An Artist is Not Without Honor, Except in His Own Culture

4.22.08 | | 12 comments

While home teaching the other day, I got into a discussion of how single LDS Church members passed on apartments from member to member, so that some apartments have been held by Church members for a decade or more. As an example of this, I was able to cite the case of Keene Curtis and Jon Beck Shank, both LDS Church members (at least nominally), who shared an apartment here in New York City in the 1960s. I then explained that Curtis went on to become a very successful actor, playing most famously the part of John Allen Hill, the upstairs restaurant owner in the sitcom “Cheers” and the part of “Daddy Warbucks” in the musical “Annie” on stage (not in the film version).

“Daddy Warbucks” was Mormon?!! was the incredulous reaction I got.

I’m afraid this is the kind of reaction I find all the time — mainly because there are so many Mormons in the arts who are unknown to most members of the Church. Like the problems we have with the Canon of Mormon Literature, most members simply don’t have any knowledge of many creators that have gained critical acclaim outside of Mormon circles.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this is the only thing going on. I know about a few of these artists, and there is an outsider quality to each of them. Sometimes, they simply don’t fit the conception of what is ‘appropriate’ in Mormon culture. Other times, these artists are not in popular fields, or not from areas with a concentration of LDS Church members. This outsider status discounts their contributions, and leaves them out of the consciousness of most members.

This idea came up somewhat in the discussion on the post on why evangelicals and Mormons don’t share books and culture. Kelly Meilstrup and I had a long discussion about what makes a great LDS composer. In looking at LDS composers I replied near the end of the discussion:

I should also point out one interesting difference among the various composers we’ve mentioned above. Out of curiosity, I searched wikipedia for all of the Mormon composers we’ve mentioned above. Many of the better known composers are listed, including Crawford Gates, Leroy Robertson, Mack Wilberg, etc. But in every case it was fairly clear from the information given and references listed that the author of the article was coming from an LDS perspective.

I only found one name listed where that was not the case; where the article had clearly been put together by those who included the article in wikipedia because they thought that the composer was important himself, instead of just because he was Mormon. The article was also the best developed of all the articles on Mormon composers. Who was it?

La Mont Young

From what I’ve seen, this same kind of pattern exists in many fields. These artists are recognized by those outside of Mormonism more than by those inside of Mormonism. I’d be interested in knowing of any others that might fit this idea.

Off the top of my head, here are some of those who get overlooked all the time:

Visual art: Wayne Thiebaud, Helaman Ferguson

Music: Grant Johannesen, La Mont Young

Film: Lino Brocka

Dane: William F. Christensen, Harold Christensen
I’m sure there are others. What do you think?

12 comments: “An Artist is Not Without Honor, Except in His Own Culture

  1. William Morris

    I am familiar with Wayne Thiebaud, La Mont Young, Lino Brocka and William F. Christensen. At least their names — not so much their work (except for Thiebaud).

    Interestingly enough, Ferguson does show up at famousmormons.net.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Unlike the others, Ferguson was and is 100% active.The others not so much, which may explain the presence on famousmormons.net (which I’ve found generally incomplete anyway, especially when it comes to the less active.)

  3. William Morris

    It is incomplete — although it does list actors that are less active. And some of those Wikipedia entries are woefully incomplete.

  4. Trevor Banks

    Though many don’t consider them to be quite so ‘literary’ Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (Husband and Wife) of the band LOW are notable in this regard as well. I consider their music (some albums more than others) to be the pinnacle of what “LDS” art should be. The have toured with bands diverse as Radiohead, the Swans (probably not an LDS favorite, but an important one from my adolescence), and bands like The Shins. Alan has many other side projects, but LOW is by far the most well known. Their fan base includes figures like Thom Yorke and John Waters as well (who has something about Mormons, doesn’t he. I believe I remember reading that more than one of his films has a Mormon character in it, though I have yet to have the stomach to see any).

    I consider them a worthy addition to the list.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    Thanks for the note, Trevor. You are correct that they are noteable and outside of traditional LDS culture.

    I wrote about LOW several years ago on Mormon News, but I didn’t really “get” the few clips I listened to. But at the time they did get critical praise from both the Manchester Guardian and the New York Times.

    This reminds me of a few other Mormon outsiders — Randy Bachman and his son Ty Bachman. Randy was the genius behind The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive. His son Ty, after serving an LDS mission, also launched a musical career, but didn’t quite get the notariety of his father, although he did write and record the tune “She’s So High,” used as the theme song for one of the teen-oriented TV shows on what was then the “WB.” Unfortunately, I believe both have now left the Church over DNA and the Book of Mormon issues.

  6. William Morris

    Trevor:

    Agreed on Low. There are varying reports about Sparhawk’s feelings about the institutional church. I don’t think that really matters. Although Low’s lyrics tend to be indie-obscure, I do think that there’s enough to them and to Low’s music aesthetic for them to be of interest within the context of Mormon aesthetics.

    Kent:

    It’s Tal Bachman. The relevant AMV posts are:

    Mormon artists and membership status

    and

    Tal Bachman uses ex-Mo status to sell new record

  7. no-man

    Many of these well known artists have more or less of a “Mormon” background, they might have been exposed to the church in their childhood but do not consider themselves members of the church (and the church probably does not have membership records for them). Still, some use Mormon ideas as references in their work.

    There have been some interesting essays on La Monte Young’s work in relation to Mormon theology, one published in Dialogue not long ago (author is Jeremy Grimshaw). Matthew Barney used specific Mormon references in his “Cremaster” cycle of films, and talks about Mormon folk ideas and odd bits of old theological speculation. He’s highly regarded in the art world but I’m sure the church doesn’t want to go anywhere near acknowledging him as part of the Mormon culture. It would be misleading to say that Bjork’s husband is a Mormon, but in a sense it is true.

    I gather that Mimi and Alan of LOW do occasionally mention the church and their beliefs, but are very low key about it. The church will publicly acknowledge artists like the Osmonds and Gladys Knight, but there are plenty of lesser-knowns who don’t feel a need to be public examples. And there are those who happened to have a Mormon connection but who never really acknowledged it, like the late Mick Ronson, guitarist for David Bowie in the 70s, whose parents apparently remained active in the church.

    I think the benefit of these low-key Mormons is that they help normalize perceptions of the church. Not every Mormon artist needs to be an Osmond, and as people find out that Alan and Mimi are members they may better understand that the church is not homogenous and we are not all Osmonds.

  8. William Morris

    “I think the benefit of these low-key Mormons is that they help normalize perceptions of the church.”

    Absolutely, no-man. Great comments.

    I would also add that normalizing perceptions is good, but just as important, imo, is showing how interesting and provocative Mormon materials can be when used in the creation of art.

  9. Trevor Banks

    no-man:
    agreed.

    However, I’m pretty sure that Bjork and Barney aren’t married (and as far as I know Barney was never a baptized member), but I am looking for any concrete declaration to prove otherwise.

    In general, I wanted to go a bit further and suggest here, as I have elsewhere, how important Secret Name (the Low album) is. There is a tact as well as a poetry about the work as a whole, but it is the most mature work that I know of to take the temple (the name of the album should give that away) and Joseph Smith as its topic.
    Though I consider that album to be the apex of LDS art, I would also recommend the albums I Could Live in Hope, Trust, and their Christmas ep for starters for an extremely expansive yet extremely personal take on an LDS life. There was a time (what an admission!) when I didn’t feel ready for the temple unless I had listened to their track “The Silver Rider” from The Great Destroyer.

    I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with Alan and Mimi Simply because they allowed me to film them for a project I wanted to include them in (unfortunately it will be on hold for several years yet, if it ever gets done), but the filming took place every so often over a few years, and I saw how those years changed them. It is worth noting that they (Alan especially) are in a different place and tracks like “The Silver Rider” aren’t to be found on Guns and Drums. But “Murderer” from Guns and Drums, as frightening as it might be, is still a prayer, and comes from someone who’s read about Nephi killing Laban.

  10. Anneke Majors

    I hate to get all bourgeois on this lovely discussion, but what about Mormons who are showing up now all over pop culture because of reality television? I’m not in the circle myself, not owning a television, but my little sisters inform me that 2 of this year’s American Idol contestants self-identify as LDS.

    There have been multiple church members compete and do very well on So You Think You Can Dance?, the most notable being 2006 grand champion Benji Schwimmer and his sister Lacey. Quite a few other contestants are from Utah, but I’m not sure whether they are LDS.

    (I’m going to have to expose my proletariat roots a little more here, but here goes…) My mom & sisters are My Space friends with Benji and it’s interesting to note what a topic of conversation his religion becomes among his nation-wide array of pre-teen fangirls. It’s something he’s never been afraid to talk about and it’s exposing an entirely new demographic to the church, with a markedly positive reception.

    I would go on to relate the story of the time my mother spotted Benji in General Conference crowds on temple square and proceeded to try to talk up her recently returned and very eligible RM daughter, much to my mortification, but that may entirely undermine any dignity I had left in this crowd. :p

  11. Judy Gundersen

    The ballet master and choreographer’s name is Willam – NOT WILLIAM – Christensen. A common error, but your names should be correct!

  12. no-man

    Trevor,

    you’re right about Bjork, it just seemed easier to call Barney “Bjork’s husband” — and, true, I have no idea if he’s ever been a practicing member, but he seems to know a lot about folk traditions and strange theology from Mormon culture.

    You’ve pointed out some of the best Low moments. I have been discovering their music for about 3-4 years now, and I continually find new songs that strike a spiritual chord in me. “Murderer” is defintely one of the most powerful prayer-poems I’ve heard (even more effective in an acoustic version) — I find myself listening to it repeatedly some days; “Laser Beam” has long been my favorite religious statement contained in an enigmatic song. Low’s music seems to distill itself into my thoughts slowly, then over time reveal what it’s really “about”…

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