Thursday, April 01, 2004

Harold Bloom and Me against the World 

by Kristine
Warning: what you are about to read may contain conservative content not suitable for all By Common Consent readers.

One of the most puzzling discussions I regularly have with other church members is about music. Because it's a topic I care about, and because I'm the ward music chairman, the choir director, the Sacrament Meeting chorister, the RS pianist, and (until recently) the Primary chorister, I tend to be the go-to gal on music in my ward.

The most recent variant of this conversation occurred a few weeks ago, when I told one of the young women that a song from "Saturday's Warrior" would not be an appropriate musical number for Sacrament Meeting. One of her parents was angered by my decision and suggested that I didn't have the right to exclude a musical number just because I didn't like it. I explained that, in fact, there are quite specific guidelines from the Handbook of Instructions about what music is appropriate, and that this song just didn't fit. We talked for a long time, but I don't think we understood each other any better at the end of the conversation.

The form of the argument is pretty common, but it always surprises me to have to have it at church (not to mention how odd it feels to be the one on the "conservative" side of the issue!). Basically, most Mormons (as far as I can tell) have completely bought the post-modern notion that aesthetic judgments are entirely matters of taste and social convention, even class oppression, and that what used to be called "high" culture is no more worthy of our attention than anything else. While Mormons may be concerned about the *content* of music, art, theater, or literature, and want it to be free of profanity, sex, and, to a lesser extent, violence, they are basically unconcerned with questions of form and artistic excellence. In fact, there's a decidedly populist flavor to many discussions of art among Mormons--one shouldn't need to learn about art to appreciate it; "don't know much about art, but I know what I like." The resistance to the abstract and "academic" strains of late 20th- and early 21st-century art and music has morphed into a rejection of anything that smacks of elitism.

I think this is a strange position for Mormons to take. We vehemently reject ethical relativism and wholeheartedly embrace the idea of Truth with a capital "T" as well as smaller truths that can be revealed to human beings because of their divine origin and destiny. We proclaim that we seek that which is "lovely, virtuous, or of good report, or praiseworthy." To me the belief that loveliness, virtue, or praiseworthiness are entirely matters of taste is antithetical to this project. It is also in decided contrast to the practice of Mormons in the early days of the church, and well into the 20th century, when there were strenuous efforts (art and music missionaries, Cultural Refinement lessons, performances by the Tabernacle Choir of the great Western choral literature, etc.) to educate members about the tradition of "high" art in Western civilization. Maybe the current de-emphasis of these things has to do with trying not to identify the church with American traditions, but I think it may be a far less conscious process than that, one in which Mormons have thoughtlessly assimilated some of the stupidest aspects of American postmodernism.

What do you think?
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