Guest post: Laura Craner on the Church Cultural Arts Committee Luncheon

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

February 2007

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.

February 2008

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.

36 thoughts on “Guest post: Laura Craner on the Church Cultural Arts Committee Luncheon”

  1. Very interesting, Laura. Thanks.

    I wonder what Mormon artists who have published successfully in national markets would have to say about the “insider/outsider” metaphor.

  2. “In his experience people who had all the right credentials tended to lean more on their own understanding.”

    Does the Church emply accountants who have all the right credentials, who lean on their own understanding? Of course they do. I wonder why. Could it be that someone with training and experience in whatever field can make better use of that training and experience than someone who has no experience but who prays a lot? When the church needs a plumber to unclog a toilet in the COB, do they bring in someone who’s is actually trained or do they just grab the most available guy, put their hands on his head, and bless him with the necessary skills?

    Artists in the world and in the Church are treated with less respect than an artisan. It’s as if what they do is like a hobby or something. Forget the fact that many artists in the church have had professional training and years of experience. For some reason, the artist’s experience and training means nothing.

  3. Thom– Just to clarify, what I wrote is my memory of what I said, not Church policy. I can’t speak for the Church at all–so I hope people don’t use this post as a reason to get angry at the institution because I may have remembered it incorrectly or only part of what was said.

    That said, I think there is a difference between a plumber and an artist. A plumber has has a physical job with physical tools. Very few people would argue whether or not a plumber was *truly* a plumber or if the drain he/she unplugged was *really* unplugged. However, people have these conversations about artists all the time. That happens because art is a personal, subjective experience. Also, being a plumber or an accountant has little to do with people’s feelings. To me, the way I internalized that big was that because artists work in the subjective realm of feelings they need more spiritual guidance at times–especially when addressing a sensitive audience like Church functions tend to have. I don’t think he was implying that all professional artists were bad. Does that make sense?

  4. I was intrigued to get a look inside the “art” side of the LDS Church. Almost all of what I know about the Church is either theological or administrative. I know very little of how art is solicited or evaluated. I’m assuming at least some of it is paid for (e.g., paintings or photos in the Ensign)…?

    I got the sense from your description that the Church (or Bro Warner or whatever) is quite concerned that artists not lose their faith or weaken the faith of their audience. I think that’s appropriate. I can well understand reasons for ambiguous art, but I can well understand reasons for the Church not sponsoring ambiguous art.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  5. Laura:

    Of course you are. If I had known about it, I would have included it. 🙂

  6. Hi Laura.

    Welcome to the community. Misty says hi.

    It seems to me that the idea of “art by council,” while nice and all, must be incredibly hard to actually pull off in real life. What you are likely to end up with is probably “art by committee” by mere default if you miss the mark on shooting for the “council.” Sounds a lot like the corporate-speak word “synergy.”

    My understanding is that true synergy is a pretty rare and wonderful thing. Incredibly hard to duplicate too. So it seems like “council” is probably the exception and “committee” the rule. No wonder a lot of artists say “hang it all” and simply retreat to work by themselves.

    How much room is there in for the individual interface with the divine in Bro. Warner’s paradigm I wonder…

  7. Oh, your “other blog” seems to be temporarily on the fritz. Just a heads-up.

  8. 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.

    So you’re saying that the pageant treats the secrecy around polygamy, the dispute with William Law, and the issues around the destruction of the Nauvoo expositor? I must say I’m surprised to hear that. I don’t even think you can learn about that stuff at BYU!

  9. Seth–I don’t know what’s up with blogger but if you copy and paste the URL it works. Sorry for the confusion.

    Kodos–I haven’t seen the pageant so I don’t know. I also didn’t attend BYU *gasp*, so, I REALLY don’t know! Although, I have enjoyed B.H. Roberts Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because he speaks directly to those issues (and plenty of others–they’re long books).

  10. Seth and Laura: I fixed the link. WordPress will automatically create out a link if something appears to be a URL, but it grabbed the period as well.

  11. Excellent post, Laura.

    I went through a long and difficult series of meetings with Bro. Warner and members of the committee a few years back. And I’m sad to say that I probably caused them no small amount of frustration as I tried to wrap my mind around “art by counsel” (and I’m not quite sure if they intends “counsel” or “council” — probably both in the long run) David Warner is one of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever known–and the members of his committee (at the time) that I was fortunate to meet were not a wit behind him–all of them brilliant and fully committed to the Kingdom.

    I think the biggest obstacle for me in the whole process of getting the idea of “art by counsel” through my head was that I took it in too generally. That caused me to run up against it instead of with it. I didn’t allow (in my thinking) enough room for the notion that maybe this particular committee felt that this particular approach was right in a more *immediate* sense. In other words, that it may have been the Lord’s will at present and subject to change in the future.

    Now there is no question (in my mind) that individual members of the committee felt that “art by counsel” was the best way to do art in the church generally–and I have no problem with the fact that they might have had a strong personal philosophy on the subject. Is there an who artist doesn’t? The trick is to view doing art for the church like any other calling. All are required to give of our gifts and talents as we serve–and all are expected to put personal philosophies aside that may hinder the Lord’s work as he would have it done–artists not excepted!

    Now let me just say that I think there’s plenty of room for expression and what-not. Consider the variation in delivery there might be on a common topic for a sacrament meeting talk given by two different people in two different wards. The difference in delivery might be huge–though we’d hope that both would be amenable to the Spirit.

    That said, what’s difficult for me is that I haven’t seen an improvement in the church’s art aesthetically speaking–and maybe that’s not the primary goal. In fact, I know it isn’t. What Warner is after (I think) is art that connects; that connects in a gospel way–much like we’d expect a good sunday school lesson or act of service to connect (with the understanding that such a connection doesn’t necessarily require eloquence on the part of the teacher or whomever).

    And yet, I want to have my cake and eat it too! I want the aesthetic to rise above the “dud” level. And frankly that’s where it is–still (though I must say–to David’s credit–that he surely knows that, and is willing to suffer the vilest criticism on the subject as he tries to get what he considers to be the more important elements in place first).

    Anyway, though I still disagree with the committee’s philosophy on some points, I have no doubt that they’re great folks trying to do what they’ve been called to do in the best way they now how.

  12. I think part of the problem is that too many artists, performers, writers, what-have-you are looking to the Church for specific approval of what they are doing. As an institution, the Church has to be very careful and conservative about what it officially endorses. So, if you, as an artist are trying to push the envelope and “be edgey” and then approach the Church seeking their official blessing, the answer is likely to be “no.”

    But that doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to push the boundaries. Just don’t expect to do it under the aegis of the Church Office Building, that’s all.

  13. Seth R.,

    What you say is true, though I think what this particular committee is looking for goes beyond that a bit. It seems like there’s been an effort to redefine the boundaries that the church is comfortable with–or ought to be comfortable with so to speak. And the interesting thing is, the newer approach really has more to do with the production process than with the end aesthetic–though the former certainly influences the latter. There’s a lot of stuff produced previously that wouldn’t pass muster under the auspices of this committee–a good thing, I think.

  14. I remember having a discussion with a good friend of mine once in which I presented the thesis that The Matrix was thematically just a retelling of Star Wars (rebel alliance taking on an evil empire and all that). He kept getting caught up on plot points, refusing to see the thematic spectrum within our discussion. The intensity of our debate escalated until he finally shouted, “Thompson, you’re wrong!” “No,” I said as I pulled my pocket diploma out of my wallet and slapped it on the table. “You are!”

    That was a frustrating encounter because it occured to me that if we had been discussing electrical engineering (his field), there would have been no question as to who was right. Granted, being right wasn’t what was important to me. A simple, “I see your point,” would have done the trick. No, in this instance, I was none to pleased to have a four year education so flippantly called into question. Art may be different from other pursuits, but the student loans I took out to learn its disciplines are as real as any other. The significant difference I see is that diplomas in other fields will get you a job. Diplomas in art will get you arguments.

    And then I remember a good friend of mine in the Physics department – his projects routinely go up in the space shuttles – who would become misty-eyed when explaining mathematics to me. His passion could make me FEEL the beauty of math. Who knew? I’ve met accountants passionate about finding those tax breaks, technicians who revel in installing the perfect a/v systems in the homes of their customers and on and on. I respectfully disagree with Laura. So much of what is called art has zero effect upon me. I’ve spent hours and hours in the Louvre and taken very little of it away with me. Now, perhaps we EXPECT art to touch us more than anything else, but I don’t believe there is a limit to the whats, whys and hows of feeling.

    Lastly, when questioning the role of art in church, I have come to the personal conclusion that it is not the responsibility of the church to produce art. It is the responsibility of the church to bring souls unto Christ with correct doctrines, divine authority, and sacred ordinances and covenants. I think there is a great need for exploratory art, abstact art, and so forth – anything that is of good report or praiseworthy, as it were. But I don’t know that it’s the church’s responsibility to act as a sort of Endowment for the Spiritual Arts. In fact, I’m rather proud that the church does as much as it does already.

    (And yes, my university handed out regular-sized diplomas, too. But the laminated wallet-sized that they gave me is so much more useful. Especially in film debates with the uncircumcised of art!)

  15. I too was at the 2008 luncheon and took away a much different message than what Laura presented. I must admit my first reaction was one of offense. But reading Laura’s insightful analysis of Bro. Warner’s talk & all of your ellucidating comments have really helped me to see the value in what he was trying to teach me.

    Thanks especially to Jack, for sharing your experience and to Seth R. for your take on the Church’s position. I think you are correct.

    Andrew – you are totally right about Laura’s post on Enna Burning! In fact, I would say her entire blog is insightful and well-written. Her post on depression and medication was one of the best on the topic I have ever read.

  16. Jack–thanks for adding your insights! The Cultural Arts Committee is pretty low profile so I’m glad your experiences could round out what I had to say. I’m sure working with them for an extended period of time would be intense!

    Seth–you’re always a thinker! 🙂

    Eric–I don’t know that we disagree. I’m still pretty young (as a person and as a writer) so I’m still figuring all this out. But I agree with everything you said, so maybe I need to refine my statement a little! I do feel that art is a subjective experience and because of that each person is a sort expert–an expert of their own artistic experience. That said, I do wish our culture did more to promote general knowledge of artistic tools. In my book group people are good at pointing out an alliteration but not how it might contribute to meaning! I’m a little jealous of you and your run-ins with passionate people from other disciplines. I’d love someone to be able to show me the beauty of math and physics 🙂 My husband is an engineer and I think he’s tried; I’ll have to start listening better.

    Andrew–thanks for the plug!

  17. Eric,

    That’s hilarious AND sad. For some reason, when it comes to the arts, everyone is an “expert.” And the artists who suffer the most at the hands of the “experts” are the word smiths, IMO. (I’m not a word smith in case anyone was wondering–heh) Some folks think that because they can read and write English (or whatever particular language) they can read a script (critically, that is). It’s frustrating.

    And this leads me to another plug for the Cultural Arts Committee. I think they too are concerned that the artist might be put in the insufferable position of having to kowtow to an endless barrage of objections (some mindless–some not) by well meaning overzealous religionists. And so, the “art by counsel” approach is in place to not only unify the creative team but also to protect their collective work under the auspices of the Priesthood Dept.–much like a lesson manual might be protected by the correlation process. In other words “this is church approved material” end discussion. Now that doesn’t mean that the material is perfect and, therefore, not subject to revision in the future. Nor does it mean that the artists are beyond the grasp of constructive criticism. But it does mean that it has a big “green light” in spite of whatever possible objections there may be coming from the sidelines. It’s interesting.

  18. Laura,

    Thank you so much for your post. I have been mulling it over for a few days now, and only now did I feel like I could post something.

    David Warner has been a very very strange figure for me over the past several years. First, he is the son of Terry Warner, whose Bonds That Make us Free has been an incredible paradigm shifter for me. Second, his dissertation at BYU was a work I came across as a student framing Grotowski’s theories through the lens of Martin Buber. Third, he is the author and director of all the Church productions at the conference center.

    The first two items never seem to agree with the third. Jerzy Grotowski is famous for writing “Toward a Poor Theatre” which I’ve named my blog after. The ‘poor’ theatre is one where the theatre is stripped of everything but its bare essence: a place, the actor, the audience. Everything is removed to make room for the divine Other. The performance is as sparse and ‘poor’ as possible. This aesthetic sense seems in line with our aversion to crosses and all forms of iconography. Yet the conference center productions seem as ‘abundant’ and antithetical to a ‘divine’-centered performance as exists.

    Then there is what you’ve written about feelings and what the conference center theatrical productions say about feelings. I don’t believe that emotions are the Spirit of the Lord, though the link between the two is important.

    In looking at this perspective on emotion through a purely psychological (which is brought on partly because of Terry Warner’s writings, I might add), it seems that we are sowing seeds of emotional immaturity through our art.

    My Father-in-Law taught a class at BYU for years and one thing I heard him teach in one of those classes was that phrases like “You make me happy” come from emotional immaturity. The idea that we attribute our emotional states to others is emotionally irresponsible and in extreme cases that either leads to neediness and victimization on one hand, or abuse and aggression on the other. He often says that the strongest marriages are comprised of two independent people who are in the marriage because they choose to be, not be cause they are incapable of anything else. He said the stronger thing to say is “I am happy when I’m with you because I choose to be happy.” It may dampen the romance, but I have found that independence over neediness makes for a greater marriage. I don’t see why we think it would be any different in the arts.

    If I don’t let my wife, whom I love and trust, be responsible for my ‘feelings’ why should I allow an artist to be in charge of “creating a feeling of the Spirit of the Lord?”

    I think that the idea of art by council is a worthy one (it must happen in film all the time), but I do feel that the art created by such a council would be stronger and more able to make room for the Spirit if it were focused on being ‘poor’ rather than abundant, and emotionally responsible, rather than emotionally manipulative.

    Let us also remember that it is often said that many avant-garde movements are only searching for something archaic, something lost. I think that art that is trying to do something ‘new’ is, inevitably steeped in pride. But much of the avant-garde is striving for something old.

  19. Thank you, Trevor. I don’t have the background you do, but I think you capture well some of what I’ve been mulling over but unable to articulate.

    I do discuss this issue of the spirit and artistic creation in my post — About that Whitney quote:

    “Sure there are authors in the LDS market that claim that they were inspired to write a particular work. But there’s no real way to verify that. For even if readers feel the Holy Ghost when reading, viewing or listening to a particular work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself has received some indelible stamp of the spirit — especially since not only is feeling the spirit a subjective, virtually indescribable experience, but it also varies by reader. Even those of us who claim some sort of orthodoxy, who have built a common ground of trust, of feeling the spirit in similar situations, don’t always respond with the same intensity [or even at all sometimes] to works of art.”

  20. Trevor,

    Though I’m not a huge fan of church productions, I think it fair to say that in something like “Savior of the World” we see Warner’s attempt to open the way (or get out of the way) for the “Divine Other.” Though the set is beautiful it is minimalistic in that it serves all settings by opening this or manipulating that. The pre-post-mortal beings spread across the colonnade create a circle of viewers when connected with the audience thus bringing the audience and players together in the real-time experience of the play. The narrative is a collage of disconnected moments–no hard-driving plot. This serves to help get the audience involved with the players in the moment rather than with abstract fiction. So while SoW does sport some rather “popular” theatrical elements (and it must–the church tries to take a road through the middle when it comes to aesthetics), it also has much that smacks of “poor” theater.

    Also, re: Feelings–I think Warner would probably say that the committee’s concern has as much to do with what to stay away from as with anything else–how to avoid generating *distracting* emotional responses as well as paving the way for positive engaging responses. A fan of overt emotional manipulation he is not. But then, neither is he a fan of over-intellectualized art that shies away from the heart.

    Well–just a few examples–I don’t want to put anymore words in his mouth. Perhaps Warner will publish something someday on the subject.

    That said

  21. William,

    I like what you’ve said about feeling the Spirit as a subjective and difficult if not impossible to describe experience. I think that I for get that too often. I think of D&C 6 and 8 (in your heart and in your mind) as the definitive writings on the topic, but I knew a Lithuanian Sister who experienced it completely differently than I did. But I must admit that as soon as she put words to her experience of it, I was more sensitive to it, and I have also altered my experiences because of those sensitivities.

    What I’d really like to add is that as far as I understand doctrine correctly ‘The Spirit’ is a being– is God. I get very very frightened when I hear someone say “then they’ll really feel the Spirit here!” As though God were as easy to command as adjusting the A/C.

    I don’t know if it was only jargon in my mission, but many Elders often spoke about “hitting them with the Spirit,” or something to that effect. Like Jack points out, I’m sure that there are sensibilities that try to shy from that kind of brutality, but I must admit that it seems very similar to me.

    I believe that the people in charge of these things are more aware of the discussions at hand than I realize, and, like that Lithuanian Sister, have sensitivities that I don’t know about. But I don’t have them as of yet.

    So all I can hope to do in art is what I do when I bear testimony: I try to be thoughtful and careful about the details; but most importantly I try to be completely honest and wholly sincere about what I say. What better rubric could we have for artists? If someone feels the Spirit when I’m speaking, it will be because they are worthy and they are prepared, and because The Spirit (if we do believe that The Spirit is God—-a member of the Godhead) has seen fit to allow it, not because of my artistry.

    If I’m way off base for saying this, then I do apologize. But I hope its good to discuss these things.

    Also Jack, I also hope that someday David Warner publishes something on the topic. I don’t see anything there as “poor” quality at all, but I would never describe any of it as minimal. Musically, aesthetically, or pitch of the performances. I think it excels at what it is trying to do. I don’t seem to be the right audience though.

  22. Trevor,

    Perhaps your view of “Savior of the World” is more objective than mine as I had some idea of the committee’s goals before I saw it. Still, it seems to me that there were real attempts to avoid certain popular theatrical conventions while maintaining a wide-open accessibility.

    One of the big questions for me is: how mediocre can art be and still retain it’s usefulness in the church? It seems to me (depending on the criteria for judgment) that art can be reduced to practically nothing aesthetically and still open the way for communion with God (not that art per se has the power to do that). And so, as it relates to what’s going on at the Conference Center, what the committee is most interested in is opening the way for that possibility (communion) even if it means sacrificing the “art” to get it–and I think this more than anything else is where we get a sense of some of the “poor-ness” you speak of, Trevor.

    That said, I hope for the day when high aesthetic and deep communion will not be viewed in such a mutually exclusive way–as it seems we do in the church.

  23. Just to clarify: I thought I was using your word when I wrote “poor” Jack. I simply don’t feel qualified to ever use evaluative terms in such general contexts. I know that Japanese painting would be considered ‘poor’ or ‘mediocre’ to a judge used only to seeing the Italian frescos. But one is not poorer than the other, just different, and we should find more descriptive words if our goal is understanding (or change).

  24. Ha! I thought I was using *your* word in comment #24. But then in my last comment I suppose I did digress into the other usage of the word “poor” when I talked about sacrificing the art (aesthetic) to open the way for communion. It’s not that I necessarily agree with that notion, it just seems to me that that kind of thinking (on the part of the committee) may stem more from the philosophy you speak of in your first comment (e.g. Grotowski) than from the prevailing pop-art culture in the church (which prevalence IMO is a symptom of the disconnect between high aesthetic and deep communion in our religious culture) though it may seem the other way around as the committee is not above exercizing a healthy dose of pragmatism in order to insure the possibility of real-time sacred influence in the theatrical experience. And that means (according to my understanding of Warner’s approach) a willingness to condescend (sweetly) into a language that the general audience will resonate with according to their religious culture.

  25. How fascinating you use the word “condescend” in this context, Jack. It is quite a negative word (unless, followed by ‘sweetly’) in any other context besides a religious one.

    But with Christianity it is quite a charged one, isn’t it? Perhaps, then, this ‘condescension’ in aesthetics, is a Christian act.

    I’m too much of a purist to believe that oversimplification, but it might give some insight to current church thinking.

    doesn’t seem very worthy of D&C 50, though, does it?

  26. Trevor,

    Are you’re referring to the idea of the preacher and the hearer both being edified together by the same spirit? If so, I think the committee would say that that’s their ultimate goal and that any sense of (sweet) condescension is really only the artists allowing themselves to be lead by counsel–the “condescension” being manifest in the putting aside of aesthetic preferences in order to better serve one’s brothers and sisters.

    BTW, “condescension” is my word choice, not theirs. I must say, though, that after reading your comment I can see how it may come across a little jarring.

  27. Wow, you guys are really going the rounds on this one! This is really exciting for me to read all the comments–I feel like I’m learning a lot.

    One thing that I didn’t say a lot about in my post was how much Warner talked about considering the audience. I think in regular art (i.e. not for Church art) the audience comes to the artist and seeking some sort of experience. In the Church, I think the tables are turned. The artists seek the audience and try to invite the Spirit. The artist meets the audience where they already are and then, perhaps, tries to take them a few steps beyond that. But always the artist starts where the audience already is–and maybe that is why some of it comes off as emotional immaturity. That may also be why the bare aesthetic doesn’t get used. Most audiences would be unnerved by a lack of set and costume. I think sets, costumes, props, lighting, etc. help people suspend their disbelief and work as signals that something artistic is coming. A lot of audiences need the warning.

    And as for conflation of feelings and the Spirit, I think it is a real danger. Which is why feelings constitute holy ground. You have to be careful not only to invite the Spirit and not drive it, but like one of you said, not distract from it either. Easier said than done! Maybe that’s why so much of our art relies on pat representations of “immature” emotionality!

  28. Laura,

    I think the trick is to meet the audience where they’re at without drifting into the insipid popular silliness we see/hear/read so often in the church. Maybe that’s where we run into trouble with “immature emotionality” as you say.

    A good example might be how Bach wrote pieces that were sensitive to the level of his students. Think of his delightful minuet in G. It’s a timeless gem and yet “Bach” through and through. There’s nothing lacking in it aesthetically–it’s art.

    No if we could just figure out how to do that–though it’s probably unfair for me to invoke the masters in my argument.

  29. Laura,

    Sorry, me again. This is one of the points on which I diverge (philosophically) a little from the committee. I think the idea of meeting the audience where they’re at–though it may be viewed as an act of kindness–can easily become a sweet condescension of the wrong sort. There seems to be an implicit judgment of the audience–and I think we need to be careful about that.

    Though the example I use above about Bach and his students may be viewed in the same problematic way, we need to remember that Bach was once a student. In like fashion, remembering that we were all once children will help us meet children at their level. But the dichotomy is a little different between artists and the audience. The audience (generally speaking) doesn’t intend to become artists. But they do (I would hope) expect to be treated like adults–and this is where I would have a hard time as an audience. That is, if I new that artists were holding back because of their doubts about my ability to appreciate a more challenging aesthetic. I’d feel rather patronized.

  30. As a musician involved in a host of offerings to the audience (or better, congregation), I would say that most artists are not holding back just because the audience can’t appreciate it. More often than not we are assigned what we may or may not do. Yes, you may perform Sally DeFord’s “I Stand All Amazed” at stake conference, but no, you must not perform the extra verse she wrote that is not found in the hymnbook. It might offend our visiting general authority, or worse, offend the Spirit.

    The quality of performances may also be called into question because the church is run totally by volunteers. We need a group of women to sing a musical number, so let’s pick a random group of people who will say yes. They have never sung together before, and never will again. The performance will be less than inspiring to the audience, but it will be meaningful to the women singing.

    We cannot continue to hold our sacrament meeting musical numbers, or even stake conference choirs, to the standard of the MoTab or paid professionals. And the music that is written for church is often put together quickly for a very specific purpose or deadline not far off, and is often written to suit the abilities of a very amateur ward choir. We hold back, not to be condescending to the audience, but because we would like our music to not be too painful to hear when placed in the hands of a well-meaning, but unpolished performing group.

    But it is possible to write and perform something simple, without being simplistic. It can still touch the soul. Think of “I Am a Child of God.” It is true, simple, repetitive, and every child’s favorite Primary song. I think the Church is looking for more like that. And I think that kind of quality is harder to come by than the ability to write a fugue.

Comments are closed.