A few thoughts on LDS art, in which a wide-thrown net is gradually drawn tighter:
I’ve been reading through Paul Johnson’s new art history. He keeps theorizing to a minimum for a better focus on sculptors and sculpture, painters and painting, in short, on art, but he does allow himself a few necessary asides.
One such aside is on the question that has launched a thousand books–why did Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy produce such a high flowering of art and culture?
He points out that both Greece and Italy were city-state cultures, marked by trade, turbulent politics, and frequent inter-city wars on the one hand, and universal access to and participation in culture on the other.
He’s right, of course, but I don’t know what to do with the knowledge.
Even supposing that such conditions caused the outpouring of creative genius, I don’t see exactly how to emulate them or necessarily want to. I genuinely like living in South Bend, Indiana, but my liking isn’t fierce enough to make me crave a desperate struggle against the overwhelming forces of Chicago while staving off a Detroit stab in the back. And if such a thing had taken place in Deseret, no amount of cultural blossoming would have compensated for the damage to the Kingdom.
Other comparisons between Greece and Italy may be more to the point. Johnson observes that both Greece and Italy had a common vision of the good life, for one, and that this vision was rooted in honored texts from a golden age (Homer for the Greeks, the classics for the Italians). This is an offhand, commonplace observation, meant to be taken as almost a truism, and this is where I sit up. I wonder very much if we Mormons at all have the common vision of the good life, rooted in respected texts, and a golden age, that we’d like to think.
As for the texts, we’re a little offhand in our treatment of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and used to be more so. As for the golden age, we don’t have one. Nauvoo was beautiful but it wasn’t Zion and it failed. The Utah Territory never quite became Deseret. And as for the common vision of the good life, we are a people who believe that the best has yet to be revealed. We don’t know what the good life is, yet. We famously have no theology, just a collection of statements that we use in our testimonies and all give our own private meanings too. Art? Hah! We’re lucky that our mountains are pretty.
So my thoughts ran. I feel deeply anything related to the Saints, and I was feeling this pretty deeply. I felt bad for our people that we could never produce a great flowering of art. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so glum. Who knows if Mr. Paul Johnson has the last word on cultures that lead to the creation of beauty, or that God can’t work miracles?
But I kept brooding the rest of the evening, enough so that the Good Lord took pity on me, I think. In any case, walking the floor with little Emma in the dark, a thought came into my mind that carried some comfort with it. I realized that we Mormons had created a distinctive form of art.
Paul Johnson points out that most works of art are made to be complete in itself. The artist’s vision is a total one. So museums and coffee tables are artificial was of seeing art–the surrounding works are not all a necessary part of the experience and may even be a distraction. But that’s not the case with us. For us the work is the show. From time to time the Church calls for works on a theme–Families and Temple, or Lehi’s Dream. Our artists create the best they can and then submit their parts to the show. And the show is the artwork. Like a testimony meeting, the message is not the individual component but the collective voice of an African proclaiming in bronze heads and a Daughter of the Utah Pioneers in needlepoint that Families are Forever or that Lehi dreamed a dream. The parts are beautiful and the whole is great. Now I have an inkling why seeing these shows have always moved me so.