Note: when I began A Motley Vision last summer, I promised myself that I wouldn’t recycle material that I had written for the AML List except for this essay (polemic). But then I couldn’t find it anywhere — not in my e-mail, not on my hard drive — and the AML archives were down for quite a while (and difficult to navigate). I finally found it earlier this week. And the timing was excellent. The essay was precipated by a discussion on Mormons and R-rated movies. A similar discussion erupted over at By Common Consent this week. But it was Rusty’s post asking Is It Possible To Contribute To Culture Without Partaking Of It? at Kulturblog that really motivated me to adapt this for AMV.
I believe that there are three important factors that we Latter-day Saints should employ when consuming art. Each of these factors has strengths; each has weaknesses. But most importantly the three should be used in concert with each other.
1. Carefully choose what you consume
I think that we should be careful about what we consume. And I think we should draw lines beyond the obvious (pornography) in accordance with our own set of tolerances and reactions to art. For example, unlike some other members of the Church, I don’t watch R-rated films. This practice would be applauded by those Mormons who take a hard line on this matter. But the thing is, I have the suspicion that there are indeed R films that are valuable, powerful works of art that teach lessons that certain members need to learn.
No. The reason that I choose not to watch R films is that I’m very sensitive to images and sounds — they stick with me too much and I have a hard time contextualizing them. The same is not true of literature. I can process sex and violence in written narrative much easier. I don’t know why that is, but because it is so, I’ve made the decision to safeguard myself.
So I think we should be careful what we consume and that it is perfectly valid to not read or view something because you have concerns about the content. However, I also believe that to take an extreme position in this regard is unwise. An extremely narrow definition of appropriate material can cause problems for the following reasons:
A) Things that are forbidden often become quite attractive, especially for youth.
Let me give you an example. When I was a kid, one of my friends lived in one of those strict Word of Wisdom households — you know the kind where no refined sugar or white flour is used, where carob is consumed instead of chocolate, where applesauce is the main sweetener. Since sugar was forbidden, it held a great attraction for my friend, and he became a sugar junkie. I used to accompany him on his paper route, and we would stop at the convenience store and blow much of his route money on sugar. He was an addict to the extent that he’d buy stuff that was on sale (I remember, for instance, him buying a whole paper bag full of stale malt balls) so he could get the most sugar for his money. Now this is not to say that kids in sugar-consuming households also don’t get addicted to sugar — in fact, what kid doesn’t? — but with him there was a certain edge to his addiction, which I attribute to it being forbidden.
B) When things are viewed as completely evil (I’m thinking especially of sex), youth often get a stereotyped, one-dimensional view of things, which can lead to difficulties when they are exposed to different views or later encounter them in a healthy way. Not only that, but when things are made forbidden, I think that we often invest them with too much power so that it can be difficult to screen them out or to withstand them when they are thrust in our face. And that happens. It’s impossible to keep ourselves and our children in a protective bubble.
C) When a particular genre is vilified, especially one that while it may have an evil aspect to it can still be powerful art (i.e. something like rock ‘n roll — again I’m not talking about pornography, which should definitely be rejected), it leads youth (and adults) sometimes into making decisions that they maybe don’t need to make. In other words, if kids think that you can’t be a good Mormon and listen to gothic music, but at the time gothic music is what is speaking to them most powerfully, then perhaps they become involved in the parts of the gothic scene that are wrong and destructive because they see it as an either/or choice. Much better, in my opinion, is if we can pull things out of the genre that are powerful, good art, that speak to us, but view the scene as a whole with an LDS-critical lens, so that we don’t buy it all wholesale. You can listen to ambient or jungle music without taking ecstasy. Which leads me to point number 2.
2. Develop critical tools with which to approach the consumption of art
In the original discussion on the AML List that led to this essay, someone had mentioned that no one is suggesting that we read mainstream literature like we read scripture. I disagree to a certain extent.
While we shouldn’t give literature the same power to guide us and form our theological beliefs as we do scripture, I do think that we should approach worldly (for lack of a better term) narratives with a critical eye. This doesn’t mean simply (and easily) categorizing works of fiction as evil or good by whether or not a character commits adultery or not (for example), but by using the Mormon way of understanding sin, repentance, consequences, agency, the unrighteous exercise of dominion, epiphany, faith, death, love, hate, family relationships, etc. to approach the piece of art.
I believe that narrative art is a powerful way to learn about life, about humanity. I believe that we should be humble enough to allow ourselves to expose our mind and soul to art of all kinds, but when we do so, we can approach it with a critical (yet charitable) mindset that allows us to experience art without shaking the foundations of our faith.
That’s hard to do in an honest way. And I want to reiterate that you should use my first approach above to help you decide which works of art to consume, but you should have enough confidence in this second approach to allow yourself to consume art that may be difficult or foreign. And your critical tools shouldn’t be limited to your view of the gospel, but also to those more formal aspects related to art — concepts of genre formulas, language, imagery, editing (for movies), etc. If you are aware of the tricks of the trade, of how artists create the effect they do, then perhaps the work won’t be quite so threatening and you can create a critical distance that allows you to gain something without it fundamentally changing your worldview.
If these critical lenses are correctly used, then you find that while your foundational beliefs remain (my belief in the divine mission of Christ and the reality of the restoration for instance) and your understanding of how this life plays out — the pains, pleasures and complexities of mortality—increases, and your worldview becomes more civil, charitable and enriched.
Now I also want to bring up a point of caution. You need to be incredibly honest with yourself. It’s very easy to use your estimation of your ability to handle things as an excuse to expose yourself to works of art that perhaps you shouldn’t — to think you are stronger than you are and to let licentious desires (and this isn’t just about sex, it’s also about violence, wallowing in melancholy, schadenfreude, voyeurism, etc.) creep in. While I ask for a broad definition of appropriate art works, I also want to caution against pride and the flaxen cords that can bind those who truly do become decadent intellectuals. I think many of us, however, need to worry less about the ‘intellectuals’ and to worry more about if we are becoming to insular in our media habits, so insular that it becomes difficult to relate with (and to easy for us to wrongly judge) other members and our neighbors and relatives.
This relates to what Rusty discusses in terms of creating art. He asks: “Can we expect to contribute to our culture, especially our pop culture, without partaking of it as well?” I think the same is true of consuming art. Or as Pris comments on Rusty’s post: “Once something becomes part of pop culture, it provides us all as a frame of reference — it gives us something to share.”
3. Become an omnivorous media consumer
After completing my master’s degree in literature, I found myself with a lot of reading time to fill (my work commute is an hour and a half one-way). I started out alternating between literary fiction and speculative fiction with the occasional piece of literary criticism thrown in. It was great. But after six months or so I kind of phased out the literary fiction for five or six weeks and went on a steady diet of speculative fiction. At some point I returned to a piece of literary fiction and found that I couldn’t read it. I was too used to the fast-paced, plot-driven, smoothly-written, cool-ideas world of speculative fiction.
I like speculative fiction a lot. And what I was reading was some of the best of the field so this wasn’t a case of junk over substance. It’s that I didn’t have the patience for literary fiction anymore so I just avoided it. This didn’t last long. I found the patience to return to literary fiction. But it was an interesting lesson. I’m sure the rest of you aren’t quite as susceptible as I am to this sort of thing (after reading a particularly powerful work I often walk around speaking in my head in the voice of that work), but it’s something to look out for.
One of the problems with limiting yourself to a particular genre is that it’s easy to get lazy so once you’ve read the good stuff in the genre, you pick up the not-so-good stuff either. I’ve seen this happen with a relative of mine and spy novels. He started out being quite discriminating about what he’d read in the genre, but then … not so much. Laziness is the easiest way to get into trouble with media consumption.
Becoming more omnivorous in our patterns of consumption allows us to:
A) Skim the best from each genre and art form — that whole 13th article of faith thing.
B) Discover the limitations in the genres, forms, artists and authors we adore most so that we become better judges (part of that whole critical lens thing). For instance, I think that it’s good for opera lovers to listen to rock music and discover that opera music is as much about sex and violence as modern rock is (and vice versa).
C) Invigorate our consumption patterns, which can easily become stale.
D) Become more discriminating but less snobbish about the genres we prefer.
Becoming more of a media omnivore takes work. But I think it’s worth it. And it’s something I need to do better at. For instance, I know next to nothing about classical music. I’m sure there’s stuff out there that I might like better than the Romantic-era classical (Beethoven) music that dominates the American recording and performing scene (partly because of movie scores, I think), but I haven’t really looked for it.
4. The need for critics
I want to make a final point: all the above underscores the need for critics (good critics), and especially for Mormon critics. Critics can help us sift through and find the best stuff. Critics can suggest ways of reading/viewing/listening that will help us develop our own critical tools. Critics can help keep alive the best works of each decade.
Yes, critics can also suck the joy out of art. But that doesn’t need to be the case. We need more Mormon criticism — both academic and popular criticism. There is some good work being done in this field. But I’d like to see more, especially in the realms of music, visual arts, and film.
I fear that too often Mormon media consumption patterns are set by the most conservative Mormons consumers. They have been allowed to limit the definitions of what is ‘faith-promoting’ and ‘appropriate’ (which generally means that a work has no ‘objectionable’ material and it’s been created by a Mormon and thus is good by default — no matter how shoddy the work itself actually is).
I don’t think that the solution is to paternalistically tell conservative Mormon consumers what they should think, buy and consume (despite my sermon above). Rather, I see a need for all Mormons to work harder at applying, teaching and writing about each of the three areas I list. And, in particular, for liberal Mormons to do more at engaging with and becoming part of the LDS market (of products and ideas).