Louis Menand on art and anxiety

In his new book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform Resistance in the American University, Louis Menand discusses the concept of interdisciplinarity and the anxiety it arouses among academics. At one point he approaches this anxiety through a look at the anxiety that arose among artists in the 1960s, whose approach to creating art as well as their final products embedded in them an anxiety about their identity. He writes:

What causes anxiety to break out in a work of art? Self-consciousness. Maybe, in the case of the academic subject, self-consciousness about disciplinarity and about the status of the professor — the condition whose genealogy I have been sketching in this chapter — is a source of anxiety. That status just seems to keep reproducing itself; there is no way out of the institutional process. And this leads the academic to ask questions like, Am I an individual disinterested inquirer, or a cog in the knowledge machine? And, Am I questioning the status quo, or am I reproducing it? More existentially, Is my relation to the living culture that of a creator or that of a packager? (123)

I sense (and, of course, feel myself) some of this same anxiety among producers of Mormon art. The questions aren’t quite the same because we’re talking about artists and not academics, but they revolve around some of the same issues of identity and commerce and relation to society — things like literary vs. genre; indie vs. mainstream; Mormon market vs. national market; prestige vs. audience; Mormon vs. LDS. This is why it was good for me and may be good for you to read the next part of this paragraph from Menand:

The only way to get past the anxiety these questions cause is to get past the questions — to see that they are bad questions because they require people to choose between identities that cannot be separated. A work of art is both an aesthetic object and a commercial good. That is not a contradiction unless you have been socialized to believe that it must be. (123)

Institutions and the cultures that surround them — whether they are universities or churches — do engage in such socialization and because they are not alone in the world we all end up being socialized by a variety of institutions/cultures. Naturally, they are highly interested in the kind of identity formation that leads to their own self-reproduction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this phenomenon, especially if the institutions themselves continue to engage in good and improve people’s lives.  But it does sometimes lead to the idea that we must choose between identities that can’t be separated or worse deny that certain identities must be melded together in order to be authentic (or righteous). Mormon art has traditionally not been immune to such pressures and especially for literature, that has manifested itself in (somewhat) a reproduction of states of creating, consuming and criticizing art that microcosms the rest of the American fiction scene. Much good has come out of that. But so has much anxiety( c.f. the bulk of the discussion about Mormon narrative art).

What happens when a work of art can be both an aesthetic object and a commercial good AND ALSO questioning and faithful, literary and genre, high and low and middlebrow, etc.? I don’t have any stunning answers or insights to that question, and as always, the trick is to dig in to (or create) actual works and see how they are operating in relation to those attributes, but this is, I think, a key project for the radical middle.

Manifestations: Personal Revelation and Art

Several months ago I was working through in my mind a project I was writing for my friend Danor Gerald and Jaclyn Hales. Danor and Jaclyn are very talented actors and I was hoping to design a show especially geared towards their particular talents. I originally was thinking of a one man show for Danor, which later turned into a two person show that included Jaclyn. I was really wracking my brains for this project and putting in some prayer. It was elusive… I didn’t know what kind of show it was, what form it was going to shift into, nor the approach I should take. I was literally thinking it about for weeks, ranging from a one man show about Barack Obama to a Church play about African American throughout the history of the Church to a kind of post modern, surrealist play. Some of the ideas were getting kind of odd and nothing seemed to stick, nor did they ignite a passion to write. I was getting frustrated over the apparent stupor of thought.

One night, however, as I laid in bed, unable to sleep, I was literally overcome with a rush of thoughts and feelings. I don’t remember there being much of a prelude to the onslaught of beauty and mental activity… I’m not sure if I was even thinking about the play. But suddenly my mind was alert with a flurry of thoughts and the play’s essentials formed quickly in my mind. I had recently written a lot about mythology in my play Prometheus Unbound, and less directly in my play about C.S. Lewis, Swallow The Sun. I’m in love with the ideas that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed about Christianity being the “true myth.” I believe that the Holy Ghost has revealed truths in many cultures and many mythologies, a kind of pre-existent memory that comes tumbling out in the form of stories. It connects in my mind to the psychologist Karl Jung’s idea of a collective consciousness, and to Joseph Campbell’s re-occurring mythical archetypes he discusses in A Hero of a Thousand Faces. That night this idea of “true myths” came back with a vengeance to me and it soon turned in a collection of world myths, connected by certain loose themes and two characters telling each other stories as their world fell apart. It formed into a very visual piece, with lots of multi-media and has since become one of my personal favorites of my work and I’m very excited for the time when the funding will be in place to do it right.

But, again, I was at a loss for a title that would encapsulate the ultimate meaning of the play, until I was driving to work one day and I was thinking about a title for the piece. The word “manifest” suddenly came to me. It really struck me, deeply. The more I thought and thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed. It’s connection to Moroni’s promise in the Book of Mormon came to me, “… if ye shall ask with sincere heart and real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5). Continue reading “Manifestations: Personal Revelation and Art”

Pillars of Fire

for Stephen Carter in partial fulfillment of a promise
but especially for greenfrog, who showed me a bit of backbone

When a subject and object look at one another, there is no subject and no object, there’s only relation, the scope of which extends beyond either creature’s ability to fully grasp it.  You can’t grasp it, but you can step out to meet it.  If you do, prepare to catch on fire “¦

When I was in my early twenties, two events ignited my life.  The first involved a disagreement with a close friend whose feelings of friendship toward me had cooled.  I was changing, growing up a little, I guess.  I think my friend no longer felt needed, and feeling needed was important to her.  My feelings of deep friendship hadn’t changed, yet somehow that didn’t matter, not to her.  Why not? I wondered.  Why shouldn’t my feelings matter to her? Continue reading “Pillars of Fire”

Mr. Buber’s Cat

Warning: Philosophical flight ahead, soaring high into the ether, bearing little or no entertainment value and no direct references to Mormonism, the election, or Prop 8.  Just so you know.

These fall mornings, to get blood going to my brain, I walk out into the desert near my house.  A few days ago I went up onto a nearby ATV route that beats a bare path south.  This I followed a short distance, heading to a spot having clear views east to Sleeping Ute Mountain in Colorado, southeast to Shiprock in New Mexico, and south-southeast to the Carrizo Mountains in Arizona.

Continue reading “Mr. Buber’s Cat”

Help me find the “non-American” Mormon Culture

Last year I purchased a bound volume of the 1949 issues of the missionary magazine of the Argentine and Uruguayan missions, El Mensajero Deseret, which I found in the basement of Sam Weller‘s in Salt Lake City. I had hoped that I might find there some articles originally written in Spanish by local members (not missionaries), and that I might there discover something of their perspective at the time. Unfortunately, my (still) somewhat cursory review, while it found many interesting articles, including one written by my grandfather that my family didn’t know about, failed to find any articles by local members and few originally written in Spanish.

I’m not sure how different things are today. Mission magazines like El Mensajero Deseret, which were meant for all members in the mission (not just the missionaries), have been replaced by the Church’s international magazine (in Spanish, La Liahona), and that magazine is largely a translation from English.

As a result of examples like this, I think its easy to assume that no Mormon cultural works are being produced outside of the English-speaking areas of the Church. In a comment to my post last week about What Should Mormons Know About Mormon Culture?, Anneke wrote:

“I’m uncomfortable with any attempt to define “Mormon Culture” that then limits that culture to “Anglophone Mormon Culture.” I realize that most of the time English is all we’ve got”¦”

I am also uncomfortable about this — but its hard for most of us, English-speaking residents of the US generally, to know much about what is being produced in Mexico or in France or Brazil or Japan. Its not like there are clear paths for getting materials from these places to the Mormon market in the US! I suspect that not a lot is being produced, given the low density of LDS Church members from each other in other countries, the lack of a market or way to distribute cultural works, and the near worship that foreign LDS Church members sometimes have for the Church in the U.S.

So, hoping that those who read this will add the works they know about, here’s a list of some of the works I know or have heard of. I’m sure there are plenty of others:

Continue reading “Help me find the “non-American” Mormon Culture”