Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Some Thoughts After Europe

Oops, I let nearly a month go by without blogging. Well, I've been out of town for much of that time. To get me back into the rhythm, following is a draft of a guest-post I wrote for another blog:

Is Human Art Merely Relying Upon the Arm of Flesh?

I just got back from my first-ever trip to Europe. Following my wife's capable, experienced itinerary—man, she kept us moving all day, every day—I spent over a week jamming all my senses with the art of the last millennium in the museums of London and Paris, seeing shows in London's West End, and just soaking up the architecture and watching all the people. As we repeatedly crisscrossed these two amazing cities via their subway lines, I felt quite humble and even envious, I admit—our only city that even comes close is New York. More than ever, it's clear to me that the world does not revolve around America, as much as we'd sometimes like to think it does.

As I absorbed all this culture and humanity, some questions started to formulate. (And I'm back only two days, so they're still germinating.) I wonder if human art and culture are in many ways attempted replacements for God, the Holy Spirit, etc. We are lost and lonely on this earth, and it's easier to find solace and justification in each other than to seek out God. In some ways, I wonder if creating and absorbing art is similar to relying upon the arm of flesh.

Yeah, maybe God inspires some forms of art sometimes, but usually it's just our own creativity. Yeah, he gives us talents, but humans mostly use them in mortal, worldly ways that I can't imagine pleasing God much. For many of us, the most compelling art dramatizes human reality more than godly ideals; it highlights the problems of the human condition rather than solves them. Personally, I'm far more often moved by worldly art than by anything I hear repeated for the hundredth time through church channels, and I think art that sets out to affirm the gospel becomes propaganda, not art. By my definition, real art celebrates and commiserates with humanity, not godliness. Art is human, and most of it is probably more carnal and fallen than otherwise—even religious art of the type found in places like Westminster Abbey, where we attended evensong. In my Mormon-centric view, all that great organ music and singing and sculpture and architecture is really just trying to compensate for the lack of the gift of the Holy Ghost. (However, I was still moved by the sheer human effort and accomplishment of it all.)

So I ask myself, why do I even want a "real" Mormon culture, in my case mostly focusing on LDS-themed literature that emulates the best of the humanities? Maybe I'm not spiritual enough to be satisfied on a day-to-day basis through Mormonism's claimed spiritual gifts, yet I believe in Mormonism and want to stay tapped into it, so in my mind if you can combine the best of worldly art with Mormonism, it's win-win. Maybe I think that adding Mormon elements to human stories can make them more worthwhile and uplifting in some way, redeem the fallen, carnal elements. But maybe all this is just wishful thinking? Maybe it would be better to let worldly art be worldly art and let Mormonism be Mormonism, without trying to conflate the two. And maybe the very best Mormons are those who don't need a steady diet of worldly/human art like I do, because they have a steady diet of the gift of the Holy Ghost. I have that gift too, but I don't consciously feel it very often at all. Maybe that's because my mind is always clouded by too much worldly music, literature, etc.? Maybe those of us who want a "real" Mormon culture are guilty of saying, in effect, "Let us do that which has been done in other cultures."

It's similar to friendship. When I didn't have the church/gospel, my friendships seemed so close and powerful because they were the only thing I had. But since I've become a practicing Mormon, friendships don't seem as close because a Mormon's primary friend is Jesus, so we all rely on Jesus rather than each other, except as Jesus helps us through each other. Our relationships with each other are as fellow travelers on the pathway back to god, not as people who are totally looking to each other for support and salvation, as is the case for the irreligious. In a similar way, if a Mormon is properly focused and converted, he or she shouldn't need art the way we more worldly people do. Yeah, that kind of Mormon can certainly enjoy some of the purest, most "appropriate" art, especially music from classical times—but it's just icing on the cake of their spiritual journey, not the cake itself. (An aside: I bet Heavenly Father doesn't think much of a guy like Shakespeare. While old Wm. can certainly tap into our emotions of what it means to be human, I doubt he inspires the workings of the Holy Ghost in our minds, except maybe triggering us to figure out how NOT to fall into the human ways he dramatizes. On the other hand, I guess he portrays some heroes that we would do well to emulate as well...)

I'm sure there are gaping holes of logical fallacies and unwarranted assumptions in what I'm trying to articulate, and perhaps I'm not even making much sense (the jet lag was worse going than returning, but maybe I'm still suffering some residual effects). So challenge me. Help me try to figure this out from a Mormon perspective. Is art mostly a fallen human activity that amounts to a replacement for really living the gospel and getting closer to God, or is it actually an essential part of that process? Think of all the time that creating and absorbing art takes away from home teaching, serving others, reading scriptures, rearing children, etc. Is art a distraction from—or a counterfeit of—the process of learning to become like God, or can it be somehow part of our rehearsal?


Anonymous said...

Hey Chris,
Glad you guys made it back safely. Very interesting thoughts. I definitely agree with your train of thought in this post. From a biblical standpoint there is an obvious and common theme where those not of god worshipped objects (i.e. the golden calf) created by man, whereas prophets sought things of a higher nature by climbing mountains or confiding in things more natural in an effort to get closer to god. I'm not quite sure if this analogy jives with what you are trying to get across, but it works from my perspective. While living in Italy, I was able to see a lot of amazing works of art to include architecture, paintings, and sculptures. The Vatican is packed full of such things, but I never got totally into it. The majority of apartment buildings I lived in were older than modern American history itself and each had its own unique character than went so much deeper than American structures. I readily admit these sentiments sprung from immaturity given my age and lack of experience, but to this day I still enjoy and appreciate things such as the ocean or mountains way more than works of art. For me, being outside is a form of worship that in many ways brings me more spiritual satisfaction than going to church or doing my hometeaching on a regular basis. I don't mean to imply that I am akin to a prophet in my actions as per my analogy above, but I find most things created by man to be ultimately hollow, even if they are beautiful. If I were to return to Italy today, I would spend little time in museums or galleries and would instead focus on the country side, the mountains, and the coast etc. I like god's art better than man's creative attempts. Call me unrefined if you will, big whoop.

Anonymous said...

Is art a distraction from—or a counterfeit of—the process of learning to become like God, or can it be somehow part of our rehearsal?

The only thing we get to take with us in the next life is knowledge.

Every time I create something, I learn a new skill, a new way to execute an old skill, or improve on what I already know. I combine or reinvent or reorganize. I teach, therefore I pass that knowledge on to someone else. I teach and therefore I learn from the student.

I don't see how art/craft can be seen as anything other than apprenticeship.

Christopher Bigelow said...

Dazey: Very interesting take. Nature is indeed God's artistic creation. But I have seen some people (like cousin Barclay) replace organized religion with worship of nature, so it can go too far too.

Mojo: I can see what you're saying but can still see pitfalls. From a Mormon perspective, what about when the artistic ego gets too inflated and a person becomes a god unto himself or herself? And what about when his or her fans worship him or her in place of God?

Anonymous said...

From a Mormon perspective, what about when the artistic ego gets too inflated and a person becomes a god unto himself or herself? And what about when his or her fans worship him or her in place of God?

I don't think that's limited to art or artistic endeavors. When one attains a measure of success in any field of endeavor, one is at risk for such.

That's the nature of man and we're taught to put the natural man behind us. I can think of a couple of people in my ward who have some measure of wealth and education who make sure everybody else knows about it. Artistic? No. Famous? No. Egotistical? Yes. every time one particular person teaches Gospel Doctrine, I'm reminded of the Pharisee praying very loudly in the temple for all to hear.

But the question you asked that I responded to had nothing to do with the attainment of worldly success. It had to do with how one views the creation of art: as a reflection of God or as a precursor to being a god. IMO, it's both. If I never achieve temporal success in any of my endeavors, I still carry with me the knowledge.

For example: I can make clothes and I can make bookcases, so I work with both cloth and wood. There is no difference between them. The building principles are the same and I would not be such a good carpenter if I weren't a decent seamstress, and vice versa. Does that make sense? The skills learned at one creative endeavor are directly applicable to another.

Hand-finishing a dress teaches the patience necessary to stain and varnish a piece of furniture. They take time, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to take care with your work.

You could argue that that's craft and not art, but again, the same principles apply. The knowledge that one gains from practicing his art and/or craft is, IMO, no different from an apprenticeship.

Too, I think it's important to note that everyone is different; they have different skills and interests. I think all of this plays a part in the creativity of a god. In the Pearl of Great Price, "we" organized and created. Not "I." I have to conclude from that that however many "we"s were involved, each contributed something another team member couldn't have, or at least, not as well.

(Yes, I do go on.)

As for Dazey's position, I think that is simply his/her aesthetic. A good portion of classical art is based on nature. Look at the ubiquitous and eternal acanthus leaf. Worked for the ancient Greeks and we're still using it as decoration. But not everyone is going to look at one object and say, "Oh, that is ART." I don't find Jackson Pollock particularly pleasing, myself, nor do I think there's anything artistic about a 'possum. (Neither do my cats.)

Chris, you said so many really deep things in your post I'll have to stop here and absorb further some of the rest, but one more thing. You said:

all that great organ music and singing and sculpture and architecture is really just trying to compensate for the lack of the gift of the Holy Ghost.

I will never believe that Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel did not have the gift of the Holy Ghost.

I will never believe that DaVinci and Michelangelo were not divinely inspired.

By the same token, when "The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning" is played and sung with the passion it was meant to have, I can't NOT call that art.

Unknown said...

But what if we do all those things (visiting and home teaching, other church callings, serve family and friends, AND work at creative art in whatever form we're blessed with God-given talent to pursue?

Seems to me the creative process is a gift that blesses our lives as we share. We gain joy from using it, and most times whatever we produce gives joy to others--even something as everyday as homemade bread.

Those great old artists didn't have the restored gospel, or the Holy Ghost as a constant companion (though some of their work would suggest they were touched by the Spirit), so I'm thinking perhaps they were reaching out to praise God, not trying to replace Him.

Glad you enjoyed England. Hope you got to see the countryside in addition to London. And the south coast. Devon and Cornwall are glorious.

Christopher Bigelow said...

Mojo: I definitely agree with you that artists like Bach and Michelangelo must have been inspired at some level. Who knows where the state of their own human egos ended up. And their listeners and viewers could have a whole variety of responses to their works, drawing nearer to God through them or glorying in humankind's achievement in an unhumble way that distances them from God.

Ann: I'm sure what you say is quite often true, perhaps even more often than not. I think after visiting Europe I was feeling burdened with it all as human-created distractions and counterfeits, but I'm feeling a little more balanced and hopeful now...

The Faithful Dissident said...

Just wanted to thank you for writing "Mormonism for Dummies." I borrowed it from a non-LDS friend and actually learned a lot, despite being born and raised in the Church. It was well-written and we enjoyed the way you were able to write about some pretty heavy subjects in a light-hearted sort of way. A pleasure to read! :)