The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical

Previous Posts: Part I: Origins | Part II: The Middle 

So now that I’ve explored the origins of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon arts and culture, and teased out some of the issues related to the middle, it’s time to get radical. In the first post, I mentioned a radical movement in British Islam and noted the adjectives (creative, positive, revolutionary …) that were being used in describing this Radical Middle Way for Islam. What those adjectives indicate to me is that radical is meant to show that the middle is a dynamic place to be; it has energy; it’s in motion. It’s rising.

Now, radical is generally not the most welcome term among American Mormons. It smacks to much of the Left and/or of the political fringe. This is why it’s important to confine the term the radical middle to Mormon arts and culture and emphasize that there is room for artists, critics and readers with a multitude of political leanings (assuming, of course, that their politics isn’t the sole thing driving their artistic activity). Indeed, I think by pairing radical and middle and applying it to Mormon arts, England and anyone else who invokes the term is reinscribing its’ meaning, appropriating the adjective for our own use and changing it in the process. I’m a fan of such appropriation by an ethnic group/sub-culture. But what do we really mean by radical and how does it play out in Mormon arts and culture? The short answers are: nobody has really said much, and it doesn’t really. So unlike with the middle where I was able to explore it in depth in a descriptive way, I’m going to have to get speculative and prescriptive with the radical. But first…

Radical history and doctrine

Whatever our position in American society now (that is the tenuous semi-mainstreamed stability achieved through the embrace of the meritocracy and of alliance with conservative politics [allowing, of course, for the few liberals and crunchy cons and libertarians]), it must not be forgotten that we have radical roots. From the restorationist claims of Joseph Smith to the communitarian projects of Brigham Young, and, yes, the scandalousness of polygamy — whether you believe all that to be a concatenation of American (not forgetting the European streams of thought behind them) influences (with a touch of native genius) or the opening of the heavens and streaming of restored truths, the radical, as in the challenge to the status quo, roots of Mormonism run deep. And are the wellspring of latter-day Mormon art.

So radical, in fact, that our literal and/or spiritual forefathers and mothers were cast out from society, pushed from their city on a hill, the city they had in their American spirit had raised out of a swamp, pushed to the edge of the map to leave a trail of graves until they reached their refuge in the desert, their State of Deseret, which was then (before the people could truly become an ethnies) reabsorbed in to the body politic (and economic, which is what fundamentally it’s almost always about). Yes, I know that this is a florid way of putting it and that there was a complex web of motives behind the mobs and that the Saints were not without fault either. But the point is: radical (perhaps even free radicals — and perhaps that was part of the problem). Although the way of life and even prevailing attitudes of most Mormons has now become thoroughly middle class suburban America, and even with the institutionalizing and the correlating, the doctrines and history of Mormonism challenged and sometimes still challenges the status quo. Which means that invoking of the radical in radical middle kinda actual means something and can be claimed a native part of Mormon identity. In fact, in linguistics, radical refers to the root form of a word, and indeed the origins of the word are in a Latin word meaning “having roots.” Roots we have. The radical in the radical middle is a reminder of that.

But yes, of course, much of what we mean by radical is the desire for change, reform and even for pushing to the extreme or to the limits.

Radical forms/modes

When used in connection to the creation and reception of art, then, radical suggests experimentation with forms and modes and genres. It means not settling for the current dominant ways of narrative expression. Or playing with them in such a way to critique or undermine or reconfigure them in a way that resonates with the radical middle audience.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that one blindly follows the avant-garde. Indeed, the avant-garde per se has been thoroughly co-opted by and entrenched with the elite and even more its modes of expression are quickly adopted and deployed the marketers, the cool hunters and brand managers. I mentioned the blog Hilobrow in my section on the middlebrow in the second post in this series. That blog celebrates both the avant-garde and the pop (from Bjork to Britney Spears). It seems to me that’s a peculiarly good way of playing the strengths and weaknesses of those two schools of art off of each other. On the other hand, I’m not calling for the repudiation of the middlebrow. Indeed, I think that it’s clear that certain Mormon values and ways of life are reactionary (although again, let’s not forget our radical roots and become thoroughly bourgeois). Of course, once you get post-post-modern, the reactionary may very well be the avant-garde. I could keep going but at some point it just ends up a circle (one eternal round?) so let me end with this: the radical middle should beg, borrow and steal from (and infect) everybody and be open to every form, mode and genre. We can’t afford to be snooty about anything, to turn away any idea (while, of course, demanding craftsmanship).

Radical energy/authenticity

Pairing radical with middle is, as I mention above, an attempt to bring energy to the middle. So often the energy is on the poles. This is a problem any movement haves, the energized are often those on the extreme. There is a danger to radical energy. Thus when finding the energy in the radical, we should find simply movement and activity and passion — not zeal and rabidness.

Another danger of the radical is, the danger of inauthenticity, of radical as vogue, as fashion. See for example radical chic. If you are going to, for example, challenge the status quo with the forms of your art then it has to happen out of genuine passion, out of authenticity, rather than as a pose. Now one man’s pose, is another’s whole life. And in this day and age authenticity is almost a false concept, a pose in and of itself (c.f. The Believer) . I say almost. One of the advantages of Mormonism is we have some touchstones to keep us real (our history, our doctrine, our audiences). We also have commandments about charity and humility and consecration. Realistically, not every move made by the radical middle is going to appear authentic to every member of the middle or the right or the left or what have you. But the beauty of discipleship is that it requires energy and authenticity, and I would argue, it also requires a deep engagement with change (which is why we can’t ignore the radical forms/modes piece of the radical).

Radical organization/authoring

Movements are always organizing. In some cases (in all cases, really), the organization becomes an impediment to the work. Mormonism has a history of radical organization. And I’m not just talking about the attempts at instituting the United Order. I think that the grand failures there often blinds us to all the other very successful cooperative efforts by Mormons. And not just economic activity (ZCMI, Zion’s Bank) — from Brigham Young’s sending members on art missions to Susa Gates Young and the Young Woman’s Journal, the early history of Mormon narrative art is one of cooperative effort and literary cliques.

In general, the activity of Mormon narrative art tends to follow models found elsewhere (from regional literary journals to indie filmmaking to Christian bookstores and publishers) with varying levels of success. I think that’s fine in terms of creating a certain base level of competency. I also think that there’s room for experimentation with more radical attempts at organization and even types of authoring. How do you accomplish something truly radical middle if your modes of production are not only not cutting edge, but generally behind everybody else? Whether its avant garde or retrograde, I think this is an area where’s there room for some experimentation. I may be completely wrong here. But the unique properties of Mormonism holds out some tantalizing possibilities. One of my first posts to the AML-List many years ago was on the possibility for collaborative writing, and this is an area I’ve continued to explore here at AMV. I don’t have any brilliant solutions, but I do want to keep this as an open topic for discussion.

One other comment here: it may seem flip of me to go off on radical organization, when many of the main radical middle entities are struggling just to reach sustainability. But that’s exactly why this is an important component of the radical middle. Indeed, it seems to me that what’s most healthy in the radical middle right now is a network of individuals who believe in the cause. What is most needed is ways of maximizing the energies and collaborations and output of this network and fostering the development of new voices and talent and incorporating them in to the web of radical middle efforts. I’ve told several of my co-bloggers this, but I will kill off the AMV brand (but not the archives — don’t fear in that regard) if we reach a point where it’s just no fun or not worthwhile anymore and/or there’s a project or projects that fill the same space AMV does, but better. Which is simply to say: it’s about the people and what they create and about the optimal use of resources. It’s not about the sales or the number of unique hits or the media mentions or the awards or the literary respectability. Which is not to say that any of those things are bad, per se. I’m still going to submit to the Irreantum fiction contest and talk about the Whitney Awards here at AMV, etc. etc. But for the middle to truly be radical, it needs to resist inertia and chasing after fleeting approbations.

Radical critique/engagement

As I mention above, the radical challenges the status quo. As Eugene England models in the essay that brought this series of posts about, it engages with and critiques the poles. Theoretically, by virtue of its position in the middle, the radical middle should be well-equipped able to provide informed, radical — as in reformist/energetic/thoroughgoing — criticism of all the surrounding discourses. But it can’t really do so without engagement with those discourses, without some knowledge of them. Otherwise it’s the lazy, inflated rhetoric, the tired tropes and stereotypes that Mormons of all stripes know so well.

In addition, I firmly believe that the radical middle is strongly positioned to not only do what England does and point out the danger on the left and the right of Mormon culture, but also to provide unique, trenchant criticism of American culture (and others as well).

The radical middle

The devil is always in the details (and as England reminds us that B.H. Roberts kicked off Mormon literature with the fact that the Devil must be given his due), and no blog post can accurately capture all the issues and activities and creative works involved in the radical middle, faithful realism, broadly appropriate wing of Mormon art. I also don’t intend for this series of posts to be the only or final word on the radical middle. I do hope, however, that some of you have found this exercise helpful. Again: this is no manifesto. I reserve the right to change my opinion and even distance myself from the term. But for now, I think if any label represents what I am trying to do and what I value in Mormon art, this is it. This radical middle.

15 thoughts on “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical”

  1. William,

    When I think about “the middle” as something possessing its own kind of energy, rather than simply as the disputed (or abandoned) ground between opposing positions, I wind up coming back again to a particular stance in relation to Mormon belief–one that (a) embraces the core LDS worldview, but also (b) seeks to “give the devil his due” by depicting showing the realities of how life can challenge those LDS beliefs and make it hard to live as a Mormon. In short, it’s a realist agenda–one that sees gospel value in showing life the way it is, including the tough parts.

    I’m having a hard time keeping my terms straight here (a problem that isn’t helped by the fact that this discussion cross-pollinates so beautifully with the concurrent discussion on the AML blog).

    The parallel I’ve been driven to more than once in the last couple of months is to those Mormon historians of the Arrington era who believed that a truly faithful history *had* to confront the tough things–because (a) there was no way they could stay hidden, (b) if believing Mormons didn’t confront it then who would?, and (c) at some deep level I think they believed that true history had to be *more* faith-inspiring than simplified or purged history. Obviously, there were faithful members of the Church who disagreed with them. There were also those who *did* believe that a close look at LDS history invalidated the Church’s claims, and who wrote with an agenda of doing precisely that–or at least with a worldview that at heart did not believe in the stories they were telling. The parallels to the various camps in Mormon literature are, I think, evident.

    I should add that I don’t think all the good arguments belong to the Arrington crowd either. There are some good arguments on the other side as well–just as there are arguments for Mormon art that soft-pedals some of the tough things in life. Fortunately, in art at least, we are under no obligation to believe that there must be one “true” artistic style, approach, or movement. One Lord, one faith, one baptism; but not, I hope and trust, one literary style or criticism.

    Which is why I really should *not* be astonished that the potty language in my book has been something so many readers keep mentioning, compared to some other (I would have thought) much more controversial things. The language you let your characters use may be a small thing, but it’s an easily seen indicator for this question of whether a work of art is about showing us the way the world should be or the way the world is. Works of the radical middle, I would argue, believe there is a positive virtue simply in showing us the world.

    And please, don’t consider mothballing AMV yet (unless it simply becomes too exhausting in an all-too-full life). Other venues may have arisen, but so far I think there’s definitely a distinctive space our little blog here occupies, different from anything else out there.

  2. You convinced me, Wm. But go ahead and call it a manifesto. Just term any future thoughts a proclamation.

  3. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Mormon artistic market is smaller, more parochial and more saturated than we want to admit. There’s nothing unusual or “bad” about this. It’s true of most artistic niches (the aesthetic Pareto principle at work). Manga genres that sell in the hundreds of thousands in Japan are lucky to break a thousand in the U.S., and are kept alive mostly by the passion of their devotees.

    But I think instilling in “mainstream” work the theological substance that John Granger finds in Twilight (whether it is there or not), and that Glen Larson really did insert into Battlestar Galactica would be more productive. Rather than trying to figure out how much of the “radical middle” Mormon audiences can tolerate (not much), investigate instead what about it fascinates the “gentile” public at large.

  4. I agree with your diagnosis, but I also have no problem with it. What I’m most interested in providing an environment where radical middle works are created. I don’t care much about reaching a large (or even medium-sized) audience (although I recognize that you do need a bit of an audience in order to do certain projects).

    In terms of aiming for mainstream work that features some theological substance, I like that too, and I think we have some speculative fiction writers who do that quite well. But it’s no my primary interest, and I will note that you run in to the same problem that you do with Mormon audiences — how much they can tolerate (albeit with a different set of issues).

  5. Call it an “incubator.” In any case, my first question would be: “Who is your audience?” And then: “What do you want to say to them and why?” Otherwise the thing risks turning into fan fiction (unless that is the intent) or collapsing into solipsism. But then I believe that the tree falling unheard in the forest doesn’t make a sound. As Mojo recently noted, high-minded research won’t get you anywhere without development. This comes off as reactionary these days, and I didn’t always believe it myself, but seriously marketing an idea demands as much creativity as creating it, and forces the artist to face truths that he’d often rather ignore.

  6. Eugene,

    I agree that the first question should be “Who is your audience?” And I think there’s lots of opportunities out there to try and find ways to “sell” Mormon art (or at least, Mormon-created art) to a general non-Mormon audience. I’m enough of a literary relativist, however, to believe that stories written more specifically to and for a Mormon audience are equally valid, if that’s what you’re trying to write. (As, for instance, was the case with my book.) Hence my dislike of the “incubator” metaphor, which seems to suggest that (a) literature written primarily for a Mormon audience is inherently immature, and (b) the “proper” aim of Mormon artists should be to write to the national market–premises I simply don’t accept.

  7. Jonathan, I assumed William meant “Mormon audience” in his previous comment. I wrote for The New Era for several years and have published two books for the “Mormon audience.” I earn my daily bread working in a tiny niche literary market. I’m not making value judgments about what market is or isn’t “valid” or “proper.”

    Rather, I was responding to William’s statements that “What I’m most interested in providing an environment where radical middle works are created,” and “the radical challenges the status quo,” and “radical suggests experimentation.

    So I suggested an “incubator,” in the venture capital or R&D sense (such as Xerox PARC). Or we can just call them “workshops.” But I’m trying to narrow down what specifically about his proposal would be different from what’s being done now, and whether the cultural critical mass exists that would allow whatever that is to work.

    I have my doubts, but those doubts shouldn’t be read as preempting other efforts, or I’d be preempting myself. In any case, I’m not ready to call Mormon lit. (regardless of the market) baked and done either.

  8. Eugene,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    So if I understand it correctly, you’re saying that in terms of the “radical middle” preparing the way for things that haven’t been done before, you see more promise in the national market than the LDS market, where things are likely to continue with existing categories (but not without valuable new developments). Is that more or less correct?

    (And yeah, I thought it was odd that you’d be — as I saw it — sort-of trashing the domestic Mormon market. However, I thought it was also possible that your experience had been negative enough to make you feel like there’s not much potential there…)

  9. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but I think the Mormon market is constrained to slow, natural growth. I’ve never had anything but modest expectations for my own efforts to date. The only thing that surprised me was that what people got offended at wasn’t what I would have predicted. This suggests that my own literary tastes are just too far out of tune. No real surprise there.

    But that’s nobody’s problem but my own. At least now I know. Better than “Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, / With what I most enjoy contented least.”

    The question then turns to what is the best use of a finite amount of creative energy? Yes, continue to squeeze the sponge. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. But the message I get from Stephenie Meyer’s success is that you can paradoxically have a much bigger effect on Mormon culture by coming from the outside in than the other way around.

    Has the choir perhaps heard enough from the preacher?

  10. As early as Rashomon (1950), Kurosawa’s critical acclaim outside of Japan earned him the suspicions of the intellectual art community inside Japan, who felt that a truly Japanese artist couldn’t possibly be so widely accepted by non-Japanese.

    That attitude has done a 180 in the past fifty years, but unlike Hollywood’s evangelism, there still seems to be more haphazard pull than coordinated push, as if Japanese publishers still aren’t completely convinced that non-Japanese want to consume their popular culture.

    They’re correct that a lot of subtlety gets lost in the process (hence the debates among fans about how “literal” translations should be), but as with Kurosawa, they haven’t always grasped that the message gets through anyway (and there’s that whole exoticism thing too).

    In fact, in some cases, such as Haibane Renmei and Scrapped Princess and even Hellsing, a western audience might get more out of the Christian symbolism than a Japanese audience.

  11. Great series, Wm. You’ve helped catalyze some thoughts I’ve had over the past few months and inspired/facilitated a longer response that I’m working up and plan to post soon. Y’know, just FYI.

    A couple of minor things I noticed in this post re: names (I hate to be a curmudgeon): Isn’t it Susa Young Gates not Susa Gates Young? And didn’t Parley P. Pratt kick off Mormon lit (well, fiction, anyway), not B.H. Roberts? Or are you radically trying to rewrite our literary history? 😉

  12. You are correct, Tyler. I’ll make those corrections when I get a chance. And: thanks!

  13. If collaboration is what you’re looking for, James Patterson takes it to a whole new level: “Patterson now uses [five regular] co-authors for nearly all of his books [each one specializing in a different Patterson series or genre]. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course. This kind of collaboration is second nature to Patterson from his advertising days, and it’s certainly common in other creative industries, including television.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s