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Art as an Act of Charity
by Orson Scott Card.
In A Storyteller in Zion, Essays and speeches
(1993, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City)
It’s good to be home again. I do a lot of speaking, but its usually to non-LDS audiences, usually to people whose main interest is art alone, and to them I can’t talk freely about half of what’s most important to me. Yet when I speak to Latter-day Saints, while I can talk about gospel doctrine, I usually can’t talk about the artistic things I care about. So today is a singular opportunity for me to be able to talk to people who are living in both streams of life that matter to me.
It’s also good to be home in the Harris Fine Arts Center. I remember very well hanging out here as a theatre student in the late sixties. We were the obnoxious group sitting around the statue of Massassoit or down at the entrance to the Nelke Experimental Theatre singing folk songs together and playing the guitar far more loudly than the faculty enjoyed. We were very aware in those days that outside BYU, students were rebelling against authority, dreaming of changing the world. We at BYU of course did not rebel; those who did, did not remain at BYU. But we did dream of being revolutionaries of another kind.
I remember very well that Dr. Charles Whitman, who taught playwriting then and still teaches here now, inspired many of us theatre students with a vision of Mormon theatre, of art created for Latter-day Saint audiences. But he wasn’t the only one talking about it at the time. I roomed with four painters for a while, I had good friends in music and dance, and we were all talking about Mormon art. It was in the air then. We breathed it deep; we dreamed it. And some of us went on and lived it.
Sometimes we spoke of an even more daring dream, that what we did as Mormon artists could also be taken outside the Mormon community and change the world. Some of us lived that dream too. Maybe the world has changed only a little, but we are changing it.
When I talk to other writers about the world, I will confess that a good many of them look at me rather strangely. We just write stories, they say. All we want is to get into the New Yorker. All we want is to create a little truth and beauty. Were not trying to change the world.
Everyone knows that artists don’t change the world; they just get reviewed, right? Presidents, generals, lawyers, corporate CEOs. . . they change the world; artists just decorate it, right?
Wrong. We who learn to create artworks and share them with the audience, we invent the world. We put visions and music and stories into people’s memories. Even when the audience for our works is small, they have received a priceless gift, for there is a place in their memories where, because of our work, all the people in that audience are the same.
Sharing the shaped reality of art is the closest we come in this world to truly knowing what is inside another person’s heart and mind. For a moment, as an audience, as a community, we are one.
It’s no coincidence that so much of Christ’s labor in this life was devoted to creating works of art. His great Atonement and Sacrifice was and is an eternal act that transcends any mortal analogy. But of his other more temporal works, which remain? The Church he founded eventually failed him. His doctrines were distorted, forgotten, and lost. His followers were slain. The people he healed eventually died. But his stories, those deceptively simple parables, persisted. Where doctrines consisting of language can be and usually are reinterpreted into convenient new meanings, stories consisting of the causal relationships between events are very hard to reinterpret without the audience noticing and crying “foul”.
We all know that the Saviors declaration “upon this rock will I build my Church” can mean different things to different people. But if I tell you that the so-called Good Samaritan was really a clever businessman who acted as he did so as to impress the innkeeper, in order to get a purchasing contract with him later, and if I tell you that Christ’s message was that you must do good P.R. in order to succeed in business, you I’m lying. Clear, simple stories persist unchanged, where doctrines can be changed an have been changed constantly.
Among all else that He was and is, Christ was and is a creator, an artist, a shaper. And the stories that he told, though they were only heard by a few thousand people in a troublesome backwater on the edge of a desert (sound familiar?) have become part of the collective memory of billions of people. When Christ said, “I am the way,” when he said, “Come, follow me,” he was speaking as much to artists as to any other people.
Its really tempting for us as artists to start thinking that were different from everybody else. Now, in some ways, were to be different there’s no way around it. We usually don’t go off to a shop or an office to work. Were always home, and we look to other people like were unemployed. (Especially, I must tell you, that’s how we look to bankers.) We have no bosses, no one assigned us our subjects without our consent. Our salaries are not weekly or monthly. (This is also not too impressive to bankers.) We get paid the way Death Valley gets rain. And then, completely unpredictably, our audience can suddenly balloon, and then our income resembles the rainfall in Amazonia - but we never know what made the difference.
We can’t always produce on demand. Our work can surprise us. Nothing goes according to plan; nothing is predictable. We devote ourselves to strange disciplines. We see the world through different eyes. Without meaning to, we startle others with practically everything we say.
Yet didn’t the Savior also step outside the normal career track and live, as most of us do or will, from the generosity of people who love our words and our works? Our differences from ordinary people, our arts, should bring us closer to the Savior’s way. Yet a disturbing number of LDS artists let their pursuit of art pull them away from the Lord and from the Church.
The Church is the community created by the Lord more specifically, created by the Latter-day Saints under the authority of God. It is the tool we use to serve each other, To bring the gospel to the world, and receive the Lords guidance in our lives.
I remember when I worked in the Church office building as associate editor of the Ensign magazine, there were days, more of them than I am proud, of when I thought, “I do church work every day of my life. Can’t I have a day of rest on Sunday?” This rationalization became my excuse for not taking part in my ward in any meaningful way. I have since learned my mistake. The Church office building is not the Church. For every person there, as for every other Latter-day Saint, the Church is your ward or branch. And our identity within it is our calling, which we faithfully fulfill. No one is exempt from this, and thank God for that. For no one is ever so wise or talented or important that he no longer needs to both give and gain through humble and faithful Church service.
Yet I have known too many LDS artists who feel because they’re artists, they need not walk on that straight and narrow road given to all the Saints. Instead they choose to walk on those broad roads leading to self-destruction. What they don’t realize is that when they make those choices, they’re not choosing art and rejecting religion they’re rejecting both their religion and their art.
Let me warn you today because of course that’s what you hoped for when you came, that you’d hear someone sermonize, but that’s what I’m here for whether you knew it or not let me warn you today of seven temptations which many of you are already succumbing to, seven roads leading down to river of filthy water seen by Nephi and Lehi. And then I’ll have a few words to say about the inhabitants of at least one floor of the great and spacious building.
The road, of course, is a metaphor. Your journey is through time, not space. Your choice then is not made with the feet but with the heart. To choose a road is to give your allegiance, take upon yourself an identity and system of values, a way of seeing your life in your work.
The First Road: Allegiance To, or Rebellion Against, Dead Artists or Dead Art
The first road is allegiance to, or rebellion against, dead artists or dead art. I like to joke that there are two reasons to get into art. The one reason is when you say, “Oh. I hope that someday I can do something that good.” The other one is, “If that can get published or performed or shown, I can be an artist.”
The first motive often leads the star-struck young artist to over-imitative work. The second can be just as deadly if it leads you to devote your career to reacting against work you disapprove of. Frankly though, I prefer the second motive, in part because it was my own.
Of course, you pay attention to artists of the past; it would be absurd to become so obsessed with originality that you failed to learn from both the achievements and the mistakes of your predecessors. Dead artists will teach you techniques. They will give you tools. They will inspire you with possibilities. They will warn you away from dead ends. But you must not allow their dead hands to define the boundaries of your work.
If you study art you’re only half prepared to be an artist; you must also study life. And to know and understand life, you must take part in it. It’s called mimesis: It is reality, and your relationship to it, that will teach you what your art should be.
When I was a theatre student, I resented all of the general education classes that took me away from my theatre work. They were a complete waste of time; I knew what I was going to do with my life, and my theatre work was what was preparing me for my future. Now, although I did learn much of value from my theatre studies, what I use the most, what is most important in my work, is the study and reading and experience that I’ve had outside my discipline. Technique is one thing. I have to also have something to write about. If you study only the works of artists, you may learn how to speak, but you’ll have nothing to say.
The Second Road: Allegiance to Your Own Career
The second road is allegiance to your own career. This is what the temptation sounds like: “If I can just get that NEA Grant, they’ll have to take me seriously.” Or, “You can’t do that in this piece. The critic from The Times will be there, and he hates that.” Or, “Don’t tell your best friend about the party he’s so naive. He’d never make a good impression on all those gallery owners anyway.”
The early Bolsheviks in Russia considered careerism to be one of the worst charges they could level against a fellow revolutionary. A careerist is a person who acted not to advance the Revolution but to advance himself to a more prominent or powerful role within the Revolution and they were right. It was that careerist, Stalin, who transformed a brutal revolution into a monstrous one, and it was when the Soviet nomenclature came to consist of nothing but careerists that Communism lost its last vestige of a claim to being a people’s movement.
For a Latter-day Saint, careerism is always a mistake, and not just in the arts. What do you think David O. McKay was saying when he said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home?” But for an LDS artist, it is even more important to avoid careerism, for careerism is what leads the artist to make cynical choices in order to go for the prize or the grant or the award or the good review. If your allegiance is to your career, you will sacrifice not only your religion but also your art in order to win these emblems of worldly success.
Now, I have received some of those emblems, because they are bestowed somewhat by chance. I can tell you by experience that, while they’re nice, they are worthless compared to the non-career rewards. Let me tell you about some of those. On my mission, during my free time, I wrote a play called Stone Tables about the relationship between Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (When my mission president discovered that I had some free time he wasn’t thrilled; but since it was a religious work, he forgave me). When I was half done with it, I sent it off to Charles Whitman, who discovered something that I had never suspected – that it was a musical – and got my good friend Robert Stoddard, who had collaborated with me on another work, to write music for it. It was performed here at BYU before I came home from my mission, and was received reasonably well at that time.
When I came home from my mission, a very dear friend of mine came to me and said, “No one else knows this, but when Stone Tables came on I was having real problems with the Church, with the gospel, with what any of it meant to me – family problems too, problems of my own – but I heard about this play and I started listening outside the doors of the Pardoe Theatre to rehearsals, and when it opened I came to every performance. When I didn’t have the money to go in I sat downstairs and listened in the Green Room. If they wouldn’t let me in there I hung around where I could hear it. I listened to it over and over again, and it was through that that I discovered what the Church meant to me again.”
That was worth a lot more than winning a Hugo or a Nebula, I’ll tell you. Its the letters I get, not often but sometimes, from teachers or parents talking about a kid or student who never used to read until he picked up one of my books, and now he’s an avid reader. The highest praise I ever received came from a librarian at Farrer Junior High, here in Provo, who said, “Mr. Card, I have to tell you, Ender’s Game is our most lost book.”
Those moments come to every sincere artist who is trying to tell the truth. But if you despise those rewards and seek the others, you’re lost, because the other rewards are worthless. The world does not reward you for goodness, but good people do.
The Third Road: Allegiance to Money
The third road is allegiance to money. Here’s what the temptation sounds like: “You’ve got to have a chase scene.” Here’s one I actually heard from several people not long ago: “We’ve got to change the protagonist to be sixteen years old instead of eleven; we’ve got to get the teen audience.” I love that one. Or, “I can’t sell this piece, but if you do more of those landscapes out of horizontal lines, I can sell millions of those.”
Pursuing money is not the same thing as careerism. The careerist aspires to prestige, the honors of men. The greedy artist compromises to get a buck.
Now, I don’t mean that artist’s shouldn’t earn money at their art; the laborer is worthy of his hire. All people are expected to provide for their own needs and the needs of their families. Starving as an artist isn’t a virtue, just a fact of life.
There are reasonable compromises and destructive ones. If you put off doing the project dearest to your heart in order to complete a less dear but still worthy project that will put bread on the table, that is not selling out; that is being a grownup, especially if you have a family. When you fulfill the decent requirements set by the person who commissioned a work of art, that’s not selling out; that’s giving fair value. But when you produce art that you are or should be ashamed of because you think it will make you more bucks that way, then you are a prostitute.
And here’s the ironic part. Not very far along that wide road it drops off into an abyss, because you soon forget how to tell the difference between good work and money work. Soon enough the audience will recognize your cynicism and desert you. While those artists who don’t compromise may spend years of sacrifice, yet still, eventually, if they really are good at their art, some decent money at least will usually come – or at least enough honor from good people that all the sacrifice will be justified.
Remember, though, that you are able to judge only your own decisions along this line. It’s too easy to assume that anyone who makes money must have sold out. It’s the cheap judgment. What looks like greed in someone else may not be greed at all. For instance, I used the word “abyss” a moment ago, hoping for the reaction that heard – a little murmur here and there. I wrote a novel adaptation of Jim Cameron’s movie, The Abyss. Many people have assumed, because I wrote that novelization, that I must have sold out. What they don’t realize is not everything that comes from or is associated with the movies makes money. The usual payment for a movie novelization is pathetic. That’s why novelizations are almost always done by new artists.
I made a good deal less money – and knew from the beginning that I would make less doing that book than doing a book of my own. Furthermore, it took twice as long and was much harder to do. But I did it because Jim Cameron, the author and director of the film, and I both wanted to see if it could be done, if a good novel could be adapted from a film as so many good films have been adapted from good novels. We think we succeeded, though it took extraordinary effort on both our parts.
But it’s worth knowing, I think, that what looks like selling out isn’t always. Sometimes it’s a sacrifice for the sake of some kind of weird artistic experiment. As to whether it succeeded or not, or was worth attempting well – you’re free to have your own opinion, as I have mine.
The Fourth Road: Elitism
The fourth road is elitism. Here is what the temptation sounds like: “Oh, I didn’t expect you to understand my art.” Or, “Did you get my reference to Jackson Pollack? Yes, down here in the right-hand comer.” Or, “I could always work with traditional melody and instrumentation, but that stopped interesting me in high school.”
In literature, it began with T.S. Eliot self-consciously writing poetry that was designed not to be understood except by the elite handful of people who had read all of the same books as Eliot and his friends. It was continued by James Joyce, who wrote great works whose primary pleasure came not from the experience of the story but from the decoding of the language. The untrained audience was deliberately excluded, and that was one of the primary pleasures of reading it – knowing that no one else on your block was fit to appreciate it.
The same thing happened around the same time in every other art, and prevailed in most of them. Non-representational visual art’s and non-melodic and dis-harmonic music discarded the very reasons why most of the audience throughout the history of the human race had ever valued those arts.
Because the practitioners of the new elitism were able to come up with convincing critical stories, enough critics, dealers, buyers, and institutions that went along with the elitists were also able to make money. That didn’t happen with the extremely expensive collaborative arts of film and theatre, and therefore they have not become dominated by the elitist viewpoint – though the elitist viewpoint does thrive.
In other art’s, however, elitism’s triumph is almost complete. Serious poets have taught the American public to detest poetry, so that now poetry is usually published in magazines read only by other poets who are trying to figure out how to get published. This is a tragedy, because the people have been cut off from many of the best artists, and many of the best artists have been cut off from the audience they really want to be speaking to.
But the people do still hunger for those arts, and, if the serious artists won’t give it to them, they’ll get those arts somewhere else. For instance, book covers, record jackets, calendars, prints of wildlife art are satisfying their hunger for visual arts. The public is very careful, very discriminating in their tastes. Without any official critical guidance, the public chooses the best – but they define the best by standards of their own.
The hunger for poetry and music is now satisfied through the American popular song, which, by the way, we sell a lot more of to the rest of the world than we ever do of our serious work. And there is more variety within that popular song tradition today than in the world of so-called “serious” poetry and music. And there’s a public with more emotional involvement and hype-proof critical judgment than within the worlds of “serious” poetry and music.
You may see a lot of hype, a lot of advertising, in popular music, but the public is virtually immune to it, ignoring many well-hyped artists while seeking out and discovering many who are hardly hyped at all. That almost never happens in the world of serious art. The hype must be there for the “serious” artist to thrive.
Now, I don’t say that these serious arts are intrinsically bad. Every artist has a right to find an audience for whatever art he believes in and cares about. And every audience has a right to its art. The place where I argue with the elitists is their elitism, not what they do in their art. I dispute their claim that serious art is the only art worth paying attention to, or even worth doing in the first place. I rebel against their snobbery, for their attitude is poisoning us all.
The elitists have managed to persuade even the people who hate their art that their art is in some sense better. Students learn that if a book or poem is “good” they’ll hate it, and if they like a book or poem it must be trash – the teacher says so. And then people wonder why Americans don’t read.
Worst of all, whole generations of artists are made to feel like failures or dropouts if they decide to create art for a wider audience than a handful of over-trained professionals. Many who might have stirred millions with their music or their art instead devote all their talents to pleasing an audience so jaded that the art will never have the power to win their love; the best it can win is their admiration. For where the untrained audience is always open to being transformed, the elitist audience is willing only to be impressed.
And the elitists know it. Their envy of popular art is palpable. Why else do they devote so much effort to sneering at the “mindless” mass audience and the “hacks” who try to please them? But I tell you that there is no higher percentage of talentless, cynical, careerist, greedy hacks among popular artists than among so-called serious artists.
And where do the elitists get off calling themselves “serious artists” in the first place? Do they think the rest of us are kidding? The true name of popular art is democratic art – art that speaks to the people, while the elitists speak to each other. They’re free to do so, but they are not free that the elitist audience is the only one worth pleasing.
Quite the contrary. The elitist audience is the least important audience because it is the one least open to genuinely new voices. In the world of democratic art, change and innovation are constant, through a process of perpetual dialog with a passionate audience. In the elitist world, techniques first used in 1920 are still called “modern” and “experimental.” It’s a closed shop. Conform or die.
Just remember, please, that Christ did not preach to the Pharisees; he preached to the common people. To a Latter-day Saint artist, enough said.
The Fifth Road: Allegiance To Mysticism
The fifth road is allegiance to mysticism. Some people think that the ability to create art is somehow magical, a gift of the muses. They not only treat old works of art with awe, many also treat their own works with the same mystical respect.
“I don’t know why I did it that way it just came to me.” This attitude would be harmless enough if it didn’t seduce so many artists into thinking that they themselves are some kind of bodhisattva, an incarnation of the gods of art. Too many artists think that as artists, they are so precious and special that ordinary rules just don’t apply to them. If an ordinary man abandons his family or verbally abuses his children, he’s scum. But if an artist does it, he “needs his space.” If an ordinary man takes drugs or drinks himself into oblivion, he’s an addict or an alcoholic. If an artist does it, he’s “tormented.”
In defense of this view, people point to artists like Faulkner or Hemingway or Fitzgerald and say, “Look, he’s a genius and see how he drank. See how he was eventually destroyed, or driven to suicide.” What people often forget is that it is far more likely that Faulkner created his finest work in spite of his alcoholism; that it was the responsible, adult side of him that created his art, in constant battle with the self-destructive temptations of the flesh. It was not the creative part of Hemingway that pulled the trigger. Who can guess how much better their art might have been if they had mastered the flesh? The laws of God are natural laws, and artists are no more immune to the consequences of weakness, fear, or evil than to the law of gravity. The Lord and the law are no respecters of persons – artists are not and cannot be a special case.
Artists have no mystical connection with the divine, except the one that is available to every living soul, the one that was given to us through the atonement of Christ and the witness of the other Comforter.
The Sixth Road: Allegiance to Style over Substance
The sixth wide road is allegiance to style over substance. I recently was talking with a young graduate student in an MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who actually said to me (and I looked very closely to see if he was joking because I couldn’t believe he was saying it, but in fact he meant it with his whole soul), “I wish more people understood that what matters most is getting a good style. Why work on what the story’s about until you’ve learned how to write well?”
That’s the attitude that has given us so much stylish, empty art in recent decades. It is all-pervasive in the artistic community. Many people were recently appalled when an art critic testified that a photograph of a man urinating into another mans mouth should be received only as a “study of light and shadow.” Both the audience and the artist are insulted by such a claim. Light and shadow might have been part of the photographer’s technique, but he at least, was not such a fool as to imagine that his subject matter was not important to his art. By making perversion fascinating and aesthetically pleasing, and by putting into the audiences memory an experience few of them would ever have conceived of without disgust, he was changing the world. The substance was what mattered to him. Remember that. Learn it from Maplethorpe if from no one else. Art only has power to change the world when it is about something.
Your technique will never be perfect. Never. But if your message is powerful, and true, then your technique only has to be good enough, and your stylistic flaws will be forgiven. On the other hand, no matter how lovely your style, if your work has no substance, no subject matter that matters in the real world, you deserve to be forgotten, and I promise that you will be.
The Seventh Road: Perpetual Adolescence
The seventh road is perpetual adolescence. This is what the temptation sounds like: “This will make those Relief Society ladies drop their teeth.” It’s what I call the “aha syndrome” among naive young LDS historians. When they first find something in their research they didn’t read about in Sunday School they crow, “Aha!” and they rush about telling everyone that they’ve discovered the truth about Mormonism. And if you point out the flaws in their reasoning, then you obviously aren’t ready yet to “face the truth.”
It’s the same adolescent desire to shock, the one that makes you do things that drive your parents crazy, for no other reason than to drive your parents crazy. We’ve all done those things. It’s part of being an adolescent. It’s part of separating yourself from the community that you grew up in, so you can find your own identity. But you’re supposed to grow out of it.
You’re supposed to spend your adolescence in a situation where the world is negotiable and your identity is in flux, until you discover who you’re supposed to be. At that point you’re supposed to become a grown-up.
A grown-up is a person who voluntarily commits himself to a community and makes a commitment that he will never break. That’s the commitment you make when you marry and have children. Many do break it, but they shouldn’t be proud of it. It’s the commitment you make when you join the Church. Many of us do it young, of course, and so we have to make the commitment all over again when we’re older. But the commitment must be there or you are not adult.
That commitment means that when you find a problem, you don’t stab the audience with it and gleefully rub salt in the wound while they howl. Instead you study it carefully and present what you’ve learned in a way that will hurt as little as possible – or, best yet, in a way that will affirm and strengthen the community.
The fact of the matter is that if you tell the truth, some of your audience will always be shocked anyway; you don’t have to try to soup it up. In fact, you have to labor in the opposite direction: to soften the blow, not just to help the community, but also to help keep your audience open to your voice. You must lead gently, must offer milk before meat.
Christ’s doctrine was hard, rigorous, shocking; but he taught with gentleness, meekness, and love, in the language of the people, according to their understanding.
Those are the seven wide roads that I’ve seen lead to the destruction of Latter-day Saint artists. And now we come to the great and spacious building beside the river, to one particular floor of that building, where you find the artistic/critical/academic establishment – the so-called arts community. There are exceptions among those who belong to that community, but in general, it’s members will labor to entice you down all seven of those roads leading to destruction of you and your art.
They encourage you to imitate dead artists, or at least to study them seriously, in part because they’ve already tamed those artists. They already have stories to account for everything they did. These much-studied artists are domesticated, and they can’t argue against stupid critical theories about their work because they’re dead. And if the arts community can get you to believe their stories about the dead artists and then imitate them, then they’ve tamed you, too.
They encourage careerism because, of course, they’re the ones passing out the honors. If you live and die for their prizes, you will be utterly dependent on them; you are much more likely to conform to their idea of what is art.
They talk as if they despise money, and they accuse anyone who makes money of selling out. Yet money is what they love most and what most impresses them. I can only tell you my personal experience. (Actually, I can tell you other people’s experiences too, but I only tell you my personal experience.)
Science fiction, of course, is not taken seriously in the world of letters and serious literature. But you would be amazed at how my reception in those circles has improved since I’ve had some books that hit best-seller lists, and since I’ve received some awards. I am no better writer, I don’t think, than I was before, but it’s amazing how much respect you receive, even from people who officially despise your art, if you’ve made some money at it. Don’t believe their pretense. You’ll wow them if you make the bucks.
Elitism is their lifeblood. They will try to persuade you that the worst elitist art is intrinsically better than the best democratic art. They want to believe this because it’s very comforting to them. You see, by this theory they don’t actually have to be any good. They only have to belong to the club, and automatically their work will be taken seriously. All these naked emperors, vaguely aware that the others have no clothes on, but quite convinced that they themselves are gloriously attired.
They encourage artist worship, because it means that they can live as parasites in the gut of society without making the slightest effort to produce anything useful – or even to refrain from doing harm. Art is their blank check, because artists are “special”.
They thrive on superficiality. It means that they don’t even have to reach for wisdom; they only need to echo received opinion with flair.
They encourage perpetual adolescence and glorify it in their work; that’s why we have these endless fictions about people “breaking free” of their “limiting” family life or their “limiting” job – in other words, fiction that glorifies people who abandon those who need them and count on them, those to whom they’ve made commitments. I wish I had a dime for every book like that that’s going to be published this year. Why does the arts community hunger so much for this story? Because it allows them to excuse themselves for behavior that in non-artists would be despicable.
The arts community is eager to convince you to join them, especially if you have talent, because, unconsciously at least, they know they’re empty as a society. If you join them, if you with your talent join them, it validates them. They’ll try to convince you that it’s you who’s getting validated, but it’s not – it’s them.
And if you reject them, it stings them to the heart. Like hurt children, they seek to enforce conformity with ridicule and laughter and scorn – just like the people on every other floor of the great and spacious building. And if you let them make you ashamed, you will end up following one of those broad roads. Your gifts will end up being wasted, lost in a river of dirt.
And I must warn you, if you haven’t already noticed it, that the arts community is not just “out there” in “the world” it’s also in here, inside the LDS community. Again, I do not speak of All LDS artists – by no means. But the people who consider themselves to be part of the LDS arts community draw their primary values from the world, not from the Church. They will ridicule you if you try to create art for the Saints. They will honor you only if your work is elitist, shocking, anti-democratic. They start from the assumption that if the common people love it, it must be lousy.
Often they are superficially right: The common people love it and it’s lousy. But the people don’t love it because it’s lousy, and they don’t hate the elitist stuff because it’s good. They love the lousy stuff because at least it’s speaking to them. They’d love better works if only the artists would offer them.
Let me give you a quick example.
Shirley Sealey. How many of you know her name? Ah, the hands rise, mostly women – that’s one of those fact’s of life in the world of books. You may not know that along about the middle of the 1970s, Mormon fiction did not exist for the Mormon public at large. There were Mormon novels, but by and large they were aimed at a non-Mormon audience, and often they were attack fiction, designed to show you exactly why Mormon society is corrupt, evil, terrible, awful, and foolish. There were exceptions – I think of Don Marshall’s Rummage Sale as an excellent exception to that, and it was also a popular book. But Mormon fiction did not exist as a legitimate publishing category. Deseret Book and Bookcraft were sure that Mormon fiction wouldn’t sell – so, of course, they published almost none of it.
Then Shirley Sealey came along with a book that, I must confess, I could not get more than 20 pages into. But that’s a matter of personal taste. The book was clearly not written for me – I was not part of it’s natural audience. Many other Saints, however, were.
No one knew that in advance, however. None of the major publishers in the LDS market would touch it – they knew that fiction didn’t sell, and I suspect none of the editors particularly enjoyed the book. It was a sure thing that none of the New York publishers would touch it.
But Sealey overcame that seemingly insuperable barrier, with the help of some good people who believed in her art, who believed that there was an audience eager for positive Mormon fiction. It was published by the Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, and to everyone’s surprise it sold like crazy. Whatever else you may think of it, Shirley Sealey’s first novel created Mormon fiction as a viable commercial category. Her book made it possible for Latter-day Saints to go into a bookstore and find a wide variety of books by many authors – more all the time.
Yet when Beyond This Moment was first having it’s phenomenal success, many people reached an absurd conclusion – that because the first Mormon fiction to sell well was not very well written, you had to write badly in order to sell to the Mormon audience.
That wasn’t the truth at all. The lesson they should have learned was that the audience was so hungry for fiction that they were willing to forgive flaws of technique in order to get fiction that spoke to them as believing, committed Later-day Saints. Yet the same publishers who once were so sure that Mormon fiction wouldn’t sell are now just as sure – with just as little evidence – that the only Mormon fiction that can sell is the same kind of so-called “women’s book.” There seems to be no master key to open all the doors in the house of art. You may open one door, but you’ll still have to struggle to open the next.
I have put my money where my mouth is. I’ve made an expensive bet that there’s an audience hungry for entertaining, affectionate, insider LDS fiction that nevertheless has very sharp teeth. I published a book called Paradise Vue by Kathryn H Kidd, a book that I think achieves my goal of creating a sort of Jane Austen for the Mormon audience. This is a novel that would never have been published by the major LDS houses, because it shows too many of the warts and foibles of the LDS community, the way Jane Austen and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens did with their people. It also would never have been published by one of the houses that goes for fiction that either attacks Mormon culture or sneers at it, because it’s so positive toward LDS people and values and doctrine.
The response that we’ve been getting to that book tells me that I was right, that once again there was a kind of fiction that the audience was hungry for but nobody was giving it to him. The response we’re getting from readers is: “Finally, a Mormon novel I’m really glad I read.” Now, obviously, there are people who are perfectly happy with the Mormon novels that are already out there – but then, I didn’t mean to start a publishing company to produce anything for them; their needs were being met. The point I’m trying to make is that when the people are hungry, satisfying them does not mean you have to create bad art. It merely means you have to create good art that they know is directed to them – art that they can understand, believe in, and care about. And they do notice the difference. They are very, very discerning. Anyone who ever tells you that the mass audience only wants trash is speaking, not from an ivory tower, but from a window in another kind of structure.
How, then, do you avoid the pervasive influence of the great and spacious building, both inside and outside of the Church? How, as an artist, do you remain immune from that influence?
First it takes toughness; you have to be strong.
Second, you must remember, don’t be ashamed of Christ. If, in your heart, you know you truly serve and follow him, then you will be comforted in spite of whatever ridicule and criticism comes your way.
Third, get a life. And I mean get a life in the ward among ordinary, common Latter-day Saints. Be friends, true friends, with non-artists. They will love you for much more important things than talent. They will be your friends even if you fail. And if you create your art with those non-artist friends in mind, they will teach you how to speak to the largest possible audience that receive your uncompromising truth Furthermore, they will teach you what real life is, so that your work won’t always have to be about art or artists.
Let me offer you a slightly outrageous suggestion. To practice Mormon art, or to be a Mormon artist who keeps his or her soul, I suggest leaving Utah if possible. I’ve done art both in and out, and I’ll tell you, it’s easier to create good art outside. It’s easier when you go to where LDS artists are rarer. I even went to a place where artists are rare, period. Greensboro, North Carolina, is not, I assure you, a mecca of fiction writing.
As a Latter-day Saint, it’s good to live in a place where wards are more all-inclusive. In Utah, wards tend to be your neighborhood, with practically everybody in the same economic stratum. If you go somewhere else, you’re likely to find a ward that will include rich and poor, white-collar and blue-collar people in every ward. Believe me, the Church is healthier that way.
Most important to you as an artist, you need to go to a place where wards are hungrier for any Saint who will fulfill a calling. When I lived in Orem, Utah, the ward leaders could never figure out what to do with me. The only calling I ever got, after waiting for months without one, was teaching the nine-year-old primary class. I loved that calling, but I only got it because I begged for it – they offered it to my wife, who already had several callings!
The kids were great, and I still remember that as one of my best experiences in a Church calling. But the point is that until I begged for that calling, nobody could figure out what to de with me.
In Utah, you see, there are so many Mormons that most wards feel they can simply ignore the ones that are too strange. (It was 1980 and I was also a Democrat; that was a complicating factor.) But let me tell you, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and before that when we lived in South Bend, Indiana, they had callings for me. Why? Because where Mormons who will faithfully fulfill a calling are more rare, where wards include all kinds of people, you start judging people by different standards – better ones, I think, standards that are more in harmony with the gospel. Outside of the Mormon corridor, no faithful Latter-day Saint is regarded as expendable. They may still think I’m strange and I am – but when I do my callings, they accept me as one of the fellow citizens of the Saints. I am part of the life of the Church as I never was able to be here.
Even if you stay here in Mormon country – and many of you will – you can still do some things that will help you live a real Mormon life:
Don’t cultivate weirdness. Trust me, you’re going to be weird anyway; you don’t have to try. Instead, try very hard to appear normal. It communicates a good message. The message is: “I want to be one with you.” And, of course, to the artsy types, it says the opposite, and that’s also a good message to give.
You must absolutely forbid yourself to sneer, especially at things you don’t understand. If you don’t understand what people are reading those silly sentimental Mormon romances for, then don’t you dare criticize them for it. You don’t know what hungers are being met by what art. All you can truthfully say is that you’re not part of the audience for that work.
Above all, when you look at the Mormon people always feel yourself to be one of us especially when we drive you crazy. Instead of saying, “Look at what those bozos are doing now,” you must phrase it this way in your own heart, “Why do keep doing these crazy things?”
This is not a matter of “mere” words it is not a trivial difference. You must always conceive yourself to be part of this community, even when you disapprove of what the community does. Your sense of “us” must always include the Church, never exclude it.
And your sense of “I” must always include the Savior, that’s what it means to take upon yourselves the name of Christ. He’ll never sign your work, but he’ll be part of it all the same. And then all your works can honestly be offered like prayers, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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