Mormon Renaissance

MR Poster.

As promised, I attended Bryan Mark Taylor‘s fireside last night and, as expected, it was great. I’m not sure quite what I expected, but I was especially pleased with his evangelism.Bryan’s goal was not merely to talk about the role of art in Zion (something we all love to talk about), who is doing good work today (something we all love to argue about), or what someone else somewhere else should be producing (something we all do even though it drives us nuts when others do too)—no, his primary goals was to tell those YSAs that they can be the generation that makes Zion happen. Artwise.

I don’t want to say too much about his actual presentation because it was, in some ways, a rough draft. I’ve given him my notes and suggestions, and he intends to polish and tune and better as he redelivers his message again and again in as many places as are interested. I hope those places are many because we need to recruit our artists and let them know we have room for them within the household of faith. Make it so. Send him a missive.

Although I loved the brilliant marshaling of experts (John Adams made a surprise appearance), what I think it most vital of Bryan’s message and what most needs to be spread far and wide is the What Can I Do? portion of his presentation.

He offers six suggestions which I present now with commentary.

Cultivate Taste and Refinement

Can I get a huzzah for education?

But Bryan is specifically interested in us rejecting relativism and being willing to see some work as good and some work as bad. Take a stand and recognize the beautiful when it is before you.

Take the Leap of Faith

Bryan argues that the real barrier to entry is not making a living, but spending the 10,000 hours necessary to become truly good. That’s what’s stopping us from being great. We don’t take the time to become great. Talent doesn’t matter as much as sicktoitiveness. So stick to it.

Speak Out

Specifically Bryan wants us to call out naked emperors when you see them hung on a wall at the MoMA. I would say it should also mean that when you read Death of a Disco Dancer you then force other people to read it too.

Collaborate and Support

We must work together. This can be online (witness what’s happened with Everyday Mormon Writer‘s contests or the work LDStorymakers does) or offline (consider what EMW’s James Goldberg is proposing or the LDStorymakers conference). But my above examples both come from outside. Make your own local group. I belong to two local groups only one and a half of which I started. So start finding people. Make it happen. Grow the community.

Be in the Know

Read AMV, yo.


With your dollars. Buy what you want to flourish.

I could say more. I could talk about Bryan’s formula for sublimity or how he views the relationship between beauty and consolation or his theological grounding (hint: “Creator”), but if you remember one thing from this post, remember one of those What Can I Do?s.

And then do it.

12 thoughts on “Mormon Renaissance”

  1. That leap of faith one is very important whether it means trying to make a career in art or not.

    I’m a pretty good writer. I can construct a good sentence. I can conjure up a striking image. I can convey emotion and action. And I’ve read a lot and written quite a bit. And I’ve read and written about writing fiction. And yet, since making the leap at the beginning of this year, I’ve learned an immense amount about writing fiction. Stuff that I already knew in theory, but had yet to experience in practice.

    It’s a bit amusing and frustrating, really. Just last week I realized: oh, you know, there’s a reason that most short stories (4-6k words) only feature one point of view character. And why you often need to throw away your first scene, even for a short story.

    There’s no substitute for the experience of creation because excellence is in the craft and genius is in the details.

  2. Wow, I wish I’d been there, even though I’m neither young nor single.

    I wish more people understood how truly necessary the 10,000 hours are.

    Ditto William.

  3. .

    Fwiw, Ardis, on the list of links I helped Bryan put together, I told people to visit you for our literary heritage. Every time I visit you I find something I never knew and that seems Very Very Important. Or at least cool.

  4. There will be no “Mormon Renaissance” and it is a pipe-dream that some artsy Mormons like to talk about because it sounds really cool. But really, it is just a “cool” idea that usually goes a long way in winning some degree of reputation for the person predicting it. And that is the extent of it.

    Here is the reasons why it won’t happen:

    A renaissance requires a certain level of agreement within society about what art is supposed to look like, sound like, or read like. That agreement no longer exists. The art world is pluralistic, like much of the rest of society. If we can’t agree on what is being reborn, it ain’t gonna happen.

    The word “renaissance” comes from the Italian Renaissance, which was a cultural anomaly, if it even really happened at all. We have interpreted a series of events that took place over the course of about 150 years in Italy as a “Renaissance.” This interpretation however presupposes that we have a negative view of the art work that came before it. This view is that the art of the Middle Ages was lacking the glories of the art of the Greco-Roman world, which the Italians revived. If you, however, do not share that view about the Middle Ages, your understanding of what the Renaissance was changes dramatically. The traditional view of the Italian Renaissance, unfortunately, is sort of built into Mormon “doctrine.” This is evident by the notion that is perpetuated in some Mormon crowds that the Dark Ages are called dark because they are synonymous with the Great Apostasy (an embarrassing notion which is not supported by history.Ironically, the Great Apostasy also lasted all through the Renaissance, but no one would dare call the Renaissance “dark.”)

    My point is that calling anything a Renaissance requires you to believe that the time period before your Renaissance was lacking something that needed to be reborn. The question Mormon Renaissance Advocates need to answer is not what will be reborn, but what is so bad about what is happening now? Sure, the world’s art can be criticized for its licentiousness, etc. But are you going to tell me that Caravaggio’s Bacchus isn’t licentious? Or that Watteau’s paintings of plump female nudes draped over beds are allegorical pictures about chastity and virtue? What exactly are we reviving from the past and what is so bad about the art work being put out by Mormon artists at the moment?

    Even though I just said they don’t need to ask it, I will ask it anyway to further my point: What DOES need to be reborn exactly? Beauty? What the heck is that? How does it manifest itself? Why do our notions of beauty keep shifting and changing? I wouldn’t dare try to define this concept, let alone hope to jumpstart an artistic style that “revives” it.

    When Mormons start talking about an artistic renaissance (few do, though. Few could probably even tell you what the word means, which is another reason why it probably won’t happen), they are usually talking about paintings that look like Rembrandts and Caravaggios, full of chiaroscuro and dramatic, “Old World” poses. As much as I like this kind of painting, too many mediocre artists who don’t really understand the techniques of glazing and scumbling employed by these masters are trying to imitate this style to the point that it is becoming a caricature of itself.

  5. .

    In my report, I left out everything Bryan talked about that addresses your points, but I’ll make a couple stabs now.

    First, beauty is pretty well defined and pretty consistently defined, at least since the Greeks with their fancy rectangles.

    The Renaissance occurred in large measure because wealth had accumulated to a point that a professional arts community could flourish. Which is not to say that artists could do whatever they want, but there was work enough for them to do. In this sense, a Mormon renaissance could occur right now. We as a people, particularly in America, have accumulated wealth. The option of professional artistry exists. And thanks to the Internet, no matter how far removed we are from each other, the crosspollination necessary in a renaissance can happen.

    The Italian Renaissance had plenty of bad art, but the total output was so large that we have lots and lots of great stuff to remember the era by. Similarly, Mormons are increasing artistic output greatly right now. Why in the world wouldn’t we have a percentage of great work?

  6. The first time I came across the term/idea of a Mormon Renaissance was James Goldberg’s essay in the first issue of Mormon Artist ( ) and that connects the idea of a Mormon Renaissance less with the Italian and more with the Harlem Renaissance. Which I can’t pretend to know very much about. But what I see in it is a moment when a minority/sub-culture stood up on its own right and declared that it was producing culture worthy for all people to see, not just members of that sub-culture. That is the essence of what I see the Mormon Renaissance as. (Perhaps kind of like a cultural version of “the Mormon Moment”?) I don’t think anyone is really using the Italian Renaissance as a literal roadmap to the Mormon Renaissance…?

    Also, “what is so bad about what is happening now?”
    -Sunset in Arcadia. >_>
    I see the Italian Renaissance as a kind of a maturing in the traditions of fine art. There is a difference in the visual language and the aesthetic and just pure technique of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that I view as a growing up. Now I’m with you, John, in not thinking that the Renaissance is necessarily superior to the Middle Ages (I actually really like the Middle Ages, the aesthetics, the lack of an individual genius etc…) but visually there was a change. And I would like to see a similar change/maturing happen in the visual language/aesthetics of the Church. All those shiny clean Jesuses on beaches or surrounded by marble when the sun is setting… I don’t have anything against it as such, but it’s a very easy aesthetic, the kind that appeals to children. It is to art what Nephi Anderson is to Mormon lit. Important but… I think we could do better. And more. (I’m not even going to go into the sunset in Arcadia being a very North American visual language that doesn’t necessarily work in a global international Church, that’s a whole nudder kettle of fish…)

  7. Inari,

    Funny, I was thinking about the Harlem Renaissance in relation to a Mormon Renaissance just a few days ago. I think you have a point there. That puts it into terms that I think are more accurate.

    The first time I came across the idea was when I thought of it myself fresh off my mission in 1996 (not that I am taking credit for it). I do think many Mormon artists were and have been thinking about it. I think the idea is “in ther ether.”

    Later, I stumbled upon a talk by Packer from 1977 in which he suggests such a revival is coming. Then Kimball said the same thing a few years later.

    I am very skeptical though about Mormons and art. There are no doubt gifted artists amongst us, but I do not think we really have the audience, unless, as you say, we all paint pictures of Jesus on the beach, or as I like to describe it: Jesus playing with songbirds in gardens. I grew up in Appalachia, spent most of my life there. Now I teach art at a community college on the Great Plains. People, even (especially) members of the Church, simply do not care about art.

    I have theories.

    I am a painter, albeit one slowly trying to pick myself back up from a mental breakdown a few years ago. So I am just now beginning to develop a rhythm in the studio again. I am isolated out here on the prairie. I’d love more interaction and involvement with other LDS artists. I mean LDS artists who are really interested in contemporary painting and how it can be adapted to express our unique world view as Mormons.

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