Editor’s Note: The following guest post is from Laura H. Craner, AMV commenter and blogger at LDS Readers.
Notes from a Church Cultural Arts Committee Luncheon
I was late. I hate being late and I was late. As I walked into the spacious hall on the top floor of the Church Office building I could see all the other Deseret Award Recognition honorees finishing their desserts. I overcompensated by smiling too broadly and talking too much to anyone who walked by–which was probably why I missed the keynote speaker’s name.
As he began his talk he looked around the room gazing at each writer as if he was trying to memorize their faces. “I’ve got a feelin‘,” he said. “If my talk today had a title it would be “˜I’ve Got a Feelin’ because that’s really what the arts are about. I know that usually when artists get together they like to talk about the tools of their trade, but the arts are powerful because of the feelings they inspire in us. Today we are going to talk about how we use our artistic tools to create a feeling, a specific feeling: a feeling of the Spirit of Lord.”
The speaker, who I gathered was the head of the Church Cultural Arts committee, went on to detail the writing of the Nauvoo Pageant. He told stories of how they had been inspired to work with certain writers. These writers, he said, were not all professionals or even necessarily thought of themselves as writers. However, that turned out for the best. In his experience people who had all the right credentials tended to lean more on their own understanding. When a person is not equal to a task, even an artistic one, they learn to rely on the Lord.
He told of how they struggled in the meetings to decide how to treat the violence of the Nauvoo period. It would be wrong to sugarcoat the truths of mob violence and murders, of the martyrdom. Hard truths, realities, don’t have to be left out–they shouldn’t be left out. Of course, they didn’t need to be reveled in either. So how to do it so the Spirit of the Lord could be present for everyone participating? The Lord had guided the pageant writers and, if we asked, He would let us know how too.
“What would have happened,” the speaker asked “if spiritual feelings had been driven out or been absent during the pageant? As artists, we need to ask ourselves how the things we are creating are making people feel. Because those feelings are the gateway to the Spirit, and that is holy ground.”
As the lunch was cleared from the tables and the room reorganized for a Q&A with the Cultural Arts committee members, the keynote speaker’s words echoed in my mind. I had never connected the importance of our emotions and how the Spirit works with us. Suddenly being a writer–someone entrusted with other people’s feelings–felt like an awesome responsibility. I had never recognized that place where writers and readers meet as sacred, but now I could see that it was.
The roundtable Q&A started and when it was my turn I asked, “What is it that you want LDS artists and writers to know most about how art and the Church work together?” The response was that there was no such thing as art for art’s sake in the gospel. All art had a purpose and that was to enrich the programs already in place. Art should be accessible to different education and maturity levels and applicable to Church programs. It was a direct answer and signaled the end of the discussion. I had more questions and, since this was a yearly competition, I set the goal to come back the next year.
This year I was early. The Deseret Recognition Award luncheon was held in the Joseph Smith memorial building and I enjoyed exploring it. I even had the chance to mingle with some of the other honorees. As we sat down I noticed a piece of paper had been placed on top of each plate. It was an excerpt from Boyd K. Packer’s talk “The Spirit of the Tabernacle“ and told of an organist who “understood that excellence does not call attention to itself, did not play a solo while [others] sang. He skillfully, almost invisibly blended the young voices into a melody of inspiration, of revelation.” As the meeting started the man in charge drew our attention to the story and then, in the opening prayer, gave credit to the Lord for all our talents and thanked Him for blessing us with inspiration. The theme of this year’s meeting was obvious.
The keynote speaker was the same man from 2007 and since I was on time I learned his name: David Warner. This year he spoke about art in the context of creation. He started with excerpts from the creation accounts in Genesis, Moses, and Abraham. He mentioned the account of the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness, how Moses called “every wise hearted man, in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, even every one whose heart stirred him up to come unto the work to do it” (Exodus 36:2).
The first point Brother Warner made was a concept he called “art by council.” He pointed out the old saying that true art could never be created by committee–there would be too much bickering and, eventually, too much compromise. But, by looking to the creation as a model, we could see the most amazing things can happen when we work with others. After all, our world–the most amazing artistic endeavor ever accomplished–was created by more than one being and they worked under the direction of Heavenly Father. So, “art by council” is different than art by committee. On a committee people jockey for their own ideas to be accepted at the expense of other people’s ideas. On a council individuals work together to create an environment where the Spirit of the Lord can guide them to the right ideas. It doesn’t matter whose ideas they are, just that the idea has been confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
This led naturally into his next point: the artist as outsider versus the artist as insider. Typically artists view themselves as detached from their surroundings. They feel that they cannot make relevant artistic comments if they are fully engaged in something because they cannot see it clearly. However, for LDS artists this is not the case. Because we are seeking to work with the Spirit we need to work within the bounds established by the gospel. We need to be “anxiously engaged.”
Another difference he pointed out between artists working within the gospel and artists working without is the importance of novelty. Many artists believe that they must do something new in order to be artistic. They feel they have to guide their audience to new ideas or truths. However, LDS artists know that truth is to be found in the gospel and, like in the creation, art can be made from existing materials.
Brother Warner reminded us that all our talents and gifts come from God and that we need to give credit where credit is due. With another injunction to humbly seek the guidance of the Lord about how and what to create as artists, he closed his remarks.
There was no Q&A session this time and the participants dispersed. The luncheon had been smaller this year and I wasn’t sure if that was because the committee had been more selective or if fewer people had submitted works. The March 31st deadline was already looming on the horizon and I found myself musing over what I would submit this next time around. Could I be an artist and do the things Brother Warner had said? It seemed, and still seems, a provocative challenge.
*For submission guidelines and information see the News of the Church (page 78) in the February 2008 Ensign. If you follow the link, you’ll have to scroll down the page quite a bit.