Thursday, August 02, 2007

Sappy Mormon Art

I was fascinated by Eric Samuelson’s essay about Saturday’s Warrior in the most recent issue of Irreantum. The thing is that I agree with everything Eric says about that play. But it’s strange for me because I simply can’t look at that play objectively. I can’t stand back far enough, because I grew up on it. I had all those songs memorized before I ever understood what the play was about. I grew up on the gags, gauging my maturity by how many more jokes or cultural references I caught each time I saw it. The songs are so much a part of me that even now if I hear the soundtrack it feels the same to me as if I were hearing my mother’s voice singing a familiar lullaby.

But in my adult, post-college life, I have been highly critical of Mormon art that is simplistic or simplistically moralistic because I recognize its potential for harm. I hate stories that teach lies for the sake of happy endings. I hate anything pat. I hate Mormon kitsch.

An example (and I hope I don’t offend anyone here) is a sign on the wall of some dear friends of mine that says, “Failure is not an option” (a cute quote from Apollo 13, meant to be applied to life, of course). Now, knowing these people, I’m pretty sure that they have explained to their children what constitutes true failure when it comes to the gospel (which is, of course, failing to recognize that everyone needs the atonement and true failure is simply refusing to use it when you mess up). But think: someone who doesn’t understand the atonement whose parents might have hung that up in his house could use the quote to get himself deeper into depression. Could a visitor who is trying to repent of a major sin come to their house and see that sign and be led further on the road to despair? Maybe. And so I hate the sign.

Also (and again, the potential to offend here is high), I hate the poem “Footprints” because I think it teaches false doctrine—or rather that it twists things. It is an important part of my testimony that God sometimes expects us to take a few steps all by ourselves (“alone,” if you will). You may argue that the poem is just saying that even when we are walking alone, the Lord is near. But you are arguing about meaning, not about what the poem says. If you read it carefully, you see that the poem is really saying that we never take any steps alone. And I disagree. Further, I think it is debilitating to a person’s spiritual progress for her to believe that she will never take any steps alone in this life, and that this wrong belief could lead, again, to despair.

So I bet I would have been right there with Eric and his offendedness if I had seen it for the first time as a twenty-year-old instead of as a child, and I wonder if the play affected me negatively in subconscious ways. Has it influenced my decisions about birth control, for example? Or in the choice of a spouse? Honestly, I think it probably did. I remember struggling with the idea of there being one person “out there” for me when I was making a decision about marriage (both times). I did, thankfully, finally come to reject that idea, but it was there in my mind to be wrestled with. Did I get it from Saturday’s Warrior? Maybe.

On the other hand, I do know also that some of those songs have touched me deeply. I’m thinking right now of the one that starts, “I take a paper in my hand, and with a pencil draw a man.” I have felt, through some of those songs, my heart yearn towards God. I have felt the Spirit. And so I have to be careful about looking down my nose on what I call “kitsch.” Because everyone is on their own spiritual journey, and it is not impossible for you to feel the Spirit through something that might offend me, even if it teaches false doctrine. So I’m becoming a little more reluctant about being vocal in my criticisms of specific LDS artworks. It’s a tricky line for me, because I believe strongly that we won’t improve, as a community, in the quality of art we’re producing until we become less timid about criticizing the mediocre and maudlin. I need to put my money where my mouth is and speak up when I think things are cheaply sentimental, or which are getting honor and money for “having a good message” and (gulp) “not having anything offensive.”

I think the answer is, for me, anyway, to look at the artist before I criticize, and also look at who might be hearing my criticism. If I believe the artist is truly an artist (and thus capable of learning from criticism and then becoming better in response to it), it’s worthwhile for me to construct a careful and true critique. And if my critique will be read by others who understand criticism and its role (as opposed to the little old lady down the street who has cross-stitched “I didn’t say it would be easy” on her pillows), I should be, if not ruthless, then at least rigorous in my review. But there is no place for me to pull my neighbor aside and explain why her poster of “Footprints” is offensive to me.

I’m hoping, of course, that my blog is an appropriate place to put my opinions about these things. But I know I could be offending you, dear reader. So if I have, forgive me and know that I am still getting tears in my eyes every time that little baby cries at the end of “Who Are These Children Coming Down.”

10 comments:

Jennifer B. said...

Good post. I want to read the Irreantum essay before I comment further.

texasgal said...

Sappy Mormon art, who doesn't love it? Its junk food for the soul. I think there are certain people on certain levels that need it and benefit from it (think EFY). And certain people on higher levels who enjoy reverting to it once in a while.

But yes, we ought to demand better of ourselves. One thing that is all the rage these days is the hymn "Come Thou Font of Every Blessing". This hymn is not junk. For once, we've latched onto an popularized something exquisite. Instead of rhyming "love and above" it rhymes things like "debtor and fetter". A whole different level of lyrics.

It would be best if we would channel our collective attention towards the worthiest art. And it would be best if no one ever ate junk food. But I am not quite ready to lead the charge on either one.

There is something about being a Mormon that makes you want a sign on your door that says "Return with Honor". Nobody wants a sign that says "Return with Groceries". There is something in "Return with Honor" that boosts Mormon morale. Kitschy, yes, but let them have it. Who knows but someone might be influenced for good by it? But lets hope we are also being influenced by "Come Thou Font" and possibly even weaned away from our junk food by it.

Emily M. said...

Darlene, so much of what you write leaves me thinking "I could have written that if I were not too lazy to sit down and write! That is exactly how I feel about things."

It's true of this post as well. This is exactly what I think about Mormon art. I don't want to offend people and yet some of it offends me.

I'm thinking of a Stake Enrichment meeting, held on a Saturday morning a while ago. I was so looking forward to being spiritually enriched. Instead I had to listen to a bunch of Mormon-poppy songs. The music was all right; I can't really comment on music. But the lyrics were abominably written, except for one which quoted scriptures. Everything else was just painful to me. I sat there getting madder and madder that I had spent my precious Saturday morning listening to that when I needed to be fed spiritually.

Now, when I calmed down, I realized that some people were enriched. And some weren't but wanted to be supportive of the effort that went into the meeting. I needed more charity.... but it's hard for me to have a charitable response when mediocrity is substituted for real, meaty doctrine.

And yay for "come thou fount!" That's a trend I can get behind. It never fails to move me when I sing "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it."

Ang said...

Great post, Darlene. I, too, feel like Saturday's Warrior is tied up deep inside my childhood psyche. My Mom had the piano score and we'd sit down together and sing all the songs ("Will I WAAIIITT for you?? Why Wally Kessler, you ought to be ashaaaaaamed of yourself!") My 7th grade choir at West Lake Jr. High in West Valley sang "Saturday's Warrior" at our yearly concert--sans the baby cry at the end. (Could you imagine a public school singing such a song today? How things change). Oh, the songs. I have such a soft spot, I just can't help it. But I grew up on the music, not really the play. I don't recall seeing it the whole way through, to tell you the truth. I just caught the "movie" on BYU's public television and it was so kitchy and hilarious I sat and watched if for a good half hour just for the giggle factor alone.

I do think, though, that the whole idea of predestination is a real problem with our generation, and I think that SW holds some of the blame. A friend of mine feels terribly guilty saying she's done having children because what if there's another spirit up there she was "supposed" to have that will now go to another family? I can't say this idea is directly related to SW, but the ideas were certainly cemented by the play in our generation's childhood.

Oh, and when I get to the afterlife, I want a cross-stitched sampler that says "I never said I never said it would be easy." :-)

Pel Mel said...

Maybe it's just me, but at this point in my life, sappy Mormon art makes me feel ill.

Many of the item in the Deseret Book Catalog make me want to gag.

It must be some rebellion deep within me from watching (and listening) to Saturday's Warrior too many times times as a child. I now shudder at the very thought.

I have never been moved by the phrase "Return with Honor." (Sounds a little "Karate Kid" to me.)If it helps others, well, by all means they can have it.

Funny, because during my teen and preteen years, I couldn't get enough of the sappy stuff.

Not sure why the change...
Exposure to other cultures?
Education maybe?
Hopefully not pride! :)

Jennie W. said...

I feel so evil when the Prophet says we should hang a picture of the temple in our house and I don't because I don't like temple art/photography, artistically-speaking.

Wm said...

jennie:

One solution to the temple thing -- take one yourself (or bug a talented friend or family member to do it).

Darlene:

I didn't grow up on Saturday's Warrior. I had a vague awareness of it, but that's it. I also wasn't really bombarded with Mormon kitsch growing up. I think as a result I have more of a critical distance from it. And that's part of why Eric Samuelsen's personal essay was such an interesting read. To have such reactions and discussions. I have to admit, the more I hear about those folks who were at BYU or living along the Wasatch Front during the mid to late '70s when all this stuff was going on (Dialogue and Sunstone starting, the Mormon music, fiction and drama scenes beginning to take off, etc.), the more I feel a bit of envy that I was born too late to experience that.

jonathan said...

I completely agree with your post. While a correct Sunday school answer will be that we strive for excellence in everything, the reality is that as a people, Mormons embrace the mediocre when it comes to all the fine arts as it relates to our religious beliefs and doctrines - this includes music, art, movies, photography, architecture, etc.

Rawkcuf said...

I've never really entertained the idea that SW was art, so it didn't particulary annoy me. I saw it more as one of the flood of popular culture that comes and fades--but, remarkably enough, resonant to mormons. I saw it as sort of an alternative to something in the vein of Saturday Night Fever ie; entertainment with poppy music but rather without the degrading message. I'm lucky to be out of the Wasatch front, so I'm rarely bombarded by poor mormon art. I find the general level of art in the Ensign has gradually improved over the years. There seems to be a consious line separating art and illustration. (That wasn't always the case.) I grew up in a ward that was built in the 40's and it had 7ft reproductions of Carl Bloch's 'Young Jesus Teaching at the Temple' and 'The Rich Man'. Carl Bloch is really the only artist I consistently resonate with. I also really appreciate Minerva Teichert. (My antidote for the steroid sloshing Book of Mormon iconography. --Even Lehi's wife looks muscular!)
I always associated those mormonad mottos with cluttered offices covered in signs like "Thimk" and "you do it my way or the highway" etc. I can't wait to post 'return with groceries' on our refrigerator!
I also find 'mormon rock' intolerable. There is a song that I frequently heard at baptisms that starts out "Joseph.." It is so cloyingly singleminded as to make even me wonder if we are really Christians.
Well, I suppose I can raise only so many hackles at one time, so I'll leave it there. -Bitherwack.

Rawkcuf said...

I've never really entertained the idea that SW was art, so it didn't particulary annoy me. I saw it more as one of the flood of popular culture that comes and fades--but, remarkably enough, resonant to mormons. I saw it as sort of an alternative to something in the vein of Saturday Night Fever ie; entertainment with poppy music but rather without the degrading message. I'm lucky to be out of the Wasatch front, so I'm rarely bombarded by poor mormon art. I find the general level of art in the Ensign has gradually improved over the years. There seems to be a consious line separating art and illustration. (That wasn't always the case.) I grew up in a ward that was built in the 40's and it had 7ft reproductions of Carl Bloch's 'Young Jesus Teaching at the Temple' and 'The Rich Man'. Carl Bloch is really the only artist I consistently resonate with. I also really appreciate Minerva Teichert. (My antidote for the steroid sloshing Book of Mormon iconography. --Even Lehi's wife looks muscular!)
I always associated those mormonad mottos with cluttered offices covered in signs like "Thimk" and "you do it my way or the highway" etc. I can't wait to post 'return with groceries' on our refrigerator!
I also find 'mormon rock' intolerable. There is a song that I frequently heard at baptisms that starts out "Joseph.." It is so cloyingly singleminded as to make even me wonder if we are really Christians.
Well, I suppose I can raise only so many hackles at one time, so I'll leave it there. -Bitherwack.