Over at the Old Country, I went full-on bloviate about the possibility for distinctive Mormon arts and culture and scholarship/philosophy. I’m reproducing the comment here.
I share Ben Huff’s belief that Mormonism has great intellectual, cultural, and artistic potential. My series on the sweetness of Mormon life is an attempt to show that Mormonism as lived makes for a worthwhile and unique experience. I believe that Mormonism as painted or written or thought should also. Elaborate, refer to Ensign arts which both show the shock of interruption of divine into human affairs which is one of our depths. What I don’t share, yet, is your belief that we can rationally plan how to do it.
1. Do we have any idea what leads to cultural and intellectual flowerings? You’re saying here that we should learn from the gentiles and build on what they’ve already done. I agree. We should probably start by looking at what scholars have been able to figure out about what makes a time or a place explode creatively. The short answer, as best as I can tell, is that nobody really knows.
2. Can subcultures really have flowerings? Mormons are a few grains of salt in the vast porridge of the west. There’s the example of the American Jews, but I question the extent to which that flowering was specifically Jewish. You seem to want something that is more directly tied to Mormonism here, and rightly so, because otherwise a Mormon flowering is only interesting from a ‘yay, Team Mormon!’ standpoint. I suspect that to get the kind of thing you want, you really need to create some distinct Mormon space that doesn’t really exist right now. And you probably need to halt or even reverse the Mormon trend towards assimilating–but there are good, even gospel and proselyting reasons, for this trend. This gets back to my old hobbyhorses of the possibility for Mormons to allow for social experiments, attempts to create little Mormon utopias, and the possibility for temple art that goes beyond just permanent paintings (painting exhibits, music, literature, essays, etc, that are confined to the temple, perhaps even to the celestial room).
3. Newton said he was a dwarf on the shoulder of giants. Our perspective of history tends to overlook all the drudgery and fallow periods and just focus on the greats. Maybe we’re too impatient with Mormon matters. Maybe thinking about how to create a flowering is a waste of time and we’d be better off trying to do scholarship or art in some corner of the vineyard, thus creating the store of intellectual and artistic capital that has to be there for a genius to exploit, or he or she can’t be the genius.
4. The Renaissance was partly touched off by the exposure to classical texts through the offices of Byzantine scholars and others. We probably don’t have new worlds like that available to us–unless we get significant new revelation. So maybe chipping away at the art and scholarship problem is too direct. Maybe he who loses his direct approach to that problem will find a solution. In other words, maybe the answer is that we need to be focused on righteousness individually and collectively, so that God might reveal new songs to us, and new gifts of the Spirit.
5. Maybe God doesn’t care about art and scholarship. I mean, I believe they are good and I assume God likes good stuff, by definition. Prophets counsel us to enjoy good art, the feelings and thoughts I’ve had in contemplating good art, in reading good literature, and in trying to create it myself, have been edifying and spiritual, etc.. But take C.S. Lewis points that art, architecture, even civilization as such is ephemeral compared to the life of the soul. What if the real beauty that God cares about creating is the purified and redeemed, the exalted and holy, the Christlike, the Godlike soul? What if He views our art the way we’d view Michaelangelo’s card tricks–pretty in a way but a distraction from what he should really be about? Perhaps the banal activities that consume our life and don’t see all that creative and profound to us are to God like someone sharpening tools for a master sculpture instead of doing some sketching.