Artists of the Restoration Part II: Stuck in Romanticism

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.

I began with a reductive history of the LDS Church. Now I do the same to Western culture.




Previous and then parallel to the Restoration/Separation and Accommodation/Assimilation history of the Church runs a different process: the aesthetic response of artist to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Romanticism and its offspring modernism and postmodernism (more on them later) are the only dominant aesthetic discourses that Mormons have ever known. To understand them is to understand how the particulars of Mormon art play out.

Thousands of pages have been written on Romanticism so this is going to be an incredibly reductive summary, but the narrative goes something like this:

Romanticism was the first major Western aesthetic reaction to the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment and to the fears of industrialization that accompanied it. It places a primacy on intense feeling, nature as a way to arouse emotion, individualism, and the “heroic” or “genius” artist. It sought to elevate the human spirit. It found inspiration in folk materials. And it made common cause with democratic and (later) nationalist political projects. It was both Christian and pagan, and it was embraced by an emerging middle class, who, now cut off from the old structures and beliefs, turned inward. It began in the late 18th century and really took off in the early decades of the 19th century. Right around the time of the Restoration. Goethe, Wordsworth, Byron, Mozart, Balzac, Delacroix and many more of the great names of Western Art were Romanticists. Yes, there are varying, sometimes conflicting schools of thought and styles of literature, music and art that fit under the umbrella. But I think it’s still a useful term to describe the works art and narratives about artists that were part of the post-Enlightenment conversation.

And it’s important to acknowledge because the seeds of all of the major popular genres in literature (and other narrative arts, esp. film), music and visual arts are established in the Romantic era, especially the novel. In the late 19th century, Realism tried to correct the faults of Romanticism, but it didn’t so much change the aesthetic discourse as by reacting against it get swallowed up in it and thus enlarge the overall Romantic project.

Romanticism seems to be hopelessly entangled with industrialization and capitalism and consumerism and nationalism and even though Modernism tried to change that, because we’re still entangled in those same socio-economic -isms, Romanticism hasn’t been consigned to the dustbin of history. Western culture is still, for the most part, stuck in Romanticism.


Mormon culture was born in Romanticism and by the time it had developed enough to create major cultural activity, it was to Romanticism that Mormons turned for aesthetic inspiration. Orson F. Whitney, our first great Mormon cultural critic, was a necromantic to an almost comical degree. An admirer of Byron and the other Romantic poets, Whitney saw Joseph Smith as a Romantic poet — but one with restored truth. In his work, Whitney equates the Holy Ghost with romantic inspiration, claims that prophets are poets, praises the creation of sentiment (feeling), and engages with emotional impact of nature (the name of this blog comes from one of those works). More importantly, his call for home literature with its emphasis on folk materials and native genius mirrors the other belated nationalist literatures that self-consciously developed in the late 19th century, all of which looked to neoRomanticism as the aesthetic model for validation in the eyes of the world (all one had to do is prove that one’s culture could produce a male literary genius [a Shakespeare or a Milton]). Home literature, then, is a Romantic project and inasmuch as it forms the backbone of Mormon-American culture, to be aware of oneself as a Mormon in cultural terms is to participate in Romanticism.

It’s not just home literature that proves that Mormonism is steeped in Romanticism. Most of the output of Mormon fiction writers that isn’t home literature is instead commercial genre fiction, which repeats the novelistic forms of Romanticism (horror, mystery, romance, fantasy, western, SF [utopian/dystopian] — all the commercial categories) over and over. This sounds negative. It is, and it isn’t. I quite enjoy, and even have had profound experiences, with this type of work by Mormon writers and artists. It’s also understandable. It’s what the American public, what the market wants.

The ease with which our writers slide into producing it and the facility with which they do so concerns me. It also makes me proud. If we’re caught in Romanticism then at least we can be successful at it.

And we are — it goes back to that whole Assimilation thing.

Which is exactly why I’m also suspicious of it even as I’m not sure there’s any way out of it. Artists in the late 19th and early 20th century did think there was a way out. That will be the subject of the next post in this series: Modernism/Postmodernism.

3 thoughts on “Artists of the Restoration Part II: Stuck in Romanticism”

  1. I’m enjoying the parallel timelines. I wonder if our dominant culture will ever escape Romanticism. It’s all about the individual and the individual’s right to achieve his or her dream, no matter the cost. Mormonism, on the other hand, teaches that the individual intelligence and his or her temporal and spiritual aspirations are important, but if we pay attention, we will also see that we cannot achieve our celestial dreams without lifting others up with us. A Zion mentality. We all save each other in a way.

    Are you looking for heroes who are more community minded instead of those trying to rebel against what the community stands for? What if the World gets so bad that the rebellion lies in the power of characters who, though not perfect, strive to choose the right and keep the commandments?

    Your thoughts along these lines are really making me think, Wm.

  2. Hm. Much harder to comment on this post. But I do have a couple of thoughts. (Was there really any hope that I wouldn’t?)

    Historically, I think we see that any cultural movement tends to continue living on long after the “new era” has begun, though for those thinking in historical terms, it’s largely occluded. We’ve long since acknowledged, for example, that there are still “home literature” and “lost generation” writers among Mormonism today. Even so — and despite the clear affinities of Mormonism with Romanticism, both culturally and intellectually/esthetically — I see an awful lot of affinities as well for the preceding neoclassical/Enlightenment values, which I suspect continued to hold power among a dominant a majority of the public long after the Romantic poets and artists had hailed the coming of the new era (just as, for example, many more readers today partake of the essentially “Romantic” genres of sf&f, romance, the detective novel, etc., than read and enjoy postmodern literature).

    So to say that Mormonism has only known Romanticism and its would-be successors is, I would concede, accurate in a sense, but also incomplete. I suspect a lot more early Mormons were familiar with Benjamin Franklin than with Wlliam Blake. For that matter, neither Milton nor Shakespeare were Romantics, no matter how much the Romantics (including Orson F. Whitney) might have wanted to read them as such. And up until at least 1950, not a one of them could hold a candle to the Bible as a literary influence. I can’t believe that Romanticism was so powerful as a worldview that it was able to complete prevent texts from the past from speaking to readers to some extent in their own voices.

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