Mormon Arts Festival 1995
The State of Mormon Art: The Search for a New Bottle
"No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved." (Matthew 9:16-17).
In pondering the subject of "Mormon Art" I cannot keep my mind on the subject of art alone. The phrase "Mormon Art" conjures up culture, history, principle, doctrine, value, mystery, nature, ordinances, temple experience; the temple experience alone signifies (at least to me, personally) that creation and the work and glory of God is art. God is the Ultimate Artist, the Ultimate Scientist. As we watch the world of Quantum Physics unfold before us we can realize, as never before, that art and science are one.
In the book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, author Gary Zukav states, Many people believe that discovery is actually an act of creation. If this is so, then the distinction between scientists, poets, painters and writers is not clear. In fact, it is possible that scientists, poets, painters and writers are all members of the same family of people whose gift it is, by nature, to take those things which we call commonplace and to represent them to us in such ways that our self-imposed limitations are expanded. Those people in whom this gift is especially pronounced, we call geniuses.
Still, the definition of art has and will forever be an elusive butterfly. Art must be defined in the eyes of the beholder, but how? The dictionary defines art as: "to join, fit together, the human ability to make things; creativeness, skill; principles of creative work; making or doing things that have form or beauty." L. Ron Hubbard once expressed a definition of art as "the communication of an idea."
Many of us, as spiritual beings, experience exquisite feelings of joy in such moments as in the change of seasons, a glorious sunset, or the birth of a baby. At these times our souls expand and we cry, "My God, How Great Thou Art!" This, to us, is art in its greatest form.
But what of "Mormon Art?" What are we talking about? Are we talking of folk art? Quilts and wreaths? Country geese or family history shadow boxes? Is it the craft art of our culture strung before us like Navajo blankets and dream catcher earrings? Or is "Mormon Art" a hybrid of folk art merged with a cautious attempt at fine art? How many paintings of the Tree of Life and the Great and Spacious Building have you encountered lately? How many Pioneer statues?
Of course these things have great value, and I have no intent to demean subjects that I find dear to my own heart. Still, this is an attempt to define "Mormon Art," which seems to me to be a different category than Mormons who are artists.
Another question may well be, "What do Mormons accept as art?" As a culture we are always appreciative of attempt but not always of craftsmanship. We embrace a "Mormon" pop song that rambles on and on without rhyme or reason with the same enthusiasm as Handel's "Messiah" (which by the way, is on our Top 10 list of art that Mormons can enjoy without worry about Handel's morals or subject context).
At this moment "Mormon Art" seems to be an enigmatic phrase that defies definition. Perhaps as more symposiums on the arts, such as this one, encourage the gathering of Mormon Artists and the creation of a sense of community between us, the definition of "Mormon Art" will become clearer.
And yet, let's be real for a moment. (This is an expression that artists are familiar with, as they hear it throughout most of their natural lives). In a culture such as ours, art is a suspicious character. Art in the Mormon world is something that most of us participate in only as hesitant observers. Art and the media are viewed as dangerous, corrupt, and amoral--sometimes with good reason. There are those of us who try to buoy up ourselves by allowing only "G" rated movies into our homes, or reading only classic literature. (Although I have a friend that can give a good case for the corruption and immorality of Shakespeare and will not allow even The Bard into his house).
As we try to protect our loved ones from a grim figure of graphic portrayals of violence, sex, drugs, etc., we begin to avoid anything with grit and guts. And yet a true art form must have passion or, in other words, what we call opposition.
Art must have light and dark. Art must have tension and relaxation, consonance and dissonance. Without opposition art is nothing. It doesn't exist. Without opposition nothing exists, not even God, as Lehi explains in his incredible discourse on this subject. Without opposition there is literally no form.
A pencil is only a pencil because of all the stuff around the pencil that is not a pencil. If all the pressure of "non-pencil stuff" disappeared the pencil would cease to exist--as a pencil. Instead it would spread out and encompass the universe as a great golden-colored nothing.
The point is that
everything needs opposition to exist. Even Art.
Art without form is not art. Yet in our culture, in reaction to the world and its values, we, as a people, sacrifice form for what we feel is safety. Because we abhor evil, we pretend it does not exist or at least we embrace the idea that if we pretend evil doesn't exist it will go away. "Passion" becomes a censored word and we give up tension and relaxation, light and dark, and in doing so, find we have nothing to say. And yet, let me quote Brigham Young: Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin and its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it. (Journal of Discourses, Chapter 21 9:243)
True art can serve as the Master of us all. I submit to you that it is meant to do that very thing. Art cannot stay forever in the Garden of Eden, never choosing, never making up its mind. It must eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fall, and fulfill the measure of its creation. It must have something to say because Mormons have the greatest story of all to tell.
Before I go any farther I want to clarify that although I cannot believe that there is, at this time, a state of Mormon Art, I certainly acknowledge that there are artists who are Mormon; many that are wonderful artists. Still, being a Mormon Artist is risky business. What is acceptable from the outside world (things from art or media that we allow in our minds or in our homes from the world at large) is, in many instances, extolled or even honored. But a Mormon artist will hesitate at taking the same kind of risks for fear of being held in such contempt by the very community he or she is trying to reach.
A very popular and successful artist in the Mormon world pointed out to me not long ago that we as Mormons will praise and embrace art from the world and if it has a few objectionable items in it we will overlook it. (An example might be the movie "Forrest Gump." But if this movie had been made by a Mormon, the artist would have been crucified by our community).
If "So and So Mormon Artist" writes a beautiful piece of music or book, etc. our community will wag its collective head knowingly and comment: "But of course you heard about his / her divorce!" Our lives as well as our art are always on display. Our art is not viewed as being apart from our human foibles, which of course it isn't. But great art can emerge from human failings and transcend them.
A second factor in being an artist in the Mormon community is the fact that artists are viewed as just plain weird.
"You paint? How nice. But tell me dear, how do you make money?" "How interesting! But when will you settle down and get a real job?" "Don't you think you should go into computers? After all, the competition is too stiff. How can you compete with all those talented people out there?" "No son of mine is going to any dance class!"
Ballet for the daughter; piano, maybe violin for everyone else, but let's not get too serious about that either. This is only for a little culture. There will be no artists in this family! Just lawyers and business people with secure jobs, insurance and a decent pension plan, thank you very much!
An artist's life is viewed as precarious, capricious and unacceptable. How will one support a family and be an artist? How can one be a mother and be an artist? These are thoughtful questions that all of our artists face day in and day out. The great American Dream of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is acceptable for an entrepreneur, but not for an artist. Going to work for WordPerfect is considered security (even though employees are now being laid off by the hundreds). Painting a magnificent watercolor is considered foolishness. Money is the name of the game. Mormon culture does not pay for art.
So, as the Lord's artists dutifully trudge off to the business and law schools at BYU, who's going to tell the story? The real story, the true story? Who will spread the Book of Mormon to every nation, kindred, tongue and people? Who will make the Book of Mormon movies that are more exciting than "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with audiences lining up around the block? Who will tell the story of Joseph Smith -- the true story? Who will paint paintings, write poetry, symphonies, musicals that speak to the heart of what being a Mormon really is? Who will act in or paint or sing just plain 'ole beautiful, inspiring stuff?
Many have made in-roads. Who can deny the brilliance of Orson Scott Card? This is a master storyteller. But Brother Card's artistry is not Mormon Art. It is Orson Scott Card art, even though his stories are firmly based in an LDS heritage. Why do I say this? Because in a very real sense Orson Scott Card, and every other artist who is Mormon, is alone. Why?
Because the phrase "Mormon Art" intimates a community and there is the rub. Let me explain: I equate up and coming Mormon artists with new wine being trampled in the wine press and ready to be used in the Lord's work, but where do we pour the new wine? Where do we pour the brilliant 15-year old boy who dances like a young Nureyev? New York? California? The old bottles will burst and that precious new wine will spill upon the ground and soak up into the muck and mire of mud and broken glass of the dance world.
Where do we pour our musicians, our painters, our singers, our actors, our writers, our film makers?
The New Bottle must be formed and put in place so that the new wine will not perish, but be preserved. The skill of a great artist combined with great spirit can touch many and change lives.
I believe the arts are here to usher in the Second Coming; to soften hearts and create new vision with the paintings, stories, music, dance, architecture, theatre, film, and sculpture of a coming Zion.
We must create the New Bottle; it is our duty to ourselves, our community, to the young artists coming up behind us and to our Master. There is nothing in the world that has as much power at this moment as the media and its artists. We know this. We bemoan this fact continually while fearing that our sons and daughters will become artists and enter into that terrifying world. We fear the old bottle and what it will do to our pure wine from our own making.
Can this New Bottle I am searching for be a community of artists who, together, form the vehicle for "Mormon Art" to speak significantly and clearly to a suffering and helpless world? Can a community of Latter-Day Saint artists find the answers not only by defining "Mormon Art" but by supplying our young artists with a receptacle to be poured into, so that they can also speak to the world and prepare a better and stronger bottle for those who will come after them?
Can a community of Mormon artists form a New Bottle that is strong enough to encourage improvement of skill and craftsmanship while discouraging jealousy and backbiting amongst ourselves? Can this New Bottle promote virtue without sacrificing truth? Can it give the good and honorable people of the earth another choice, or must they continue to be pulled into the pit by the alternatives?
It is time for the Mormon art world to come forth and tell its story. Time to heal, to teach, to give hope. Time to praise and glorify our God. Time for the New Bottle that shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth not.
Light and dark, tension and relaxation, consonance and dissonance -- Passion equals Opposition equals Truth.
A New Bottle can enable truth to spring forth from a community of Mormon artists to tell the Greatest Story Ever Told.
"And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32).