Tag Archives: art

Great Audiences

While visiting the famous Powell Bookstore in Portland, Oregon the other weekend, I saw a giant quote painted on one of their walls that stopped me dead in my tracks:

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”
– Walt Whitman

I have since then learned this is a fairly popular quote, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, and it flipped my thinking upside down and then spun it around a couple of times for good measure.

As Mormons, and especially as Mormon creators, there’s a lot of angst about whether or not there will ever be good art. If the next Great Mormon Artist writes the Great American Mormon Novel, and nobody reads it, did it ever make an impact? In fact, that’s the common complaint among Mormon artists — there already is good stuff out there, but nobody ever reads it/listens to it/looks at it.

The question I’ve struggled with now for the past few weeks is less whether or not I will create Great American Mormon Art — I figure I’ll do my best and if I succeed then that’s great and if I don’t, welp, at least I can be a good father and husband. The question I have struggled with now is, How do we tap into a community that has been accused of being insular, resistant to controversy or paradigm shifts in thinking, or even light constructive criticism, or even questioning of the happy bubble we’ve created around ourselves?

On the one hand, I believe, like others, that we are on the cusp of a great perfect storm of Mormon Art. I constantly tell my wife that I am excited, and I can think of no better time to live as a member of the Church.

On the other hand (and perhaps because of this other hand the one hand can exist), we stand at the precipice of a rapidly changing world, and we will have to redefine ourselves or swiftly become irrelevant. We face a great many challenges in the future, as a people, as a culture, and as a religious church. Mike S. on the blog Wheat and Tares writes about what could be seen as a chilling trend in our Church — that our growth is not only slowing down, it may actually be reversing. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our youth and especially our young single adults; it’s no surprise to many that we are hemorrhaging them, and that the programs we have in place are at best a temporary stop gap measure (and are debatable if they even work). We are baptizing like crazy in lesser developed countries, especially in Africa and South America — but we’re still lagging behind other Christian denominations, and our retention rate is abysmal, to say the least. The I’m A Mormon ad campaign is a (not so) quiet acknowledgment that we have a severe problem; not just an image problem, but a cultural problem.

In short, we’re having a pretty significant mini-existential crisis here. We are not sure how to define ourselves and reach out and relate to the young single adult generation. We cannot retain our newly baptized members easily. We try to promote an image of diversity through our ad campaigns, but our wards and branches rarely reflect such diversity. We become increasingly incapable of communicating with the world we live in, and many long-time members used to the Golden Age of Hinckley when everybody (we thought) absolutely adored us don’t want to deal with a shifting reality that we’re one of the most unpopular religious groups in America.

Enter artists, stage right.

The top-down approach is not working; the Church’s recent emphasis in ward councils during the Church Handbook of Instructions update shows that we now realize this. My brother sometimes gets frustrated that the prophet doesn’t use General Conference as a “bully pulpit” to whip Mormons in the right direction, but even if President Monson got up and said, “We need to accept all forms of diversity and stop judging,” which they already do on a regular basis, would this change the deeply rooted Church culture — especially in America — overnight, or even gradually? No, it wouldn’t.

Art, however, has an incredible ability to change society, to influence culture, and sway public (or Church) opinion. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So, this is the woman who started the War.” Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is widely acclaimed of bringing to light the horrible plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression during a time when the rest of the nation preferred to ignore it. And as a Mormon example, it is a little known fact that most of our modern Mormon theology derives from the works of James E. Talmage, notably Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, which though not traditional works of art, shows the tremendous power of the medium of print.

Like the children of Israel wandering in the Sinai, we are resistant to instruction, rebellious against chastisement — but we love a good yarn. The propensity and ability of Mormonism to assimilate mainstream American folklore and put a Mormon spin on it says as much. I believe that we already have a good deal of Great Audiences — but they aren’t what we think. They are the Mormon housewives living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps wondering, as the 1950s housewives did of yore, if there was more to life than this but afraid to question out loud. They are the Mormon young single adults, alienated and unable to connect with a religious institution that caters almost exclusively to the nuclear family, but still so very much in love with the restored gospel and the inspiring Mormon narratives. They are those who don’t fit in, who struggle to remain true to the religion they fell in love with and the God they worship and also the personalities deeply embedded in them and the quiet conscience that whispers in their heart that the “standard” Mormon cultural path is not for them.

And then there is the murky underbelly of Mormon history that has for so long been whitewashed by our unwillingness to face our own demons. The explosion of information over the Internet has now rendered our suppression ineffective and impotent. We, as artists, must steel our hearts and souls and put on the armor of God and face those demons head on, rushing in with our pens and brushes and musical instruments, and we must show others around us that it really is possible to question, to reason, and to learn from our dark patches of history, rather than run from them or simply ignore them.

But it is not just enough for us to write and paint and draw and script and photograph and sing and play about Mormonism. We must evangelize Mormon art. We must organize and distribute and reach out and encourage. We must take our copies of The Lonely Polygamist and start Mormon literature book groups. We must find talented Mormon musicians and blog about them. We must share good Mormon short stories on Facebook. We must find every medium and art form, from fine art to video games, to tell our stories. We must show the rest of the Church that, yes, we are faithful, and, yes, we are quirky and different, but more importantly, so are you. And that’s okay!

In time, I firmly believe our demand for challenging, faithful, thoughtful, good Mormon art will grow. As we share what is already there and build upon the foundation stone upon stone, more and more members will ask for it, because these stories we have to tell feed the soul; we often forget that the scriptures we love so dearly are not just simply a collection of sermons or a treatise on human behavior; they are stories that resonate deep within our imperfectly devout bones. They are stories of broken families, of desperate parents seeking to keep their children in the faith, of children learning to build off of their parents’ sacrifice and learn from their parents’ mistakes, of the hubris of pride and greed, of the power of love and service. They are deeply contradictory, sometimes controversial stories that puzzle and confuse us.

The Book of Mormon’s stories are our stories; the Bible’s stories are today’s stories, and we must seek out these Great Audiences and tell them, “Look at this good that I have found. These stories are Mormon stories. We are past the days of perfectly perky housewives with stacks of canned wheat and six children running around freely and happily while father works at his nine to five upper-middle class white collar job. These are stories of broken families, of the hubris of pride and greed, and the power of love and service. These are stories of trial and heartache, of the universal pains we experience which bind us together as Mormons and as humans and as children of  God. These are our stories.”

I now firmly believe that if anything is going to save this Church which has been promised to never be taken away from the Earth until the Second Coming, it will be art. It will be art that shows us a new, nuanced way of viewing our mythology and theology; it will be art which questions and prods, but also gently guides our Church from an age of polygamy and isolation, to an age of rapid expansion, and finally to our age today of globalization. It will be art that lovingly tells and re-tells the stories, that teaches the lessons, that takes eternal principles and wraps them in meaningful packaging, and that beckons to those who may feel alone and cut off from the Church to return once more and sup at the table of Christ. Like Nephi, we will echo the Savior’s cry to the world to “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.”

In our Church, we have the unique tradition of encouraging everyone to re-appropriate the Joseph Smith story for our own. Like the 14 year old farm boy, we must all go into our own Sacred Groves and pray to the Father for answers. We must all gain divine communication and open up a celestial channel. We must brand the story as our own personal story. We must all become Joseph Smiths. As artists, we must tell our own stories, and we must tell others’ stories as well. We seek all that is good within our tradition, and when we find that which is good in other traditions, we bring it under the umbrella of Mormonism, even if it means rearranging what we already have to make room for the newly discovered.

In a religious tradition that encourages and mandates such deeply intense and intimate personal relationships with the Divine, how could we possibly keep those stories to ourselves? And how can our starving souls not yearn for them?

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Filed under fokltale, life stories, religion, wordsmithing

Mormonism and genre

I’ve recently started a new job, which would explain my lack of writing on this website, but I wanted to put down a few words about a subject that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is, as usual, Mormon pop culture.

Does anyone remember this?

I have a hard time taking anyone seriously when they say they truly enjoy this song. I know even less people who have it on their playlists and honestly listen to it for enjoyment, not to cringe or roll around gasping for breath because they’re laughing so hard. However, when I was on my mission, the mocumentary movie Sons of Provo came out, along with their soundtrack of the faux band, Everclean. One of the zone leaders got the CD as a present and it was quickly disseminated across the mission, where most missionaries were under the impression that this song in particular was not actually a parody, but a real rap song some Mormons created:

I’ll admit. I’m not a fan of rap, but this song still makes me smile (and laugh) to this day. To tell you the truth, when our district got a letter back from a family member that this song was, in fact, a parody, we were shocked. It just seemed…so real.

So how did the parody become more authentic than the honest attempt to create a genre-based Mormon song? Aside from the cheesiness from the first Mormon rap, they appear to talk about the same things — they both make references to Mormon culture (Mormon basketball, the word of wisdom, Donnie and Marie), they both talk about being spiritual; so what’s the major difference? I pondered this for a long time, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.

One tries to interpret a genre into Mormonism, while the latter interprets Mormonism through a genre.

For all of its attempt, the first Mormon rap is didactic. It’s a laundry list of Mormon commandments squeezed into a funky beat and cadence (though some might debate on whether it is truly “funky”). The second rap, however, embodies the genre of modern-day rap exquisitely, which (according to my rap afficionado brother) is hubris. The entire rap reeks of it. The singer is obviously full of himself. He boasts of pioneer stock, his childhood of Mormon basketball and Scouts (with the help of his mom). There’s a sense of confidence (even overconfidence) as he talks about his Mormon-ness. After all, all his peeps be conformin’ cuz it’s cool to be a Mormon, or something. This is a rap song that happens to be about Mormons, not a Mormon song that happens to be rap (or try to be).

As Mormonism moves into mainstream media and culture (after all, we now have a Broadway show about us), it appears that our older, more established Church population, mostly centered in the U.S., is torn. On the one hand, we wish more Mormons were producing things about ourselves, so that we’d have fair ground (it’s difficult for a religion as young and painfully self-aware as ours to take any kind of lampooning). Why did it have to be those guys who write South Park, Family Guy, and Avenue Q (two of the three routinely condemned as examples of shows we shouldn’t watch) to write what has widely been hailed an affectionate ribbing and fawningly praising musical about us? Why couldn’t a Mormon do that?

Yet despite all of our yearnings to be appreciated and written about, our native attempts usually fall flat. Sure, most of it isn’t terrible and some of it is decent, yet a very few is considered Very Good, and when us Mormons do create art or pop culture that is critically acclaimed, it usually isn’t even about Mormons (like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or anything ever written by Brandon Sanderson).

Two things come to my mind, and this is the take away message (and thought of the day, perhaps week):

1. As Mormon creators, we need to stop warping a genre to fit Mormonism, but instead find ways to interpret Mormonism through a a genre. Integrity is involved, in order to prevent “watering down” our message to fit a publicly held norm (art is to challenge, after all), but so is a sense of boldness and appreciation for things outside of our immediate cultural circle. Pick any song on the soundtrack for Sons of Provo — they’re boldly written, and they’re lovingly crafted with each and every cliche and hook from the musical genre they pick. They studied their stuff; just as the creators of the Book of Mormon musical studied musicals prodigiously. There’s a trend here.

2. As Mormon creators, we must steer away from heavy preaching. Leave that to the General Authorities! As Mormon artists, we’re to interpret, depict, or simply tell what Mormon life is — ugly stereotypes, prejudices, warts, bruises and all. Because despite all of our wackiness, like Jana Reiss, a Mormon who reviewed the recent musical on Broadway, wrote, there’s plenty of beauty to talk about, too. If life contains an opposition of all things, our art must as well:

Where the show really nails Mormonism is in the ballad “I Believe,” sung by Elder Price when he remembers his call to serve and decides to head back to the mission field. “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes,” he croons. This brilliant song is at once a mockery of the genre of the inspirational ballad and an affirmation of the choice to remain Mormon despite the apparent irrationality of some of the religion’s beliefs: “I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” Elder Price sings. “I believe that God is on a planet called Kolob!*”

The production closes with a demonstration of Mormon commitment: although many other Christian missionaries have come and gone in the musical’s fictional village, the Mormons are determined to stick around and change the Ugandans’ social reality. They are not just passing out Books of Mormon, but standing toe-to-toe with warlords. In doing so, they bring hope. As one new convert sings, “I am a Latter-day Saint/ I help all those I can/ The only latter day that matters is tomorrow!”

______________
* Nothing angers me more than a mis-interpretation of the whole Kolob scenario. That is something I will not get into today, but it is something I will probably dive into soon.

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Thumbnails and scripts

me: oh man
I’m like that person who is always constantly writing “his novel”
or “my screenplay”
except it’s “my manga”
or “my graphic novel”

Connie: lol
you kind of are

I’ve had this idea for a graphic novel in my head for a very long time — elements of the story started forming as early as the age of fourteen. Of course, over the years, it’s evolved, adding on more themes and components while shedding others that had become superfluous. But it’s always been there.

There were a couple of false starts and feeble attempts, but for the most part, I kept the story locked away in my brain (and occasionally tried outlining them in my sketchbooks). I had my reasons. I hadn’t gotten good enough artistically to create my opus just yet. I had a lot of maturing to do as a writer. I wanted more experience in life to draw from first. Almost a decade later, I had a firm concept of what it would be — a slice-of-life turned adventure-drama with supernatural/Mormon elements. I had an entire storyline sketched out, divided into seven books, which are additionally subdivided into six chapters each. I just needed the kick in the pants to get started.

Which I finally got when someone told me that he knew of other Mormon artists who were in the process of writing a Mormon graphic novel, and if I didn’t want to look like someone who decided to jump on the upcoming new genre (Mormon graphic novels), I’d better get cracking right now.

So I did.

Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim, once mentioned that he drafted his graphic novels by writing out a movie script and then making thumbnails of each page that corresponds to the script. Instead, I decided to do a hybrid by drawing out thumbnails and scratching out lines or key words or phrases in the bubbles and margins.

So far, I’ve got 100 pages scripted. Only 840 more to go.

And then I get to draw them!

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Mormon Self-Expression

Don’t worry; this blog will be super-short, but hopefully you’ll contribute.

Is it possible to have genuine, faithful, urban Mormon art?

If no, why not?

If yes, can you show me some? I’d really love to see some.

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The duty of a Mormon artist

I once ran a story idea past a Mormon friend, who immediately rejected it. He said it contradicted Mormon doctrine. I told him the story didn’t even have anything to do with Mormons, that this situation detailed a very particular pickle Mormon writers find themselves in, mostly because our faith is still relatively new and we’re paranoid of anything that even hints at anti-Mormonism. We expect Mormon writers to write stories of sterling examples of exemplary Mormons, and where our doctrines always trump all, where protagonists banish ambiguity, the boyfriend joins the Church, the child is healed of all sickness, the righteous person prospers, the wicked suffer, and the parents stay together. But such stories are not very true to the real Mormon experience. Even when Mormon writers write about things that aren’t very Mormon, we’re expected to defend the faith somehow. It didn’t seem fair.

This incensed my friend. “What, are you angry at the Lord? Are you angry that you’re a Mormon? That’s a dangerous attitude! You should be grateful that you’re a Mormon writer! You have a duty as one! Don’t complain about your duty or the Lord’s commandments.” And he lectured me for a good thirty minutes on what my “duty” is. His remarks sting even to this day.

There’s a writing contest called Monsters & Mormons (the deadline is soon). As the purpose statement says, “As Terryl Givens documents in The Viper on the Hearth, from Zane Grey to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mormons served as stock villains in the early days of genre fiction (both pre-pulp and pulp heyday). We propose to recast, reclaim and simply mess with that tradition by making Mormon characters, settings and ideas the protagonists of genre-oriented stories to appear in an anthology simply titled Monsters & Mormons.”

My friend David and I threw around some ideas for Mormon genre fiction, and we came up with some very fun ones, such as a team of Mormons who go looking for Bigfoot/Cain. Or a Mormon who finds out all the fantastical elements of fantasy like magic and elves still exists, and how does Mormonism fit in such a context? My friend Quinton suggested steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction, while my friend Ben came up with an idea of where our spirits actually are parasites which take over the bodies as they’re born. I bandied around ideas of where some kind of supernatural disaster, such as a zombie plague, forces Mormons to reconsider some precious theological tenets, such as agency.

The problem is, where do you draw the line between sacrilege and fiction? What happens when you find that the mostinteresting story to tell is when situations arise to challenge the protagonist’s faith? For example, David proposed an idea of a “Young Joseph Smith and Porter Rockwell Adventures” pulp novel, of two young, God-inspired archeologists digging up old Nephite ruins for rare, possibly magical artifacts. Sounds like Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, right? But what about a story where Joseph Smith actually communicates to a clockwork God through some kind of steampunk “revelatory” device in an alternate dimension of Mormonism? Some people would balk. Or what about a gunfight between the steampunk-ified Brigham Young (aka The Iron Lion of the Lord) and the steampunk version of Abraham Lincoln? Or, as my friend Adam proposed, the pioneers must build a fleet of dirigibles to transport the fleeing Saints across the plains, and before they reach the Promised Land, three young boys go through a harrowing adventure where they eventually sacrifice their lives in a most noble, selfless manner in order for the dirigibles to make it? On the one hand, it sounds epic. On the other hand, no doubt Mormons would find it belittling or even mocking a sacred Mormon folk story.

Mormon audiences are a fickle thing, a very fickle thing. And sometimes irrational. For one, we take our stories very seriously. A lot of people believe them to be factual truth, even some of the more outlandish ones (after all, we believe in a God of miracles). But at the same time, Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites is a Utah Mormon favorite, and it literally (no pun intended) tampers with Book of Mormon chronology.  And then, of course, there’s the Twilight saga, which isn’t about Mormon characters, but a Mormon author wrote it, Deseret Book carried it for a while, and lots of Mormon moms and tweens love it whole heartedly despite the fact that it deals with some pretty supernatural devil stuff like vampires and werewolves.

This, I believe, is a massive burden Mormon artists need to carry. At any moment, we bring upon ourselves the accolades or scorn of our brothers and sisters of the faith, even when we don’t understand why. Anything we write will crackle with religious tension, even if we don’t write it with our faith in mind. And after watching some books hit a home run with the general, orthodox Mormon audience, and watching some books fail because people felt it was too “disrespectful” or “heretical,” I only have two points of advice:

1. Intention is key – write stories without guile and without melodramatic didactics.

2. Don’t be a jerk. You know what I mean.

And when people talk about your duty as a Mormon artist to represent the group, just laugh. The artist’s duty is to tell stories, stories that entertain, stories that challenge, stories that instruct, stories that observe. Our duty is not to toe the cultural lines, but to transcend them. And often times, when it comes to Mormon artists and their dutues, most people don’t know what they’re talking about (and even more, what they want), and if we as artists tried to define that nebulous duty, I don’t know if we really could either.

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