Discussion Questions for Art, Religion, and the Market Place

Here are the discussion questions for the third email in the AMV Deep Dive of Marden J. Clark’s essay collection Liberating Form.

If you haven’t signed up for the email, you can read it (and sign up to receive future ones) here: Liberating Form: Art, Religion, Marketplace.

Please note that comments are moderated, and the goal is to make this a place welcome to Mormons of all stripes (as well as folks with an interest in Mormonism).

  1. What positive things does religion bring into your life that art hasn’t? What positive things does art bring into your life that religion hasn’t?
  2. A lot of the examples Clark uses are works that are explicitly religions, or at least moral. What’s your favorite work of art that is overtly religious? What’s your favorite work of art that religious folks, and especially Mormons, might find heretical and/or distasteful?
  3. Which works of art do you find valuable that exist because of the market place (and wouldn’t have been able to be created without it)? The market place can definitely can distort art. Are there ways in which it can shape it and make it better? And is the market place really the main evil or are there other villains to point more strongly at (authoritarianism would definitely be one, in my book)?
  4. And the big one: what are the potential pitfalls in re-merging art and religion? What are the potential triumphs that could result? What work could be done to help bring about such a re-merger?

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.