Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Gospel Vision of the Arts

Greg Hanson asks, “Is the Gospel Vision of the Arts No Longer Valid? What he’s referring to is a talk (and subsequent Ensign article) given by Spencer W Kimball in 1977. The talk has been an inspiration for years to LDS artists everywhere. In a lot of ways, as I read it, I’m also reminded of John F Kennedy’s inaugural address where he promises to send a man to the moon and bring him home safely. Pres. Kimball’s tone is in that same order. He wants artists to push themselves and reach beyond ourselves to achieve greatness.

I read his words, and I find them inspiring. I want his vision to happen as well. I want Zion to put on her beautiful garments and arise and shine forth for the world like he does.

And then I look around at my own life and I face reality. Here are a few of the realities we face. I realize that many of these will sound like me just making excuses. Still, these are things that need to be overcome.

  1. Not everything will be great

I look at the music that I create, for example, and I realize that there are many flaws. Am I creating greatness? Many people have responded to my songs with enthusiasm, and told me they found the songs inspiring. But is that lasting “greatness?” Not really. One thing we have to realize as an artistic community is that even though we strive for excellence, not everything that we produce, as a community will be “great”. Some of it will only be “really good”. Some of it will even be “pretty lame”. But if those that are making “lame”, or even “just good”, art decide to quit because it’s not “great”, then no-one will ever grow and learn enough to achieve greatness.

So, we, as an artistic community, should do our best to foster effort, and assist in that growth, rather than to cut down and reject less-than perfect efforts. The natural market forces will sort out what’s good and bad on their own. It doesn’t need our help.

  1. Test of time

Much of what we currently define as “Masterpieces” have been around a long, long time. In western civilization alone, we have in our museums samples of works of art that are hundreds and even thousands of years old. Time has helped us to sort the good from the bad. President Kimball says that Bach and Mozart defined their musical eras, and are often revered in the same way that founders of religions are. I’m not saying that’s not right, or that it shouldn’t be that way. But Bach lived and worked in the 1700’s.

Considering that the church was founded in the early to mid 1800’s, that gives Johann quite a few more years to develop a following. And even he didn’t have much of a fan base in his own lifetime. Much of LDS art is relatively new, and I don’t think there has really been enough time to sort out the great ones just yet.

  1. Need to define “Greatness”

Another challenge comes when we try and define what is great and what is not. “Artistic” greatness is such a moving target, and sheer popularity can be quite fleeting. It also doesn’t necessarily define what is a truly well-crafted masterwork. Would “Saturday’s Warrior” qualify as one of the masterpiece that President Kimball is envisioning? It was a key piece in the mormon cultural landscape, and in it’s context, was very influential. It was extremely popular, and in many ways, still is. Is it great art? I’m not sure I want to get in on that debate… What about the works of Janice Kapp Perry, or Michael McLean? Or the now-iconic Arnold Friberg paintings that were included in the paperback Book of Mormon?

What role do the popular arts and folk arts play in this continuum?

  1. Should the Church itself support it more?

Many years ago, as the Salt Lake Temple was nearing completion, there were a number of people called and sent on missions to France. Their purpose was not so much to preach the gospel, but to learn to paint. Their goal was to be able to come back to Salt Lake and paint the murals on the interior walls of the temple.

Throughout the history of the church, there have been times when the church has needed a particular artistic thing created, and at that point, they either call or hire someone to create it.

Should the church commission more works of art? I’m not sure of that, either. On the one hand, it’s great to be free to create as I please. On the other hand, few members of the church can make a full-time living making art for the church or its members (on the open market).

  1. Overcoming ignorance and apathy

A final challenge is one that I’ve encountered in the LDS music world, and have seen in other artistic genres as well. That is the fact the church is currently at about a dozen million members. That’s big. But how many of them know the names of any church musicians, authors, or artists? How many of those only know a few?

We, as the artistic community, have a lot of work ahead of us to let our audience know that we even exist before they can decide if we are “great” or not. Greg Hansen cites the internet as a wonderful tool for advancing the arts. I agree. But even though we now have power saws and pneumatic nail guns instead of a hand saw and manual hammer, we still have to build the house. And that will be a big task.

The Big Audacious Goal

I know this has been long, but let me end with a story. A long time ago, I was working at an elementary school, and in our start of the year training, the principal came to us with the idea of setting a BAG (a Big Audacious Goal). She cited Pres Kennedy and his “Trip to the Moon” speech as a great example. She said that it was crazy for him to set that goal, but look where it got us, in terms of technology and world prestige. She wanted us, as an educational team, to find and set a similarly audacious goal for ourselves. She stressed that even if we failed to achieve that dream, we would still have progressed much farther than we would have had we not set the goal.

One suggestion was that our goal be to have every child reading at grade level. For a poorly-funded, inner-city school, that was pretty big and audacious for a BAG. In the end, the faculty couldn’t get behind it.

Still, I think of Apollo, and President Kimball’s vision, and I think of how big and audacious those goals were, and are. I want to be up to the challenge. I want to take it on.

Mark Hansen

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