Various cults

“Artists are the worker priests of the cult of man.”

That’s a statement by Brice Marden. A brand new painting by Marden will set you back about nine hundred thousand dollars. In addition, Marden has been pretty up front about his drug use. He really likes to smoke pot. So what kind of cult is he talking about? And where can we find the seminary?

Two weeks ago I found a book. (In New York wisdom is always speaking to one from the dust; books litter the streets.) It was Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Some of you will remember it. It caused quite a stir back in 1990. It was interesting to see it lying there, washed clean of controversy.

The first chapter, titled “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art,” is a humdinger. Rather than put up a defense of Ms. Paglia, allow me to note the Philadelphia Inquirer’s blurb on the inside: “Paglia makes more outrageous claims in her first 20 pages than most academics make in a lifetime.” It is a work of art that speaks some truth. From page 28:

Everything is melting in nature. We think we see objects, but our eyes are slow and partial. Nature is blooming and withering in long puffy respirations, rising and falling in oceanic wave-motion. A mind that opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preoccupation would be glutted by nature’s coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. An apple tree laden with fruit: how peaceful, how picturesque. But remove the rosy filter of humanism from our gaze and look again. See nature spuming and frothing, its mad spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out and smashing in that inhuman round of waste, rot, and carnage. From the jammed glassy cells of sea roe to the feathery spores poured into the air from bursting pods, nature is a festering hornet’s nest of aggression and overkill. . . . Nature is the seething excess of being.

The most effective weapon against the flux of nature is art. Religion, ritual and art began as one, and a religious or metaphysical element is still present in all art. Art, no matter how minimalist, is never simply design. It is always a ritualistic reordering of reality. The enterprise of art, in a stable collective era or an unsettled individualistic one, is inspired by anxiety. Every subject localized and honored by art is endangered by its opposite. Art is a shutting in in order to shut out. Art is a ritualistic binding of the perpetual motion machine that is nature. The first artist was a tribal priest casting a spell, fixing nature’s daemonic energy in a moment of perceptual stillness. Fixation is at the heart of art, fixation as stasis and fixation as obsession. The modern artist who merely draws a line across a page is still trying to tame some uncontrollable aspect of reality. Art is spellbinding. Art fixes the audience in its seat, stops the feet before a painting, fixes a book in the hand. Contemplation is a magic act.

I was raised in an American Christian cult of salesmen. For this reason I have always admired the artist Jeff Koons. Koons worked as a commodities salesman in the early years of his career. He once remarked that he loved selling because it was “an act of conscious control.”

The cult of my upbringing was the Mormon Church. Mormons bristle at being called “cultists” but to a degree they are, as are all dogmatic believers in the “vision” of one individual; and in Mormonism, that individual is Joseph Smith, Jr. Camile Paglia was mentored by a secular fan of Joseph Smith’s, Harold Bloom.

In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom writes adoringly of Joseph Smith. He quotes Ms. Paglia while speculating on Smith’s charismatic persona and the source of his power. In a quick scan of Sexual Personae I found this quoted text near the bottom of page 521 in the Vintage paperback. While reading this original source material (which is about the androgynous nature of charisma — a topic for another post) I was struck by a line in the paragraph above it: “An unanswered question of history is how one individual can control masses of people.”

Growing up I was often asked “Can a good Mormon boy be a great artist?” or phrased another way “When will Mormonism produce a great artist?” I’ve never really been able to answer those questions until now. No and it won’t. And here’s why.

Conceptual art systems (and all art systems are conceptual) are self contained. They grow by excluding other systems. They either swallow them, as an artist learns to subsume the master, as did Pablo Picasso, with rapacious skill. Or they turn away, like Donald Judd, in self-righteous anger.

Joseph Smith was an artist. A profoundly great and grave one. His art makes Picasso’s look like child’s play and Matthew Barney’s . . . infantile. His was an art that dismissed Luther, Calvin and Wesley and went head to head with the foundational texts of Western culture. And to a shocking degree he won. The whole Intermountain West is his Marfa.

No one can be an artist in the shadow of Joseph Smith. An artist tries to create objects that are in themselves charismatic, that continually attract attention and “witness” to the greatness of the artist. In the contemporary world these objects replace religion. The work of an effective contemporary artist makes people believe. Not in anything in particular but rather in the artist. In this sense, every artist’s practice, and the circle of people that support it, constitutes a cult.

Having left the cult of my birth and writing in a way that can seem self-aggrandizing let me conclude with this. I am at the beginning stages of artistic maturity and am making no claim to greatness or to my power as a prophet. Having an artistic project “stick” in the culture is as much a matter of luck as anything else. Additionally, the personal consequences of being an authentic cult leader, extreme narcissism, may not be all that desirable.

So for the moment, I take solace in a quote from that consummate Jack-Mormon cosmopolitan, Wayne Thiebaud: “One doesn’t have to be a great artist to be interesting.”

I’ll second that, and count myself a member of the Thiebaud cult. And Martin and Judd and Ray and Walker and Friedman and Kauper and . . .

65 responses to “Various cults”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    I say this with zero irony. I love how un-ironic you are in your role as an artist.

    It reminds me of one of the greatest things anyone has ever said to me: I had just happened upon an amazing comedy event; it was a group of (San Francisco) Mission dudes who put together a troupe to do live sketch comedy in local bars and whatnot. I approached one of the gents after the show to tell him how much I enjoyed it, and he turned to me, stone-faced, and said: “There’s nothing funny about comedy.”

    It bums me out when people try to lighten the things that obviously weigh heavily upon their souls. Thanks for keepin’ it real.

  2. Ruben Mancillas says:

    So what do you make of Neil LaBute? I think he’s very good.

    As for Scott’s comedy troupe (Legz Akimbo?)-maybe they weren’t having the right kind of orgasms.

  3. Dave says:

    LaBute’s very good, but I think he illustrates Lane’s point. His early work on Mormon issues cut the world across the grain of how most Mormons would cut it (seeing cruelty, power, sex, and violence as key to the human experience, even underlying “nice” and “harmless” and “friendly” interactions). It was just not comprehensible within Mormon experience or theology. The Mormon church didn’t like it, and his work has gone on to explore the same issues in a non-Mormon context; the organizing conceptual system of Mormonism is pretty much irrelevant to what he does.

  4. Lane — What I like about reading your writing is the way it so perfectly aligns itself to the cadences not only of your speech patterns (I can imagine you gesturing for emphasis here and there) but also of your thought patterns. You sort of play connect the dots in the way you make meaning. In part it’s very deliberate and creative (“Look at what I can weave out of a series of quotations and odd juxtapositions”) and mimics your painterly technique, but it also calls attention to how randomly we aquire bits of information and have to make sense of them. Your bit about Paglia (remember when people would sneer at those who mispronounced it PAG-lia?) had me laughing and reminded me of a scene in an early American novel, Charles Brockden Brown’s _Wieland_, where the narrator’s dad finds an obscure religious text open to a certain page and has the mistaken impression that it was waiting there for him to find it, a sure sign from God rather than some random accident.

    I still am not sure why the “In addition” exists in your paragraph about Marden. I was tempted to edit it out, but I think it has everything to do with the way you make sense of the world you encounter. Marden sells paintings for big bucks. And he’s a pothead. Those two things have no necessary connection, but in your mind they’re connected by “In addition” anyway. Very funny.

    Can any cult in and of itself produce great art? Probably not. The best book I’ve seen on “Jewish” writers begins with a theory of apostasy, which is taken as a necessary prerequisite for creating art that can reach the world outside the tribal bubble. So to answer Ruben’s question, LaBute probably only succeeds as an artist for the same reasons that got him kicked out of the Mormon church. Others leave and never look back or produce for in-groups of various sorts. It’s telling that the most successful writers who happen to be church-going Mormons — the Orson Scott Card types — are successful on popular yet niche-market terms, not in any sense of lasting artistic achievement.

  5. p.s. I should add that I don’t think it’s impossible for someone with strong, unconflicted religious affiliations to make great art, but I would be seriously surprised if his or her art had anything to do with that sense of religious identity. Serious artists who work from any kind of in-group identity (sexual, religious, ethnic, racial, national) and treat it explicitly most often have some sort of conflict at the core of the whole shebang. Maybe it’s just that content people don’t make very good artists.

  6. Ruben Mancillas says:

    OK, how about Bach and Bruckner? Giotto? Raphael? I understand that we can only read so much into these earlier artists biographies and/or motivations particularly when the Church was the primary if not the only sponsor for their work but to the best of my understanding these two composers were devout men who have composed explicitly religious works.

    Thanks for the insights on LaBute. What is the exact term for his current status-disfellowship?

  7. bryan says:

    I have no idea. I just know he got into conflict.

    My answer to your question about religious composers from centuries past is that the dilemma I’m describing about identity and art is probably something that emerges late in the game — beginning gradually in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries? later? Certainly by the turn of the twentieth century I think most major artistic production had moved toward a secular realm. That’s not to say that artists can’t produce work for sacred contexts: James Turrell makes pieces for chapels, doesn’t he? But we don’t think of him as primarily a religious artist.

    Your point about sponsorship is telling, but even so it’s hardly fair to compare the spiritual/secular landscapes/continuum of past centuries with the world we inhabit today. I mean, does anyone even take Sufjan Stevens’s Christianity seriously? Could he get away with it without the wink-wink homoeroticism in his pining for Jesus’s touch?

  8. bryan says:

    ruben — it struck me that lane had already made the exact point i tried to make in the above comment. he wrote: “In the contemporary world these objects replace religion. The work of an effective contemporary artist makes people believe. Not in anything in particular but rather in the artist.” i think that’s pretty apt.

  9. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I agree with a 20th century shift toward the artist as secular but why do you think that is? The usual suspects? Marx? Darwin? Freud? World War I? And what would Benjamin say?

    Identity as it relates to art isn’t the only tricky question. Identity and anything is. As is our definition of religious and religious art in particular.

    I mention composers, and I still stump for Bruckner (died in 1896) as an absolutely religious artist, because I wonder if their art form operates outside of so many of the markers we look for when searching for these modern signs of aura, personality, or identity. Do we come to visual artists or writers with enough of a critical vocabulary or biographical insight that we can play gotcha with them while what I’ll call Western classical music can operate at times without such a program?

    For some more contemporary musicians who I might go ahead and call religious artists (and yeah, I hear you about Stevens and his brand of market friendly Christianity) you might check out Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and Arvo Part (born in 1935).

  10. S. P. Bailey says:

    In what sense are “art systems” self-contained? To what extent is exclusion of “other systems” possible? (What do you mean by the terms “art systems” and “other systems?”) Art in a vacuum, art that does not engage other systems–converse with them, respond to them–does not sound particularly interesting: art is what it is (important and all that), but it is a poor substitute for other systems (religion, philosophy, science, politics, and so forth).

    Also, you seem to assume that the contemporary definition of art is fundamentally at odds with religion. To what extend does this assumption rest on romantic notions of art and the related obsessions with genious and orginality? To what extent is this assumption merely a statement about demographics (i.e., the dismissive attitudes about religion of the relatively few elites who largely determine the contemporary definition of art)? Does anything other than this assumption support your conclusion that Mormons (or, as your post implies, earnest adherents of any other organized religion) cannot produce great art?

    Anyway, I tend to agree that Joseph Smith’s achiements may be characterized as “great” and “artistic” in a sense. And that would-be artists from the Mormon tradition will likely fail if they set out to match his achievements. I’ll even grant that creating great art from within a religious tradition may be substantially more challenging than doing so otherwise. But I just can’t buy your claim that Mormons cannot and will never produce great art.

  11. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I agree with S.P. and feel that I have painted myself into a corner with my earlier comments when in fact I am arguing against any such litmus tests of ideological purity as they relate to a religious belief and/or an artist.

    Thinking too much about Estonian minimalists will do that to you.

    There cannot be a modern artist who is religious? Or are we limiting this artist to our vision of their religion and their supposed devotion to it? The distinction can be made that any artist can produce a religious work but still be somehow not a religious artist. OK, but can’t a religious artist also produce work that does not hew to our understanding of his or her art and religion? How far down the rabbit hole do we go with this identity thing?

    Or are we really just saying that it is a sliding scale and if you are truly a significant or good artist that you really aren’t a believer while some artists who do rate on our piety meter have managed to produce some solid if not second rate works? What exactly is the point?

    I’m going to bring up a problematic and obvious example but I just slogged through all three volumes of his bio-Graham Greene. What makes a work religious? That it deals with understandably religious themes? Or that the maker is a true believer? Both? Greene, a convert, was a deeply flawed man and writer who I feel recycled his best stuff over and over but his best work is nuanced in the many ways he interacts with his particular belief system. What else do we want an artist to do? Does that make him a religious artist or merely an artist informed and influenced by his religion? And the difference would be?

    Don’t even get me started on Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.

  12. Missy says:

    Okay. Uncle. I give. You can sneer at me, but I have to ask: how DO you pronounce her name? Apparently, I’ve always said it wrong.

  13. Missy says:

    Sorry, Lane, to ruin the comment section of your beautiful post with this again. BW! Duh. I just got what you were saying: you were talking about how the vowel is pronounced, and I was thinking you were mocking putting the accent on the first syllable. PAHG-lia. Got it. Sorry. I knew how to pronounce it all along.

  14. trixie says:

    thanks for putting that out there missy. farrell and i went through the same thing tonight. we were pronouncing it right also, i think, fwiw.
    also, great post, lane.

  15. Jeremy says:

    I thought the g was silent, like “pah-lia”…?

    And is it too obvious to say that, “in today’s society” (as my students are so fond of writing), we have a hard time seeing anything created in earnest (recently) as serious “Art,” as evidenced by BW’s statement re: Sufjan Stevens (i.e., that he couldn’t “he get away with it without the wink-wink homoeroticism in his pining for Jesus’s touch”–in other words, that if he’s being completely earnest, his music couldn’t possibly be any good)? Ultimately, “Great Art” is determined by those who consume it, who inevitably legitimize that which reflects the consumers’ worldview: which is also, these days at least, a secular (and cynical) worldview…

    By the way, I’m embarrassed to admit that when I visited Italy a while back I got so tired of seeing the same religious images over and over again (at least, my untrained eye found it difficult to see the subtle distinctions between various versions of madonna and child) that I started pretending I was in a contemporary art gallery rather than a 15th-century church and that all of these works were meant to be ironic… ultimately, this was because these images did not accord with my own cynical worldview.

    A very thoughtful post, Lane. This is my favorite essay of yours so far…

  16. Lane says:

    Jeremy – “I started pretending I was in a contemporary art gallery rather than a 15th-century church”

    You WERE in a contemporary art gallery. The newness of the object outlasts any rehtoric that sprung up in the moment of its creation. ALL art is ALWAYS contemporary. That’s its magic.

    Ruben – It’s impossible to compare Graham Greene’s C of E with Mormonism. As a Protestant pastor once remarked to me after learning about my Mormon background “Wow! Now that’s religion with a capital R!”

    S.P. – “art is what it is (important and all that), but it is a poor substitute for other systems (religion, philosophy, science, politics, and so forth)”

    To an artist art is religion, philosophy, science and politics. Poor substitute or no. Additionally I’ll stand by my comment that a nice Mormon will never be a great artist because a nice Mormon is already a work of art – Joseph Smith’s.

  17. I think this is a fantastic discussion. You know it’s unusual, Lane, that I agree with every point you’re making, but I don’t even want to comment any more because your points make so much sense to me.

    “I’ll stand by my comment that a nice Mormon will never be a great artist because a nice Mormon is already a work of art – Joseph Smith’s.”

    Freaking brilliant. But I do think that if an artist places allegiance to an ideology above the unlimited process of producing art, it will not register on a broad enough level (or on a narrow enough level, if we follow SB’s point about critical elitism) to have any lasting effect. I think Lane’s point about the system of contemporary art needing to swallow up other systems isn’t incompatible with SB’s point about how narrow the demographic is for people who appreciate or consume (whether by purchasing or by viewing) contemporary art. Sure, a majority of Americans confess some belief in God. Sure, the series of evangelical novels Left Behind outsells any major work of serious American fiction a thousand times over. And certainly our conception of art is culturally bound. But some of us choose to have a little more faith in THAT system than in some set of rules and regulations and stories handed down in the name of God. The sense of wonderment I get from a good gallery show — or from something magic like last night’s Final Fantasy show at Mercury Lounge — speaks to me in a way that religious stories can’t anymore. Maybe they do for some people, but I agree with Lane that that just testifies to the power of the original storyteller.

    I suppose one reason I enjoy being a critic of sorts is that it allows me to interact with the story in a way that makes it my own. Some religions allow this kind of interaction as well — I suppose whether or not you like Eliot’s late poetry (I don’t much) you have to acknowledge that one of its sources of energy is that the guy came so late to his conversion. In that case, perhaps, the struggle that produced art that has lasting effect comes from turning toward religion against one’s better judgment.

    I might have to throw everything I’ve said out the window when I confess how much I love George Harrison’s song “My Lord.” Maybe because you can’t really expect anyone to take Hare Krishna that seriously it seems less like something designed for an evangelical in-group than a really great set of notes. I just heard someone cover it the other day and it was freaking fantastic.

  18. “I don’t even want to comment any more because your points make so much sense to me.”

    obviously i went ahead and commented more anyway. jeez.

    oh, and jeremy’s right. you don’t pronounce the G. was i one of those people who sneered? i hope not. 

  19. S. P. Bailey says:

    Perhaps to some artists, “art is religion, philosophy, science and politics.” However, other artists I take it are not shut off from or ambivalent to (ignorant of) actual religion, philosophy, science, and politics. They are not just geniouses in small self-created worlds, but humans who inhabit and interact with the actual world. To what extent is your picture of artists based on your experience with and knowledge of visual arts? Certainly other art forms, narrative arts particularly, cannot possibly be as self-contained as others.

    And you have merely asserted that Joseph Smith’s living works of art cannot produce great art. You haven’t really made your case as far as I am concerned.

  20. spb: can you name a great mormon artist (the “nice” kind, as lane puts it) who maintains simultaneous membership in both cults (or cultures, if you prefer)? my guess is thiebaud has the highest profile among painters, may swenson among writers. both had mormon *origins*, not valid lifelong passports.

    still, this isn’t an argument about mormonism in particular: that’s simply the case study lane belongs to.

    i think your suggestion that artists who are recognized by the contemporary art system are somehow unilaterally shut off from the rest of human experience in a self-contained bubble of self-appreciation misses the mark. one of the things i loved about calvin tompkins’s portrait of robert rauschenberg, which i read on the beach this summer, is the image he creates of rr’s simultaneous desires to explode prevailing definitions of art and yet his utter inability NOT to experience the world by creating more art. hardly closed off from the rest of human experience — quite the opposite.

  21. S. P. Bailey says:

    your suggestion that artists who are recognized by the contemporary art system are somehow unilaterally shut off from the rest of human experience in a self-contained bubble of self-appreciation

    I did not intend to suggest this. On the contrary, I am trying to understand (and to the extent I understand them) disagree with Lane’s claims about the self-containment of artistic systems and the mutual exclusivity of earnest religiousity and great-art creation. And since most of the questions I raised in my original comment have gone unanswered, I guess I don’t feel inclined sink time into propounding more!

    Even so, this has been a worthwhile conversation. If nothing else, it is good for a religious person and would-be artist (I confess!) to be reminded that many (a vast majority?) of the people who care about art both make it their religion and presume that adherents of actual religions cannot possibly serve their god. No matter how unfair, such presumptions will no doubt get some art rejected not on its merits but due to its association with a competing religion. But I maintain hope that solid work will sometimes overcome such presumptions. I am encouraged by Flannery O’Connor’s synthesis of serious and sophisticated Catholicism and literary art. She said: “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”

  22. Bryan Waterman says:

    Lane will have to explain his own terms, but I took his point to be that the world of contemporary art (and by that he means the five ring circus) is its own religion. If work that has meaning in a more traditional religious sense is to make it in the five ring circus (and not peddle itself to a niche market or in group, which may very well be lucrative and fulfilling in its own right) that work will probably have more to do with art than with God. To answer Ruben, I don’t think the majority of people who listen to Arvo Part experience that music in traditionally religious terms. My brother’s seeing him perform in a couple weeks. We’ll ask.

    I take O’Connor’s statement to mean that she couldn’t survive Catholicism without being an artist. I also never read her stories as aiming to affirm her religion in any essential sense.

    Lane mentioned this article on the new Warhol documentary from the Times today as being relevant, so I thought I’d link.

  23. S. P. Bailey says:

    You are wrong about O’Connor. Nothing I have read (in her stories or letters) indicated that Catholicism was something that she merely survived. And her religion just was in her work; it was not a matter of “affirming it.” (Do you assume that all religious artists would feel compelled to create propaganda for their religion? Is that assumption justified?)

    Speaking of her work, O’Connor wrote: “I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.” She also wrote: “my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”

    Still, she understood that she did not write for a Catholic or even a religious audience. She wrote: “what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil,” and “[t]he novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural …. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

    I have enjoyed this conversation. But, alas, work calls and I have to answer. (Ducking out.)

  24. bryan says:

    Sorry I was being glib about O’Connor. What I meant is essentially her point in the quotes you provide: She knows she writes for a larger audience, not to make Catholics feel better about themselves for being Catholic. She may describe her art in the vocabulary of her choice, which is about grace and God and devil and such, but it doesn’t turn up in the stories in a fundamentalist sense: the stories are about humanity. I take great art to be about the struggles of being human, and religion is just one dimension of human existence. Artists who may be religious (which is different than being a religious artist, I think) make art that registers on the level of human conflict, not on the level of specific religious conviction. It can be experienced that way, I’m sure. But in order to have some sense of permanent significance it probably has to speak to something larger than specific theological conviction.

    I have to work, too, so I’m ducking out as well. I see scanning the above that I’ve probably misrepresented one of Lane’s original points, and that concerns his belief in Mormon exceptionalism — that there really is something about his religion of origin that sets it apart from other religions when it comes to the question of being an artist. I’m not sure I agree, but I see that perhaps I’ve shifted the terms of his original points.

  25. Other guy named Jeremy says:

    I’ll stand by my comment that a nice Mormon will never be a great artist because a nice Mormon is already a work of art – Joseph Smith’s

    Hi Lane. It’s Jeremy the La Monte guy. I’m new to this blog, and quite enjoying it.

    The encapsulation of Lane’s reprinted above is quite brilliant. It’s true, every time I attend the temple I have the vage sense that I’m participating in some strange, anachronistic, multimedia “Happening.”

    However, I’m not sure the two possibilities Lane presents as oppositional really have to cancel each other out completely. If all of the mysticism and ritual of Eastern Orthodoxy that Arvo Part weaves so inextricably into his compositional method were attributable to a single charismatic figure, like Mormonism is to Smith, would that diminish Part somehow in some discrete measure? Or just diminish him, and thus the scope of his art, relative to the religious figure. What about Messiaen? Lane and subsequent commentors are really talking about two things here: the possibility of a Mormon becoming a Great Artist and the possibility of a Mormon becoming a person who makes Great Art. The question would be, to what extent would the artist’s innovations or insight be attributable to Mormonism, and to what extent would the Mormon aspect be attributable to Smith?

    To return to the figure of Messiaen: I attended a conference recently where the work of Messiaen figured prominently. This is a composer that oozed religiousity, that gave sermons in between movements of pieces, that even penned an apocalyptical preface to a book called “Prophecy in Music” (the author of which, one of Messiean’s students, eventually followed the cryptic path of his music-historical-cosmological speculations to–you guessed it–Mormonism). Despite the explicit religiosity of his work, Messiaen became the hero to a generation of composers intent of removing expressivity, subjectivity, and, needless to say, religious superstition, from music. They held up Messiaen’s music as a model because of the way it was put together–and completely disregarded the religious context of those compositional methods. At the conference I attended, hardly any of the Messiaen scholars paid more than passing attention to the religious content of his work; to them it was entirely ancillary to the body of work Messiaen created, even though Messiaen himself surely would have resented such perfunctory extrication of his muse from his method. To the devout among Messiaen’s fans, his music’s greatness is inextricable from its religiosity. But to the much larger contingent of fans who are agnostic (at least towards Catholocism), his music’s greatness owes to superior technique and insight.

    I think what Lane’s doing here is expanding the notion of art to include the aesthetic vision of Joseph Smith — people and communities and lives as media. But unless everyone accepts that notion of art, which seems unlikely to me in any practical or pedestrian sense, “Great Artists” will still be recognized in their own spheres, and I don’t see why a really good Mormon one wouldn’t — even if in his/her own mind, there’s a perception that the “real” artist is the one who built Nauvoo.

    Or, Lane, are you saying that a Mormon would sense that sense of broad aesthetic attribution to Smith, and thus be hindered in development as an artist?

  26. Lane says:

    Well, I’m glad I sparked a conversation. And it is with a wry smile that I see Bryan has taken up the fight ; – }

    Today is the 13th anniversary of my moving to New York.

    I guess I’m just doing what the Las Vegas artist Ethan Acres has been trying to do for years, “putting the FUN back into Fundamentalism!”

  27. Dave says:

    OGNJ — Are you the Orson’s Telescope guy? I used to enjoy that blog (when you still wrote it).

    Anyway, I’d think that if a totally orthodox Mormon or committed Southern Baptist, etc., wrote stuff that’s as good as Part’s or Messiaen’s, critics would hail them as a great composer. Part’s music is just brilliant, regardless of how he came to write it. But the point I take Lane and Bryan to be making (and that I agree with) is that a would-be artist is crippled by heart-and-sould obedience to another totalizing system — to the point that we can predict, as an empirical matter, that there simply won’t be any great “nice” Mormon artists.

    There are of course many examples of great religious artists, even these days. And it’s worht discussion — maybe it undermines Lane’s arguments. But I’d note a couple of things. One, it seems that these great religious artists get the intellectual power for their work from their own wrestling with and (in Harold Bloom’s term) misreading of their traditions, not by simplly prettying up the party line into an artistic form. (Speaking of party lines, the situation in, say, the Soviet Union seems quite analogous. The great artists were not to be found in the official Artists’ Unions and state-sponsored exhibitions but among the dissidents.) That someone like O’Connor could be a great artist and also a good Catholic is a testament to the breadth of personal religious belief and practice that modern American Catholicism allows.

    Two, especially in an abstract art like music, religiousity can give rise to astonishing creativity through an intensity of devotion — the artist reordering the world according to his conception of God. I take it that this is how Part came up with his compositional method. And frankly, I don’t see Mormonism or Evangelical Protestantism having the spiritual and meditative resources needed to support this kind of art. Maybe they’ll develop the resources, but there’s something about American religion that doesn’t reallygo in for that sort of thing. And I think there’s something to Lane’s descriptioin of Mormonism as an “American Christian cult of salesmen.”

  28. bryan says:

    congrats, lane, on passing the 26 comment mark. 35 or so to go?

  29. S. P. Bailey says:

    I think there’s something to Lane’s descriptioin of Mormonism as an “American Christian cult of salesmen.”

    There is something to it. It is good for a laugh (some Mormons do have a sense of humor), but ultimately it is incomplete, superficial and unfair. Mormonism is a serious religion and a rich (and mostly untapped) intellectual playground. And it is extremely young compared to virtually every other religion. It will get there. Most religions pass through early phases in which they are insular and just trying to survive. Major contributions to culture come much later, with maturity.

  30. Lane says:

    “Major contributions to culture come much later, with maturity.”

    And you might not live to see it.

    So come on Bailey! Get off your ass and DO SOMETHING!

  31. JaneAnne says:

    Lane, I’ll second what someone else said above, and say that this is my favorite post of yours. I’ll also second what Bryan said about picturing you speaking (complete with gestures) while reading. I don’t know that you’re necessarily Right in any objective sense, but you’ve come up with an answer that works for me to the question of why most Mormon Art is so god-awful.

    I don’t think the thesis works for any religion that doesn’t have a charismatic leader in the recent collective memory. Mary Baker Eddy, she works, I think (heard of Christian Scientist art?), but Luther and Calvin and Charles Wesley are all too remote (and/or not charismatic enough). Catholicism is definitely way out.

    As for Neil Labute (would that I had his e-mail–I think he’d probably enjoy commenting on this post), I attended a panel he was on at Sunstone, and my recollection (clouded by the level of distraction imposed by my toddler-wrangling activities in the back of the room) is that Labute was disfellowshipped, and ultimately decided to have his name removed.

  32. Lane says:

    Jeremy – “It’s true, every time I attend the temple I have the vage sense that I’m participating in some strange, anachronistic, multimedia “Happening.”’

    Yes that really is it isn’t it. The last time I “did” an “endowment” “session” I awoke to that truth. The spell was broken. I could no longer see “with an eye of faith. (This was a dozen years ago.)

    This is my point in relationship to Matthew Barney. “Private Rituals!” Eeew! Fascinating! “A complete personal cosmology!” WHO FU**IN’ CARES!

    Joseph Smith DWARFS. . . almost anyone. In the words of John Taylor “Second only to Jesus.”


  33. cwb says:

    Brian Kershisnik is rising in popularity though I don’t know how wide spread he is or will be. I wouldn’t say he’s your “run of the mill” mormon artist. In all honesty I really like some of his pieces and don’t particularly care for others. My favorites of his are the “Just doing this” paintings.

    James C. Christensen
    may not be your style preference or your favorite, but he’s a well recognized artist and has won various awards (world wide) for his art. Plus I would say he’s got a lot of creativity and originality.

    It’s telling that the most successful writers who happen to be church-going Mormons — the Orson Scott Card types — are successful on popular yet niche-market terms, not in any sense of lasting artistic achievement.

    Aren’t all writers (and artists) niche-market writers? It seems as though successful writers and artists create what’s inside their head and heart and market to the particular market-niche that appreciates and understands their work. Am I wrong? Having said that, I think it’s also noteworthy to mention he writes for varied audiences and niches (different types of fantasy, sci-fi, religious, etc.). I wouldn’t mind having his resume.

    And then there’s Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared Hess and Jon Heder. They’re still quite young so we’ll see if they are a one-hit-wonder with a cult following.

    I guess my take on the subject is that “good art” is something you can connect with, understand, admire, and appreciate. Something that’s inspiring. Everyone has a different back ground, a different perspective on life, and different preferences. Some people like rap and completely connect with it. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s crap. Some people like things that are obscure, non-mainstream, and difficult. That’s fine too. Can’t we all just get along without “yucking other people’s yums”?

    In the words of a Greatwhatsit writer PB “Peace on earth darn-it.”

  34. bryan says:

    cwb — I don’t think the question here is really about popularity, or else sure, Scott Card and Jared Hess would be considered great artists. It’s not about personal taste, either, or yucking other people’s yums. The issue is canonicity. Scott Card (or any other sci-fi/fantasy writer) will never be included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. He doesn’t write what is considered, by the canon-makers, “literary” fiction, which is, you’re right, a niche market — for people who consider themselves above other niche markets — but nonetheless the only one that matters in terms of a writer’s ultimate stature. Brian Evenson will be lucky if he makes it in there; he has made it into various anthologies of recent American writing — the serious literary kind — but it’s still a big field, even as elitist fields of literary consumption go.

    Same for painters: BK will have an audience in the inter-mountain West and among left-leaning Mormons. Maybe he’ll even make it with mainstream Mormons. But I don’t think we’ll ever see him in the MoMA. Again, it has nothing to do with intrinsic worth or personal taste — it has to do with how the system works. Which is, I think, what Lane’s original point was: the art world (by which he means the canonmaking structures in New York above all) is its own system that may, in the end, demand of its members a total, almost religious, mental and spiritual adherence. I think it’s also true that, canon-making systems aside, it’s pretty hard to commit yourself entirely to an unfettered creative process if you have to worry about church leaders censuring you for what you may produce, but that, I think, is another topic altogether.

    anyway, my take, as someone who’s both enjoyed james christiansen and scott card from time to time, and who has a BK woodcut hanging somewhere in my house.

  35. cwb says:

    Thanks. That clears some things up for me.

  36. Lane says:

    cwb – you haven’t really looked at that many paintings, have you?

    It’s O.K. most people in this country haven’t. But you might enjoy it sometime. Look at a Van Dyke, a Titian or a Holbein. Paintings are cool.

  37. Adriana says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I can’t drag Lane away from the laptop to paint the apartment now.

  38. cwb says:

    Looked at, yes. Studied intricately, no. I’m sure you, as a professional artist, would see art differently than I would. I would expect nothing less.

    I do enjoy art and looking at art. I’ve seen those artists you’re referring to, and sure they’re great, but they don’t make me stop dead in my tracks and marvel much more than others. But does that make me less cultured than you? I guess there are some who would say yes to that, and that’s fine (though I would disagree). It kind of gets to me when other people infer that I’m somehow less cultured or inferior because I don’t prefer what they do. But that’s human nature I guess.

  39. Adriana says:

    I wasn’t really suggesting that you were less “cultured” than anyone else. Certainly not inferior. And I given the range of images that people have to choose from in this day and age, the tiny minutia of painting culture is just that, minutia.

    I was only bringing those names up as reference points for other painters. Does James Christianson give a crap about making great art? Does he really even try? Or is he really just a middlebrow decorator? What standard does he hold himself to?

    But this is really sliding down hill from my point.

    Joseph Smith is an example of an artist/prophet of towering proportions. It’s funny, and strange, that the people he “created” are so timid by comparison.

  40. Sorry that last comment was Lane, not Adriana.

  41. I haven’t thought this much about Mormons in years and hope not to for years more — no offense to my Mormon friends. But, at the risk of actually intending to piss off people on both sides of this discussion, on the other hand, I do think this thread suggests a kind of narcissism at the core of Mormon ideology, and I think Lane suffers from it as much as anyone. I can’t imagine any other American religious group spending the amount of time, energy, print and web space that Mormons do trying to promote the idea that their religion will some day produce a Shakespeare. It seems pretty unique — am I right? Or are there Jehovah’s Witnesses out there who proudly announce Gloria Naylor as the great JW novelist? Do you think there are young 7th Day Adventists out there who dream of one day becoming the 7th Day Adventist Shakespeare? Do Mormons just channel American exceptionalism and cultural narcissism more efficiently than other social groups?

    More than anything, the way Mormons talk about their own relationship to larger cultures and cultural production reminds me of early US literary nationalism, the desire by American writers and critics from 1790 to the 1860s and from the 1920s through the beginning of the cold war to prove to the world that Americans could produce art and writing that should be taken seriously by the rest of the world. They never got their wish until after WWII, when people finally realized that Moby-Dick was quite possibly the greatest novel ever written. (Some American critics recognized it in the 1920s, but again, so much of the motivation to make the case for MD’s greatness had to do with a kind of jingoistic nationalism that’s really bad for critics to get caught up in.) Even the post-War American art we recognize now as one of the most vital episodes in the history of modern art was hardly recognized as such at the time. Still, lots of people obsessed over it in nationalistic terms in a way I don’t think artists and critics really do now. Maybe this is related to the question of cultural immaturity SPBailey was talking about earlier?

    It’s instructive, I think, that no one who writes seriously about the history of 20th-century music would think to call LaMonte Young a “Mormon composer.” (Other Jeremy: I take it you have deep academic investments on this issue, but my point is not to say his Mormon childhood wasn’t significant to what he produced as much as it is to say that “Mormon” describes his art much more poorly than “American Minimalist.” Right? Besides, his art has much more in common with other minimalists who had no relationship to Mormonism than it does with, say, Virginia Sorenson’s writing or Sam Taylor’s screenplays.) No one would call Andy Warhol a “Catholic artist,” Ruben, even if Ken Burns makes a big deal about the importance of his Catholic childhood to the rest of his life and work. We think of such biographical accidents as parochial starting places that have to be transcended in some way before a person will really produce art that commands lasting, world-class respect, institutional support, canonization.

    Another way to make my point: Mormonism will never produce a world-class artist who has not long since stopped asking the question “Can Mormons make great art?” It’s a very limited starting point.

    I wonder how long Lane’s Mormon origins will play a prominent role in what he does. Frankly, a lot of his more interesting stuff lately has to do with the American west and American empire more generally than with his Mormon vocabulary (though the shit that relates Elizabeth Smart to alien abductions over Brooklyn was pretty fun). The Mormon origins thing may just be something that needs to be purged in order for more vital issues to emerge. Enema, anyone?

  42. I think Lane suffers from it as much as anyone.

    What I mean by that, by the way, is that Lane maybe spends too much of his time thinking about Mormonism. I’m not talking about individual character failings, though we do know that Lane, like many of us, has an ego the size of Canada. How could he be an artist otherwise?

  43. Lane says:

    “Lane, like many of us, has an ego the size of Canada. How could he be an artist otherwise?”

    Yeah, that’s it. To establish a cult, and keep it going, you’ve really really REALLY got to believe!

    Or not. Sometimes I wonder if Warhol even cared about critical acclaim, he was pretty reviled much of his life. Perhaps all he really just cared about making money and having a good time.

    And maybe that’s the trick, not caring so much and just going both barrels forward.

  44. bryan says:

    i was struck reading the rauschenberg book by calvin tompkins’ indignation over how long it took major institutions like MoMa to come around to how important his work was, and how slow they were to acquire it. after having seen the combines show again in LA (where it looked even better than it did at the Met) and then going to MoMA a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t help but agree that the room does better by Johns than RR.

    The other thing that struck me about the book was his portrait of RR’s simultaneous compulsions to work, to make work that explodes prevailing understandings of what art could be, and yet to have some form of validation from the establishment. That’s a tall order & took decades to fill.

  45. Lane says:

    I swear to God I keep wanting this thing to end but this line stuck with me.

    “Do Mormons just channel American exceptionalism and cultural narcissism more efficiently than other social groups?”

    This whole post and comment chain has been worth it to get Bryan to squeeze out this idea.


  46. Other guy named Jeremy says:

    OGNJ — Are you the Orson’s Telescope guy? I used to enjoy that blog (when you still wrote it)

    Geez, mom, “Dave B”? That’s, like, the worst online pseudonym ever.

    Ba dum. Bum. But seriously, thanks. It was fun while it lasted.

    RE Lane’s qualifier of “nice” Mormon. I think the issue here is really the development of an artistic climate that problematizes the culturally pervasive “nice” part. What I mean is, if someone could figure out how to do whatever the hell they want as an artist and still navigate the Mormon community–how to “operate in their respective spheres,” to borrow a phrase–it might work. I half suspect if La Bute had gotten a haircut and shaved and spoken with a sourthern utah drawl and shaken hands around the table a little more enthusiastically he might have made it through his church disciplinary council. I mean seriously, J. Willard Marriott’s hotels make millions off of pay-per-view porn, but he doesn’t get funny looks in the foyer, because the thing he does–business–has the mark of respect, and a certain degree of moral immunity, within the culture. Sooner or later, I have to think that there will be enough arty-fartsies of accomplishment in the church that the definition of “nice” Mormon will have to change.

    Lane–about the temple-as-Happening: funny, I’ve found the temple infinitely more enjoyable since I’ve begun to assume a more aesthetic rather than devotional mindset before going in. Can you think of any way one could cram more stuff into a 90 minute piece? (The only other thing I can think of that packs that much postmodernism-by-volume is Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys.) And I don’t mean enjoyable “ha ha isn’t this quirky,” but experientially engaging and actually illuminating. Maybe not in the ways the temple president would wish if he took me to his office, but I have no intention of going to his office… one’s interpretation of the temple is the one thing in the church that isn’t correlated.

    Bryan says:
    It’s instructive, I think, that no one who writes seriously about the history of 20th-century music would think to call LaMonte Young a “Mormon composer.”

    I actually, er… do exactly that. Joseph Smith, temples, Kolob…all there in my analyses of Young’s works (which in many cases are the only analyses, because Young grants access to the source materials so rarely). I certainly don’t think “Mormon” displaces all other labels, but I think it pertains to a greater extent than merely the fact of his upbringing. However, by making the connections I do between Young’s work and his mormonism, I don’t mean to draw any general conclusions about Mormonism’s or any religion’s “claims” on artists that emerge from it: I make specific claims about the particulars of Mormonism and the particulars of Young’s work. And I’ve found it instructive that La Monte himself has been very supportive of my writing on him, even and perhaps especially the “Kolob stuff.” Lane and I have discussed how it might be too narrow to tie La Monte to Smith’s ideas rather than broader American ideas (the term “rational sublime” came up), but I’m convinced that’s how La Monte accessed and filtered those ideas.

    Besides, his art has much more in common with other minimalists who had no relationship to Mormonism than it does with, say, Virginia Sorenson’s writing or Sam Taylor’s screenplays.

    I don’t know enought about those to writers to say–but, to address the point, La Monte’s work actually has precious little in common with other “American Minimalists” like Reich or Glass or Adams. What made me finally decide to actually write about Young’s Mormonism was my discovery that an unusual number of the contemporary composers whose techniques are closest to Young’s, most notably James Tenney and Erv Wilson, are also jackmormons.

    [Shit. If my wife were here, she’d be holding the stopwatch and laughing at how quickly I jumped at the chance to talk about Young, and how long it took me to stop. What can I say, my expertise is so generally useless I can’t help but spaz out when it comes up in conversation.]

    Someone upstream mentioned the great Soviet artists being the dissidents rather than the members of the state-sanctioned composers groups. I suppose that’s true, to an extent, but I can’t help but think of Shostakovich in this context. Wrote some crazy stuff, pissed Stalin off, received threats, then wrote supposedly tame proletariat-friendly stuff for the rest of his career. It has since come out that underneath the jingoism there was a complex irony, an encrypted but deliberate and dissidence. At the risk of making a blasphemous analogy between the USSR and the church, I wonder if a Mormon artist who is both “Great” and also, as Lane puts it, “Nice,” could emerge somewhat after the model of Shostokovich–or, to borrow another phrase, by strategem. Imagine, to conjure a clunky example, if Lane had somehow gotten gotten a piece featured on the cover of the Ensign, without the editors realizing it was about Mountain Meadows…

    [Sorry to be showing up late and continuing to blab while everyone else is putting on their coats and glancing at the door…]

  47. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Bryan, thanks for calling out the degree of Mormon exceptionalism that seems to drive and limit a bit of this debate. This is a weak analogy but any group trying to consciously produce a great anything reminds me of nations that try and succeed in athletic competitions all of a sudden. China gets the Olympics and is suddenly going to create a majority of medal winning athletes somehow. Or to hit much closer to home consider the national teams of American soccer or even (gasp) American basketball. I am dissing the East Germans of the 70’s and 80’s because it is pretty well accepted that they were mostly all juiced to the gills.

    I do like Jeremy’s (why does he have to be the other Jeremy all the time, right?) example of Shostakovich of an artist creating work that can both function within a strict and suffocating style-in his case Soviet Realism-and still create art that is profound by most standards but the debate on his music points to so many of these identity politics and judgement calls regarding artistic merit and even intent. I mean, how many essays or translations of letters and disputed memoirs can you read about whether or not the finale of the 5th symphony is really fawningly militaristic or a piece of ironic subversion before you have to listen for yourself and decide. I think the answer is yes, by the way.

    I think Bryan misses the point, however, on the labeling question again. I haven’t seen anything by Ken Burns on Andy Warhol but my comment (a prophetic warning actually) was to “not even get me started on Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.” Is Andy Warhol then a Catholic Artist? An artist who happens to be Catholic? What other hypenates do you want to throw around? American? Polish? Gay? Where does this end? Most importantly, to what purpose? And how do we ascribe such labels? How much of something does one have to be or be influenced by or how doctrinaire does one have to be for us to decide they get to to be a card carrying anything?

    And the notion of all artists having to fit a paradigm of “transcending” biographical accident so that they can achieve canonization is a little silly, don’t you think? Oh sure, you can call everything a reaction against something else but again you risk playing the game of name that idenity that a particular artist had to struggle with and subvert. What did Picasso struggle with/against? Academic painting? Being left handed? (OK, I didn’t even check that one but that’s the point). And is he a Spanish artist or a French one. What was his degree of awareness of how his religion influenced him? And what about how his father raised him? Take out the national question and plug in Matisse’s name and the point is the same. Every artist doesn’t necessarily have some bildungsroman of struggle over their earlier idenity which they then brilliantly subverted and emerged into a warm cocoon of actualization and critical praise.

    I’m sorry, it’s just that I see too many smart people start down these rabbit holes that sometimes don’t yield all that much. Hyphenating an artist is an understandable temptation but I just would hope it is in service to them and to us-usually I would hope that their art should be enough on its own.

    And Lane, yes, I realize that no otherbelief system is quite the equivalent of Mormonism but Greene was an adult convert to RC, not C of E, as anyone who picked up one of novels from Brighton Rock on would realize. Books are cool…

    Speaking of which, may I recommend to the readers of this interesting thread, which I am much more appreciative of then my recent tone probably sugggests, Peter Carey’s novel, Theft: a love story. It’s got some interesting things to say about art and the protagonist is a painter who struggles with whatever it means to be an Australian artist. OK, how about artist who was born in and shaped by the continent/national identity that is Australia?

  48. Maybe you were missing my motivations/points, Ruben, in picking up on the Warhol/Catholicism thing. (As for Burns, there’s a link somewhere up there to a Times article on the new Burns film about Warhol; it brings up his childhood religion.) My whole impulse to carry this discussion along is that I have strong reservations about the ultimate usefulness of hyphenating writers and artists and individuals to death in attempts to explain or understand their work. Such attempts almost always say more about the critics, audiences, or imagined constituencies — often about their insecurities — than they do about the art or artist under consideration. Sure, it may make sense to do the kind of work Jeremy does and ask whether or not or how a Mormon vocabulary can help us better understand LaMonte Young’s music, or whether something in 1940s and 1950s American Catholicism can help us open up Warhol. But I really think it’s too limiting to narrow either person’s work to that fractured and ultimately rejected identity. Such approaches can open up new views, but identity groups too often use them to shut down other avenues of meaning. (I haven’t read Jeremy’s work but I doubt he’s in favor of thinking of Young *exclusively* in terms of his biography.)

    I wasn’t quite suggesting that all artists have the Romantic biographical narrative you outline, either, although we clearly still belong to a culture in which that narrative prevails. (Think about it as a story we tell instead of something individuals really must experience in order to get their Artist card.) I *was* suggesting though that the most powerful and enduring art would probably not require us to ask such narrow questions or attempt to pigeonhole and box in the artist with some narrow essentialist identity tags. No one cares what country Picasso is from, unless they’re trying to boost their own nationalistic agendas or maybe explain works like Guernica (with significant historical referents) to first-time viewers. My point was that by the time someone’s canonized, people aren’t really asking such questions. Shit, I didn’t even know Rauschenberg was gay or from Texas until I read that book, and it doesn’t change all that much the way I think about his work.

  49. Lane says:

    Wow the intensity of this disscusion . . . humbles me really.

    Ruben, I know books are cool. Unfortunately I don’t read that much anymore. I’m too busy using my eyes for other things. And I only mention it because I feel like I’m walking into a “Lion’s Den of well read people.”

    Picasso was and remained throughout his life a Spanish artist and more to the point a Catalonian artist. This fundamental fact isn’t meant to shut down any disscusion of his work but some people think it is critical to understanding his pictures. The artists he most engaged with, and reacted against were the Spanish masters.

    Idenity politics is a touchy issue, obviously. In writing this post the way I did I wasn’t trying to yet again shove Mormonism in the face of the contemporary art world. The novelty of it has long worn off. I guess what I was trying to do was to “secularize” Joseph Smith and “spiritualize” Donald Judd.

    There is a myserious cross over between art and religion. The Marden quote at the top points to that. In another interview Marden speaks about the “mysterious commutarianism” of artists.

    I’m not really that important in the whole big scheme of the “artworld.” I’ve had a little success and have no right to complain. And the conditions in which I work are of my own choosing, alone. Everyday, all day, alone.

    From today’s Times on the artist Joe Coleman:

    “Simultaneously a miniaturist and a maximalist, Mr. Coleman wears jeweler’s magnifying lenses and uses single-hair brushes to cover every micron of his surfaces, including the frames, with minute pictorial detail and tiny text. He paints “one square inch at a time,” he said, never sketching or plotting out the completed work in advance.

    “The composition reveals itself to me,” he explained in an interview. A large work, roughly three by two feet, painted in acrylic on wood, can take up to a year to complete.

    Mr. Coleman says his obsession with religion and death goes back to his childhood. Growing up in Norwalk, Conn., he recalled, he played in the cemetery across the street, lived in fear of his alcoholic father and went to church with his mother, an excommunicated Roman Catholic. Placed in a school for disturbed children, he doodled bloody martyrs and once “confessed” to a priest that he had committed several murders.”

    Note the phrase “the composition is REVEALS itself to me.” This is obviously my point.

    This is what it’s like to be an artist. Shit happens, all the time! Wierd shit! Stuff that makes you sort of feel like you are at the center of your own religion.

    When Picasso painted a picture of Gertrude Stien, Stein is supposed to have complained, “I don’t look at all like that,” with Picasso replying, “You will, Gertrude, you will.” This was an act of prophecy.

    Imagine what it must have been like for Donal Judd out there in Texas in the early 70’s. Wandering around that dusty town (and screaming at the folks in Houston to “send me MONEY!”) This was not a Kevin Costner movie. He actually DID that. He built it. And they did come.

    There’s a really cheezy movie called Brigham. Made in the late 70’s and produced by Utah movie people (such as they are.) At the end there’s this scene with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young standing on the foothills of Salt Lake City, dressed, as I guess they do in the Celestial Kingdom, in white tuxedos.

    Joseph suveys the scene and smiles approvingly. Looking at Brigham he says “You and the Lord have done well with this valley.” And Brigham replies “Well yes, but you should have seen it when just the Lord had it.”

  50. bacon says:

    Let me be the 50th person to comment: Lane, you suck. Lose your cult upbringing, and the best way to do so is go out and have a threesome. Then God will 5peak to you and your art will shine.

  51. Lane says:

    Welcome back from Utah Bacon.

    It seems you’re making the adjustment to 5 point beer very well.

  52. bob mccue says:


    I am a Mormon refugee as well, but did not leave the Mormon fold until only a few years ago in my mid-40s, after having served as a Mormon bishop and in a variety of other Mormon leadership capacities. Hence, the transition was perhaps more wrenching for me than for most who walk this path, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have awakened at all given the limited neural plasticity humans tend to have by the time they reach midlife.

    To the point of your post. I noticed a radical change my artistic sensibilities that led me to write a short essay on that topic which you can find at

    I concur with you for the most part, and provide empirical backup in the essay just linked for the proposition that literalist religious belief systems constrict creative capacity. As I left Mormonism, it was as if a fire hose was released in my brain. Among many other things, I experienced for the first time in my life an intense a desire to artistically create (within the limited sphere available to my talents) that was so strong as to be disorienting. And as I began to give into that, it had an unexpected therapeutic outcomes as described at .

    I must confess that the idea of Joseph Smith has a social artist jars me. Was Hitler also an artist? Mussolini? How about the architects of the latest large-scale financial scam to sweep Utah? or anywhere else for that matter. Joseph Smith was not as harmful as the Hitler’s of the world. However, the powers to which you refer are those of the spontaneous social engineer. I prefer not to use the term “art” for this kind of thing. Rather, people of Smith’s ilk tend to intuitively understand how to manipulate their peers, and in some cases the masses. See for an idea as to where the tools these people use are located in our psyches. A veritable forest of levers connected to these loom above most social groups.

    And, Smith’s legacy is as much a matter of chance as anything else. As you probably know, many scholars believe that had he survived, he would’ve killed Mormonism single-handedly. His timely death, combined with Brigham Young’s removal of a large group of people to an intellectual monopoly environment in the Utah desert allowed Mormonism to achieve social critical mass.

    And finally, we are faced with the towering irony that polygamy was wrested from the near death grip of Mormonism’s prophetic leaders during the period from 1890 to 1905, after they did everything within their power to keep it, including lying under oath to Senate subcommittee hearings as well as in countless other venues. Had that not occurred, there would likely be little difference now between mainstream Mormonism and the sorry little groups of Warren Jeffs vintage. God indeed works in mysterious ways, if at all.

    My exit from Mormonism provoked an intense study of cognitive biases and the various other social forces that allow groups like the Mormon to perpetuate even within relatively open intellectual environments such as the United States and Canada, where I live. I have written a lot about this, not because I write or research particularly well, but because this activity was profoundly therapeutic as I helped my brain to develop new neural patterns, to stabilize those patterns, and to encourage old, dysfunctional patterns to die.

    Our susceptibility to perception distorting influence has little to do with intelligence. In fact, if anything more intelligent people seem to be more susceptible to things like the “confirmation bias”, and hence once intellectually entrapped tend to be more difficult to dislodge. The Hugh Nibleys (a well-known Mormon apologist) and his peers in other literalist religious groups are prime examples of this phenomena. This is where things like “creation science”.

    Let me conclude with some additional thoughts from Harold Bloom, who as you noted has an oddly respectful perception of Joseph Smith.

    Says Bloom:

    “… ideology, particularly in its shallower versions, is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony … the loss of irony is the death of … what had been civilized in our natures.” (“How to Read and Why”, p. 25)

    [The appreciation of] “… irony demands … the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise. Find now what comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering, and it very likely will be irony, even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be fond. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you to blaze forth …” (“How to Read and Why”, p. 27)

    “We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life. … I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.” (“How to Read and Why”, p. 28)

    Excellent advice. And see for a story about a conference Bloom gave to a Mormon audience about Smith where they laughed in the wrong places, and were silent during the parts he intended to be funny. Literalist religious people tend to be irony (and humour) impaired.

    I was reminded of this during the recent debacle with the Danish cartoons respecting Mohammed. That Muslims in many parts of the world rioted while calling for death to anyone who suggested Mohamed counseled violence indicates a profound inability to perceive irony.

    In any event, thank you for a thought-provoking post. A friend of yours referred web site in, which led me here. I will send you a private e-mail with regard to that project brought me here.

    I wish you the best


  53. Lane says:

    Thanks Bob.

    Welcome to The Great Whatsit.

  54. Hellmut says:

    Of course, Mormonism can produce quality artists. Lane’s point is that Mormonism cannot produce nice artists. In Mormonism being nice means being a conformist. The artists are not the problem. The problem is that Mormonism cannot produce an audience that engages art without fear and aggression.

    By contrast, Anglo Protestantism is an enterpreneurial religion. Should an artist provoke the hate of the mainstream, chances are that there will be a minister who will benefit from the charisma of a challenging artist. The artists could become religious leaders themselves. Even at its most authoritarian phases, Catholicism enjoyed a rich civil society. Catholics are allowed to organize their own orders. If they can sustain their organization then they may earn the wrath or recognition of the Vatican. That’s not an option in Mormonism.

    Mormonism marries the Catholic concept of exclusive priesthood authority with a charismatic epistemology. Mormons don’t believe. Mormons know. God told them. In Mormon theology the ability to receive inspiration is hierachically organized. Since only Mormon leaders can receive inspiration for humanity, no one can know about humanity as well as Mormon leaders.

    Most importantly, since God is the source of that knowledge, it is sacrilegeous to question Mormon leaders. The latter cannot admit that they have been wrong even if they have already reversed themselves or their predecessors.

    That’s why believing Mormons have difficulties relating to artists who tend to look at the world in a new way. It’s a challenge to God’s omniscience, which is supposed to inform Mormon leadership.

    That’s why even historians invoke distrust and retribution in Mormonism.

    It is an interesting question why there is no Mormon Shostakovich. Unlike Stalinism, Mormonism is not sovereign. However difficult psychologically, one cannot be coerced to remain an orthodox Mormon. Shostakovich’s irony was a necessity that Mormon artists do not share. It’s much easier to exit.

    With regard to Mormon maturity, that’s not a reasonable excuse. The Reformation generated a plethora of world renowned artists in the first generation.

    There are institutional and theological forces that suppress the emergence of a faithful Mormon audience. There will never be a Mormon Albrecht Dürer because Mormons would label him an apostate. And apostates are not nice. If Mormons settled for faith instead of knowledge then things might be different.

    I agree with Lane that nice Mormons are an art work. Of course, after 176 years, there are creative forces beyond Joseph Smith, most importantly the legacies of Brigham Young, who led the Saints to Utah, and Heber Grant, who laid the foundations for the Mormon bureaucracy and financial structure.

    It is true, however, that people who strive to meet their Mormon obligations do become objects in the service of someone else’s ambition. In that sense, they are a work of art.

    Ironically, that treatment turns some people into artists. Suppression and depression motivate people to ask questions about their condition. Carol Lynn Pearson is a case in point. She remains an active member. On the other hand, most Mormons would not consider her work nice but that is their problem.

  55. bryan says:

    carol lynn pearson? please. we’re not talking about people who produce art for an insider audience. mormonism has produced one, maybe two, world class poets. may swenson is the first. tim liu may turn out to be the second. they stand a chance of being anthologized a hundred years from now. carol lynn pearson had a national audience for a memoir about her gay husband, but it’s a popular audience, not one that could confer canonical status. she has no such audience for her poetry.

  56. Hellmut says:

    Nobody suggested that Pearson will join the canon, Bryan. Rather the argument is that the Mormon condition does provoke creativity. It cannot generate a faithful audience, however.

  57. bryan says:

    No — Lane’s argument has to do specifically with whether or not a faithful Mormon would actually make it in the art world. It has partly to do with whether or not the religion fosters creativity (or pits it against orthodoxy) but it also has to do with the question of what counts as “the art world.” In Pearson’s case, “the art world” would mean the relatively small world of highbrow literary poetry (literary magazines, the new yorker) that consolidates, eventually, in a poet’s inclusion in anthologies designed for university classrooms. She may have a niche market of Mormons (increasingly nichier because her unorthodoxy makes her appeal these days primarily to the dwindling ranks of left-wing Mormons) but she’s a pretty bad poet — a good example, I suppose, of someone whose unorthodoxy isn’t going to compensate for talent when it comes time to reach a larger and more important audience that the niche she emerged from.

  58. Hellmut says:

    Bryan, I am talking about my response. Read it closely.

  59. bryan says:

    i see your point here:

    Suppression and depression motivate people to ask questions about their condition. Carol Lynn Pearson is a case in point. She remains an active member. On the other hand, most Mormons would not consider her work nice but that is their problem.

    but in a way i read it as off topic: the post had as much to do with how the art world works (perhaps it’s an implicit subject of the post, but it’s hard to imagine lane talking about art *without* implying the commercial/career/reputation aspects of the business) as it does with mormonism per se.

    i guess i would add to your closing sentences something like “Neither would most professional literary critics consider her poetry to be good art, but I suppose that’s their problem too.”

    maybe i just bristled at your choice of an example — someone whose self-conception as an artist or repeated encounters with dogmatic authorities who wanted to police her art resulted in her perpetual discomfort stradling the line between her own artistic vision and her desire to remain part of the fold. she’s not an example of someone who became an artist in the terms lane’s dealing in. if i haven’t been misreading this post for lo these many weeks i take lane’s point to be not simply “mormonism can’t produce a great artist” but “mormonism can’t produce someone who can be simultaneously faithful *and* make it in the art world *and* produce art that will have lasting significance (i.e., canonical status).” the reason, i take him to argue, is that mormonism is a self-containing system that will not be compatible with the self-containing systems of the art world *and* and an artist’s drive to create a new system by subsuming old ones.

  60. bryan says:

    i’m signing off this discussion (again). way too much work to do. nice to meet you.

  61. Hellmut says:

    Thank you for reconsidering my response, Bryan.

  62. ExNYC Di says:

    Hi Lane – Love this post and the whole thread – some juicy bits for me to chew on. YUMMY!

    ‘Twas I who referred Bob (#52) to you – he is interested in post-mormon art and artists.

    See ya in a few weeks.

    Swiss Di

  63. bob mccue says:

    Hellmut and Bryan,

    When all else fails, collect some data (a lesson learned in law school and somehow not applied to Mormonism for 20 years thereafter …). But I digress.

    See “What is the Challenge for LDS Scholars and Artists”, John and Kirsten Rector, Dialogue, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2003, It indicates the relative dearth of Mormons, compared to other religious groups, who have received Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes. The prevalence of a dogmatic worldview within Mormonism in my view explains this in part. The value Mormon society places on getting married early, having kids, making money to support them, etc. is surely a contributing factor.

    Most Mormons are numb to the paradox Hellmut describes in any event.


  64. Lane says:

    This is a prime example of Joseph Smiths artistry.

    This is not made for exhibition in some show about “fantasy-based conceptual art practce” this really exists as a chart of faith and reality.

    Amazing, and it makes Beuys, Barney and Broodthaers look like amature hacks.

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