Can Mormons make great art (film, literature, painting, sculpture, etc.)? Can this great art be great and deeply Mormon? Where are the prophesied Mormon Miltons and Mormon Shakespeares?
“We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” –Orson F. Whitney
Building on this quote there has been a decent amount of ink spilt addressing some of the questions that I posed (some interesting readings here, here, here, here, and here). Yet, I feel like something is still lacking from the conversation, which I’m going to try and provide at least the beginnings to whatever will fill this gap. First, let’s talk about the problems faced and then some thoughts I have on solutions. Now, I have not read nor seen all Mormon cinema and literature, nor am I a professional creative. However, I am deeply Mormon, have engaged with a decent sampling of Mormon art, consider myself a somewhat closeted creative writer, and a somewhat (?) pretentious (yet insightful) critic, all of which combine to lend me some sort of credibility. At least, I like to think so.
- Avoiding difficult/real subject matter. One of the biggest concerns that is expressed about Mormon art is the tendency to shy away from “difficult” or “real” issues. I think this may be overblown to some extent, but raises some valid questions. There is a problem with culturally not always knowing how to deal with difficult topics and given certain moral positions a tendency to avoid any discussion that starts to move towards a taboo topic, like sex. Now, this is not true across the board, but I think there needs to be a willingness to engage with deeply human, flawed stories that seems less likely to occur in the present state of Mormon art.
- Spirituality. How can we represent a spiritual life? Is it necessary for Mormon art to be expressly Mormon? Can the spirituality be tapped into in other ways that may be easier to buy into? Can spirituality and deeply Mormon ideas be present outside of an explicitly Mormon context? It’s a challenge to show spiritual events on screen or in literature, due to a variety of factors. This difficulty plagues most films that touch on the spiritual, Mormon or not. Yet, I think something is lost when the Mormonism is denied and when the spiritual element is removed.
- The Cheese. Maybe this is just me, but I find much of Mormon art incredibly cheesy. Music particularly (although I think artists like Neon Trees, Imagine Dragons, and Brandon Flowers/The Killers are making a space for music influenced by their Mormonness, yet not alienating so). Anyway, this is linked to troubles with depicting spirituality, but more-so I think to a tendency to relate only the sorts of stories that have neat bows that get tied at the end. The trial, obedience, physical manifestation of a blessing sort. These don’t resonate with me or my lived experience. I mean, think of all the seminary videos you’ve ever seen. Do they really match your life? Is the reality they present one that lines up with your experience? There’s this undercurrent of overbearing, oppressive optimism (the mind-set of the Shiny Happy People, as I’ve written before) and for some (or maybe just me…), it comes across as cheesy and rings false.
- Embrace transparency and historical messiness. I think that as we increase the cultural tolerance and acceptance of ambiguity, the stories told in our art will become increasingly ambiguous and willing to wrestle with things that were off-limits previously. I mean, I would love for a Joseph Smith film to come out using Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling as a basis, with Bushman, Terryl Givens, D. Michael Quinn, etc. involved in the production of it. An institutional shift would allow for exploration of doubt and the “rubber-meeting-the-road” moments of lived faith that I would love to see.
- Discomfort is Not of the Devil, or Representing is not inherently Advocating. Such a shift could accompany a cultural change that allows for discomfort, without assuming that such a feeling is a sign of the devil (after all the Gospel is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable). In other words, to address some of the problems brought on by number 1 above, the realization that something can be represented, but not necessarily advocated by the art. I don’t think this necessitates the compromise of our standards by any means. And I think challenging and difficult “real” problems can be addressed in ways that may be more subtle. Jane Austen for instance explores all sorts of cultural problems and even sexuality, but without any explicit content. It requires great artistry to do that, but it can be done.
- Authenticity. I recently wrote about authenticity as helping Church culture generally, but think it applies specifically to the problems of Mormon art. If we allow the authentic expression of emotion, that has a much greater chance of resonating with others. There’s no need to force things into a pre-conceived spiritual narrative. Life is messier than that and owning the good and the bad, the struggles of being Mormon, I think stories will gain greater traction. Rough Stone Rolling is a great example of this. It presents Joseph Smith as a human, flawed, inspired, prophet. I felt much better about Joseph Smith and my belief in him after reading RSR than I had hearing more simplified (arguably idealized) narratives for my entire life.
I have hope for great Mormon art. For art that is deeply Mormon and deeply great. For things that explore Mormonism explicitly and implicitly. I yearn for fiction that captures the wrestle I feel to believe—the deep desire to belong and be at one with my fellow Mormons, yet feels at odds, forced to the fringes. Maybe I’m the only one that would read that. Maybe no one else wants a colorful, complex, mixed bag representation of Mormons that captures our peculiarity in an honest, authentic, and insightful way. Maybe if I want it, I need to help create it.