Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two

In my last installment, I mentioned my skepticism about a Mormon literary esthetic. I’ll start this round by explaining in more detail my reasons for that skepticism.

Differing values are relatively easy to come by. Differing stylistic preferences likewise. What group doesn’t vary within itself — often widely — in the personal styles of its members? Within my own immediate family, there are those who are melodramatic and those who are reserved; those who crave excitement and those who prefer contemplation; those with a taste for the subtle and those who like the blatant. (But no one who likes rap.)

A distinctive group esthetic is a rather taller order to fill. A distinctive esthetic, it seems to me, extends beyond differing preferences to become almost a different symbolic language, where words and phrases and characters and stories mean something different to those inside the group than they can ever possibly mean to those outside the group. Outsiders, by and large, don’t “get it.”

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Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. With this series, I’m approaching the same topic from a different angle.

READ PART I: THE LDS CHURCH — RESTORATION/SEPARATION &ACCOMMODATION/ASSIMILATION

READ PART II: WESTERN CULTURE — STUCK IN ROMANTICISM

PART III: WESTERN CULTURE — MODERNISM/POSTMODERNISM

At the turn of the 20th century, artists from a variety of disciplines sought to break free from the grip of Romanticism. They saw that realism was as much of an artificiality as what it was reacting against, and they saw that the original things that Romanticism had reacted against–cold rationalism, industrialization–had only gotten worse. What’s more Darwin and Nietzsche had showed (in very different ways that God really was dead; Freud that everybody was all messed up inside from repressing things (and because of our parents); and popular culture that Romanticism could take on virulent, sentimental, wildly successful, lucrative forms (the penny dreadful/dime novel, light opera, advertising, Beaux-Arts architecture, etc.). Continue reading “Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM”

Thoughts on The Lonely Polygamist as Hysterical Realism

No discussion of the contemporary Mormon novel could happen today without some comment on Bady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, a nationally-published novel that looks at modern polygamy in Southern Utah. In many ways, The Lonely Polygamist is unlike other contemporary Mormon novels because it does not address contemporary mainstream Mormonism, but rather a fringe group that has no official ties to the Mormon Church. In fact, throughout the novel, the mainstream church is church is characterized as a monolithic sell-out denomination that lacks the authority and blessing of God. At the same time, however, Udall–who comes out of a mainstream tradition–does much to draw parallels between his polygamist sect and mainstream Mormons; in fact, I would argue that the novel itself uses polygamy as a way to exaggerate many of the cultural dilemmas within contemporary mainstream Mormon life: large families, the continuing legitimacy of patriarchy, interaction with non-Mormons, and the construction and definition of cultural boundaries and limitations.

At the same time, however, Udall situates these issues within the broader culture of post-war America. In fact, while Udall’s polygamists are mostly separate from their Southern Utah mainstream community–which itself is largely separate from the rest of America–they nevertheless cannot avoid the intrusion of something like American popular culture. Romance novels, for example, run rampant through the novel, primarily for the way they privilege and romanticize monogamous heterosexuality, but also how they construct and affirm traditional gender roles–which contrasts significantly to the way Udall’s polygamists live, providing even a form of escape for one wife, beset by depression, who consistently fails to find the promised meaning and blessing in her non-traditional marriage.

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Mormon Art in Belbury

I’d been reading medieval Japanese literature for a few weeks (ah, the joys of going back to school) and really didn’t have time to pick up a novel, but it was a bit of an emotional and social necessity. So I walked down to the library on a warm summer evening a few weeks ago and looked for a copy of That Hideous Strength, the third and final book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I own a copy of my own, but most of my books are in a storage unit until I can finally live somewhere that allows me to have furniture. It vexes. But I digress.

I fear the connection here may seem tenuous. Lewis is not, after all, a Mormon author, as much as we’d long to appropriate him. But neither was the art exhibition I had looked forward to actually Mormon art. Come to think of it, the only Mormon factor in this entire train of thought is me. Let’s see how far-fetched we can get.

The most recent exhibition to open at the BYU Museum of Art is quite a departure from their previous featured exhibitions. Beholding Salvation was a collection so doctrine-centric that it seemed to pay no heed to any sort of artistic cohesion. Not that I’m criticizing – there is room for this unique curatorial approach, especially in the peculiarly insular Utah art scene. It was extremely popular with the viewing public, even (especially?) those who don’t usually consider themselves part of the Art Elite. Last year, they featured Pageants in Paint, a huge retrospective of Minerva Teichert’s work. Again – clearly Mormon art – but it was an exhibition that featured wonderful scholarship and a thematic cohesion that’s nice to see at the MoA. Last week, their newest exhibit opened: Turning Point: The Demise of Modernism and the Rebirth of Meaning in American Art. This exhibit makes no claims to be Mormon, nor does it take into consideration at all the doctrinal or even cultural foundations of Mormonism. It just happens to be in Utah. And it’s fairly successful, for what it is. It makes a clean, concise, didactic little statement about what happened to the Art Establishment in the 60s. It re-hashes Clement Greenberg. They even managed to get a Frank Stella piece on loan and it’s awful pretty. The exhibition as a whole is every bit as thought-provoking as minimalist statements and cultureless attempts at conceptual art tend to be. Which is, to say, it is entirely bankrupt of meaning and soul and it casts a dramatic spotlight across the gulf that separates Mormonism as a worldview from the secular fine art establishment.

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