Exonerating Artless Mormons

February 4, 2004 | 7 comments

Charles Murray has a new book, Human Accomplishment. You can find reviews in the New Criterion, in the New York Times, by the National Review’s John Derbyshire, on the Volokh Conspiracy, and by a thoughtful Australian.

If Murray’s arguments hold up, he has exonerated all us Mormons from the charges of failing to produce enough great Art.

Here’s what Murray has done, roughly. He’s amassed a variety of encyclopedias and other works. He then documents the number of words written about various significant figures. The composer with the most words is the Greatest Composer, the second most is the Second Greatest, and so forth. Same goes for writers, philosophers, artists, and so on. I’m not sure if this approach is valid, but he’s put a lot of wrinkles on it. Until I read the book (the spirit is more than willing, the wallet is weak) I’m going to reserve judgment.

We Saints feel that some of the Greatest, or at least the Second Greatest, ought to be ours. Where are our Shakespeares, our Miltons? President Kimball has asked. On the assumption that the Holy Spirit inspires and elevates, there ought to be some. There aren’t.

We’ve got various answers: maybe Mormons just don’t know enough about evil; maybe Mormons are too busy; maybe Mormons are too cohesive, and Art requires independence; and so forth. See discussion here, and here. Just as the question implies something unique to Mormonism that should generate better art and literature, the answers imply something unique to Mormonism that prevents it.

Charles Murray may exonerate us, at least from the charge that Mormon beliefs or culture uniquely unfit us for genius and creativity. He calculates that Great Composers, Artists, etc. per capita have dropped off since 1800, and much more dramatically more recently. Now this may be an artefact of his methods–maybe encyclopedias and so forth are biased towards the past. Maybe modern greats can’t emerge until sufficient time has passed to digest their achievement.

But if it is true, then the dearth of Mormon Greats may be part and parcel of the dearth of Greats of any kind. The same explanations–more time fillers, the popularizing of taste/death of aristocracy, etc.?–may apply to both groups. In this view, God raineth on the good and the evil alike, and their drought is also ours.

P.S. On the other hand, Murray also argues that traditional religious belief should be a spur to creative greatness, so maybe we are still specially indicted.

P.P.S. Other reviews are collected here.

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7 Responses to Exonerating Artless Mormons

  1. Kristine on February 4, 2004 at 9:05 pm

    Hey Matt, how about a link to the NY Times review?

  2. Clark Goble on February 4, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    It might also be that there is more diversity, resulting in more topics to write *about*. Further changes in the humanities the last 30 years have led people to start writing about many writers out of “the canon” of western literature. Given all those aspects I’m not sure the methodology used is sound.

    It also would mean that most likely the Beatles and Elvis Presley are “great ones” while I’m not sure they deserve that title. (Well, the King does of course…) It confuses greatness with conversation.

  3. Adam Greenwood on February 5, 2004 at 11:44 am

    I’ve included the link. Thanks for the reference.
    Also, I am that aspect of Borg conservatism known as Adam, though I’m flattered by the mistake.

    You may well be right. I’m waiting till I get the book for Valentine’s Day before I decide on the flaws of the method.

  4. Kristine on February 5, 2004 at 11:55 am

    Adam, Matt–apologies to both of you for confusing you. fwiw, it’s not just conservative bloggers I can’t keep straight; i keep calling my youngest son by my cat’s name :)

  5. Richard on February 5, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    Some thoughts on Mormons and art. When one looks at the vast sweep of world art, most of it is relgious. Religion should be an asset in the creation of art. Modern society often takes the opposite point of view. But as Adam’s post observes, there has been a drop off in the production of great art since 1800. I wonder if that could be related to two factors; 1) A less religious culture 2) A growing antogonism towards the historical tradition of art. The artists from the past often appear to be giants from our point of view. In reality, one of the reasons that they appear so huge is that they were standing on the shoulders of those that went before. Much of the art of our time has made a virtue of historical amnesia. Standing on shoulders is dissed. This is not an attitude that usually produces giants.

  6. Adam Greenwood on February 5, 2004 at 12:06 pm

    If you’re first point is correct, than Mormons really ought to be doing better than we are, because we are not a ‘less religious culture’. Your second point, on the other hand, would seem to particularly apply to us, since in many ways we have a tradition of rejecting history, and have only recently turned to looking for light in the great darkness of the apostasy and the world.

  7. John Cline on November 16, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    I am a Mormon and an artist. I often lament the fact that this article points out. The reason there are no great Mormon artists is that the culture of Mormonism does not support great artists. Mormons are encouraged to make a living and raise a family. So many Mormons think doing so makes an artistic career impossible because of the myth that artists can’t make a living. This may seem like a simplistic reason for no great Mormon art, but it is a reality. Influential priesthood leaders were always trying to persuade me to study something else for this very reason.

    Also, Mormons are quite uneducated about what great art is. Great art does not depict Christ in lush gardens playing with kids and birds. But isn’t that what we find in Deseret Book catalogs? Until Mormons really start taking life and religion seriously, we aren’t going to see great art. Great art is about life and religion, it should not depict some person’s escapist dream of a pseudo-spiritual wonderland.


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