09 November 2007

Project Deseret

Jami and I are big fans of the Mormon Stories podcast and are thrilled that John Dehlin has been posting content so regularly during the past few months. Back when John was trying to decide if he should continue the podcast, and had issued an open call for submissions, I even went so far as to interview my own grandfather. Unfortunately the sound quality was miserable, though I hope to repeat the interview next time I'm in the States, since my grandfather is a pretty fascinating guy , a lifelong educator in the arts, and his recent work is about his great grandmother's visions. I was also anxious for Mormon Stories to make good on its pledge to discuss the arts, which, looking back over the feed, has only been lightly touched on in the podcasts about Deseret Books' acquisition of Seagull Book and Tape and Covenant Communications, particularly the interview with Ken Larsen of the Mormon Artists Group (a group to which my friends Annie and Kah Leong Poon belong, lucky New Yorkers). Well it's been nearly two years (I see 30 Dec 2005 as the date for the original Kiddie Baps episode) and Mormon Stories finally has a podcast about art on its feed, sure it's somebody else's podcast, but hooray anyway. Ashley Sanders, primary organizer of Alternative Commencement at BYU, has initiated the Project Deseret Podcast, a sort of Mormon-flavored This American Life (this is what my friend Trent was trying to do with Moderates Among Us, but then he and his wife had a kid, and he "pod-faded" after only two episodes). The format of the inaugural episode is somewhere between TAL and Mormon Stories itself, minus the obligatory back-story from the interviewees. We'll see how the project develops, but thus far the content is excellent even though the technical execution could use some polish (hey, I understand, that's why no interview with Brent Wilson has graced the bloggernacle yet).

After a TAL style story about Mormon Jesus-kitsch the bulk of the podcast is an hour-long interview with BYU humanities professor George Handley. I found myself nodding my assent to the discussion, the careful treatment of quotes by general authorities regarding the arts and artists, Handley's admonition that we should engage the world, his radically expanded notion of tradition, his desire to divorce Mormon culture from American culture and commercialism, until the near the end of the interview, where he gives a disappointing list of what he seems to think are exciting projects for a young LDS artist:

...I alluded to T.S. Eliot earlier, and I am not remembering the title of one of my favorite poems by him, but he talks about building the kingdom of God is just as much the work of a poet as it is a stone mason, and that we should remember that we have that responsibility and that opportunity, and that kind of art that maybe is less identified as immediately useful to the building of the kingdom in terms of crafts and building buildings and so on, but writing poems and painting paintings that aren't necessarily going on murals in temples, or whatever, but if you're painting an individual portrait, or painting a landscape, or writing a poem about an experience in the mountains, or writing a novel about day to day living in Utah Valley, whatever it might be, that too is building a sensibility and building a world orientation that is extremely important. So I guess it's just to underscore the fundamental importance that president Kimball gave to the arts that I don't think has been revoked by anybody since...

A portrait, a landscape, a poem about the mountains, a novel about Utah Valley (Terry Tempest Williams anyone? No wait, she's good!). Are these really the important projects somehow left outstanding and untouched after generations of LDS artists? When the murals for the Salt Lake Temple were being prepared the church sent a group of artists to study in Paris, the epicenter of the art world at that time. Instead of returning to Utah as careful and accomplished academic painters, the most conservative course available to them, they came back as Impressionists, firmly planted in the movement that stood on the brink of the radical transformation of art that would be Modernism. They were not afraid of engaging with the artistic avant-garde of the day, and they understood that the centrality of light in the Impressionist project resonated with the centrality of light and truth in LDS doctrine. Over 100 years later Impressionism has ossified and become a benchmark of conservatism and all-round fuddy-duddyness, so it might be difficult to understand how radical it once was. In contemporary terms, this would be as though President Hinkley had sent artists to study at UCLA, SVA, Yale, or Columbia, where they would learn from the likes of Mike Kelly and Kara Walker. Ooh! Imagine that, a Mormon Kara Walker making prints for our temple waiting rooms and chapels. The sad fact is that as Mormons we ignore our best artists, those that chose to take on the contemporary art world on its own terms, rather than pander to the kitschy sensibility of a church culture that confuses a political party for a priesthood auxiliary organization, and cloying sentimentality for high art.

I'm probably being too harsh with Handley. Like I said, I agreed with most of his points, but the the fact that his list of artistic projects that could help build the kingdom was so uninteresting made me wonder if he'd been serious after all. He is a writer, and writers like things with a history they can contextualise, and a narrative that makes sense. Historically artists have made their fair share of portraits and landscapes, and they continue to do so in the present day, so it's fair enough to characterize their endeavors in those terms. But the fact that an LDS writer and professor of the humanities, someone engaged in advocating and defending the arts in an LDS context, has such a narrow view of the visual arts, and such uninteresting ideas about writing is discouraging (where's our Nabokov? where's our Borges? to lament past greats). This is why when I tell church members that I'm a sculptor their next question is what material I use, and why when I answer, "plants, food, plywood, hair, my own body (to name a few)," I usually elicit a blank stare. How can artists talk to the rest of the church in a meaningful way if we don't even understand one another's projects in terms that make sense? So I hope that as Mormon Stories and Project Deseret continue their discussion of the arts in the Church it will expands the listenership's notions of what contemporary art actually is rather than relying on outdated notions of how artists work.


  1. Hello Dane and Jami. Your hedgehog is cute and your post quite interesting. I had dinner with Professor Handley in Puebla, Mexico last spring. He is an extremely nice fellow and quite an accomplished scholar. As of July 2007 he has a new book out about Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott. Here is something that may clarify or contextualize his comment a bit: Professor Handley studies/practices ecocriticism, the intersection between the artistic and literary imagination and the environment. So when he speaks of the importance of "painting a landscape...writing a poem about an experience in the mountains," he may have something much more complex and sophisticated in mind than merely antiquated or kitschy art forms. He certainly has in his mind an entire history of artistic exploration of the landscape. That said, I don't know if a novel about "day to day living" anywhere could be even remotely compelling or if it ever has had that capability.

    On a personal note, the entire idea of discussing LDS artists leaves me feeling ill at ease. In the first place, an LDS artist will be LDS no matter what they produce (see Borges's essay "El escritor argentino y la tradicion"). Also, I believe the seemingly LDS-specific lust for unconscionably tasteless pictures, prose, poetry, and buildings is not LDS-specific at all, but a question of poor taste that is common to the masses of all places and times. From William Carlos Williams: "Nothing is good save the new...if anything of the moment results--so much the better. And so much more likely will it be that no one will want to see it." The Mormon Church and Mormon culture at large have bad taste primarily because of a general lack of interest in the arts in and of themselves; to me, society as a whole has the same bad taste for the same reason.

    An interest in what WCW calls "the new" and what others would call "the creative," "the imaginative," or simply "the beautiful" is an interest in the dissimilar. Society in general likes to see itself repeated and represented and hear its cliches and narrative patterns repeated; it has an interest in the similar. The Salt Lake City temple, for members of the church, is a symbol of industry, sacrifice, and religious devotion (Aldous Huxley has an essay on it--he calls it the ugliest building in the United States). This symbolic value is something that they also see in themselves or think they see in themselves. You could make the same argument about almost every courthouse or statehouse or government building in the country and the way American government understands itself. To me this interest in self-similarity is vulgar and at times hard to comprehend; at the same time, many of these Mormons and Americans would find my attitudes and artistic tastes vulgar or hard to comprehend.

    Dane, you are an LDS artist, although that title sounds forced, don't you think? When we say LDS artist, we mean "someone who panders to or is merely symptomatic of the Mormon Church's and Mormon culture's interest in the self-similar." The same thing could be said of other titles as well, right (Catholic novelist, Protestant essayist, Hindu sculptor)? Those titles either refer to the fact that the artist is obviously making art for a specific community (as I said above) or that the artist is, incidentally, both Mormon and an artist. The former possibility bores me, the latter is just naming what is already obviously there.

    Sorry to go on and on. I wish we could talk about this, as I'm obviously a bit interested in the subject.

  2. AE (R)-

    Thanks for the clarification on Handley. I don't know if you listened to the interview with him, which I quite enjoyed, and felt to be rather valuable. The opening of the discussion focused on quotes from general authorities about the arts, saying that one day the church would have its own Michelangelos and Shakespeares. Both Michelangelo and Shakespeare operated within cultures that were overwhelmingly religious, and fairly homogeneous, though in the midst of opening up. Sure people spoke a different language on the other side of the mountain, or across the channel, and Shakespeare had his Caliban and his Jews, but he never lived across the street from an imagined cultural Caliban, or had the experience of actually being a cultural Caliban. In contemporary society someone can have that experience simply by wandering into the wrong part of town, or stumbling into an unfamiliar corner of the internet. So, if the church will ever have its Michelangelos and Shakespeares, it will happen in one of two ways. Option A: the church will be the dominant culture, Mormonism will be art's lingua franca, just as Catholic flavored Christianity was during much of western history. Option B: artists who happen to be LDS will engage fully with the dominant culture (right now an antagonistic mixture of secularism and a hodgepodge of fundamentalisms), and make art that is relevant, and exciting, and new. Really, these are the same option, just one is possible now, while the other happens in an imaginary future.

    It is, I suppose, the great misfortune of artists to see the value of their own projects. When others seem not to recognize what we see, it can challenge our faith in humanity. When an artist's own faith-community reacts in the same way, the obvious question, however unfair it may be, is: if the church is true, how can we be such Philistines? This seems to be the question that Project Deseret 001 tries so hard not to ask, a different version of which I ask (perhaps unfairly) of Handley's list of portraits and poems.

    I'm about to post a transcript of an interview I did with my grandfather this summer, about many of these same issues. I'd love to hear what you think.