Artists of the Restoration part IV: Restorationist Manifesto

This series spun out of a post that I wrote that expressed a desire to build Zion through creative effort. Previously, I wrote about Mormon history and then situated that and Mormon cultural activity within the core Western aesthetic streams of Romanticism and Modernism/Postmodernism. I put you through all of that because I wanted to lay the proper groundwork for a manifesto (of sorts) that outlines a set of practices or set of elements or layers that I think will help Mormon artists situate themselves as Restorationist. I don’t suggest any specific aesthetic techniques or socio-political stances. I can’t help you escape Romanticism, Modernism or Postmodernism (although I may write about that more later). There is no Zion apart for us to flock to in order to escape assimilation. For Mormon artists, what we have is our personal activities and relationships and the community and rituals and ordinances of the modern LDS Church.   

Please note that the following is specifically for those who consider themselves active LDS. And it’s simply my opinion. But I hope that it’s a way of thinking that other Mormon artists will find useful.

RESTORATION

This is tautologically obvious but: a belief in and a desire to be part of the ongoing Restoration that Joseph Smith brought forth must form the core of any artist who wishes to be part of it. I’ll take that a step further: belief is the core, but in order for it to truly be operative there needs to be a healthy obsession, a deep curiosity, an active engagement with all of the doctrines, scriptures and narratives that make up the Restoration, which offers us a particular, peculiar way of viewing Christianity, life and the world.

It also provides us with a sense of self, a vision of who we are and who we can potentially become. It changes how we view our relationship to our loved ones, our friends and the rest of humanity. It is an engine of inquiry and understanding. An unfolding of wisdom and love and light. A multifaceted, living, humbling thing. It’s the foundation, the interface, the continuing revelation.  It’s an exciting tradition within which to work, but it’s much more than just a tradition. It’s a Restoration of things forgotten, hidden and yet to be revealed; of previous successes and failures and perplexities; of theory, principle and doctrine.

DEVOTION

I firmly believe that artists need to live lives of devotion to things outside the practice of art. For Mormon artists that means engaging in the regular devotions of prayer, scripture study, church and temple attendance, etc. But it also means being devoted to the cultivation of your familial, congregational and community relationships. Devotion is important for everyone, but it’s especially helpful in providing artists with a source of creative power. Acts of devotion fill the well artistic inspiration. And the core relationships — with God, with a spouse and/or other family members, with those you serve (and serve with) — act as important touchstones. They keep artists grounded and mindful of the agency of others. They add humanity to one’s art. Most importantly they engender love and patience and empathy which then powers progression.

CONSECRATION

There are many reasons to create art: fortune, fame, personal expression, to please others, to entertain yourself, to build cultural capital, to find like-minded individuals.

Consecration begins with the recognition that all of your talents belong to God. You place them on the altar. It continues with the awareness that everything you do is connected to that act of humility. Other things (fortune, fame, etc.) may become part of the mix, but they are at best appendages and at worst distractions to the core relationship between the artist, their talents and God.

I don’t know that God wants each work we create to directly and obviously build his kingdom here on Earth. He knows we need to make a living. He knows we need to have recreation and amusement. He knows we are still learning and are clumsy in the way we express ourselves through art.

I think, though, that he expects us to check in with him: seek inspiration and be willing, if inspired, to use our talents in specific ways or move our efforts in a specific direction.   

A couple of years ago I made the suggestion that all Mormon artists tithe a portion of their creative effort in the service of producing work that is specifically for a Mormon audience. Emily Harris Adams and others in the comments suggested that a better approach would be to think in terms of consecration. I agree, but I still like the notion of a tithe because it’s concrete and measurable. It can cause you to step back and consider: “what have I specifically done for my people/for his work lately?”

Of course, even if you specifically tithe your creative work, that doesn’t replace the real commitment for artists of the Restoration: consecration. The work of creativity can be intoxicating and consuming. Consecration reminds us that there’s a commitment that underpins our creative activities and the talents that drive them.

EDUCATION

Craft is important (more on that below), but craft needs material to work with. In particular, artists of the Restoration need fluency in both our native materials (Mormonism) and what’s to be found in the rest of the world. Naive art is only effective in small doses to particular audiences.

I’m not talking only about formal education. In fact, I wouldn’t necessarily directly link formal education to your creative passions (aka an MFA program or the like). I think what’s most important is to have an active, deep curiosity about the world — about people, communities, nations, discourses, structures (political, economic, social, cultural) and movements (progressive and reactionary); about the natural world and the engineered world; about history in general and the history of your art forms/genres and the cultural movements they have been part of.

Education also involves developing fluency in the work in your field and awareness of what’s already been done and how it was received. In fact, while there are no short cuts, one way to produce interesting creative work is to know the field fairly well so you can enter into the conversation at a higher level but also to have some in-depth, particular study of a subject or group of subjects, which allows you to bring in unique, interesting frameworks, narratives and details that add specificity and uniqueness to the materials you bring in to your artistic mode/genre of choice.

It’s particularly important when embarking on creating overtly Mormon art because there are a set of tropes that have already arisen and often risk being repeated. One of things that frustrates me (and I’m guilty of this myself) is that too often we Mormon artists plumb the same set of situations and experiences and modes of Mormon thought. I’m not just talking about late-20th-century/early-21st missionary narratives, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind. There’s a lot more to Mormon history and thought that what we see portrayed in Mormon art. Many fields that are white and ready to harvest if only we will seek them out.

AVOCATION/VOCATION

Whether to make art an avocation or a vocation is a tricky question with many variables. If you are able to make it a vocation, you’ll have more time to create. But you may likely also be more exposed to market, audience and professional forces that will restrict your ability to overtly center your art in the Restoration. That trade-off may be worth it. It may even be something that you are called to do. There are some artistic disciplines where vocation may be nearly impossible and others where it’s absolutely necessary in order to produce work.

Whatever route you take, the difficulties inherent in finding your way through the right balance of art as avocation or vocation (and it for most of us it is a sliding scale rather than an either/or — in fact, it’s very rare for it to be 100 percent one or the other) make it all the more important that you directly engage with the other categories in this list. This is especially true because this is the category in which you’ll end up spending much of your time.

It can be tempting, or even seemingly necessary and justifiable, to pour all of your artistic energy strictly into vocational work, that is work that will sell but is devoid of any Restorationist attributes. It can be tempting and easily justifiable to focus on a non-artistic vocation so that you can provide for you and your family and end up in a situation where you have little or no time to make an avocation of your artistic talents. It can be tempting to set aside art for another season of your life or to let other important obligations crowd it out. It can be tempting to focus on your art at the expense of other important obligations. It can be tempting to produce art without situating it within the disciplines I describe above and below because all you feel you have time for is the act of creating art itself.

It’s difficult to find a balance. It requires planning, sacrifice, discipline, a supportive family situation and financial resources. It requires constant tinkering and adaptability. It’s a constant battle on a field that has a way of shifting the terrain when you least expect it.

There are too many variables for me to make any specific recommendations. I will say this, though: if you’re serious about being an artist of the Restoration, chances are very high that you’ll need to make financial and/or material comfort sacrifices. That can be as minor as having a more unkempt house and yard than you’d like. But it can also mean things like never owning a home or being able to take a vacation or both spouses needing to work or taking a job that provides less income but more free time. Only you (and whoever you owe obligations to like a spouse and children) can decide which sacrifices are warranted. And you will likely never feel fully comfortable with the decisions you make. Such is the life of an artist.      

MEDITATION

If you are going to create art that is meaningfully participating in the Restoration, you need to be thinking about life, the gospel, art. Meditation doesn’t need to be any specific practice. What works for some may not work for others. What matters is that artists take time to reflect upon the themes, subjects, narratives, materials, life experiences that they are using/intend to use in artistic creation and how those fit within the Restoration. Meditation is the means by which you process your education — all those things you’ve put into your head — into a unique, personal worldview and set of preoccupations and motifs and themes that form a mindspace from which to create powerful art. It allows the artist to be intentional (but not rigid), thoughtful (but not overly cerebral), and personal (but not self-indulgent).

There may be some artists who arise perfectly sui generis, who can create things of beauty and wonder by instinct. Chances are very good that you are not one of them. Put in the mind work. Study things out. This is the pattern for receiving inspiration.

AFFILIATION

By affiliation I mean those groups (formally organized or not) that you identify with and spend your time and energy on. This could be a vague sense that you want to be an artist who identifies as Mormon. It could be affiliation with a particular writing group or school of artists or loose coterie of industry professionals. It could be affiliation with fan groups, political parties, academic institutions, brands, nonprofit organizations, social media platforms, gaming communities, sports teams, hobbies, etc.

Affiliation is important. Without it, you’ll never be to reach an audience. You’ll lack in the kind of conversation that helps spark creativity. You’ll be too narrow in your interests and exposure to the world. Artists need community.    

Affiliation is also dangerous. It can confine or narrow your thinking. It can distract from more important work. It can sap your emotional energy. It can be addictive. It can eat away at the disciplined habits and important ties and relationships found in the previous categories. It can cause you to wrongly judge those who don’t share or are actively opposed to what you affiliate with. It can cause you to wrongly trust those who you are affiliated with.

This is a tricky thing to navigate. Once again this is not an area where I can provide hard and fast rules, but I do think it’s a good idea to audit your affiliations every so often and evaluate whether or not they’re interfering too much with the other categories in this list. Because the bottom line is: your affiliations should be adding to your ability to create the kind of art that you are looking to create.

DEVOTION

The internet is awash in people telling artists that they need to put the work in and improve their craft. 10,000 hours. Put your butt in the seat and hands on the keyboard. Show up and work every day. That’s all true. Craft is incredibly important and, frankly, something that Mormon culture has not always put as much of a priority on as we should. It’s too often been enough that the book or movie or piece of art was by a Mormon artist and/or was LDS in content.

But craft will only get you so far. Craft is always in service of something. And putting in the work won’t make you better if it’s not the right kind of work. Prodigious output only means that you’ve made a lot of stuff. Heck, some of the greatest artists didn’t produce a huge amount of work.

So you need to be devoted to your craft, but you also need to yoke that to intentional learning and fidelity to an artistic vision — it needs to come out of fertile ground (this gets back to why education and meditation are both so important).

But single-minded devotion to artistic vision and artistic discourse won’t lead to becoming an artist of the restoration either. That’s why it needs to be layered over the personal devotion I mention earlier. The two are hard to balance. To do both requires time and effort. But I promise that when they work in concert with each other, you often end up with work that is interesting and inspired.

RESTORATION

All the personal devotion, education, meditation and development of craft should be in the service of something. It should result in creative work that participates in the Restoration. It doesn’t have to. I’m assuming, though, that you’re reading because you’re at least intrigued by the idea and want to do so.

I don’t have strict prescriptions. I think if you participate fully in all the previous categories this last one will happen as a matter of course. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have some modest suggestions:

If you’re an artist who depend on a national or international audience to make a living, think about how you can infuse Mormonism (thematically or even overtly) into your work. Or create an overtly Mormon work for the national audience (Shannon Hale did). Or do so and publish it under a pseudonym. Or do more to support other Mormons working in your field. Mentor, collaborate, support.

If you primarily create for a mainstream Mormon audience, work to portray Mormons/Mormonism in ways that are more three-dimensional, more thoughtful and more interesting. Look to represent a broader spectrum of Mormons and their experiences. And do the same for all non-LDS characters/representations. And if you have more radical middle tendencies, indulge them as your time, energy and circumstances allow (use a pseudonym if you need to).

If you create work for the more academic/literary/radical middle Mormon audience, experiment more with form, with ways of expressing Mormon-ness, with un-plumbed eras and locations of Mormon history. Engage with other avant grade work and get more sophisticated about the kinds of projects you tackle, especially if your output will need to be modest and slow (because you can’t make a living off of it). Also look to do work that is more mainstream in flavor but that still contains whatever makes you a weird, interesting, thoughtful Mormon.

Above all, no matter what kind of Mormon artist you are, find ways to introduce Mormon thought, history, characters into your work. Give us more Mormon moments. More flashes of recognition. More works that delight us, challenge us, comfort us, inspire us. More ways of seeing the world that help us participate in the Restoration.

The Restoration is an ongoing process. It’s an impossible task because the end goal is something that has been rare in mortality: Zion. Art won’t bring about Zion. Heck, we as a people might not even create Shakespeares and Miltons let alone create Zion. But every seed we sow, every soul we console is a step forward. It all builds a framework that while entangled with the world is not quite part of it and thus helps us maintain hope, do more good, and stay part of the radical, beautiful, challenging, ongoing things that is the Restoration.

7 thoughts on “Artists of the Restoration part IV: Restorationist Manifesto”

  1. I just listened to the Carter v. Goldberg AML debate last night, and this sounds a lot like what James was arguing for. The “digging deeper” into the Restoration/gospel, rather than distancing ourselves from it and wandering in strange ideologies. I’m glad we have a term for it. I like all these thoughts and all this intellectual and spiritual energy. What do we do with it? I mean as a group. As individuals, we get to the business of creating art. What do we do as a group?

  2. I forgot to mention, Wm, that you almost had a chiasmic pattern going there. :^)

    Katherine, I think that it would be great if those who are interested in this Restorationist Art could get together more often to bounce ideas off each other or to build up the craft level collectively. I know that many people are shy about sharing works in progress, etc., but we could do something. There have been groups of writers/artists in the past that were a movement, and they hung out together and discussed things.

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