Art Is the Work of Losers

I dismissed it when I heard it fall from the mouth of a literary-academic type. Simply too epigrammatic to be trusted, I thought. Undaunted by my silent resistance, she elaborated: if artists were capable of contributing to the core of society–if they were cut out to be simply productive–they would be. But they aren’t and so they aren’t, she argued. Instead, they are marginal and rarely well-compensated characters. Instantly I thought of significant 20C artists who were productive: T.S. Eliot (insurance executive) for example. Or Wallace Stevens (attorney). And what about artists who sell? Our own Orson Scott Card, for example? Not a loser.

For some reason, however, that phrase (art is the work of losers) has come back to me again and again. For example, a certain author’s biography I have been reading seems to associate sensitivity (to characters and their situations, to aesthetic considerations, etc., etc.) with suffering of a certain kind. With being an outsider. So I have been wondering: despite their ostensible successes in business, art itself, or even personal relationships, do all artists have an inner loser? Are they all outsiders in one way or another? What do you think?

Another thought: no matter how slick and effective the public relations arm of the institutional church gets, Mormons will always be outsiders of a sort. So should art be our work? Why or why not?

25 thoughts on “Art Is the Work of Losers”

  1. No, artists aren’t losers. In the body of society, intellectuals are brains, manual laborers are muscles, and artists are hearts. Bodies need all of the above.

    I am intrigued by your idea that Mormons will always be outsiders and losers of a sort. I am but a lowly convert, and yet, to me it seems that Mormons are the true winners in every way. And they’re not outsiders, either, unless you mean outside the great and spacious building, but that’s inside (or under) the spreading branches of the white tree. We’re like Aragorn, who looks to the Breefolk like an outsider, but who in actually, stretches out his hand to them to invite them into the kingdom.

    And yes, art should be our work, or the work of those among us who are artists. Art matters. It’s a very important way with which we connect to the divine. Art is a lifeline for us here in mortality.

  2. Tatiana,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what to make of your statement that artists are hearts and intellectuals are brains in the body societal. It seems to obscure as much as it reveals. Many artists are intellectuals and what artists do (as far as I can tell) is not fundamentally affective.

    Still, I agree with the idea underlying the Pauline metaphore you invoke: artists have a role to play. By repeating the “art is the work of losers” thing I do not mean to demean artists. On the contrary, I am interested in a potential insight about where art comes from. Does marginalization give birth to insight into character, situations, beauty and capturing it in words, sound, pictures, and so forth?

    Also, is there any such thing as a lowly convert? In my book, converts have all kinds of credibility that I can’t claim. When I said that Mormons are outsiders (I just cut “losers” from that part to eliminate any possible confusion), I meant the following: Mormons are peculiar. Our beliefs and practices set us apart. People think we are weird. Witness the articles (appearing just about everywhere) on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. My question: could Mormon peculiarity be conducive to art? Are Mormons in a unique position to see things and tell stories about the larger culture?

  3. As a publisher, I can see why someone would say, “art is the work of losers.” It’s rude, but frequently on point.

    First thing first, by “loser” I assume we’re referring to the ability to pay for the bread we eat. I.E., financial losers, better known as “starving artists.” Most artists and creative people have good outlooks on life and an uncanny wisdom (probably from paying attention to the world around them), so it’s a bit much to swallow the idea that they’re personally losers.

    Thus, the statement “art is the work of losers” is much more accurately rendered, “artists who don’t know business are losers.” Or, better still, “creative people who don’t understand business will fail financially.”

    Artists rarely understand that the result of their effort is a commodity. I don’t blame them. They put their heart and soul into creating something beautiful. Unfortunately, the moment they need to pay a bill, everything in their life becomes a commodity.

    Publishers regularly face the problem of art as a commodity. A commodity is something that a consumer bids for. Generally, businesses (and the end consumer, for the most part) are looking for the best item they can get for the least amount of money.

    Which is why artists need to be mindful of business. Artists (musicians, writers) are a dime-a-dozen. The best of the best will always find employment, everybody else needs to create employment. Regrettably, artists are usually the first people who want to dispense with employment to follow their passion. They can do this, of course, if they treat their art like a business and a career — most don’t (or won’t).

  4. Actually, literary-academic types are the losers. Artists produce art (of varying quality). What do literary-academics produce besides literary-academic criticism and academy art (see Gore Vidal on the “university novel”). They are parasites.

    As for art being the work of LDS folk: that’s a good one. First, LDS folk will have to figure out what art is (so will your professor type, above). Art is not Napoleon Dynamite. It is threatening, dangerous, likely to set you off on dark journeys, seeking, ugly, hypnotic, Un-Mormon, Un-Christian, unpredictable, Tropic of Cancer, Blood Meridian, limitless, life. Have we gone backwards? Why is anyone still having this conversation?

  5. Literary academics provide meaning and perspective. They are much more like literary optometrists who provide appropriate lenses through which one can view literature than they are like parasites, in my opinion.

  6. pdmallamo,
    If art is “unpredictable,” “seeking,” or “limitless,” then why are you trying to “limit” it by cutting Christians and Mormons out of the mix. Seems a little narrow minded to me, not to mention a little antagonistic and prejudiced towards entire communities and sub-cultures.

  7. Obviously pdmallamo is a “serious” artists making “real” art and should not be bothered by trifles. Plus, those hacks at the Sundance Festival should take notice that they blew it when they considered Napoleon Dynamite as a worthwhile endeavor by a new film make. It is time for for artists of any religion, Christian or not, to stop writing, making music or painting picture. We should put away all things that uplift us and just suffer all the time. Heaven knows “real” art is only made by suffering. (Oops sorry about the heaven knows.)

  8. Dont forget Charles Ives, the great American composer, who basically started the American Insurance industry!

  9. We are mired in banality. This is undeniable. The Giant Joshua was published half a century ago, and Whipple was almost burned at the stake for writing it. Since then, what have we, as a people, produced? I repeat: Art, the genuine article, is not safe. It is a religion, or a world, unto itself, as limitless and anarchic as the universe. It is necessarily and independently at odds with much in so-called civilized life, even though it is part of it. It is not welcome in the glee club that is Mormon culture, and so our darkness comes to light in other ways. Too bad. Inasmuch as art has a purpose, it is useful in this way, as a purgative and healer.

  10. Regarding No. 5 and 10:

    You seem to invoke the “art is the product of throbbing romantic geniouses” meme. Or are you saying something different? Something like art equals chaos? That art is what happens in the absence of–or even in open hostility to–institutions like faith and religion?

    Either way, you clearly raise one possible definition of art as the only definition. But do you have anything more than sweeping assertions that art “isn’t safe” and is “limitless and anarchic” to make your case? These claims could mean anything and nothing. How well do these statements describe where art comes from and what work art does for people or culture?

    I am suspicious of the claim that art is a wholly separate sphere apart from and even hostile to religion. I am suspicious that it is the child of ignorant and self-serving artists who recognize no authority greater than their own visions and the little creative worlds. At once it seems to exalt the artist and render him impotent. Art as a separate sphere, art that does not interact with and say something about religion, science, philosophy, and so forth (the other poles in the world non-artists inhabit) is boring.

    I agree that “[w]e are mired in banality,” if the “we” in that statement refers to people in general. I doubt the claim that Mormons appreciate or understand genuine art less than the average person. Perhaps the cultural production of Mormons has been below average in terms of quantity and quality, but there are significant cultural and historical reasons for this failure that seem to be on the wane.

    Anyway, I am glad you brought up Whipple and The Giant Joshua. What does the reaction to Whipple’s book (by the institutional church or the inhabitants of her home town) prove? Perhaps one of the most interesting details in the story of the Mormon Lost Generation is that they apparently expected to be loved and hailed as heroes and geniouses by a culture that they exploited and to which they condenscended. Can you imagine any discrete cultural group with a future (not just a heroic past to mourned)repsonding differently under the circumstances? Artists who criticize a culture may do important work, but they should not expect to be widely loved.

    Of course, Whipple and the Lost Generation are examples of other artists that worked from the position of outsiders and losers. They seem to have positioned themselves as outsiders with respect to the Mormon community. The initial post, however, was more about other kinds of outsiders/losers: (1) artists as economically and socially marginal; and (2) Mormon artists as marginal with respect to the larger culture.

  11. Another way to put it, I suppose, is that art is not art if it is constrained by an orthodoxy. Some may argue that art is as likely to be informed, enlivened or enriched by an orthodoxy, and refer to some wonderful Italian oils – but you can’t point to equivalents in Mormondom, especially in the language arts. I don’t think that this is impossible (demonstrably Mormon artists made marginal by the larger culture and producing magnificent work) by any means, but the LDS artist has to fearlessly follow the muse. Sometimes this is not pretty, and if it isn’t, the artist will be condemned by the very society he purports to represent (thus, my reference to The Giant Joshua).

    As to the Lost Generations’ condescension to or exploition of the Mormon community, I think they understood from the beginning what kind of reception their work would receive and positioned themselves defensively. What garners the accolades in our culture is not the honest and true, but things like the disgraceful offerings of Deseret Book. To attempt to write LDS fiction or drama in spite of this is an act of courage and an exercise in endurance. Maybe an exercise in futility. Are we better off as a culture to be rid of Evenson and LaBute?

  12. RE: 5, 10, 12

    Pdmallamo is remarkably well read. Sincerely, better than I. However, like most intelligentsia, he has erroneously concluded that any form of art or expression is invalid if it is not iconoclastic.

    There is merit to the claim that expression (be it illustrative, literary, musical, or any other form) can be used to challenge — to lead the person experiencing the art to question the status quo.

    There is equal merit (despite pdmallamo’s efforts to convince us otherwise) to the claim that expression can be used to celebrate, enlighten, delight, even beautify.

    Who is anyone to question another’s right to view, for example, a child’s efforts to express the world they live in as beautiful and inspiring? Pdmallamo might contemptuously dismiss the art as moronic, and the delighted viewer as pedantic — I might choose to encourage see the viewer’s willingness to be delighted in the vibrant energy of childhood as a refreshing respite from a world that dwells too much on the darker side of life.

    Simply put, artists find their own inspiration for their creations. Gratefully, they’re still artists and will find willing admirers, even if others find their efforts distasteful.

  13. pdmallamo wrote, “Are we better off as a culture to be rid of Evenson and LaBute?”

    The culture is not rid of them. The culture is something you can’t be excommunicated from. If the concern is really for the culture, than excommunication is irrelevant. If the concern is whether their views are sanctioned by the Church, that’s quite a different matter.

    The real issue is freedom. I mean, would people respond better to the works of fringe self-proclaimed artists if they didn’t get ex’d? Would that make their works popular with the active and orthodox members who want to read fiction that identifies their faith? Of course not. And while such “artists” are probably angry at not being allowed to hold callings and exercise personal influence inside a ward, it doesn’t stop them from milking their excommunications for as much public attention as possible.

    After all, it’s part of the shtick they’ve always used; seeking attention for their edginess. Nonapostate artists have to rely on the appeal of their work to get attention. Kind of a handicap, dontya think?

  14. But to return, Mr. Bailey, to your concern, which is really too important to abandon:

    “The initial post, however, was more about other kinds of outsiders/losers: (1) artists as economically and socially marginal; and (2) Mormon artists as marginal with respect to the larger culture.”

    The position of outsider has been so well utilized by black, homosexual, female, and Jewish artist that its utility is well-established. What could LDS writers bring to such a point of vantage?

    It’s obvious that from an LDS perspective most of the USA and the world is Babylon. At the beginning of the 21st Century, it is Babylon on meth. Just the sh*t on primetime television is enough to turn your stomach. Contemporary LDS artists (writers, filmmakers, playwrights in particular) have an opportunity unparalleled in Mormon history to provide not just an antidote, but another vision altogether.

    But to be credible, to be honest, to be faithful, we must turn the same penetrating eye upon our own church and culture. (In other words, LDS artists may be marginal even in relation with Mormondom.) We absolutely must address the gross materialism Nibley railed against; the mindlessness and anti-intellectualism Hugh B. Brown warned us about; our preoccupation with status and appearance. We must hold institutional leaders of the church to the highest standards of honesty (historical and otherwise), and where they fail, we must demand that they be held fully accountable. We must somehow place originality and independence up where obedience and submission now stand. Those of you out there cheerleading; those of you who see no corruption or dysfunction in the church and become defensive when others point this out; those of you who insist upon advancing an insular and biased view of the world, do the larger effort no good, especially when you respond from ignorance and with anger.

    If you have not seen the HBO version of Angels in America, now might be a good time to do so. AiA illustrates what the LDS artist is up against: the sheer power and beauty of it; the frankness of it; a portrayal of Mormons that is brutally honest but necessarily incomplete.

    Who out there will fill in the blanks? Who will drag us, kicking and screaming, into the new arena? (That the talent exists I have no doubt. For instance, if a few of the high-priced Harvard/Columbia-Mormon genius lawyers on T&S or BCC stepped away from the writs [and the blog] and wrote fiction or drama for a while, who knows what would happen.)

  15. Unfortunately, a lot of artists who rail against their status as outsiders would be nothing without that status. Their work (I won’t say their art) doesn’t have enough appeal to earn them the attention of a wide audience, and so they seek approval from academics and the other angst merchants. They make a business of being offensive and claim that makes them valuable gadflies.

    They have no interest in creating art that’s an alternative to Babylon. If they did, they’d do it rather than throw out a red herring of “just as we should do this, we must also hold the church accountable.”

    If they really have such great insight, then why don’t they create their art and let it speak for itself and let the church hierarchy decide if they want to do likewise? But they must attack, because it draws the anger of those who instinctively react to protect their cherished religion, and allows the authors to congratulate themsevles on becoming martyrs. And they have fantasies about dragging unsophisiticated, kicking and screaming, into a new arena.

    I can’t imagine a vision more opposed to the basic principles of the gospel that underlies the culture of Mormonism. “No influence can or ought,” etc.

  16. I am realizing that I tend to agree with Preston on a great number of things. I certainly agree that there are a good many of our artists who love to be the romantic martyr by pushing the boundaries, almost begging to be excommunicated for their art. As far as I can see, that’s putting a person’s art as an idol in front of their membership in the Lord’s Church.
    Of course, there are circumstances when one should even stand up to even ecclesiastical error. The most vivid examples coming to my mind is “A Man For All Seasons”‘ portrayal of Sir Thomas More standing up to King Henry VIII. But that’s a pretty extreme example, and he was actaully being very orthodox to the Catholic Church and was standing by the Vatican instead of bending to governmental authority. Certainly we can’t rose color our enviornment and say, “All is well in Zion,” and much of what pdmallomo is saying is perfectly legitimate– but I think he goes a bit to far when he suggests it is our place to keep the brethren in line, that we “must hold institutional leaders of the church to the highest standards of honesty (historical and otherwise), and where they fail, we must demand that they be held fully accountable.” It’s too extreme. And it’s hardly charitable. The way I see it, the brethren have heavy burdens and as David O. Mckay said, “We need your help, not your adverse criticism.” Certainly, they’re imperfect, but we’re required to forgive the lowest among us as well as the highest. We’re required to forgive all men, not demand a pound of flesh for every mistake.

  17. Oh, and as to pdmallo’s comment, “Another way to put it, I suppose, is that art is not art if it is constrained by an orthodox”– well, I think this is also erronous. Pdmallp earlier cited Angels in America, which certainly holds itself to the orthodoxies of the Democratic Party and to the homosexual community as a whole. And the “lost generation” holds itself to its own kinds of social norms, intellectual norms, and “approved” opinions. It’s like Brer Rabbit and the tar baby, the more you try to pull away from “orthodoxy” the more you’re pulled into it– just from the other side.

  18. Mahonri,

    That’s a great comment(#19). Too many artists today are constrained by a cultural “big brother” to the point that they lose touch their true artistic sensibilities.

  19. My problem with pdmallamo’s comment — that we need to hold the brethren to a high standard of honesty — is that the whole mindset is both combative and presumptuous. An artist sets his own standard of honesty and is true to himself. If his work is conspiculously good, then his self-imposed standards will invite imitation. And we know that the work of scholars has actually influenced official interpretation of such things as Book of Mormon geography, which in turn have influenced art (from the scholars to Arnold Friberg to the masses). Somewhere along the way we went from Joseph Fielding Smith’s confident insistence that the “narrow neck of land” was Panama and the lands north and south were the hemisphere’s continents, to a nearly universal acceptance of the Yucatan Peninsula as the approximate site of Zarahemla.

    But Friberg and the scholars didn’t set out to embarrass the brethren. The brethren are humbler men than are their self-appointed watchdogs, and are fully capable of recognizing good ideas, superior interpretations, new information, etc., and are also opposed to dishonesty. They aren’t all scholars and there are bound to be historians who know things they don’t, and just because they gloss past certain details in their extremely focused General Conference messages doesn’t make them liars.

    The challenge of the artist is to include as much pertinent detail as possible without overwhelming or ignoring the most important of all messages: that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the vessel of the restored Gospel. It’s easy to thrown flaming darts and emphasize the more painful parts of history, but is there even a message in that, and is it actually art? Jesus spoke parables because, by freeing his stories from the constraints of mundane reality, he could focus their fictional events and characters to build a specific message.

    Art is supposed to tell not only truth, but the most important truth. Artists should be able to create work that acknowledges the blemishes or challenging details of history and doctrine, but that upholds the One Grand Truth. But to most of our loud and obnoxious saviors of truth, the only truth they seem to believe, and thus to emphasize, is that the brethren are manipulative, corrupt liars who would spin nothing but fables if they didn’t have academics sternly watching over them.

    It’s the work of small minds to shout “Aha!” whenever they come across what seems like an embarrassment or a paradox and fling it out like they’re Pioneers of Truth, then leave it to the brethren to straighten out their careless mess.

    There’s no loyalty in that. Further, there’s no skill, no artistry, no inspiration. No contribution. And, in most cases, what the gadfly is harping on is something old that doesn’t actually shock us, doesn’t broaden our minds, because long ago it was placed in perspective by men and women of integrity as well as intellect, inspiration as well as talent.

    Truly, our self-proclaimed artists who circle like thirsty flies around the discharge of our culture overestimate their importance and their contribution to that culture.

  20. I absolutely love this line from Preston:
    “Art is supposed to tell not only truth, but the most important truth.”
    Preston, I’m glad that you’ve stuck around.

  21. Are we talking God’s eternal truth or man’s truth here. God’s is always true and the other changes because it is subjective. It is great to set high expectations for artists but they are human and prone to failure like all people.

  22. I gather two things from Preston’s comment on “truth.” First, hanging out dirty laundry is not necessarily the most important truth to tell–though, sadly, too many artists believe that telling the “truth”–warts and all–is always a moral imperative. Second, though Preston mentions “the most important truth” I don’t believe for a second that he means there must be one, and only one, narrow message the artist is duty bound to proclaim. The most important truth must always be that which is most important in the moment. And though all truth may be viewed as of the same substance, surely it is manifest in diverse ways in diverse circumstances–though the net outcome if it’s influence will always be the same: edification.

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