Artists and Doctrine & Covenants section 58

What D&C 58 means in relation to Mormon artists when it chastises Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps.

I listened to section 58 of the Doctrine & Covenants this morning on my walk to the bus stop. Verses 26-28  are the ones that tend to get quoted in classes and talks—that’s where we’re told to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”, etc.

But as I listened to the rest of the section, I was struck by a few verses down from those oft-quoted ones. Specifically:

38 And other directions concerning my servant Martin Harris shall be given him of the Spirit, that he may receive his inheritance as seemeth him good;

39 And let him repent of his sins, for he seeketh the praise of the world.

40 And also let my servant William W. Phelps stand in the office to which I have appointed him, and receive his inheritance in the land;

41 And also he hath need to repent, for I, the Lord, am not well pleased with him, for he seeketh to excel, and he is not sufficiently meek before me.

I can’t really relate to Joseph Smith. He’s too much of a true prophet, a revelator who used his many gifts to try to get people to see (and live) a grander vision of life. Nor do I quite track with Brigham Young who has this pragmatic, unwavering, sometimes ruthless streak to him that kept the body of Saints together and going. 

But Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps? Yeah, I can very much relate to the desire to seek the praise of the world and to excel. Because (which I keep finding myself surprised to discover) I’m an artist, and the formula for an artist to succeed is to excel and gain praise (e.g. a certain measure of fame) so that fortune and influence will follow which will then (hopefully) facilitate the creation of further excellence.

Fame, fortune and influence—they each influence the other in such a way that all three increase. There’s a very high level of fame that messes up the equation, but for the most part the three are a powerful engine, and one that can be very important for an artist because without a working engine of that sort it’s very difficult to find the time (and other resources) to create powerful art and then get it in front of an audience. Fortune (money) is the best way to free up that time. Fame not only help with fortune, but also grows audience further. And without influence, your position becomes more precarious and your ability to effectuate your artistic vision lessens.

The problem with this engine and its’ three parts is that it’s very easy to be seduced by it to the point where you feel like you deserve the fame, fortune and influence and for those to continually increase. I was going to say that’s especially true for artistic types who tend to have at least to a small degree a measure of narcissism of “look at me! Validate me! I exist!” but then I think it’s probably actually most of us. 

And yet: I still believe in the importance of art. And artists have to have enough encouragement (praise) and time/space/means to create good art (excel).

Which means, if my reading of D&C 58 is actually applicable to the situation, that artists who are also interested in building up Zion need to be sufficiently meek.

One thought on “Artists and Doctrine & Covenants section 58”

  1. A thoughtful consideration of the dichotomy of being an artist and a faithful servant of the Lord. It seems like a no-win situation. To be confident enough to promote your work, risks the egotism that pushes away spirituality. To fail to seek the approval of the art world is to fail to communicate with your viewer. The task of doing one seems to make it impossible to do well at the other, making it unlikely one can do either task successfully.

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