On sentimentality, cynicism and Mormon art

I recently ran across an Oscar Wilde quote that stopped me in my tracks. I’m only going to pluck out the beginning and end of it, the full thing is available at Goodreads:

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. … And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.

I am often uncomfortable with the grand pronouncements made about the Mormon audience by artists who want to be better received and understand by that audience. I think it’s condescending, short-sighted and uncharitable to dismiss Mormons who look mainly to Deseret Book for their cultural consumption. While I agree that much of the art that American Mormons produce is poorly crafted, insipid, and simplistic, I also think many of the alternatives that are offered are not much better. They may be better crafted, but that doesn’t mean what they have to say is more interesting and profound. Or to be simplistic about it myself, while the former may sell out to the Deseret Book audience, the latter too often sells out to the New York Times audience.

And as I’ve said many times, the Mormon audience(s) doesn’t owe us anything. Artists are the ones who are asking for their time and money. We have to prove that we can be trusted with it. It’s up to us do something about it rather than whine about what others should do more of or be less of.

But that doesn’t mean any of us are off the hook for what we’re supposed to learn in this world, and I firmly believe that what we don’t learn in this life, we have to learn in the next (if we can). Which means that eventually we’ll all need to grow out of our sentimentalism and our cynicism. The reason Wilde connects those two–and the reason why each of them is dangerous–is that both sentimentalism and cynicism are an attempt to protect oneself by shying. One does so by wanting to only focus on a simplistic picture of the good. Of taking a static image of pleasantness and mistaking it for something beautiful and secure. The other by seeing everything as tainted¬†and not worthy of trust.

Nothing is static. That’s fundamental to LDS doctrine. Agency is given to individual beings as an engine for progression. Heaven is a state of creation not of being. Perfection is faith, hope and charity–not a cool, self-sufficient completeness.

Everything is tainted, but it’s tainted with goodness and the desire to love others. Humans are fallen, selfish being–who are also capable of great acts of charity. We all have the seeds if divinity inside us. Nurturing them is difficult, slow work that requires developing trust (in ourselves, in God, in Christ’s atonement, in others) and being vulnerable.

The Deseret Book Mormon is being cynical when they refuse to engage with art that makes them uncomfortable. The NY Times Mormon is being sentimental when they applaud uncomfortable art that pushes their particular socio-political buttons. Yes, it’s okay to be discriminating. Yes, we all live in our own culture bubbles. Yes, there’s an element of subjectivity to matters of taste.

But in our creation and consumption of art, we should do our best to avoid sentimentality and cynicism.

4 thoughts on “On sentimentality, cynicism and Mormon art”

  1. It seems like all we want nowadays is silliness–and we’ve got the “Deseret Book” and “New York Times” versions of those: Studio C and the Book of Mormon Musical. It’s all silliness. I don’t know–it could be a backlash caused by decades upon decades of insufferable sentimentality; a retreat into a “safe” genre that wrestles with nothing really good, true, or beautiful.

  2. While I generally agree with your point, Jack, I think that Studio C is not all silliness. Some of their sketches have some bite to them.

  3. Thanks for writing this Wm. A reason I appreciate it is that one of Arthur Henry King’s mantras to writers was “sentimentality is unearned emotion”. Now I know the source of his (frequent) statements about this problem in expression. Not just Mormon expression, but all expression through the last few centuries.

    Speaking of expression, I’m wondering if part of the problem with cynicism and sentimentality in art is that they operate at the “self-expression” level of artistic development. While I think self-expression is a phase every artist needs to go through–it’s the “finding yourself” or “mirroring” stage of artistic growth where an artist finds ways to shape themselves in their medium so they can come to themselves–it’s my thinking that ultimately an artist needs to leave this stage, develop a sense of audience, work to understand the audience, and write with the well being of that audience in mind. While sentimental and cynical artists can certainly shape their work upon ideas of an audience that seeks that kind of comfort in or confirmation of their beliefs, such a relationship between artist and audience really has nowhere to go. As you say, not much progression stuff going on in the artist, the medium, or the audience.

    But back to sentimenticism. To my mind, its biggest failure is not taking responsibility for its condition but instead subscribing to a kind of helplessness in the face of others’ failures or in the failures of this world generally. In some ways, this is anti-art, if we consider the best art “powerful”, meaning that at its liquid, sometimes ironic core, it inspires and enables change, i.e., progression. Sentimenticism, on the other hand, is a key ingredient in nostalgia, propaganda, slogans, etc.

    By the way, how do you reconcile your “everything is tainted” remarks above with your points about cynicism? “Tainted” suggests introduced impurity. While I can see the ironic twist on “everything” being tainted with goodness, etc., it seems an odd metaphoric turn, because something that’s tainted with goodness in its pure state is 100% badness. If good art has an effect, this world should be rising, people should be becoming “more good”. “Goodness” notwithstanding, “tainted” suggests a base metaphoric composition that seems to tug us back toward the cynical zone. Explain, please?

  4. I like the word tainted because it opposes a totalizing perfection (whether that be a shallow Mormon one or a neoliberal utopian one). But perhaps a better rhetorical move would be to use the word leaven.

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