It’s a rich lineup this week at the first-ever Mormon Arts Center Festival in New York City, as we all come to terms with Pres. Spencer W. Kimball’s 1967 mandate for great Mormon art:
“In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science and all the graces. For long years I have had a vision of the BYU greatly increasing its already strong position of excellence till the eyes of all the world will be upon us.”
Pres. Kimball was at the time speaking only to the faculty at BYU, but his call was later reprinted in the Ensign and expanded to include the entire LDS Church. His “gospel vision for the arts” envisioned the Mormon people producing enduring works of art, sculpture, literature, and music, bringing faith to the forefront of artistic endeavor. Who better, he thought, to explore the boundaries of artistic expression?
This week, we’re assessing where we are now in regard to this mandate from half a century ago, but mostly we are celebrating the many artists, musicians, writers, and creative thinkers our culture has produced. We may not yet have a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo, but we have beauty and skill to spare. (Check out this painting by Jorge Cocco, a sacro-cubist LDS painter from Argentina.)
One theme that has come up several times is the question of what constitutes authentically “Mormon” art. Is it anything created by Mormons? Does it have to have specifically religious themes? And where are we in fulfilling that call to have our Shakespeares?
In speaking yesterday about the relative lack of masters of literary fiction within Mormondom, I pointed to the outsized presence of Mormon novelists who make up the ranks of genre novelists, particularly for the YA market.
I have not been satisfied with previous attempts to explain why so many Mormon authors populate that market — Shannon Hale, Brandon Sanderson, Kiersten White, James Dashner, Ally Condie and many others. A few years ago a piece in the New York Times put it down to a couple of things: 1) Mormon writers can’t depict sex, so they have fled adult fiction in favor of writing for teens, and 2) Mormons already have such an outlandish theological orientation that science fiction really isn’t much of a stretch.
There is probably some truth to the first of those assertions, but I don’t think it gets to the heart of things. Closer to the truth is Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, who has pointed to Mormons’ ability to fulfill community expectations as a key component of success. Genre fiction lives and dies by how well authors adhere to certain community expectations, and Mormon authors have proven themselves to be geniuses at community. They not only understand the literary requirements of their respective genres, but they help one another succeed, and give of themselves to readers in events and on social media.
What I came away with in that talk was that community is the Mormon Shakespeare. The “lone genius” paradigm is not our jam. That’s not to say we don’t have immensely talented individuals in our midst, many of whom I have been privileged to meet here at the festival. But it means that Mormons’ peculiar gift is for pulling together, believing that our individual efforts are part of something bigger. That we have a responsibility to nurture one another. Right now at the festival I am listening to musician Nathan Thatcher introduce fellow Mormon artist Francisco Estévez, whom he assiduously tracked down in Spain when he first discovered Estévez’s music. Thatcher is visibly excited at the joy of introducing this composer, about whom he has now written a book.
That’s community. And that, as much as great art, is what we are celebrating this week in New York.
The Mormon Arts Center Festival concludes tomorrow at Riverside Church in New York City. The culminating event will be a “sing in” of Mormon music on Saturday afternoon, conducted by former Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Craig Jessop. A full schedule is here.
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