Mormon Art and Greatness

Except for two or three older writers, all modern literature seems to me not literature but some sort of handicraft, which exists only so as to be encouraged, though one is reluctant to use its products. Even the best products of handicraft cannot be called remarkable and cannot be praised without a “˜but.'”

Those are the words of Nikolai Stepanovich–for my money one the best realized characters in literature–from Chekhov’s A Boring Story. Nikolai Stepanovich was talking about Russian literature. I do not know if he spoke for Chekhov, who (I assume) considered his own stuff above “some sort of handicraft.”

Would it be fair to apply the Stepanovich critique to Mormon literature? It is tempting. Mormons who think Mormon lit is no good and that better Mormon lit should be encouraged are a dime a dozen. And many of the same people are reluctant to use the products of Mormon lit (even to the extent of never having actually read any). Whether or not it applies, I think that the Stepanovich critique is neither fair nor useful when it comes to Mormon lit. Interestingly, I think it suffers from a problem that also besets notable discourses on Mormon art by the likes of Orson Whitney and Spencer W. Kimball.

You know the discourses I am talking about. Orson Whitney declared in his talk Home Literature:

We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.

In the same talk Whitney gave us a trifecta of pithy and potentially problematic Mormon lit epigrams: “The Holy Ghost is the genius of “˜Mormon’ literature,” “Above all things, we must be original … [o]ur mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be,” and “Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”

Likewise, Spencer W. Kimball declared in his talk The Gospel Vision of the Arts:

Members of the Church should be peers or superiors to any others in natural ability, extended training, plus the Holy Spirit which should bring them light and truth. With hundreds of “men of God” and their associates so blessed, we have the base for an increasingly efficient and worthy corps of talent.
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If we strive for perfection–the best and greatest–and are never satisfied with mediocrity, we can excel. In the field of both composition and performance, why cannot someone write a greater oratorio than Handel’s Messiah? The best has not yet been composed nor produced.
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Could there be among us embryo poets and novelists like Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749″“1832)? Have we explored as much as we should? … Goethe was not the greatest nor the last. There may be many Goethes among us even today, waiting to be discovered. Inspired Saints will write great books and novels and biographies and plays.
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[T]he full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people …

The same general ideas also appear to a lesser extent in M. Russell Ballard’s Filling the World With Goodness and Truth and Boyd K. Packer’s The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord.

I do not know whether these art talks are prophetic. [A prophet is only a prophet when speaking as a prophet, and we have at our disposal certain tools that may guide us in particular cases: Were these views submitted to the church for a vote? What does the scriptural canon tell us on the subject? Does the spirit bear witness of the truth of these views?] Setting this question aside, I will venture two thoughts about what the art talks get right and wrong.

First, the art talks do important and positive cultural work. Not too long ago (no Mormon history is very long ago), literary art was roundly condemned from the pulpit. Brigham Young described novels as “trifling,” “nonsense,” and “falsehoods got up expressly to excite the minds of youth.” No doubt these judgments resonated with many practical pioneer minds. I believe the general intuition that literature is frivolous, unworthy, unmanly, and so forth is still with us.

The art talks respond to this past and its lingering effects. By making it clear to both artist and community that art can be legitimate kingdom building, the talks authorize would-be Mormon artists to do their thing. And, to my knowledge, would-be Mormon artists have drawn courage from the art talks. Some have even said that they felt moved by the talks and the spirit to dedicate their lives to realizing the achievements the talks anticipate. Let’s give the Brethren some credit. I am personally grateful for the present institutional church’s orientation toward art as signaled by the art talks.

Unfortunately however, Whitney, Kimball, et al. (like the Stepanovich critique), are preoccupied with greatness. This makes sense in a way. The art talks can be read as official requisitions from the pulpit. We want art. Not crappy art. We want the great stuff. And I love the audacity of Orson Whitney (in 1888!) declaring that Mormons will produce Shakespeares and Miltons. How many cultures in the history of the world have produced Shakespeares and Miltons!? To this day, quoting Whitney with a straight face is probably an act of blatant audacity. An act that reveals investment in a typically Mormon kind of optimism.

The emphasis on greatness in the art talks is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Greatness is the product of many factors. Artistic achievement has something to do with it, of course. But greatness also comes from the attention and approval of the cultural elites who confer such distinctions. Such authorities can be arbitrary, and they may be motivated by politics as much as art. Greatness also means gaining and maintaining esteem over time, through translation, across cultures, and so forth. Even Shakespeare was not Shakespeare until centuries after he lived. Thus, greatness means somehow communicating with audiences entirely unknown to the author.

The concept of greatness is also mired in cultural status issues. It makes art an object to possess and trade on. In this sense, the statement “my culture will produce great art” seems to be motivated not so much by an appreciation for art, but by a desire to prove something about the culture of the speaker. Not that this instrumental view is entirely hostile to artistic achievement: the rich and powerful who bankrolled Bach and Mozart surely tried to use art to prove something about themselves. Yet the instrumental view alone (especially without the patronage to match) is not likely to lead to better art.

Finally, the concept of greatness is essentially useless to both artist at the moment of creation and audience at the moment of first contact. Artists do not become great simply by swinging for the greatness fence. Art that self-consciously aspires for greatness is bound to come out stilted, affected, or overdone. Much better to be intentionally ambivalent to the potential greatness of a work. Unlike its opposite, ambivalence to greatness is not toxic to things that really matter, like authenticity. Likewise, a thoughtful audience does not immediately ask “is this art great?” Instead, it asks questions about meaning and pleasure: “What does this mean?” “Does this give me joy?” And so forth.

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Great Mormon art might already exist. It might be languishing in the form of a rough draft on you sister’s laptop. It might be published next year by a small Mormon press (that might go out of business six months later). We might never know about it in our generation. We should hope for something else: to be a voracious audience with the capacity to identify good art. In short, the Stepanovich critique describes a hopeless situation. We can’t sit back and say we will only use the products of Mormon art when they finally become great or remarkable. None of us truly encourages Mormon art who has not overcome his reluctance to use its products.

(This has been cross-posted at By Common Consent, where I have been guest-posting over the past weeks.)

9 thoughts on “Mormon Art and Greatness”

  1. Well, there’s a certain logic to Whitney and Kimball’s expectation:

    Great art often contains universal insights about the human condition. If Mormonism has some exceptionally valuable insights for humanity, then Mormon artists should have an advantage in terms of producing works that resonate with people and inspire them.

    However, you’re right that great art isn’t always universally recognized as such, and that shooting specifically for greatness can hobble an artist’s work.

  2. I think this is an insightful article, S.P.
    I especially love the point that you made about not trying to shoot for “greatness”– write the story that’s within you and let cultures and movements decide later whether they think you’re great or not. The story (or painting, or sculpture, or piece of the music) is the important thing to focus on, not the arbitrary filters people will put on it later.
    My friend and I are working on a Joseph Smith musical and I recently realized I was focusing too much upon the audience in my writing. As I already wrote my “controversial,” “honest” play about Joseph Smith with “Friends of God,” I was trying to make this one more Mormon mainstream. That attitude was hampering the work and it was becoming a little stilted. So I’m going to go back to the basics with it– focus on the story and see where that gets me.

  3. S.P. is right, there are great works out there, and they have been sitting in desks waiting for publishers. I have had the privilege to read two of them, by Coke Newell and Ken Kuykendall. Newell’s book, Mormon Standard Time, is the best piece of LDS-oriented literature I’ve come across (don’t let the title fool you; it’s not a flippant work).

    The other, Silverheels by Kuykendall, is — and I’m serious — Miltonian. It’s not exactly LDS oriented but it Kuykendall is an active LDS member and the book contains prominent LDS characters.

    One of these, Newell’s, is expected to be published this year.

    There are other great manuscripts I’ve encountered that, in my opinion, are all superior to what’s been coming out of Covenant and Deseret Book, but have been turned down by those publishers, not necessarily because the content was racy, but because they just didn’t fit the old, safe, reliable mold.

    Great things are happening in the LDS literary community; I just hope we find a way to get the message to readers.

  4. I rather expect the great Mormon literature will not be fiction, but will be nearer to scripture–a truer telling of experience than is possible to one blinking at life through carnal filters (including those transmitted and constructed by an education in things literary at the modern academy).

  5. Slushpilereader is right; “Silverheels” is an incredible literary experience. Mr. Kuykendall has (in my mind – and I’m sure in others once he’s ‘out there’) established validity in the statement: “Mormons can make great art.” It’s started, and will finish when he’s finished writing (and knowing him…that’s not going to happen any time soon). Hopefully afterward, another fiesty
    Mormon will take the torch.

  6. Frankly, I think the first thing Mormons need to do in order to reach their lofty goal is to study the freaking CRAFT of writing. They don’t try to build a house without a blueprint, they don’t try to start a business without building a reliable model, why in the world would they try to write something without understanding how the craft of writing works?

    Because it takes more work than it’s worth.

  7. Craft is undoubtedly important. I think it is fair to say that at least some Mormons do take the study and practice of writing craft quite seriously.

  8. The rise of Mormon literature, as an AMERICAN literature, depends as much on Mormon literary criticism as the literature itself. I think there are great Mormon writers already, but their exposure outside of Mormon audiences is hampered by a lack of criticism that engages their work as serious literature.

    I’ve wrestled with this issue for a long time now. When I try to tell my dissertation advisor what an important American novel THE BACKSLIDER is, I have no pretext for that discussion (I live in Connecticut). The only starting point is a writer like Brian Evenson, whom I adore, but we all know the problems of a Mormon literature when ALTMANN’s TONGUE is the jumping off point (by the way, his new novel, THE OPEN CURTAIN, is wonderful).

    I believe Mormon literary critics need to push for a more responsible criticism that seeks to reach Mormons and non-Mormons alike, one that proposes Mormon literature as American literature. Until we do that I’m afraid our best writers will be stuck in literary conversations where the central concern is how a book builds up, or tears down, our testimonies (there is precedent in Mormon literature for this question–I don’t mean to be cheeky–but this kind of discussion does little to promote Mormon writers as serious American writers).

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