Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Where are the Mormon Shakespeares and Michelangelos?

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.)

Painter Jorge Cocco (center) discusses his body of work at the Mormon Arts Festival in New York City. June 30, 2017.

 

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?

Lori A. Peck

Festival attendee Lori Peck greets LDS First Presidency member Dieter Uchtdorf and his wife Harriet. Mormon Arts Center Festival, 28 June 2017.

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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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

20 Comments

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  • Where are they? Hanging out with the fundamentalist Christian and Muslim artists. In my opinion, your religion/culture/lifestyle is too constrained to produce great art and literature [these days].

  • I’m surprised to read here that Mormon artists support each other. That depends. As an author and a Mormon, I found early on that isn’t necessarily true. For instance, a successful Mormon author liked my having praised his books and articles, and I frequently did; he said I was a “wordsmith” as well. So I asked for advice on breaking into the market, and his communication with me immediately stopped. He wrote in a subsequent interview that he wasn’t one for encouraging others in the business because, of course, he wasn’t seeking competition. A couple of publishing companies for LDS authors weren’t interested in me: the first because I wasn’t already famous nor living within their key market area, and the other because my stories aren’t what I call “happy sappy Mormon stories.” I write what’s real, what I know. Anyhow, I believe this is the way it is in the arts, whether “Mormon art” or not. We struggle to engage and reach success in any of the forms. One major barricade to becoming financially successful–in music especially–is that too many are willing to give away what they compose, almost as if it’s a given that there’s something unMormon-like about selling one’s art. Some people will get help because of their individual circumstances and who they know. There’s nothing new about that. But succeeding is tough for most of us, no matter what the artists’ backgrounds are. That’s the way it is for just about any business and artistic endeavor, I believe. I’m glad to see this article. I wish I could be there and I hope it’s wildly successful.

  • Mormonism’s greatest fictional writer was Joseph Smith. And verily, it came to pass, over and over and over.

  • Would we recognize a Mormon Shakespeare as part of our community? (By this, I’m wondering what a Mormon Shakespeare would look like in terms of their writing and subject matter). Would a Mormon Shakespeare write about inherently and explicitly Mormon things — or would (like Shakespeare) this type of writer be one who writes to a broader audience? In part, Shakespeare’s appeal is his ability to cross class, race, and historical boundaries, to tell stories that feel real and translatable in different communities and different times. Yes, the historical plays are rooted in history – but the narratives rely on plot and character elements that feel recognizable regardless of our historical moment. It’s my suspicion that if we’re going to see a Mormon Shakespeare, it will be someone that grew up outside of the Wasatch front, possibly from a part-member or convert family. Someone capable of straddling two worlds, and perhaps not wholly belonging in either. I think such a person will likely find success outside of the LDS community and may not even be read or known to other Mormons (or if known, not recognized immediately as a fellow Mormon since they aren’t writing explicitly and obviously Mormon work). There are musicians and bands like this already. I can’t help but think we’ll see a similar trajectory in poetry and fiction.

  • The closest thing to what you describe wrote the “truest book” ever about several tribes, a race war, and spoiler alert… they all died in the end. Verily it too was written in Shakespearean English and was historical satire.

  • Mark twain’s, to be exact. “F you took out all the ‘and, lo!’s and ‘it came to pass’s , you’d have no more than a good sized pamphlet.

  • Brilliant analysis… PS I got the reference. 🙂 That it isn’t recognized as the greatest pamphlet ever written is beyond me.
    I refer to it as inspired drivel or theological cotton candy. But art is in the eyes of the beholder. 😉

  • This is a similar conundrum the CRTC in Canada faces for what constitutes Canadian content.

    You raise interesting comments on YA fuction. If you havent read any of Martine Leavitt’s novels, do make it a priority. YA fiction at its very best.

  • If you took all the f-bombs out of Good Will Hunting, an Academy Award Winner, you’d have a short reel indeed. My point being that complex tropes exist in the book. We English teachers often have students compare Macduff and Macbeth but could compare King Noah with Benjamin as an equally critical exercise.

  • You want an LDS Shakespeare?
    Read “Added Upon” by Nephi Anderson.
    (It is a free download from Kindle.)

    An LDS Michelangelo?
    Arnold Friberg (especially his Book of Mormon illustrations)

    LDS inventors?
    Philo Farnsworth (all-electronic television)
    Harvey Fletcher (stereophonic sound)

    Finding Latter-day Saints in almost every worthy endeavor is not difficult (except that most Saints, rather than loudly touting their Church membership, prefer to go about living their beliefs without fanfare).

  • Yay, verily I say unto you, behold, thy drivel is as strong as the hand of the almighty. If thou hast hearkened up such conjecture, thou hast the imperative to prove thine case or be smited with thine blasphemous usurpations of our collective ilk. /s

  • She is more the LDS Charlotte Brontë or Virginia Woolf or Walter Scott or W.E.B. Griffin …

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