Among those I have ongoing conversations with regarding the Mormon arts, my most local and face-to-face conversation partner is painter Bryan Mark Taylor. (Incidentally, his latest show is opening next month in Sacramento. Check it out.)
He recently asked me a series of questions via email and I wrote back with answers I was pleased with but weren’t really very good answers, if you know what I mean. So he responded with this:
I may not have been asking the right questions…do you have any ideas on the questions we should be asking ourselves?
Which is one of the best darn questions I’ve ever been asked. And it’s way too big of a question for me to answer alone. So let’s crowdsource this baby.
What are the questions we in the Mormon arts should be asking ourselves?
23 thoughts on “What questions should we be asking ourselves?”
-How and why does living the gospel make us happy? (and what does it mean to be happy?)
-If families are forever why are so many families so screwed up? How can we screw up in the right ways? (to expand on that: the common mid-to-late-20th century literary fiction trope of “there’s darkness in the suburbs” seems to me to be a rather boring observation. What can we say that goes beyond that?)
-Why is agency so important?
-What’s the appropriate/effective/interesting response for a person of faith in relation to the -isms of men (capitalism, socialism, consumerism, libertarianism, etc.)?
– Why is the body so important? What is it about embodiment that is necessary for this probationary state?
-Why are miracles and (true) epiphanies (aka spiritual moments) so variable, ephemeral and (often) of limited effect? How do they operate in our lives?
-What can be bring to text, subtext and context that only we (as Mormon artists) can bring?
I love all of those questions. I’ll add:
Are the workings of creativity similar to/the same as the workings of grace? If so, in what ways does grace operate and in what ways does creativity operate?
How are artists and the arts instruments of grace? Ought artists and the arts to be instruments of healing the world? If at all, how can that be accomplished?
What does our individual aesthetic say about our ethics, morals, politics? Should our aesthetic and ethic match? Why or why not?
Instruments of grace. I like that. I don’t have an answer, but the formulation intrigues me.
Hmmm. . .do you mean questions that we as creators of artistic works should be asking ourselves or do you mean what questions/dilemmas should our work be dealing with? I think Liz’s questions reflect the first part and Wm’s the second.
The only question I’m asking in relation to myself and the arts (these days) is how can I get all the meta chatter in my brain to shut off long off to do the making of the art. How can I just let the writing do what it needs to do?
I use music and a stopwatch, Laura.
Good plan, Wm 🙂 I use music. . . and screaming kids are kind of like a stopwatch, right?
Great questions. I will add, off the top of my head:
-What’s the role of intergenerational relationships and traditions in a society that favors immediacy?
-What conflicting assumptions lie at the root of our communities’ recurring debates? How can one speak about or to those assumptions?
-What does the best(in the sense of good and solid) person you know need literature for? What makes reading potentially worth time they could use to serve or sleep?
-What is it about your prospective readers you love enough to sacrifice your own time to write for them? Why are they worth it to you?
-What might your ideal reader get from you? Why are you worth it to them?
-What does your personal dystopia really look like? (Not that you ought to write about it–but shouldn’t you know what sort of possible world most devastates you?)
-What’s the most interesting Mormon story you’re ever heard? The most moving? The most surprising? The most difficult? Etc…
-What do you like about the work of your five favorite living Mormon writers? What about your five favorite dead ones?
-That couple on the pew two rows behind you. What piece of Mormon Lit might mean something to them?
-What does discipleship really mean to five different people you know?
Screaming kids is why the music needs to go into the brain via headphones. ;-P
This is just what I’ve been thinking about a lot:
Who is our intended audience?
“Are the workings of creativity similar to/the same as the workings of grace? If so, in what ways does grace operate and in what ways does creativity operate?”
this kind of leads me to another thought…
how does the spirit operate in our creativity? And what does that do for subject matter, characters and plot? We delve into dark places in order to write real stories. Do we go in with or without the Spirit? And how do we know the difference…
Fwiw, here are the questions Bryan originally sent me:
And my suggestions:
I’ve been thinking about this for a little while, and, after four years of being in some weird gray area between profane and sacred, with varied reception from the LDS community, I have to ask:
1. Why do we care?
2. If we are making art, who is the first consideration?
3. If the story that must be told is the first consideration, how does it not get written?
4. If the reader is the first consideration, then what motive do you have to go on?
I don’t actually understand what anybody’s questions mean, except for Bryan’s-via-Theric, which may not be surprising to anybody. And so I’m going to attempt to answer those (yes, I know this is not a Q&A session, just a Q session):
A window into our world, which is rich and ripe for mining. The problem is, nobody outside our world really cares and most of the people inside our world don’t really care, either.
Y’all know who Chaim Potok is, but do you know who William Saroyan is? Have you read him? Why would you care about the culture he writes about unless somebody specifically said, “Hey, you have to read Saroyan.” (Which was how I found him.)
Because this is not a productive use of time. We love the “best books” and films and such, but let the gentiles make those because our time is more valuable doing practical things.
The making of art–unless you can support a family on it and tend to your callings–is frivolous.
A good PR firm.
Well, you know, if your purpose in wearing yourself out for your art is purely for your own self-fulfillment, then you’re being selfish.
We don’t fear the apostasy of an artist. We fear the apostasy one artist can effect over many people. A dentist isn’t going to poison the well that much. An artist, however, runs the risk of becoming popular, which will then influence many other people. It’s a probabilities issue.
Neither. Artists are feared.
Stop being afraid of what the community will think of you.
None, if the artist is obliged to make art. Likewise, the community owes nothing to the artist. Not even continued inclusion and approval.
ZERO. Paintings not approved by the church are not hung in the buildings. Music that is not out of the hymnal is not approved in Sacrament Meeting (although that probably varies from stake to stake). My current bishop doesn’t do this, but my last one did: If you were assigned a talk, you were given a conference talk to speak on and specific sections you should give emphasis to. In the Relief Society, there is a list of approved topics in the back of each lesson that had to be followed religiously (heh). No creative lessons allowed.
You tell the true story, warts and all, and be true to the characters. None of this halfway business that leaves the story weak and the characters looking foolish.
Because the question isn’t “What the heck are we doing?”
The question is: “How do we get people to know we exist and buy our stuff?”
/raining on everybody’s parade
Do I sound bitter? I might. I don’t mean to. I really just think all the questions and all the solutions boil down to marketing. Because it IS possible that we’re all getting it right, but nobody knows we exist.
Not bitter. I like.
And I think your answers are wise, but by no means absolute 🙂 I feel like I agree with almost all of them, though, so we must have similar ideals.
Shhh! Don’t tell people that!
“Why do we fear the apostasy of an artist more than the apostasy of a dentist? Are we treating artists as more exceptional and thus a greater loss? or more fragile and thus a greater failure of the community?
How do we create art for the community without engaging in priestcraft?”
I also love this:
“We don’t fear the apostasy of an artist. We fear the apostasy one artist can effect over many people. A dentist isn’t going to poison the well that much. An artist, however, runs the risk of becoming popular, which will then influence many other people. It’s a probabilities issue.”
These are all great questions.
I read this yesterday, and it’s very much on my mind:
Click to access 101-32-40.pdf
Vis-a-vis that, I ask myself:
What is my role as a woman artist?
Since there is no way to make up for the lack of women’s voices throughout the centuries, how can I at least ensure that my voice is heard (read) now?
As the primary caregiver to many children, how can I better incorporate my creative life into my caregiving life?
Why are there two sexes, anyway?
And how can the differences between the two bless our lives instead of causing strife? (I mean in a cultural context, not within a marriage.)
Why does Eve never speak after the Fall? (In the temple, not in Moses 5)
Will my Mother’s face be ever veiled from me?
I would ask:
Are we making a difference? If not, why are we artists? Maybe we should change professions.
If art is not our profession…maybe we should ask ourselves are we artists or art hobbyists? How can I best serve the cause of art in my individual role?
I would ask:
Where is our Florence?
Where is our Rome?
Do we beautify our cities, our houses, our streets as they did then?
Where are the marble statues? Where are the painted ceilings? Are these marvels never to be repeated? Is it not our destiny to create even more beautiful works?
Do we teach our children the value of beauty?
Do we teach them the monetary value of it?
Do we even know it ourselves?
Where is our renaissance?
Where are our Michelangelos? Do they not exist…or have we simply not found them? Have we betrayed them by not finding them? If we found them…do we have anyone that can teach them? Are our teachers worthy to teach such powerful skills to such sensitive souls? How would such endeavors be funded? How much would it cost?
Do we truly sacrifice to create artistic communities as artists did in the renaissance? Or do we let ourselves fizzle and die far away from each other?
Does our pride blind us to think we are competitors…or does our humility unite us and brothers and sisters in a great cause?
If Zion is destined to lead in all things…then it appears to me that the artists of Zion need to evaluate how well they are doing at this, identify that which will most benefit the cause, and then do it.
These are a few things on my mind.
I’ve enjoyed reading all the insightful comments. Thanks to Eric for starting the conversation.
In today’s art market being controversial is often a key part of “great” or “serious” art. A question I would like to add: Are Mormon artists afraid of being controversial? (I don’t necessarily mean to say controversy with the general membership of the church or church hierarchy but with the secular world view?)
My questions currently revolve around multiculturalism:
-How can we learn to look at the Mormon subculture as equal and valuable among other minority cultures?
-What can we learn from the way other minority cultures interact with mainstream culture? (For example, gay culture, black culture, Jewish culture, native cultures…)
-How can we help “Gentiles” see the inherent value of Mormon culture as another minority subculture?
-How do we define ourselves? (Or rather: How do I define myself? This is what my current creative practice is about…)
-What is our standard?
-What are the practical hurdles between our work and the member-audience (the people in our wards).
All excellent questions, Inari. The interesting but also maddening thing about Mormonism (especially the North American version) is that it is similar to other minority cultures but in a way that doesn’t fully map over with all of or any of them.