Welcome to the tenth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover: “Zion and the Arts: What Will Really Matter?”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark posits that Zion will be a place where we know things with our whole body, mind, and spirit and that to exist both in Zion and in a way here that will lead us to Zion requires a committing to a life of the spirit that involves communion with Deity and connection with and understanding of our community. And that one of the best ways to experience that, to grow the capacity for that, is the arts. Maybe even Mormon art—even thought the Mormonism of Clark’s time (and ours, to be honest) doesn’t seem to find much value in art.
Best Lines: “I am arguing that the tools of art have fashioned and continue to fashion the best vehicles available to use. The vehicles are already there, marvelous vehicles, more than we can ever use, to pull us, to stretch us, toward life … But these vehicles are useless—lifeless—if we leave them empty, if we don’t give them life by taking life from them” (124-125)
Why: There’s a long history of debate over the utility of art in building character, morality, empathy, a sense of community, political solidarity, a better society, etc. But if you do come down on the side that art can be valuable for the mind and the soul, then this is an interesting way to word it, one that acknowledges the active role of the reader in responding to the work of art, but also acknowledges that the creator(s) of the work have made something dynamic. Not a vessel to be drained. Nor a funnel to pour the author’s ideas into the reader. But a vehicle. Something that has a specific form and utility but requires the reader to bring energy to and operate.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: A simple one this week—find a work on the AML 100 List of Significant Mormon Literature (not best, not most important) that you have always meant to read and read it.
Other Recommendation: It’s not about Zion, but Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is one of the better attempts to grapple with ideas of utopia. It can be a tough read at times, and I’ve found you have to be in the right head space to read it, but when you’re up for it, it’s very much worth reading—or re-reading.
William Update: If you missed any sessions of the AML conference, here’s a link to the YouTube playlist. If you want to see the sessions I attempted to emcee or moderate or whatever, they are:
The essay begins with Clark reporting on a presentation by a futurist that BYU brought to campus. The futurist describes a “day in the not too distant future, maybe the year 2020 … when all the practical problems that now face mankind will have been solved” (119).
But let’s get to the point: the question the futurist asks is what is humanity going to do with their time. What will matter to the people of this utopian 2020? Learning for the joy of the learning is the futurist’s answer! Not a bad approach if you’re looking to get booked on university campuses.
Clark, of course, is going to Mormonize this experience because that’s what he does (and I love him for it even though I feel like he sometimes elides the parts I want him to most talk about [or doesn’t quite push as far as I’d like him to]), and so he launches into an examination of what Mormons mean by Zion, glosses over what it’ll take to get there, and wonders what will matter in Zion. His first answer is our spiritual lives (122). But our spiritual lives will need nourishing. Zion is not a static state of existence. And so he, more or less, arrives at the same answer as the futurist, or rather the same answer but more because of the added dimension of Zion being a religious rather than secular utopia. Knowledge is what will matter, he says, an “ideal knowing” that “involve[s] the whole spirit and mind plus the body through its senses” (122).
But what will provide this whole being experience?
Not studying the history of the arts, or the biographical and historical context for the artist, not a study of “techniques and forms and materials” used by the artist (122), not even memorizing the work the work of art—No, it needs to be a “total experience, all antennae a-quiver, the whole body and mind responding” (122).
Clark admits that this type of experience is rare and can’t be taught. But it comes the closest to how he thinks what the experience of Zion is. To what it must mean if everyone is pure in heart.
I have criticized the totalizing, too often totalitarian vision of utopias in earlier newsletters. But I must admit Zion defined as the pure in heart has a certain appeal to me. But this is not because it’s some pristine, perfect world I yearn for so much the current state of the world annoys me so much I’m willing to, say, violate everyone’s agency and civil liberties to arrive at it.
Rather it’s because the only conditions by which I believe a Zion society could actually be achieved are the very conditions that would improve upon where we’re currently at as a society and individual communities.
Not that Clark is arguing against me. He acknowledges our current imperfections.
“What can this ideal picture of Zion finally have to do with us in this present reality?” he asks (124). And then replies:
“The answer is in the question itself. The immediate purpose of any ideal, of any vision, is to stretch us out of what we are toward what we should be, toward what we can become” (122).
Clark goes on to enumerate the “attitudes and conditions” that “must prevail in Zion” (123).
That sounds great. But as is often the case with Clark, he provides little in the way of specifics. Nor does he fully acknowledge the implications of the futurist’s 2020 vision, which is that certain material needs to be met in order for the kind of attitudes and conditions Clark is looking for to have a chance of prevailing.
Where he does provide specifics is with a list of works of art that might help us feel the total experience of body, mind, and spirit he describes earlier. I’m not quite sure what to do with this. I certainly can’t argue with the list, but it tends to fall under some of the greatest hits of the western canon of visual art, music, and literature.
I’m not demeaning his experience with them by pointing this out. I have no doubt he had the experiences he did with them.But not everyone has the background and/or personality to access those experiences in quite the same way.
Or to put it more bluntly: I worry that Clark’s vision for what art looks like in Zion is much narrower than mine even if we both agree that the arts will still matter, will, hopefully, matter even more in such a state of existence.
Where we are more in accord, however, is with how he ends the essay, which is with to point out that “even the most devoted among us to the arts and to Zion need encouragement” (128). In particular, a passage where he talks about how “precious few” works of Mormon art exist:
“I have used that word [precious] in an older idiomatic sense at least three times now. It has uncomfortable overtones. But if precious few, then maybe the more precious. If the arts have precious little value for our present imperfect Zion, then maybe the more precious for those of us who do respond and who create” (128).
It’s easy for Mormon artists to feel under-appreciated, unacknowledged, and (worst of all) unknown. It’s also quite possible for those feelings to lead to discouragement, bitterness, a numbing indifference, or at best, a certain protective modesty or comfort.
Yes, all the more precious for those of us who do respond. But that doesn’t mean we should be content for a closed ecosystem.
Precious and ambitious. Inspired and messy. Zion as it will be and Zion as it now is.
That’s what I’m looking to experience and aiming to create.
How about you?
Thanks for reading!
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