I generally believe in big tent Mormon culture (how that relates to the LDS Church is complicated and outside the scope of this post, but you can find hints of it in many of my other writing over the years). To me being part of the radical middle includes being willing to engage with work by artists who are no longer Mormon, or never were Mormon but are writing about Mormons. I’m also interested in Mormon artists who don’t actively engage with their Mormonism in their work. I’m a homer like that.
But I’m most interested in active LDS artists who are focused on settings, characters and/or thematics that are overtly or strongly thematically Mormon.
Let me be clear: I do not think there should be a litmus test on membership. And I respect the decision of artists who wish to remain quiet about their status in relation to the LDS Church (and acknowledge that there could be many reasons for that quiet). But my interest level goes up when an artist signals (publicly or privately) that they are actively engaged with their local congregation, actively working under assumptions of belief, and are struggling with the demands of consecration.
Why is this?
In part, it’s selfishness on my part. I know what I struggle with and delight in, and I want to feel like there are others like me out there in the world. I’m curious about how artists navigate the strange pathways of being an active LDS artist who engages with Mormon elements. I’m not a big believer in Mormon exceptionalism or, for that matter, artists’ exceptionalism. At the same time, I feel like it’s a unique experience that shares similarities with all the ongoing issues related to artists, faith communities, etc., but has some particularities that aren’t found in quite the same alloy elsewhere. That interests me.
But there’s another part: I feel like I know the narratives, preoccupations, arcs of the artists who leave their community to embrace the dominant modes of modern artistic discourse, who “go cosmopolitan”. I also know the paths of the parochial Saint who either stays in the mode that is pleasing to the Mormon market or goes national/international by downplaying their Mormonism. Again: I have and will continue to engage with all of those types of artists. But I’m also losing patience with them. They engage but don’t satisfy. And while they don’t always quite get it right (for me — responses to art are subjective), there’s nothing more satisfying than an artist who has craft, belief, humility and brings that all to bear on work that’s directly engaged with Mormonism. There’s new ground to be explored here. New things to discover.
And finally there’s this — and the more I’m engaged in this, the more it becomes the big reason: I’m interested in building Zion. I’m interested in building Zion in cooperation with the LDS Church and all those who are willing to live in covenant. I recognize the potential (and historical and present) pitfalls and tensions and failings. I recognize where I fall short in so many ways as well as where giving up on that would make some things a lot easier and my art maybe even “better” (or more acceptable). I also recognize where my/our potential audience falls short.
And yet given all that: I don’t care. I’m past feeling self-conscious about all that. I’m looking for Zion moments, Zion movements, Zion people, Zion artists. Where are the artists who are trying to hone their devotion and their craft and their service and their vision and their Mormonism into something that they can place on the altar, into something that will build Zion? I think they’re fascinating. And I want to be among them.