Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists

Based on the evidence we have (the scriptures), it seems to me that it takes extraordinary social, political and economic conditions for a community of believers to form a Zion state. The city of Enoch required a separate city-state protected by a prophet who could work miracles to keep enemies at bay. The no-ites found in Fourth Nephi required a series of natural catastrophes which caused the deaths of thousands (and thus a major reduction of the population) and (presumably) disrupted existing economic and political structures, followed by a personal visit from the resurrected Christ, and the personal calling of Twelve Apostles in front of hundreds, perhaps, thousands of witnesses and all that even managed only two generations worth of Zion. The post-Millennium situation requires Jesus Christ himself to vanquish evil and rule personally (not to mention a fairly dramatic restructuring of the physical elements of the planet itself). Even the not fully successful attempts at establishing Zion, such as certain periods among the Nephites and/or Lamanites, the people of Israel, and the early Mormons required a fairly homogenous population forged out of much tribulation (and, generally, a prophet who was also the main political leader).  And all of those periods were difficult, fragile, and short-lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neo-liberalism and the way in which it erodes families, communities and individuals in the service of technocratic utopian visions, which while may be sincere and well-meaning on the part of some are undergirded by the demands of capital. I am by nature and experience a political pragmatist and radical centrist. Which means I find value in libertarian and Marxist and democratic socialist and crunchy conservative critiques of neo-liberalism (and of each other). But I also find myself frustrated by and/or deeply skeptical of the solutions proposed by each of those political philosophies.

So I think what I’ve arrived at is that all utopias–all ideal states that are not Zion–are flawed and something to be fought against. All political philosophies tend to have elements of them that are totalizing. That are willing to sacrifice humanity and human agency on the altar of the political philosophy.

Satan’s plan is not socialism. It’s not neo-liberalism. It’s not Marxism or libertarianism or anarchism. It’s any world view that attempts to totalize, that degrades, that dehumanizes–that can swerve into fascism on the way to utopia. Anything that loses patience with human agency and sacrifices human compassion on the altar of expediency and tries to smooth out the messiness of this physical existence through force or coercion or seduction.

While engagement in the democratic process is necessary, important and can lead to much good in the world. While engagement in the economic and cultural marketplace is necessary, important and can even lead to much good in the world. While we as Latter-day Saints are not called to the monastery, the compound, the commune, the enclave, I worry that we are too often too much in the world.

I think this is especially dangerous for artists. I’m not calling for solely apolotical art or artists to not engage in politics. Artists shouldn’t be willfully blind to the realities of the modern world. In fact, I think artists should be in dialogue with current political and socio-economic thought and action. I think artists should be angry, concerned, hopeful, curious, engaged and informed about the world. I don’t believe that art for art’s sake is actually possible or desirable.

But I also think that artists, and especially Mormon artists, should have at their core a deep skepticism of utopian solutions and an ultimately agnostic stance towards politics that prods them to interrogate the reifying language of politicians and technocrats even when (especially when!) they happen to lean towards a particular party platform and/or candidate. We should want to make the world a better place within the current social, economic and political constraints. In order to do so, we have to work with the ideas and people of our time. It’s just that Zion should be this pulsating hope inside us that repels other ideologies from burrowing all the way through to our inner core worldview and artistic themes and concerns.

Am I wrong about this?

Note: comments are welcome — this is not, however, an invitation to talk about politics in general or any one politician or party, and rather about artists positioning in relation to the discourse of politics.

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George Q. Cannon on Bellamy

George-Q-Cannon
George Q Cannon

I’m currently in the middle of reading B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two (1948), so when by coincidence I discovered the following discourse by George Q. Cannon, it gave me an unexpected view on utopias. Cannon’s remarks, spurred by Edward Bellamy’s popular utopian novel Looking Backward (1887), portray not only a religious criticism of many of the utopian proposals, but also demonstrate that religion itself is, in a way, about creating a utopia or preparing for a utopian hereafter. And these remarks are particularly interesting given Mormonism’s own experimentation and involvement with utopian efforts well before Cannon made these remarks.

Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George Q. Cannon on Bellamy”

The Artist in the City of Zion

In Part 4 of Nephi Anderson’s classic novel Added Upon, the king of Poland visits the city of Zion during the Millennium to see and better understand the new order that has overtaken the world. Strolling with a companion and a guide, he comes across a man who seems to be one of the (as yet otherwise unseen) idle rich:

Approaching a beautiful sheet of water bordered by flowering bushes, lawns, and well-kept walks, they saw a man sitting on a bench by the lake. As his occupation seemed to be throwing bread crumbs to the swans in the water, the King and his companion concluded that here, at last, they had discovered one of the idle rich, whom they still had in their own country. Remand expressed his thought to the guide.

“He idle?” was the reply. “Oh, no; he is one of our hardest working men. That is one of our most popular writers, and in many people’s opinion, our best. We must not disturb him now, but we will sit down here and observe him. We are told that when he is planning one of his famous chapters of a story, he comes down to this lake and feeds the swans.”

Continue reading “The Artist in the City of Zion”

Re: The Fob Family Bible, Part II

Note: This is the final part of my review of The Fob Bible, which I began here last week. This part picks up where I left off, which was here:

Within the Mormon context of The Fob Bible, the (pro)creative movement of these “opposite equal” spheres further implies the eternal (pro)creative influence of both male and female Deities over the universe. For if we have a Father in Heaven and if, as Eliza R. Snow reminds us, “truth is reason, [then] truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a Mother there” and that she’s doing more than merely keeping House. Rather, as Nelson’s variation on this theme suggests, she, as represented in the creative power of the moon (which here “lift[s] land” from the earth’s watery void, “set[s] the rain in silver sheets / upon the ocean’s stormy streets,” and places “birds in flight” and fish in the sea) and as the feminine coeval with God the Father, is an active participant in the eternal, reiterative round of creation, a circling “dance” that is more productive of all that is “good,” beautiful, and holy than many of us may care to–or even, at present, can–imagine. Continue reading “Re: The Fob Family Bible, Part II”