other were to start with. Because we had already pigeonholed someone, we had mentally made them smaller than they were, and meeting them again as strangers allowed for some interesting insights into facets of their personalities that we never knew were there.

  2. So I suppose the summary of my comment is this: Who the artist is as a person, their family life, their church status, their whole personality, is important to understanding what their work means. However, we should allow the work to speak to us and tell us who the artists are, rather than prejudging them based on surface qualities. People are complex and nuanced, and deeper than we usually imagine, and miss a lot if we let ourselves pigeonhole them, and possibly dismiss them unheard.

  3. I am withholding judgment while I try to get my brain around what Dutcher is saying and what he means.

    1. I don’t like the outing and detailed communal line-drawing either. In one sense, we need to leave that with Bishops and High Counsels. The strange thing about this situation: Dutcher seems to be outing himself (in dramatic fashion) to strangers. All the AML-list hubub is interpretation of something he put out there.

    2. It seems right to see this interview through the lens of marketing: Dutcher seems to have given up on the Mormon market. Now he wants to sell to Christians in general. So is Dutcher’s ambiguous half disavowal of the church (while playing the “actually I’m half Baptist-Pentecostal” card) cynical or genious or both? Will it help him fill any seats in theatres in the deep south? Perhaps all he needs to do to make that happen is stop writing specifically Mormon characters. Or write Mormon characters as members of a sadly deceived cult.

    3. I was disappointed with the reception of States of Grace among Mormons. However, I cringe every time Dutcher sets up this little syllogism: (major Premise) Mormons and great art don’t mix; (minor premise) Mormons and my art don’t mix; (conclusion (implied)) my art is great. Dutcher has shown promise (and I have both shelled out money to see his movies and defended him ardently to friends and family), but he seems to be taking himself rather seriously.

    4. Dutcher apparently believes that he is entitled to fame and fortune that Mormons are simply too philistine to give him. And yet he seems to be courting the largely protestant religious right. Is that a step up, down, or sideways as far as cultural sophistication goes? Who knows? (I certainly don’t.)

    5. I think States of Grace (“SOG”) is the rough equivalent of a good indy/arthouse film. Many such films open in one theatre for a relatively short run in a largish Western city (e.g., Salt Lake or Boise). Taking the same markets SOG showed in, it would be interesting to compare the box office returns for such arthouse/indy movies and SOG. Does challenging, arty, thoughtful stuff sell well anywhere? Is Dutcher comparing his returns to the latest hollywood action movie or romantic comedy? Has Dutcher run up against a cultural insight as old as Aristotle? (E.g., that in a democracy, culture appeals to the lowest common denominator).

    6. SOG had some powerful scenes depicting Mormons reaching out to an impoverished person. Question: is there a art-cultural analogue to this very Christian scenario? Dutcher’s accusations that Mormons are hopeless philistines strike me as distasteful, even potentially unChristian, because they betray a lack of charity. Being right, being an artist, being atuned to culture, all of these shall fail. But not charity. Charity never faileth.

  4. Shawn,
    Your comments resonated with me (as did pretty much everything that’s been said here so far, but yours particularly). I keep prepping myself to defend Dutcher to others, because I like his work so much. But every time he opens his mouth in an interview, I wonder am I defending who he really is or what I want him to be? Because recently he keeps saying things which I think are highly suspicious, even self serving. But then there is this part of me that scolds me for being judgmental of a man I have highly admired in the past for not living up to perhaps unrealitic expectations. Why should this matter to me so much? It’s his life, not mine, he can do whatever he pleases with it. But, strange enough, its become highly personal to me. If he falls away from the Church, it would be almost like watching King Lear to me? If he succeeds, like an inspirational-overcome-the-odds-story like Remember the Titans. Sigh.
    I so don’t want him to become the Oliver Cowdery of Mormon Cinema.

  5. States of Grace wasn’t a gritty edgy film, it was non-stop depression. That’s no more reality than the Pollyanna writing of Anita Stansfield.

    I give him credit for trying, but if he feels disappointed with his reception of this movie, he needs to look at his own lack of realistic interpetation. Did I spell that right?

    At the same time, it’s unconscionable that we have to assume the Pollyanna attitude or risk being ostracized by our fellows.

  6. I haven’t seen any of his movies, so I lack that means of knowing Richard Dutcher through his work, however, I see no reason why his interview can’t be taken as just the truth about why he makes movies, how he feels about the church, and so on. I’m very much a Mormon of that stripe. The sort of relentless upliftingness of Mormon culture gets to me. I love the real innocence, the true hopefulness and joy, and the pristine beauty of our doctrines and our view of the universe. However, the world as it is now, the world we deal with, is a fallen one. There are all sorts of moral ambiguities, and difficult choices. You can’t just sweep all that under the rug and have a strong and true faith. Faith has to deal with all those things, not devolve into pure sentimentality and sweetness.

    The church is true. I love the church. But there’s no question that it’s sometimes hard to take the church, the powerful pressure for conformity, and the ease with which we can all close our eyes and minds. Art, if it’s going to be any good at all, has to deal with raw truth, unminted and untamed.

    So I guess I don’t see this as marketing at all, or even controversial. I see it as just the honesty of an artist.

  7. Years ago Richard Dutcher was a keynote speaker at an AML conference I attended. Afterward, I remember telling someone, “Richard Dutcher said a lot of things that could be seen as grating, even antagonistic, to his audience. Either he didn’t know the things he said were grating and antagonistic or he didn’t care.”

    I have notes on those things he said –somewhere — it’s too close to Thanksgiving to look — and I am either lacking the relevant Annual or his talk wasn’t reproduced, so my statements will have to stand on unsupported feet. My main point is that when I read the Christianity Today interview I didn’t see anything terribly new in his tone. What surprised me back when he gave his AML address was that more eyebrows didn’t raise among the so-called conservative Mormon artist set. People seemed willing to overlook his meanings in the light of their own hopes, I guess. Or maybe they wrote the language off as creative smoke and mirrors. Dutcher is a driven man. Most people don’t know what that means, they only see what appears to them to be erratic driving and draw quick conclusions from that. My best guess: the ride is only beginning, folks.

    Tatiana said: Lastly, I want to mention a game we used to play in a chatroom which was frequented by friends and acquaintences, with also occasional random new people. Some of us would take a new name each time we went into this chatroom, in order to explore the process of how we recognize one another, and who we really are. (Where does the me-ness reside?) One thing that occasionally happened was that we would have deep and fruitful conversations with people we didn’t know we knew, conversations that would never have taken place if we had known who each other were to start with. Because we had already pigeonholed someone, we had mentally made them smaller than they were, and meeting them again as strangers allowed for some interesting insights into facets of their personalities that we never knew were there.

    Me: Interesting! A masquerade ball. And maybe a good metaphor for the fictionalizing that goes on in the writer-audience relationship. And for every other kind of relationship. Except that the kind of narratizing of each other we do goes on and on: the masks are endless.

  8. I am a visual artist not a writer or film maker but I think there are some universal feelings that most artists of any discipline have and maintain. Starting in my college days to the present, I want people to either like my artwork or hate my artwork. The worse thing that could happen as far as I am concerned is that they were not moved by it at all.

    I think Richard Dutcher is this kind of artist and he will use whatever he needs to get an emotional response from his audience. He doesn’t want you to have forgotten his movie fifteen minutes after you have seen it. He wants to move you and maybe change your life, even if it is only in some small way.

    Having said that, I have to confess the closer I move to age 60 these concerns lessened in intensity. I’m mostly concerned with making good art and leaving the rest to the viewer.

  9. I’m in the Greg Hansen camp concerning LDS artists. The wondrous gift of the Holy Ghost separates us as a religious group from the world…and this same wondrous gift should separate us from other artists of the world.

    While the style I use when writing for an LDS audience (a short story for The Friend magazine, for example) may differ from a book aimed at a general readership (“Christmas Gifts, Christmas Voices”), I would still like to think that all my writing is in some small measure inspired by the Holy Ghost.

    –John

  10. Thanks for your comment, John.

    I don’t quite buy it. Or rather, I should say that I can fully believe that someone may feel inspired to write or produce a work of art. That doesn’t presuppose, however, that the reception of that work will involve the feelings of the Holy Ghost. Nor does it mean that the aesthetic value of the work is more or less than a work created by those who don’t have the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    For more, see my post on: About that Whitney quote

  11. Have you heard the Glenn Beck radio spots that are running? He call STATES OF GRACE “The best Mormon movie I’ve ever seen” and “I saw it and loved it. My family wept.”

    There’s not too many Mormons here in Illinois, but that ad has certainly caught the attention of all the Evangelical Christian listeners who are fans of Glenn Beck.

    I bought the movie because of an Evangelical listener who told me about 1)Glenn Beck being a Mormon, and 2)Glenn quoting all these critics hailing it as the best Christian cinema has to offer.

    So my neighbor (the Evangelical Christian) buys it, we watch it and we love it. He even thinks the movie has now converted me to “true grace.”

    I very much believe that STATES OF GRACE has the rare – and historic – potential to break down many of the long-standing barriers separating mainstream Christians from us. Mitt Romney’s impending presidential campaign has already started to focus national media attention on the LDS Church in ways and at levels not previously seen. I’ve seen the polls suggesting that a significant percentage of the Christian base would have issues with Romney’s religious affiliation, and that misconceptions are still rampant as to what the LDS Church believes and stands for.

    Can STATES OF GRACE become the landmark film that Kimball and others have talked about?

    It answers simple misconceptions (ie. polygamy, Mormons dancing and our take on grace) and presents a view of LDS life that has never before made it to the big screen.

    In short, does this film have the potential to actually shift and mold public opinion?

    I may not be as well-versed as all of you, but in my neck of the woods, STATES OF GRACE is a hit among many of my Evangelical friends. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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