Bradly Baird on the artifacts of LDS memory

The following guest post is from AMV commenter Bradly Baird. ~Wm

The Artifacts of LDS Memory: Arts, Transformation, Liminality, and Spirituality

I sit here at the close of another September 11 listening to two remarkable pieces of music — Richard Danielpour’s An American Requiem and John Adam’s On The Transmigration of Souls — both written to commemorate the victims of the attacks. The stirring music and “memory space” created in my mind combine and make for a highly emotional interaction. I am deeply moved.

The experience also calls to mind the power of the arts as a transformative agent upon the human psyche. I am sure everyone can recall those moments of experience when, after having read an incredible book, listened to extraordinary piece of music, or experienced a performance of unusual power, they feel completely different, transformed, and in possession of new perspectives.

I have had many of these deeply transformative experiences with the arts myself over the years. I remember new perspectives gained from seeing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, hearing David Diamond’s Symphony No. 2, reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, experiencing Auguste Rodin’s unbelievable sculptures, or seeing the Utah Symphony play Michael Torke’s Verdant Music. These are moments with the arts that will be with me forever.

Of course, I have also had similar experiences with Mormon arts and letters (the artifacts of the collective and person LDS memory) over the years. But, these experiences have been transformative in a very different way, having a more pronounced effect on my soul. Each, in their own way, has directly contributed to my own life-long conversion process and to the development of a stronger faith.

This is because Mormon artists generally are reaching for something beyond the ordinary humanistic perspectives in the arts, whether consciously or unconsciously (at least those who do not seek evil). I believe they strive for and imbue their own works of art with a measure of the Spirit of God by virtue of their membership in the faith. In other words, our songs, paintings, books, dances, architectures, histories etc. are all created and preserved to teach a people, extend their spirituality, and strengthen the process of building a god-designed kingdom on earth.

I am not just thinking about only those works that are specifically created to teach, instruct, or commemorate our past. In my view, the entire body of work rooted in the LDS arts and letters world — secular or sacred — are artifacts of the LDS memory; works created through our knowledge of and shared experience of the faith (whatever our particular personal geography).

Hence, a novel by Jack Weyland, Mormon cyberpunk by William Morris, Mobsters and Mormons, a James Christensen painting, a story by Richard Paul Evans, and music by Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band all qualify for the aspirations and purposes described above. All of these things — on whatever level — may potentially reinforce our faith, strengthen our resolve to build the kingdom, and transform our perspectives on life.

In fact, I would take the idea a bit further and suggest that it is the responsibility of the Mormon artist to strive for this higher goal in producing “art,” whether secular or sacred in nature and motivation. It is all well and good to produce a moving piece of art, but why would someone who has the specific knowledge of our faith not choose to imbue their art with symbols, ideas, and concepts that would lift the audience to a higher place and put that audience on the path of true conversion?

I certainly do not think that every piece of art produced must directly bear on the religious and witness its creator’s own testimony in an overt discursive style. Can you imagine how tedious that would be? It would mean that all LDS art becomes a reproduction of general conference and/or testimony meeting.

I mean to suggest that all LDS artists are capable of imbuing their works with the Spirit, without attempting to be a Sunday School lesson. I believe that the spirit of conversion can be present in many ways, as long as we use and employ symbols, ideas, and “˜language’ that call the spirit into the artistic experience.

In anthropological terms, the transformative experience discussed above takes place during a phenomenon called the liminal state, that moment when a person has stepped across a psychological “threshold” out of the ordinary “world” of existence into a new “place” where they are open to experience, something undefined and unknown.

It is a time and place when a participant’s mind is opened up to the possibility of entirely new characteristics that can lead to the formation a new psychological perspective and, in some cases, an entirely new identity. This state represents a powerful opportunity to affect transformation, and why would we — as LDS artists — not choose to fill our art with the most important symbols and concepts available, in order to further the most important kind of change that man will ever experience?

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To be sure, the transformative power of artistic liminality is limited. It does not affect a complete transformation of the participant in the short duration of a single experience. Rather, artistic experiences must be attended again and again in order for the intended effect and transformation to take place. What this means, then, is that the Mormon artistic product potentially has a decided impact on the lifelong process of conversion.

What a fantastic notion that is! Not only do we have the opportunity to create art for our audiences, but we have a responsibility to create multiple works of art across our lifetimes; constantly striving in each new attempt to reach for a higher place to develop ourselves and our audience at the same time.

I suppose it is also why — speaking now from the perspective of the audience — we repeatedly seek out these artifacts of memory (whatever their level and skill and quality). Time and again we read books about pioneer history, see films about the missionary experience, attend dances performance based on religious themes, view exhibitions of LDS art, or attend pageants dealing with LDS history. Each time hoping to feel a connection and a witness brought about the Spirit (to whatever degree or power).

Now, this discussion can lead us in all sorts of directions and can make us ask all sorts of related questions about the nature and effect of the art and literature that is produced by members of the LDS faith (indeed, many of the possibilities that come to mind have already been discussed in this forum). My purpose is not to follow each of the possible threads. I simply wanted to write down a few thoughts about the potential influence of Mormon arts in the world, these artifacts of the LDS memory that might propel us forward on our journey to God.

And on this day of reflection, I think back to the numerous experiences with LDS art that have contributed to my own spiritual journey, and hope that our aspirations on this site will push us all to “reach for the note.” We should aspire to that perfect piece of art that uplifts, inspires, and teaches audiences to befriend the better angels of their mortal lives.

3 thoughts on “Bradly Baird on the artifacts of LDS memory”

  1. “To be sure, the transformative power of artistic liminality is limited. It does not affect a complete transformation of the participant in the short duration of a single experience.”

    I think this is an important point to make. I’m somewhat wary of any overt, universal claims for inspiration or Holy Spirit-bringing for any work of art (the reasons why I have yet to fully articulate). But I’m very much interested (even believe in) this notion of LDS arts and culture as an expression of “artifacts of the LDS memory.” What’s more I think there’s room for a lot more engagement with our past.

    Yes, Shakespeares and Miltons and great artists who can speak to a universal experience. But I’m more hopeful for (and interested in) artists who work with the amazing materials that are our heritage to create uniquely voiced works that speak directly to an LDS audience.

  2. Bradly–I don’t know if you purposely left out examples, but I would love to know what “artifacts” have transformed you and when. I think so much of the artistic transformation is about audience preparation and expectation. I remember _Saturday’s Warrior_ and _Charly_ being a big deal when I was twelve, but not so much now. So what has “reached the note” for you?

  3. Bradly:

    You bring up some excellent points. One that bears on my mind right now is this:

    I certainly do not think that every piece of art produced must directly bear on the religious and witness its creator’s own testimony in an overt discursive style.

    Rather, it’s just there–a person’s testimony, their character, their ethos just comes through in the artifacts they produce, just as in the life they lead. I guess this is one illustration of “by their fruits…”

    A person’s artistic witness can be made more potent, more transformative, more redemptive, however, when they’ve honed their artistic skills through training/experience and have gained a mature vision of that experience and their place in the world, particularly in their own culture. Then they become better able, perhaps, to create moving art, to speak with a unique, piercing voice that cuts straight to the marrow of their reader-/viewership. The “audience” can approach a similar point in a similar way; after all, isn’t “reading” a cultural artifact also a creative, transformative act–a process, as you say, of negotiating the liminal space, the culturally charged corridor between artist and audience?

    It may take a lifetime and beyond to successfully negotiate these creative acts/roles. Perhaps this is one aspect of Godhood: finding ways to relate to the created universe such that both entities, creator and created, progress eternally, a prospect that both thrills and frightens me. But it’s a process I’m committed to seeing through for eternity.

    Thanks for stirring my thoughts.

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