or, Opening a Critical Discourse in Mormon Visual Arts
As a fan of LDS author Orson Scott Card, I have long frequented his website and discussion forum, a place which has shaped my ideas of civil discourse. It was at Hatrack River that I learned the meaning of words like ad hominem and strawman and acquired an uncanny radar for the oft-confused correlation and causation. For a long time, my exposure to online discourse was rather exclusive to Hatrack, and it wasn’t until my final years of college that I began to venture into new venues, among which I discovered Card’s other forum, Nauvoo: a Community for Latter-day Saints.
The folks at Nauvoo are friendly, open to newcomers, and fond of online emotion. It was easy for me to open up and join whole-heartedly in their discussions.I was a bit taken aback, however, to the response one day when I replied to a discussion on recent LDS cinema. I had posted my review of the new rendition of Pride and Prejudice, which I had enjoyed upon initial viewing, but upon reflection was troubled with its insular depiction of a very narrow subsection of beautiful, wealthy Provo people as indicative of the Mormon population. The reply to my critique was a sardonic one-lined, “well gee – why don’t you tell us how you really feel?”
Being an art school graduate, I was stunned at such an emotional response to what I had tried to phrase as an objective artistic critique. The forum being Nauvoo, I bit my metaphorical tongue and offered a sincere, heartfelt apology, buffered with some animated smiling emoticons.
Since that initial encounter, I have become very sensitive to, while at the same time disappointed by, a perceived tendency among the LDS public to eschew any sort of criticism as “fault finding” and an unfamiliarity with the sort of (dare I use the now-trite expression?) constructive criticism that is essential to progress in the arts.
Admitting that said essentiality is as much a product of academic culture as anything, I can attest from personal experience to its motivating and perfecting power. My graphic design professor, a particularly savvy agnostic of a U of U alum Jeffrey Conger, often explained to his classes full of budding egotistical sophomore design students the difference between defensiveness and acceptance of critical discourse. “Are you going to let it make you mad?” he posed, “Or are you going to let it make you better? Take that anger, that first response to explain away your too-large font or imperfect composition, and turn it into the desire to perfect your work.”Are we, as Latter-day Saint artists and disciples, any less obligated professionally than we are personally to be “perfect, even as [our] father in heaven is perfect”?
Contemporary LDS artistic style at once inspires and disappoints me; I think we are doing well. I think we can do better. I think it is largely the public’s reluctance to open that floodgate of civil discourse that prevents progress in many of our artistic arenas.
While flippant remarks about my personal tastes have backed many a friend or mission companion up to the wall of defensiveness, (a proclivity which I have had to learn to check) occasional experiences convince me that the undercurrents of productive artistic motivation are alive and well in the general LDS and academic populations. Once in the MTC I counseled a sister whose district had broken into contention after one of the elders expressed disappointment that in so much official church art the prophets and angels are so “built.” The Arnold Friberg Moroni, contended this elder, was a bodybuilder, not a man who had wandered and been hunted at the brink of starvation for decades. The sister I was discussing this with was distraught that such an observation could “shake his testimony.” I pointed out to her that there is nothing disobedient about artistic taste and that the Pharisees would have been chastized in the New Testament for arguing over such a matter.
Which brings us to the real crux of the issue: the spirit of contention. Anything that makes a mock of my brother is not inspiration. Anything that prevents me from being an instrument of the Lord’s peace is not inspired art nor inspired criticism.
So how can we improve?
We can foster an atmosphere of congeniality in which friends and brothers in the gospel are allowed to disagree. To achieve this, I’d like to propose three rules for critical discourse in the arts. At very least, they will serve as an appropriate fetter for me.
Rule 1: “Whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground.” (George Albert Smith, Conference Report, Apr. 1914, 12.)
Art criticism is politics, in every sense of the word that matters. The critic and the critic’s critic, be they Latter-day Saints, should not stoop to low name-calling, stereotyping, and mockery. The words tripe, drivel, and crap are hereby banned from my artistic commentary. I encourage you to take similar measures.
Rule 2: One may not, under any circumstance, play the Spirit as a trump card.
This is not to say that personal spiritual experience and confirmation are not important parts of producing and viewing art. They are vital to the pursuit of artistic perfection. However, one must acknowledge the limits of one’s stewardship and also the fact that the Spirit speaks to different people in different ways. The spirit is never inherently present in any work of art. Defending your personal tastes with “well, it brings the spirit into my home” is implying, albeit obliquely, a spiritual deficit in another viewer who does not share your response.
Rule 3: Seek to build up, to enlighten, to encourage. Critiques are an essential part of encouraging growth; always treat them as a growing experience. Build up the positive; encourage and suggest ways to improve. Remember that every artist in Zion, as prodigal as you may think his efforts, is your brother.
As benevolent as this may sound, I bring it up because I see some serious deficits in current trends of Latter-day Saint visual art. There are aesthetic trends that are damaging credibility and communicability. There are incredibly disturbing practices in the marketing of fine art that I would like to see abandoned. There are avenues for improvement, and there are amazingly prescient techniques being explored by some rogue artists that I would like to see nurtured and pursued. Overall, I see a great potential for the visual arts to fill the measure of their creation.
If we have the guts to talk about it.