Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.
I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist. To begin: two (necessarily) reductive histories of cultural currents — one of the Church and the other of Western aesthetics.
PART I: THE LDS CHURCH
The restorationist era of the Church obviously begins with Joseph Smith. I think we can acknowledge that much of the thinking that goes into Joseph’s restorationist project was to be found elsewhere in the world while still believing that divine revelation was involved. We don’t believe in creation ex nihilo — why should we believe in it when it comes to metaphysics? In addition, if the Restoration as an idea was going to get any purchase at all, it would need to be different enough to be compelling but not so alien as to be incomprehensible. And, of course, it would need to happen in stages, in continuing revelation. Restoration brings with it the sense of something new that was old. A refreshing. A renewal. All the best from the past and the present and whatever our prophet can see of the future.
Joseph the Prophet was in dialogue with scripture, with angels, with himself, and with the socio-cultural, economic and political structures of his day. I think we sometimes forget that prophets across all three of Mormonism’s ancient scriptures were always in direct or indirect communication with the politically powerful of their place and time (with varying degrees of harshness and to varying degrees of success).
Because of that, a restoration is — from a metaphysical and cultural perspective — never going to be pure. It has to build upon/react against/transform the cultural materials of the people it’s trying to convert. It’s going to be alloyed with other modes of human thought.
Joseph’s Restoration was no different. It’s why (along with the fact of: people are not perfect) it’s messy all the way through.
And yet there’s this fact: the Restoration ultimately was alien enough, discomfiting enough that the Saints were kicked out of Western civilization, driven West and left (but not for long) to create their own civilization. The Restoration becomes a separation. A Zion in the West. A kingdom high on the mountain tops. A utopian project (complete with attempts at living with all things in common).
We valorize the faith and long-suffering of the pioneer Saints. We don’t engage enough with the radicalness of their project. The project ultimately fails. But from a cultural perspective, the drive of the Saints under both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to create something new — a new doctrine, a new people, a new city, a new culture — was a glorious thing.
It didn’t take long for the U.S. to catch up with the Saints and to start making demands. In fact, it began while the pioneers were still on the trail with the that whole Mormon Battalion thing. It culminated in 1887 with the passing of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the Church and its unsuccessful appeal in 1890 before the United States Supreme Court and the subsequent Manifesto issued by Wilfred Woodruff disavowing the practice of polygamy. But it wasn’t just about the practice of polygamy — it was also about how far the Mormons were willing to accommodate themselves to American society. Were they going to play along or were they going to go underground or engage in yet another Exodus? Economically, the battle had long been over. Culturally, the Saints were trying their best, but they just hadn’t had enough of time on their own. The fight now was how to be part of the country that had kicked them out while still maintaining their uniqueness. How to be in but not of the world. Sectors of the Church, including its leaders, would try to fight against various accommodations (cultural, economic, political), but, in the end, the Saints usually chose the route that brought them in line with the broader American culture. This is not a bad thing. It ensured the survival of the Church. It made it possible for the Saints to engage with American society. It was inevitable. But as with most accommodations, it was decidedly a mixed blessing.
Although assimilation had been happening in the early part of the 20th century (especially among the members who left the Church and moved to the coasts), the process accelerated after WWII with the Saints taking full advantage of the post-war era to out-migrate from the intermountain West and enroll in college, enter government service, seek employment with large corporations, attend professional schools, etc. With polygamy long behind it, the Church and its members were well-suited to become model minorities — they were hardworking, honest, nice, family-oriented, patriotic folk. This is not to diminish the difficulties and even prejudice Mormons faced during this process, but of all the ethnicities/populations that were seen as threats to American civilization in the 19th century, the Mormons had the easiest path to acceptability.
To be sure, the assimilation was easier on an individual level than it was for the Church as an organization. And experiences varied widely depending on region and circumstance. And just as the Church thought it had become closely aligned with American values, the 1960s came along and messed things up. But overall the accommodations our ancestors made have paid off for all of us post-WWII American Mormons.
It was an important, necessary process. Without the Church would have been unable to fund and staff the massive international expansion that occurred starting the 1960s. And, of course, it has been and still is an uneasy process. But maybe not uneasy enough, especially since so many American Mormons seem to so easily inhabit their social, political and cultural identities — some fully enough that they demand that Mormonism accommodate those identities.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Church and its members have always (as in: since Enoch) been in tension with broader society. It’s hard to live in tension. Thus: assimilation. It just makes things easier in day-to-day life for us to be on the same page as [insert your favorite socio-cultural-political ideology/group here]. The artist, though, isn’t here to make things easier. Not that the artist isn’t immune to the processes of assimilation. We definitely aren’t. But, as I mention above, I find myself squirming around quite a bit.
ASSIMILATION AND THE MORMON ARTIST
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t routes of assimilation for the Mormon artist.
One can choose to embrace the living of Mormonism and shut off the open expression of it in your work in order to reach a broader audience. That is a perfectly valid approach and mostly a necessary one for artists who need to make a living off of their art.
One can choose to consign one’s Mormonism to a quirky cultural background and use it as material for the production of art that is acceptable to the dominant culture. This almost always (always always?) requires disaffiliation from the LDS Church. The artists who take that route often have already become alienated from the Church anyway.
One can choose to produce art specifically for the mainstream American Mormon audience. Feeding that audience can be an important calling for some. But it’s sidestepping the tension that our history has led us to.
I’d like to be able to say that there’s a valid middle way among those approaches, where one speaks to both the broader culture and Mormons and openly addresses Mormonism in one’s art but without proclaiming disaffiliation and without seeking to be acceptable. So far it hasn’t proven to be a very viable approach (in terms of size of income and audience).
And that’s my point: this is the price of assimilation. It’s not just Mormons who pay it. This is what it means to be a minority culture.
And yet, as I wrote in my previous post: “I’m looking for Zion moments, Zion movements, Zion people, Zion artists.“
So what does all the history I’ve made you read through mean for the Zion-minded artist? I’ll get there. But next, now that we have a sense of our relationship with our own history, we need to understand what we’re reckoning with on an aesthetic level.