Motley Vision has been playing host to an interesting discussion on Mormon aesthetics. The question du jour from the Sunstone Symposium seems to be whether or not one can be a Great Artist (or any kind of Artist) and still be a member of the Church. Two out of three panelists were apparently skeptical. For myself, I suspect that we are operating with a rather parochial definition of Artist, furthermore one that is ill suited to both the theology and demographics of Mormonism.
Generally speaking, our understanding of what it means to be an artist is rooted in Romanticism. There are any number of features that characterize our modern concept of Artist, but two of the most salient are authenticity and originality. Rousseau posited that human evil was essentially a human and — more importantly — a social creation. We are bad by convention. By nature, however, we are good. Translated into artistic terms this basic stance takes the form of a hostility to tradition and authority. True art consists of an escape from the traditional and a probing out of the truth that lies buried beneath the inauthentic and soul-destroying layers of convention. This hostility to tradition and convention gets coupled with another Romantic idea: the genius. The genius is a person who knows by virtue of pure — and frequently demonic — intuition. They do not learn by study or reason but by pure, unmediated confrontation with the Truth. Translated into artistic terms, this becomes the cult of originality. In effect, the highest kind of artistic creation is a form of ex nhilio creation whereby the godlike Artist presents to humanity a new creation never before seen or heard.
There are two theological problems that Mormons will run into with this view of the artist. The first is the primary place of community in Mormon theology. A central part of what pursuit of the good life means for a Mormon is the pursuit of a particular kind of community. We are to build up the Kingdom of God and establish Zion. Indeed, there is a sense in which salvation consists in the realization of a particular vision of community. This, however, places nature and convention in precisely the opposite relationship that one finds them in the thought of Rousseau and his unwitting modern artistic disciples. Society is not the original stainer of our souls from whose sins we must escape, but rather “good society” — to use Joseph Smith’s phrase — is central to the creation of a meaningful life. This requires, however, a commitment to an order that is always in some sense given, that is an order that exceeds our intentions or creations. To be in a community is to give some kind of authority to a social order that is beyond ourselves.
The second theological problem for Mormon artists who want to buy into the Romantic conception of the Artist is that the model of artistic genius that it offers is ultimately modelled on an apostate vision of God. In this vision, the great goal of the artist is originality, to call forth new truth from nothing, and thereby liberate oneself from dependence upon the past. Of course, any thoughtful artist will admit that such true originality is not possible, it nevertheless remains a goal. Even when the quest for originality does not degenerate into a stale celebration of novelty, it nevertheless models the Artist on the God of the creeds. He is to be the person who creates something from nothing. The organizer God of Mormonism, however, is something quite different. He is not even a great first cause, let alone a font of being. He organizes matter unorganized and works with eternally self-existent intelligences as co-authors of the cosmic story. In other words, Mormon theology rips the spiritual heart out of the model of creative divinity on which the Romantic vision of the Artist rests.
The modern vision of the Artist that we have inherited from Romanticism is also a demographic problem. First, it is quintessentially a Western idea and not surprisingly it has a difficult time making sense of non-Western art in anything other than superficial and patronizing ways. Consider, for example, how one might think of a Navajo rug weaver in these terms. One seems to have two options. First, one could find innovation in Navajo rug styles and techniques and then celebrate the innovators as the “true Artists” labelling the other weavers as merely derivative. Such an approach, however, would misunderstand the role and value of innovation within Navajo weaving. For example, it would miss the fact that — as I understand it — particular stylistic innovations are generally associated with particular regions and families, and hence serve as markers of community, rather than as markers of the break of heroic individuals from their communities. Second, one could imagine the Navajo weavers as noble savages whose art is valuable precisely because it has not been contaminated by the culture and civilization that true Artists seek to transcend. Aside from the blatant historical and cultural inaccuracy involved in such a claim — Navajo weaving is itself a product of cultural contamination, most obviously in the form of sheep brought by white traders — it requires that we deny the basic humanity of Navajo artists, assigning them instead to an imaginary ideological category.
The inability of the modern conception of Artist to deal very well with artists outside of the late Western tradition of the “fine” arts is a problem for Mormons. The reason is that the Church is growing most rapidly among the poor of the developing world. Among these converts their are many artists, but so long as our sense of what constitutes an Artist is straight-jacketed by the narrow and rather confused set of categories that we have inherited from the Romantics, their work and contributions will remain invisible or patronizingly marginal at best. Theologically, such a vision of the Artist requires that any artistically ambitious Mormon set him or herself at war with the theological assumptions of her own spirituality.
Fortunately, however, the Romantic vision of the Artist is not an eternal truth to which we must conform. It is simply another historically contingent set of concepts that we ought to jettison without guilt — e.g. angst about artistic integrity — when it ceases to be intellectually or spiritually useful.