The Artist in the City of Zion

2.8.12 | | 8 comments

In Part 4 of Nephi Anderson’s classic novel Added Upon, the king of Poland visits the city of Zion during the Millennium to see and better understand the new order that has overtaken the world. Strolling with a companion and a guide, he comes across a man who seems to be one of the (as yet otherwise unseen) idle rich:

Approaching a beautiful sheet of water bordered by flowering bushes, lawns, and well-kept walks, they saw a man sitting on a bench by the lake. As his occupation seemed to be throwing bread crumbs to the swans in the water, the King and his companion concluded that here, at last, they had discovered one of the idle rich, whom they still had in their own country. Remand expressed his thought to the guide.

“He idle?” was the reply. “Oh, no; he is one of our hardest working men. That is one of our most popular writers, and in many people’s opinion, our best. We must not disturb him now, but we will sit down here and observe him. We are told that when he is planning one of his famous chapters of a story, he comes down to this lake and feeds the swans.”

“And do you still write, print, and read stories?” asked Remand.

“Certainly. Imaginative literature is one of the highest forms of art. This man has most beautifully pictured the trend of the race, his special themes being the future greatness and glory of Zion. Why should he not paint pictures by words, as well as the artist who does the same by colors and the sculptor by form? If you have not read any of his books, you must take some of them home with you. See, he is moving away. Would you like to meet him?”

They said they would. The author was soon overtaken, and he received his visitors graciously.

“Yes,” he laughingly acknowledged to Paulus, “you caught me fairly. I was planning a most interesting scene of the book on which I am now engaged, and the swans are a great help.”

He led his visitors into the grounds surrounding his home, and then into his house. He showed them his books, his studio, and his collection of art treasures. From an upstairs balcony he pointed out his favorite bit of landscape, a mixture of hill and dale, shining water, and purple haze in the distance.

“Yes,” he said, in answer to an inquiry, “I have read how, in former times, the workers in art, and especially the writer were seriously handicapped. The struggle for bread often sapped the strength which ought to have gone into the producing of a picture, a piece of statuary, or a book. Fear of some day wanting the necessities of life drove men to think of nothing else but the making of money; and when sometimes men and women were driven by the strong impulse of expression to neglect somewhat the ‘Making a living,’ they nearly starved. How could the best work be produced under such conditions? I marvel at what was done, nevertheless.” (pp. 200-201)

Undoubtedly there’s an element of wish-fulfillment to Anderson’s depiction. And yet this raises a serious question. In the city of Zion, who creates art? And who gets to make that decision?

Historically, all the ways I’ve heard of for supporting artists professionally come to variations of two models: (a) the market model, in which the audience pays to experience the art they want; (b) the patronage model, in which in which a privileged class or institution pays to have the art they want produced — whether for ideological or other reasons, e.g., enhancement of the patron’s reputation.

Taking the United Order as a model, the early Latter-day Saints apparently believed in an economic model for the city of Zion that would eliminate the market model through a centralized allocation of tasks. This becomes problematic, if (as Anderson depicts) some artists are supported in their artistic labors by the physical labors of others. Who decides how many artists a society needs? More critically, who decides which artists a society needs? And on what basis? Artistic quality, as judged by some elite panel (a variation of which functions essentially as a current patronage system within university creative writing departments)? Popular vote? Personal righteousness? Alignment with appropriate social goals? All have their problems. The closer I look at the various options, the better the market system starts to appear, complaints of Anderson’s author about “making a living” notwithstanding.

There’s another option, of course. What if there was no professional artistic class? What if all art was created on an amateur basis, simply for the love of it? What if (in the city of Zion) all men and women were obliged to work part of their days at the required productive tasks of society, with time to pursue other endeavors at their leisure — including art?

The most obvious counterargument is that this kind of split attention would detract from the development of the highest artistic skills. And yet I’m not convinced. Surely, some of our greatest writers have been full-time professionals — but others haven’t. For every Shakespeare and Le Guin, there’s a Chaucer or Tolkien. Increasingly over time, we have available to us a larger proportion of our time for private pursuits, artistic or otherwise. I think it could work. In fact, with the traditional market model for fiction collapsing around us, I think we’re effectively well on the way to this already in some specific niches (such as much of Mormon literature).

Probably all this is moot, and the city of Zion (when it comes among us) will be quite different from anything I’ve envisioned here. And yet I can’t help but speculate. If nothing else, it puts a different light on my own writerly ambitions, such as they are.

8 comments: “The Artist in the City of Zion

  1. Joe Vasicek

    Fascinating post. As someone who hopes to make a full-time living as a writer, I’d like to point out that spending time in other pursuits, even menial ones, can strengthen and nurture one’s art. If I spent every day doing nothing but writing, I’d be locked up in a room by myself most of the time, without seeing the world or interacting much with other people. This idea of Zion as a communally organized city where everyone is free to pursue the arts in their leisure time appeals greatly to me, so long as that leisure time is treated as sacred.

  2. Th.

    .

    I think about this scene all the time. In fact, when I saw the title of your post, I went and found this scene so I could share it in the comments.

    Wasn’t necessary.

  3. Wm

    I should also add that if market forces don’t come into play (and we don’t for sure exactly how the Millennium is going to shake out economically so I’m not willing to make major claims about what it’s going to look like) then the pressure won’t be on to produce work in order to survive so perhaps artists will be able to do more with less time. In addition, with no sickness or addiction that frees up quite a bit of time right there.

  4. Lee Allred

    The artist-and-swan scene from Added Upon is the one I most vividly remember from my first reading of the book as a teen.

    In addition to the question of the City of Zion economic model for the arts, I’ve always wondered about the arts themselves that scene.

    My old junior high textbook on writing said at the time that, simplified, story structure is conflict:

    1) Man in conflict with Nature.

    2) Man in conflict with Man.

    3) Man in conflict with himself.

    What kind of conflicts (and to what extent) would be written about in the scenario Anderson posits of an era with little, if any, conflict?

    Frankly, the literature Anderson describes being produced in that scene reminds me of Chamber of Commerce brochures.

  5. Th.

    .

    Scott Card wrote an essay suggesting we’ll all take turns being the artist during the Millennium.

  6. Luisa Perkins

    It’s been many years since I read that book. I do most of my story planning while engaged in “menial” labor: cooking, cleaning the house, gardening, changing diapers. I wonder what it would be like to plan a scene while sitting on a park bench with no other demands on my time and attention. I wonder, too, how Anderson’s story would change if his swan-feeding artist were a woman.

  7. Jonathan Langford

    Good responses all. It at least looks like other people have wondered about the same things I’ve wondered about. And have read and remembered that scene!

    Joe, I think you’re right about the value of non-writing tasks. Personally, I think that if I tried to be nothing but a full-time creative writer, I would burn out and my work wouldn’t be that good. But that’s just me. If I ever reach that point, I’ll let you know!

    Wm, the points you make relate to what I was suggesting in my next to last paragraph. I also agree that we don’t really have any clear idea of what the economic system of the Millennium will be like. Any assumptions we make from the perspective of current understanding are likely to be wrong!

    Lee, you hit on another point that occurred to me, though I didn’t go into it. Disputes about the value of different types of art take on nastier undertones when/if means of production and distribution are centralized. (A discussion we’ve had elsewhere in connection with DB’s imposition of a particular standard of nonoffensiveness on the LDS bookstore market.) I wonder how closely the corpus of Anderson’s works would stand up to his depiction here of the ideal artist in Zion?

    Luisa, that’s an interesting question — particularly given that so many of the Mormon home literature writers *were* women. How many artists (male and female) are able to “do” their art only because of the jobs of their spouses?

    Fun discussion!

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