Mormon Artists

An interesting discussion at playgroup yesterday was cut short by toddlers stealing each others’ snacks and subsequent screaming. So I’d love to continue it here, though I won’t be able to check back until this evening, you can talk amongst yourselves and I’ll chime in later.

Here’s how the discussion began-
A member of the church that one of my friends’ knows recently had a book published by Penguin Books. I haven’t read the book yet, so I’m leaving the title out so as not to spark a discussion I can’t participate in. I want to talk about things on a more generic scale that have to do with Mormons making art for a wider audience.

Friend 1: So did you read so-and-so’s new book?
Friend 2 (hesitating): Yeah, I did.
Friend 1: Did you like it?
Friend 2: Well, kind of. I mean, parts of it were really funny, but . . .
Friend 1: But?
Friend 2: Well, she just treated some things about the church really lightly.

They went on to discuss more details and I listened in for a few minutes. They talked about how they wished she could have shared a perspective that was more faithful. Then I piped in and we talked about a movie that came out last fall that was geared toward a Mormon audience and the pros and cons of that film. And this led us to start asking questions about the challenges of being a Mormon artist. Here’s a sampling I’m interested in discussing further.

Is it possible to share an honest story that questions your own faith without ostracizing faithful members as part of your audience?

If you leave out all messy parts or anything “questionable” in hopes to shed the best possible light on the gospel through your work will people outside the Mormon culture care to hear your story? Is that captivating to anyone?

As Mormon readers and viewers can we withhold judgment of church members who are authors, screenwriters, playwrights, directors, etc. long enough to hear their stories and learn from them? Even if the journey is different from your own?

25 thoughts on “Mormon Artists

  1. Such interesting questions. This is a discussion I’ll follow closely because I have a book I REALLY want to write (it’s all outlined) but I simply can’t decide whether I wan to write for a Mormon audience or a broader one.

    As a Mormon author, I think you can’t possibly please everyone. No matter what you write, some people are going to find you irreverent and others will find you prudish. I think two of the best examples of Mormon lit for a broader audience come from two of our Segullah staffers: Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth and Kathryn Soper’s The Year My Son and I Were Born (and I’m not saying that just because they are Segullahites). Both books– Angela’s is fiction and Kathryn’s is a memoir– look at the light and dark of Mormonism and yet remain faithful.

    I know Shannon Hale received a fair amount of criticism for her depiction of Mormonism in The Actor and the Housewife, but I found it very balanced.

  2. .

    I think I know what book you’re talking about and I kind of wish it had become a bestseller just to get a broader reaction — to see what we as a people think about such a book.

    My own feeling is that the Church and the Saints are robust enough to handle anything that could be published and, from a missionary perspective, all publicity will ultimately be turned to the good.

    That particular book I’ve noticed has offended a lot of people but has also give many an in to Church culture that they had previously lacked.

    I think “judge not that ye be not judged” applies here. Although we can judge a book’s worthiness for US or OUR HOME or OUR KIDS, we cannot judge the author’s intentions, nor how the book will affect others outside our stewardship.

  3. I think art (REAL art) is supposed to challenge us. It can’t always be perfectly lovely (although at times real art is perfectly lovely) because life isn’t always perfectly lovely. Music has dissonance and consonance, and I believe all art needs that push and pull, that light and dark.

    Sometimes it’s great to read a book for escape that doesn’t push any of our buttons or make us think about things we’re uncomfortable with. That’s entertainment. But real art will make us think, “Is that how it is? How does that fit with my worldview? Can someone believe that way and share the same faith as I do?” And real art can uplift, even with all of these things.

    Even Lehi, after all, recognized the necessity of opposition in all things.

  4. Thanks for the nice comment, Michelle. The question of audience is one that I struggle with a lot, too, especially since I find myself in the middle of writing yet another realistic contemporary novel for an adult Mormons, and the audience for such novels is so incredibly small that I question why in the world I’m heading down this road again. But it’s the story that I can’t get out of my head, so I’m committed to seeing it through, even if it never gets published. Hale’s novel and Kathy’s memoir (and the book I think you’re referencing, Heather) were both written for a general audience but contain Mormon elements–which I think is fabulous. I love seeing books written BY Mormons that delve into Mormon ideas/culture/mores moving into the mainstream. But Mormons writing about Mormonism for a general audience is definitely a different animal that Mormons writing about Mormonism for other Mormons. And I’d love to see more of the former. (Which begs the question . . . why am I writing another Mormon audience book again?? Ah, well.)

    As to your questions, Heather, it’s my opinion that anyone writing for a general audience who sees her primary purpose as “shedding the best possible light on the gospel” is pretty much doomed. I say this because good literature has at it’s heart a desire to tell the truth. This doesn’t mean that such literature must go out of its way to showcase some of the less attractive elements of Mormon culture in order to gain national acceptance, though (even though some writers who’ve left the church have been able to leverage that point of view to sell books, because there are plenty of readers who want to read negative or “scandalous” stuff about Mormons). But I think Kathy’s book is a great example of a memoir where a writer’s Mormonism is rendered with honesty and complexity and care, but there’s no intent either to convert non-Mormon readers OR “expose” Mormonism as the root of all her troubles. I’m assuming the other book you’re referring to is an example of the same dynamic.

    Some Mormon readers won’t like this more nuanced dynamic, though. It’s a fact. In the same way that your Mom wants you to put your best foot forward when company comes over, many of us only want the spotlight to shine on only the wonderful and praiseworthy aspects of LDS life. The problem is, literature like that ends up trailing around the unmistakable whiff of propaganda, and a general audience can smell it and won’t want to read it. We want honesty in our art. It’s my opinion that believing Mormons need to be able to tell our true stories–stories that contain both the good and the bad–otherwise, we’ll forfeit our right to tell them to a general audience, and only those intent on propagandizing Mormonism in a negative way will get any mainstream attention.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this after recently coming across a really fascinating article by Orson Scott Card about the role of depicting evil in literature. It’s really long, but I was really glad I read the whole thing.

    http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-talk.html

    What strikes me as interesting is that I don’t have a very accurate view of how members view Card. I, myself always had a backlash against anything I saw of his because I knew he was Mormon and when I was younger I didn’t want to narrow my literature taste. But I read something of his for the first time last year and loved it. I think he is a great example of using his *art* to both reach a wider audience, as with his science fiction, but he is also very conscious of communicating his beliefs in a very indirect way. And, strangely, the one book that he did write that directly deals with the church (his love song to his people I think he calls it) was not widely received within Utah.

    I think it’s also interesting to see who an author publishes with. My mom is writing a book, but wants to avoid Deseret Book and Covenant publishing at all cost. She says she doesn’t want to limit her audience or have any stigma attached to her work, which I questioned at first to be fear of judgment, but now I think I understand her motive. I definitely prefer to read books by Mormon authors that write material that people both inside and outside the church can relate to, but without downplaying their faith to become better sellers. I certainly don’t mind a good amount of doubt and soul-searching in a non-fiction piece, or a healthy depiction of the darker side of things in fiction. As long as it serves a greater purpose, I guess.

  6. I know it’s no consolation, Angela, but *I’m* happy you are going down that road with your next novel.

    So far as near as I can tell the bulk of American Mormons:

    1. Don’t seem really concerned about Mormon cultural expression — what the Church offers is enough for their identity as LDS. They seek cultural products outside the Church.

    2. Like it when Mormons become successful on the national scene so long as they don’t stray too far from core values (for every person that complains about Orson Scott Card’s work there seem to be two or more that like it and one that loves it).

    3. Have a double-standard where they tolerate things from non-LDS artists that they would never tolerate from members. I think this double-standard is natural and not *too* harmful although I, of course, wish it wasn’t so even as I’m at times guilty of the same thing.

    Those three things mean that it’s a tough road for Mormon artists. On the other hand, it’s not all that dissimilar to the roads that other writers from other ethnicities/religious groups/nationalities walk.

  7. “If you leave out all messy parts or anything “questionable” in hopes to shed the best possible light on the gospel through your work” – no one will want to read/watch it because it will be boring and educational as a white wall.

    I’ve been encouraged to write a book about my divorce – which I can’t do if I leave out all “messy parts” or anything “questionable”. And if I was to write it, I couldn’t leave my faith out of it, regardless of who was the ‘audience’ because my faith is as intrinsic to the story as the yuck is.

    I think of COURSE we can withhold judgement of LDS artists long enough to hear their story – as usual, the question is will we. Personally, it comes down to what I want to learn or think about after seeing/reading/watching/hearing it. If I’m interested in the person’s story, I am wanting to know the why’s, how’s and what it means, not holding up my own “Gospel Standards Colour Chart” next to it, comparing their choice’s and life’s colours against the dodgy scrap of paper in my hand.

    The fact that there are journeys and points of view other than my own is the point of art. I want to learn things the easiest way possible, and art (in all forms) helps me do that. I don’t want to lose a child in order to know what it feels like, or what helps or hinders when you live with depression – but reading about it, watching a movie, hearing a song, seeing a piece of art that teaches me of someone’s experience with different situations helps me learn, and hopefully be better able to help/empathise/support in the future.

    I’m looking forward to the discussion!

  8. Great questions. There is such diversity amongst LDS people, it would be a shame (and indeed it often is) when only one facet of being Mormon is displayed in art and/or literature.
    I know I hate Mormon literature that is just that, about being Mormon–the whole story shallowly revolving around a surface topic, with poor character development. I want to read literature about a person who happens to be Mormon, and how that plays out in the normal course of what they are experiencing. That is going to be very different for every person.

    As far as being faithful–one person’s faithful is sometimes another person’s apostate. And sadly, as was obvious in the play group story, people will judge other people’s faithfulness.

  9. In order to portray good, we need to portray evil. A lot of members of the Church are uncomfortable with that. (Any portrayal of evil is considered inappropriate). Also, as Mormon artists, I believe our stories need to be presented as honest and real as possible.

    I would like to think that we, as members of the Church, are getting better at encouraging Mormon art (painting, acting, directing, writing), because we want “our story” out there. But the fact of the matter is that there are several stories out there and we need to be respectful of that. Re: less judgemental, more honest with ourselves and others.

    One thing that we, as women reading this blog, can do is to practice analyzing and evaluating art based on merit and not cleanliness. Instead of saying “Go see that movie, it’s clean, there’s nothing “bad” in it. . .” our analysis and evaluation should be based on a lot more than that and certainly using higher level thinking criteria. Is the movie/book/painting asking me to see life/love/family/relationships in a different way? Is the message a good one? Is the story being told authentic? Honest? Is it contrived/forced/have a underlying message that promotes evil or goodness?

    Ultimately, as a Mormon artist, there are many messages I want to share. It is difficult to limit myself based on what other members (individuals) may or may not like, but there certainly is pressure to do so.

  10. For me the important thing is truth. Good art is all about people sharing, expressing, experiencing, interacting and contemplating different truths – the beautiful and the ugly.

    The truth is that Mormon Culture/the LDS Church has plenty of good and bad. Frankly, I find solely rosy portrayals in art to be somewhat dishonest. I’m not saying everything has to be edgy, but I also don’t think you can really see the light without any shadows.

  11. I think there are a great number of LDS artists and writers who have done very well at creating art with accurate portrayals of good and evil and all its consequences.

    As a side note, one thing that bugs me is when LDS non-fiction writers take the gospel and sell it to the world and pretend it’s their own idea. I’m not talking about leaving out the LDS jargon so things can be explained to a wider audience. I’m talking about acting like a concept that’s been a part of our culture for nearly a hundred years is their own brilliant idea — one example that comes to mind is a book I read that encouraged families to meet once a week and gave them a format to do so, talking about how wonderful it worked in their family, implying it was their own invention. I would have preferred at least a casual mention of “in our church,” or “something I was taught in my home,” rather than the approach they used.

  12. I wonder why Mormon writers in the ’30s and ’40s like Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen and Sam Taylor could publish with mainstream publishers and attract a non-LDS following and why mainstream publishers and audiences ignore LDS writers today.

    I’m really surprised that Levi Peterson, for example, has not been discovered by the “outside” culture. Is it perhaps too difficult for outsiders to grasp the terminology of LDS culture? The earlier writers I mentioned wrote mostly about 19th century Mormon culture and didn’t have to explain contemporary church programs.

  13. I love the comments in this discussion. It is so common to hear the opinion that Mormonism should be handled with kid gloves by Mormon authors, and it’s good to hear people acknowledging that Mormonism is tough enough to withstand honesty. It’s only fragile or false things that have to be handled with such care. An honest portrayal of Mormonism would show both the praiseworthy and the less-than-praiseworthy aspects, and Mormonism can handle it. I believe most readers can handle it, too.

    I’ve been working on my own novel, and honesty and realism have been high priorities for me. Last year, the Bloggernacle had a discussion about what great literature would require, and I was surprised at the number of people who said great literature requires pain, and there just isn’t enough pain in Mormonism. I scratched my head and wondered how that was possible. There is pain in living the gospel, just like there is joy. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other creates a flat work of art that doesn’t live at all.

  14. I didn’t dislike the Actor and the Housewife because of how it depicted Mormons–I disliked it because I thought the plot was stupid.

    The last book I read that mentioned Mormons was Shattered Silence and it was fantastic! I think it was because it was a memoir and not a fictional book, and the focus was on her life and the fact that she joined the church was a side mention, not the point of the book.

  15. This is a great discussion. I recently finished the first draft of a semi-autobiographical novel and was very torn between an LDS and a broader audience. So far I’m opting for broader, but it makes me a little dismayed that the too must be mutually exclusive.

    Also, I spoke with an author recently who said the publisher has refused to tour one of his LDS friends because of the Prop 8 situation in California. So perhaps there are other (and very real) reasons to downplay the Mormon-ness, if you’re hoping to be published.

    On the other hand, my husband recently created an LDS-themed web series called The Book of Jeremiah (www.jer3miahcom). It is set (ostensibly) at BYU and brandishes all kinds of cultural stand-bys as well as some uniquely Mormon lexicon, but it has been widely loved for its great storytelling and unique plot twists. Ironically, most of the people who struggle with the show’s content are LDS. It was picked up and given rave reviews by Salon.com and the New York Times, and seems to appeal to a very broad audience (both Mormon and non) despite its very strong LDS content.

  16. What a great topic and discussion, thank you!

    “Is it possible to share an honest story that questions your own faith without ostracizing faithful members as part of your audience?”

    Some fragment of the LDS community will always have issues with art that leaves unanswered questions. Despite the fact that we have been told by GAs that questions are good, some feel their testimony and faith threatened when there isn’t a faith-promoting answer for every question. Many great works of art ask questions for which there is no pat answer because life is complicated and imperfect.

    I am getting used to the fact that not every situation in life has a solution or answer. My 7 year old is going to be fidgety in school, I refuse to put him on meds as a “solution”. My house is going to be messy because I have 4 kids, I refuse to spend inordinate amounts of time to make it appear otherwise. My faith, though strong, will not be perfect in this life so there will always be unanswered questions. Leaving them unasked aloud or in art does no one any favors. Approaching them with trust in God is another story, I believe there will one day be answers, so I am willing to live with questions, and I allow those who create art to do the same.

    Another issue is realistic consequences in fiction. Recently in a discussion at AML
    http://blog.mormonletters.org/post/2010/01/28/Whate28099s-Up-With-YA-Literature.aspx
    several people felt that one reason YA fiction (and fiction in general) is so objectionable is it’s lack of realistic consequences. This is one of the great lacks in non-Mormon fiction. Can Mormon fiction writers rise to the call and create fiction that non-Mormon readers want to read while at the same time portraying realistic consequences? Or has the reading style of the modern world been so molded by unrealistic consequences that “real reality” no longer entertains? That is a challenge for Mormon fiction writers to rise to.

    Many more thoughts on this (Isn’t judging art what we’re supposed to do? Compare our beliefs & ideals with the artists’ to see their truth and clarify our own? Even if we don’t agree, going through the analysis process is helpful.), but I won’t bore by rambling on.

  17. I just read Elder Packer’s talk. I’m guessing there won’t be many more people reading comments here, but I think that reading that talk could spark some intense discussion.

    As a Mormon musician, I actually found myself frustrated and offended by much of this talk (sorry…that probably says more about me than about the talk.) The assumption that many trained musicians are trying to glorify themselves in church meetings…I just don’t agree with it. And not only that, but I feel like the talk has guilt-maker written all over it. If you’re a Mormon artist and are NOT Shakespeare yet (and let’s face it…none of us are), I think the rhetoric here is that you’re just not trying hard enough.

    I have volumes to say about this, apparently, and this isn’t even topic appropriate, so I’ll shut up now. Angela T., thanks for posting it…I actually think I’ll be trying to work through my frustrations to figure out what I need to learn from it. In general, when I have a strong reaction to a talk (Mothers Who Know…), it’s because I need to learn something.

  18. Interesting. I didn’t like Hale’s “The Actor and the Housewife” because I thought she ended it too safely (just friends means the main character doesn’t fall in love with an marry the non-mormon). Hopefully she didn’t do that because she was pressured to by LDS editors. . . if she really thought it was the way to go, then I guess I don’t find her to be that great a writer. I have read both LDS and non-LDS books and there are hits and misses in both categories.

    In the arena of film, (and this is sounding like a lot of complaining, gulp!) I also didn’t like the movie about the bishop, “One Good Man.” Filled to the brim with happy-go-lucky Mormon experiences. FHE ice skating, heart-to-hearts with the wise grandpa, Mission farewells, Temple Marriages, Bishop befriending a dying widow, Bishop’s rebel daughter who (tah dah) repents. It was just too much. I’m guessing the conservative crowd loved it, but as a movie it was blah–painfully dull and rose-colored.

    In contrast, the movie “Forever Strong” about the Highland High School rugby team was on the other end of the spectrum completely as far as I’m concerned. It was a quality piece of art, good acting, dramatic, well-written, great message. But it wasn’t “LDS” and so it has, I think, universal appeal. And there were drug references and other things that conservative members might not like. It was the better movie though.

    I will admit here that I’ve always disliked driving through Utah where billboards display something Mormon company-owner-guy is selling to Joe Mormon. Mormons breeding off Mormons. Leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. I’d tell LDS artists to get out there and tell your story to the world. Life is filled with drama both in and out of the Church. When done well, it reflects well. When the difficulties of life are intentionally left out in order to create a “perfect” light, the leftover fluff doesn’t make for good art.

    Hopefully nobody was offended in the reading of this comment, just one gal’s opinions. Cheers to all of you creative people, one especially to Melinda and the Jello Belt. LOVE YOUR BLOG NOVEL!!!!!!!!

  19. I think I know what book you were speaking of at your playgroup – the author grew up in my parent’s current ward and (if it is the same author) has quite the reputation among my single friends who live in NYC who know her! (It’s a small world when you are single and LDS.) I don’t know how honest her story in particular is, I haven’t read the book yet either. But I do see why it would ignite all the great discussion.

    In an interview she stated,
    “It’s hard to be true to yourself. I’m not Mormon enough to please most Mormons. I’m not non-Mormon enough to please most people in the comedy world. I don’t know which side I’ll end up on yet, but I’m trying to figure it out on my own time. Either that or straddling two worlds is such great fodder that I’m really just in it for the jokes.”

    _______

    Anyway, :) I think the question of how one can be LDS and an artist is one that confuses most people because of what artists typically stand for: breaking the rules, being rebellious, pushing the boundaries. But I’m here to say we aren’t all breaking the rules that will work against our reputations as members of the church, or really keeping in mind a particular audience… some of us are just creating because that is what we do.

    If an artist’s body of work illuminates truth – that can be outside of a mormon audience and speak to people regardless of their religious standing I love the potential that the mix (of being mormon and being an artist) you have the great opportunity to let the spirit guide you, which can radiate in your work. The greatest confidence I’ve experienced in my work has come from that connection, afterall, who knows better about creativity than that One who created all?

    And, a little side thought: If you are an LDS artist, that could mean an entirely different thing than being an artist who happens to be LDS. Sometimes it depends on the audience one is intending to be recognized by and that may change an artist’s voice… may not.

    Such a good post = I feel like I could go on this topic forever!

  20. I haven’t read LDS fiction since I was a teenager. My grandma gave me a Jack Weyland book and I hated it. I’ve never looked back. So I probably shouldn’t be participating in this, but here goes anyway.

    Question 1 – Offense is in the eye of the beholder. If someone feels ostracized because of someone else’s honest story, that’s their problem, not the storyteller’s.

    Question 2 – If you leave out the messy parts it will definitely not be captivating non-Mormons, and probably not captivating to Mormons either. Highly edited stories often don’t ring true.

    Question 3 – I certainly hope so!

  21. Kerri, I actually had a similar reaction to this talk when I first read it five years ago. :)
    How it applied to my life then and how I apply it to my life now makes it one of my favorites.

  22. I wonder why Mormon writers in the ’30s and ’40s like Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen and Sam Taylor could publish with mainstream publishers and attract a non-LDS following and why mainstream publishers and audiences ignore LDS writers today.

    I’m not sure this is true. Certainly OSC and Stephenie Meyer and Shannon Hale are not ignored, nor is the author that Heather H. referenced. I think if the writing is good enough, the story compelling enough, and the vampires sparkly enough :), publishers are willing to go out on a limb for the book, regardless of the religion of the author. It makes me wonder if church members sometimes use the idea that they want to stay faithful as an excuse for mediocre writing.

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