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.”