Where Are All the "Mormon Art" Critics?

First published: February 2016

I love Mormon Art as much as anybody—certainly more than many, as anybody reading this knows. Still, I am the first one to say that our art should be better. And I mean much, much better.

At some point in our history, kitsch overtook taste, message trumped method, ease bested erudition, and the echo chamber of the culture drowned out all else. 

This isn’t a tirade of low art vs. high art. I think the world is big enough for unlimited kinds of art because it is created by unlimited kinds of artists. A great advertising jingle is as rare, in its way, as a great symphony. I am speaking about something more specific, and I want to be clear: I think that many Mormon artists are purposely doing work that they know is less than their best. 

Why is that a problem? For the artists, condescension is a soul-destroying endeavor. It can be rationalized, but only for a time. For audiences, artistic pandering teaches that bad is good and good, bad. It is lazy, selfish, and ahistorical. Over time, it devastates a culture by removing it from the context of the world at large. It ghettoizes it, pushes it to irrelevance. Further, it makes the artist who is ambitious feel like there is no place for them in their home culture. And, obviously, it is a huge opportunity missed.

There are many reasons for this aesthetic sagging of Mormon culture—fingers to be pointed all around; I take blame, too—but a crucial missing element that has not been addressed widely is this: where are all the Mormon Art critics?

I’m not talking about critics as snarky, put-down masters; I am speaking of their greater calling. The word critic comes from the Greek for judge. It has a negative connotation in pop culture and certainly in the gospel of optimism and love. Even so, I find that you can be critical without being judgmental. That’s key. A person who paints a bad picture isn’t a bad person. There’s a difference.

I love critics. I learn a lot from them. This goes farther than the little movie column or concert review or similar writing that exists solely as a marketing agent. I speak of critics who illuminate, contextualize, advocate, teach, inform, and discover. Let’s say you have no exposure to fine art music written after Tchaikovsky; somehow, you’ve skipped the twentieth century entirely. How are you ever going to discover it and be moved by the music of your own time? You need help beyond mere exposure. That said, remember that critics often get it wrong. Take a look at this review of Tchaikovsky’s “unplayable” Violin Concerto, published by Neue Freie Presse, “…gives us for the first time the hideous notation that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” 

Predictions are dangerous things for a critic. Here’s one that was slightly off, by Carlo Bersezio, “La Boheme…will leave no great trace upon the history of our lyric theatre…” Opera box offices beg to differ.

I acknowledge all of that. But I think critics play a role similar to the U.S. Judicial System. They are standard bearers. They guard against dangerous encroachment. They both stand outside of time and try to reconcile long-held beliefs with changing contemporary landscapes. They serve to clarify, interpret, and advocate for the things that made art great in the first place.

People of my generation and older consider President Spencer W. Kimball’s “The Gospel Vision of the Arts” to be a turning point. For people in the arts or aspiring to that profession, it was a justification, a call to arms. It is no exaggeration to state that Kimball’s great Mormon “Why not?” changed our lives. Today, we have to look at the message starkly and wonder whether it was visionary or delusional to say, “Surely there must be many Wagners in the Church, approaching him or yet to come in the tomorrows…I hope we may produce men greater than this German composer….” 

I am a positive person. I believe in the message of “The Gospel Vision of the Arts.” I also believe that there are, right now, in the Church artists who could be great with a capital G. But are we great in our support, dialogue with and encouragement of them? I say we are not.

We need people to help us and point out where good (as well as goodness) lies. We need people to be advocates for greatness. We need people to call out our artists, too, who have been tempted into easy paths at the expense of their own talent and heavenly gifts. We need help identifying artists who have the potential to make powerful contributions to the lives of many—rather than self-satisfying saccharine.

Does that sound too harsh? I hope not, but we need courage and honesty. 

We have to transcend the discussion of good/bad and the trite equation of critic as agent of dismissal. Artists don’t love critics, but they need them. Benjamin Franklin said, “Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” Good criticism follows this equation, written by Daniel Mendelsohn of The New Yorker, "KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT." Loving everything is not the answer, either. “You need a high degree of corruption or a very big heart to love absolutely everything,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Anybody will do for you, but not for me. I must have somebody.” 

I would argue that for artists, critics are crucial. Not the snarky ones, those with axes to grind, with fangs out, with mockery teeming in their bloodstreams. I’m talking about critics who can urge artists, and let’s talk specifically about Mormon Artists, to simply up their game. 

No, a critic should say, you can’t paint the same picture 100 timesNo, you can’t say you’re contemporary when you’re making work is stylistically 100 years old. No, a critic should say, every performance can’t possibly merit a standing ovation, every video with a million views on YouTube isn’t necessarily any good. Similarly, a critic can say, no audience, that isn’t the best there is, you’re not asking enough of your artists. Ignorance is not a badge of honor (“I like what I like”), no matter how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends you have.

Don Marshall, the indefatigable cheerleader of the arts, a longtime teacher of Humanities at BYU and an early novelist in the genre of Mormon fiction, used to tell a little story to new students. Seems that there was a man who waited outside the Louvre Museum for hours to see the famous “Mona Lisa.” He finally was granted entry, and he trekked his way with the tourists to what he described as a postage-stamp-sized portrait. Unimpressed, he stormed out. At the exit, he said to a guard, “Aww, I don’t get it.” To which the guard said, “Da Vinci is not on trial; you are.” 

Ouch!

For many years now, I have pondered the following question—I’ve really, really wrestled with it: if there were a Mormon Wagner (or de Vinci, Picasso, Stravinsky, Rothko, Updike, Stevens, Balanchine, or Messiaen) what would we do with them? If I were to tell you that there is a composer, for example, like Messiaen, but Mormon, what would that mean