The Shibboleths of Mormon Aesthetics

A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an article about the animation program at BYU, which has been gaining a positive national reputation for both the films it produces and the quality of its graduates. If you haven’t read it, click here, and then come back for the discussion. Compared to other similar articles I’ve read, I thought the author did a pretty good job of exploring the unique culture of BYU from an outside perspective that seeks to understand rather than to ridicule. Early in the article, the author notes that when trying to describe their goals and aspirations, many of the students used terms that seemed to have some kind of deeper meaning that he, as an outsider, just couldn’t quite grasp. These terms were described as ‘shibboleths’, and as I have read and written about Mormon arts, I have noticed the use of these particular shibboleths to try and define what ‘good’ art is and what ‘real’ Mormon artists are like. In this post, I wanted to explore three of these particular terms that I often hear used and share some of my own personal thoughts about them.

First of all, is the phrase ‘family friendly’. I’ve never understood that one, personally. Right now I have three kids, ranging in age from nearly 10 to 3. My 3-year-old has the attention span of a gnat, and frankly there aren’t any movies she will enjoy very much. I also like putting my kids to bed and watching or reading something with mature themes and complex ideas that only an adult would appreciate. I have a hard time getting behind the idea that all media should be accessible to all people at all times. I don’t necessarily think that media for adults needs to include excessive amounts of crude language, explicit sexuality, or excessive violence. I have seen a number of thoughtful, mature, movies that were certainly not family-friendly and that would have bored my kids to tears at this point in their life, but someday I hope they will be able to appreciate them once they have gained the intellectual maturity to do so.

A second, and closely related, term that is commonly used is ‘uplifiting’. Many of the students for example, talked about wanting to make films that would leave the viewer feeling happy or better about the world after watching them. I think this is a noble goal, but sometimes the focus on creating ‘uplifting’ entertainment can create discomfort with the more complex and difficult emotions of life. The author of the article includes an anecdote about student who created a personal, complex film that had a lot of negative emotion in it as well as an ambiguous ending. Some of the other students weren’t sure how to respond to the piece and were clearly uncomfortable with the level of emotion it contained, especially since there was no happy ending. As another example, I appreciate a movie like Brokeback Mountain that explores difficult, and very real, issues. It is not a happy movie, and probably not ‘uplifiting’ in the way that most people think of the word, but I and many others who have been in similar relationships welcome the fact that our life has been reflected on screen. Life is not always happy and uplifting, and I don’t think there’s a problem with sometimes making media that reflects that side of life. Life is full of paradoxes and we cannot appreciate the sweet without the bitter.

Last is the seemingly innocuous word ‘clean’. This one gets used a lot when it comes to the arts, especially books and movies. From Primary on up, children are taught that appearances and behavior matter a lot. How many lessons about modesty, treating others well, keeping the Word of Wisdom, obeying the law of chastity, using good language, listening to appropriate music, watching and reading appropriate media, and avoiding pornography do we have by the time we reach adulthood? Keeping yourself ‘clean’ serves a dual purpose—increasing your own personal spirituality while also affirming your difference from ‘the world’. Focusing on ‘clean’ media is a way for Church members to affirm their relationship with God and his commandments, while also differentiating themselves from other groups. I’m still trying to negotiate my own feelings about the idea of ‘clean’ media; for the record, I certainly don’t want my children engaging in premarital sex or smoking. But, I worry that too much focus on outward appearances and behaviors can create an environment of rigid rule-keeping and can shift the focus away from becoming and from true, inward change. Also, such an emphasis often creates a false dichotomy between ‘the church’ and ‘the world’, with the assumption that those who are behaving a certain way are ‘real’ members of the church and are good and those who aren’t must be evil. It is this kind of thinking that fuels the impulse to erase a cigarette from a movie character’s hand and replace it with a pretzel—the assumption that Mormons would not want to even be in the presence of someone indulging in such behavior lest someone mistakenly believe they are in the wrong group.

Perhaps in writing this post I have revealed that I am but a lowly Ephraimite, unable to speak the right language and fit into the group. However, I do think that this is an overly simplistic description of the issue and that Mormon culture can, and does, accommodate a wider variety of viewpoints about media and the arts. I think that if the author of this article were to dig a little deeper with these students, he might find that some of those terms they were using as shibboleths were maybe not so universal in meaning either. What do you think?

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41 Responses to The Shibboleths of Mormon Aesthetics

  1. One thing I think is that people need to be careful not to become too reactionary to such terms and essentially “bend over backwards” to separate themselves from them in order to show that they are “true artists.”

    There is nothing wrong with seeking to attain the “ideal” that may be represented by such terms, however you may choose to define them. I think that problems can arise when those terms are used to judge others unrighteously, from either side of the spectrum they’re on (and they are on a bit of a spectrum, at least).

    It seems to me that the goal should be to act, as opposed to reacting; to create the best art you can, because it reaches toward your personal ideals and helps you grow closer to fulfilling your God-given talents and potential.

    Reacting to perceived narrowness on the part of others and then expressing that reaction by creating something that will “show them” how narrow they are, is not very likely to help lift anyone closer to the ideal.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Are you suggesting that Jessie was attacking those who use these words as she described them? I don’t think that’s a fair reading of her post. But maybe you could clarify your meaning.

      • C. M. Malm says:

        While Jessie makes some good points, I do agree with Kathleen. And yes, I did feel that there was something of an undertone of attack in Jessie’s descriptions of those who use the words she was describing. I’m a long way from being the kind of Mormon she’s talking about–I’m fond of many works of art/literature that some Mormons would find offensively dark and worldly. But I consider that a matter of personal taste. Whenever this subject comes up, it seems as if many of those who share *my* tastes would like to ram those tastes down the throats of Mormons who have different tastes. That urge runs contrary to everything I feel about the subject. Admittedly, Jessie didn’t go that far with her assertions, but there was something in the tone of her essay that ruffled my hackles. :~/

      • A shibboleth is a divider, a sifter, a separator, is it not? A way to create “them” and “us” groups, correct?

        I just think that when those terms are used in that way, it may not be to the good of the art or of the community. Jacob (2 Nephi 2:26) told us it was better to act than to be acted upon, and I think that should apply to creating art as well as to other human endeavors.

        Reactionary “art” as I referred to it in my comment above may be the real “shibboleth.”

        Trying to understand and work with art that doesn’t fit our personal definitions of the terms Jessie addressed can bring people together, as shown by the BYU students who decided to work with “Bothered” after all, even if it wasn’t in the way its creator had hoped.

        • Th. says:

          .

          Are you saying that talking about a culture’s shibboleth’s is what turns them into shibboleths?

          • ???

            Why would talking about potential divisiveness create that divisiveness? I would think that talking about such things is more likely to help understand what causes the divisiveness and, it is to be hoped, lead to avoiding divisiveness.

            My original comment on this post was because Jessie closed with “what do you think?” and I shared one of the things I think. I did not intend to appear to be putting words in Jessie’s mouth, and I hope to be afforded the same consideration.

  2. Rosalyn says:

    I think there is still a pretty sizeable group in Mormon audiences who believe that good art needs to be somehow “lovely”–that is, anything that is ambiguous or deals with complex things in discomforting ways, isn’t exactly art. I’m reminded of something Madeleine L’Engle said in Walking on Water (her personal reflections on art and faith), along the lines of: “bad art is bad religion, no matter how pious the subject matter.” If we are in the business of producing art (visual, literary, etc.) that marries itself to issues of faith, I don’t think we can limit ourselves to creating “uplifting” material, since, for one thing, what is uplifting to one person may not inspire someone else. But I do think we can work for things that help people process their faith in useful ways–things that help us ask questions, see different perspectives, generate sympathy. But that’s just me.

    In more practical terms, I think shibboleths are dangerous because we risk creating an insular community. I remember attending a Rhetoric conference years ago on rhetoric and the Christian tradition, and someone there spoke on translation–that is, the idea that Christian writers (and speakers) need to make sure that they use terms that translate to non-Christian audiences. I think the same is probably true for us–unless our goals are just to preach to the choir, we need to find ways of articulating creative goals that translate to different audiences.

    Also–what I should have said first!–I enjoyed your observations here, Jessie.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      It’s always struck me as interesting that the KJV translation makes Paul’s list a choice among three options, not a list of three requirements. It’s virtuous, lovely, *or* of good report or praiseworthy—not *and.*

      Straining at a gnat, perhaps. But I think the idea that one work must encapsulate all good values, while certainly virtuous and praiseworthy, might well be a bar to be strived for (like perfection) rather than a reasonable measuring stick.

      I would suggest that a thing that is virtuous or lovely or of good report (or praiseworthy) is every bit as valuable as a piece that combines several of those virtues. In any case, it’s the combination of many expressive works (not unlike a testimony meeting—many voices, not a single authoritative statement) that brings each of us to the light by the path that we are able to embrace.

  3. Great post, Jessie!

    I read that article a week or so back and very much enjoyed the author’s approach. I didn’t go to BYU (which is its own odd culture within a culture), although I grew up in Provo, Utah, so I understand some of that mindset. But as I’ve gotten older and lived outside of “Happy Valley,” I’m sometimes surprised by the culture shock I experience when I come back home and realize I don’t relate as well as I used to.

    What bothers me more so than the attitude that worries about content, is the attitude that worries about complexity. When I look at the stories in the Book of Mormon, for example, that is a deeply complex book that explores some pretty hefty subject matter. And no “happy ending” there! The Nephites are as self-destructive as any Shakespearean tragedian.

    Yet I’m disappointed that with all of our “required” reading in the scriptures, we are still overly disturbed by an animated short film that allegorically deals with anxiety. There was nothing, content wise, that was wrong with the film the animator was pitching. Quite the opposite, I thought her work sounded compelling. Yet, by their statements, many of the other BYU animators were clearly disturbed that it didn’t fit in their sunny, fuzzy ideal.

    I love that the article points out the trends of Mormon work ethic, intelligence, creativity and optimism. I am also appreciative, however, that the author didn’t give us a free pass either and that it explored the parts of our culture that have more disturbing implications.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I think there’s a belief on the part of some people that *because* art is created, it should aspire to a higher level of beauty and positive content than life in general affords. The theory here is that life is grim enough; why use art to create more grimness? Why not use art to show the way the world ought to be, and in so doing make it come closer to that?

      Certainly there’s value in art that does that. And there are times when I feel depressed enough about life that I surely don’t want art that simply reinforces my sense of grimness. But I agree that it’s important to accept that there is positive value to art that explores the grim and complex as well.

      • Although I definitely think there is a soul searching place for “grim” art, art doesn’t always need to hit that place for it to be complex (for example, I much prefer King Lear over Titus Andronicus… Titus, to me, revels in that grimness, while Lear has more soul and wisdom to contrast its darker moments). But complexity does need contrast… it can’t be monochromatic on one side of the spectrum or the other.

        Now, that said, simplicity can create a kind of elegance in art, and much of what the other BYU animators were putting forth was whimsical and lovely. It being simple didn’t take away from the beauty and craftsmanship of their work. But if that is ALL an artist or, worse, a culture, is capable of, then it becomes increasingly… one dimensional.

        “The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.”
        –Joseph Smith

        • Scott Hales says:

          “I much prefer King Lear over Titus Andronicus… Titus, to me, revels in that grimness, while Lear has more soul and wisdom to contrast its darker moments.”

          Titus has to be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Perhaps his greatest dark comedy. Brutally dark! What play better shows the absolute absurdity of violence and revenge?

          • Interesting that you like it so much…totally valid, of course!

            I’ve never even tried to interpret it as a dark comedy. Very interesting…

            To me it didn’t have the same breadth and soul that Shakespeare’s later tragedies do, though. I interpreted it’s brutality as a crowd pleasing tool rather than condemning it as an absurdity, but I find that to be a fascinating interpretation.

          • Scott Hales says:

            Read it again in that light. It makes all the difference.

        • Scott Hales says:

          “Lend me thy hand and I will give you mine…”

          haha

      • Jessie says:

        I think you really clarified one thing that I was trying to say (and didn’t fully articulate to myself either). To me, it really isn’t so much about content. It’s just that so often trying to create art without negative content creates art that is without complexity. I don’t think that art necessarily needs negative content to be complex, although some people do, but it can be a challenge to create real dramatic tension without real opposition.

    • Andrew H. says:

      I guess I had read the first few pages of the NYT piece, but I had not gotten to the last 2 pages about the girl pitching “Bothered”. Wow, what an amazing story! That must be one of the first times a serious non-Mormon journalist has written about the inside, nuts-and-bots creation process of Mormon artists. It said a lot more than most of the quotes about the process that we sometimes get from creators.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Good observations, and thoughtful comments.

    I think a lot of the problem comes when people assert or assume that there must be a single agenda for art: e.g., to uplift, to entertain, to tackle tough issues, to advance artistic craft. On the one hand, in general I think art that aspires to only one of these (or other similar goals that could be articulated) probably won’t be very good art. On the other hand, if you approach art that aspires to address tough issues with a mindset that assumes art is all about entertainment (for example), you’ll be surprised/disappointed at best, and offended at worst. And vice versa.

    I would hope that Mormon art (and the community of Mormon artists, readers, moviegoers, etc.) would be broad enough to foster all of these, even though many of us as individuals will doubtless prefer some artistic goals and purposes to others.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    Their are shibboleths on both sides of course. I just finished reading Moby Dick. Now I can enter a new walled city. Soon I will finish reading The Backslider. A new club I am member of.

  6. Bud says:

    I agree completely.

    The article quotes one student who felt like “a horrible human being” after watching “The Dark Knight,” implying that it had no redeeming value. I decided we could not possibly have watched the same movie. I remember walking out of the theater feeling both artistically envious and spiritual uplifted. The magnitude of the Joker’s villainy only made Batman’s sacrifice at the end that much more powerful. How can a Latter-day Saint fail to see echoes of the Savior in that ending?

    • Th. says:

      .

      Not to mention neither boat detonating. That’s an astonishingly optimistic view of humanity.

      • Agreed. I was surprised how “moral” of a movie Dark Knight was–the whole trilogy, in fact. More spiritual, intellectual and moral thought went into those movies than many an animated film that passes through the same old, tired cliches.

    • Scott Hales says:

      “How can a Latter-day Saint fail to see echoes of the Savior in that ending?”

      Because we teach and are taught to view media from a negative standard that focuses on content rather than context and has a very narrow view of what is uplifting.

      Or so I sometimes feel…

      • Th. says:

        .

        Because we teach and are taught to view media from a negative standard that focuses on content rather than context and has a very narrow view of what is uplifting.

        That is very well phrased.

  7. BYU-TV spent so much time scrubbing Granite Flats “clean” that it never got around to balancing out the grim pessimism that permeates the show. As C.S. Lewis observed, “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint . . . but in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”

    • Love this quote! Will be using it.

    • Jessie says:

      Agreed. Another point that I know I did not articulate clearly is that, similarly, a focus solely on content that is obvious and easily counted (like swear words or smoking) often trumps a focus on content that is not obvious. A movie or book may have no swear words or sex on screen, but it may still teach attitudes that are contrary to the gospel. As a parent I particularly worry about this–there are plenty of movies and TV shows that may be deemed ‘family friendly’ but that would teach my kids behaviors and attitudes that contradict what I want them to learn. I will admit that there are even some kid-oriented shows that I hate, like “Max and Ruby” because of the terrible stereotypes about sibling relationships that it perpetuates. I’m being a bit tongue in cheek and perhaps such entertainment is harmless, but I do think that what we watch and read affects us in ways we may not even be aware of.

  8. Emily Harris Adams says:

    Something I find interesting is how people are interpreting the discomfort students felt about the darker piece that was presented by one of the students. Those who have read the article know that the other students seemed uncomfortable and confused, but also accepted the piece to be done in 2D rather than 3D animation.

    It seems like many are taking this as a bad sign–that the students are unable to handle a type of artistic expression different than what they typically encounter. I don’t think that’s quite right, though. They aren’t unable to handle it. They are unused to handling it. They didn’t reject it. They approached it cautiously.

    It sounds like many of them are trying to define what they themselves mean when they say, “clean,” “uplifting,” and “family friendly.” They have a basic idea of what they mean. When they encounter something that doesn’t fit their vague definition, but also doesn’t necessarily stand completely outside that definition, they explore. Uncomfortably, sure. Exploration is uncomfortable.

    At BYU, I think that the place students will typically need to learn to explore is artistic expression that might be darker than they are used to. That is where they are most likely to be naive. But other students at other universities might need to explore artistic expression that is lighter than they are used to. They might, in their naivety, believe that only gritty art has any value or meaning, just like some of the BYU students had a hard time seeing the salvation offered in the darker, more ambiguous art.

    • Wm says:

      That is a fantastic point, Emily.

    • Th. says:

      .

      I was surprised but happy to read that they took it on. BYU students, even by fellow Mormons, often get dismissed. I think the article should call us to rethink our stereotypes as much as it has anyone else.

      • Jessie says:

        Yes–one of my other reactions after reading the article was to think “they are college students and they are young.” I’m not that old, but I’m far enough past college to begin losing some of my youthful enthusiasm and black-and-white thinking. I also work with college students, and as each year goes by I realize the difference between my amount of life experience and theirs. College can, and should be, a time for exploring the complexities of life and for moving beyond black-and-white thinking. College also happens to be a time when people are both enthusiastic and idealistic–BYU is a somewhat unique environment in the way that enthusiasm and idealism express themselves, but I don’t think that BYU students are all that different from other young college students around the country.

  9. Jonathan Langford says:

    So what are some important shibboleths of Mormon art?

    I take the point of Jessie’s post (in this respect) as being that “clean,” “uplifting,” and “family-friendly” are terms that have a meaning that (a) can be exclusionary, and (b) are heavily coded: i.e., have a specialized meaning that you don’t necessarily know if you don’t know how this particularly community uses them. E.g., “uplifting”: a term that (as used by many Mormon readers) means “not including anything disturbing.” And I think that most of us have had encounters with those who mean it that way.

    Kathleen points out that other groups and individuals may have other shibboleths, such as “realistic,” “innovative,” “sophisticated,” and “serious,” which can be used in a way that is equally exclusionary and equally coded: e.g., by those who equate realistic with depressing. And I think many of us have encountered people who seem to mean it that way, based on how they talk about art.

    I think Kathleen is right when she suggests that these kinds of terms become damaging when they are used in an exclusionary way. And I think Jessie is right that we need to explore these terms, which may seem so straightforward on first glance, to see what they mean when actually used by people.

    • Th. says:

      .

      I’ve recently learned that likable and silly are codewords as well.

    • Jessie says:

      Yes, I think that is part of what didn’t come out very clearly in my post (and what got kind of cut out after things started getting long). I came to BYU as a committed Mormon who really loved the arts, but also as a Mormon who grew up in a family where ‘good’ entertainment did not always equal ‘clean’ or ‘uplifting’ entertainment. My parents’ views on movies and literature are very different from many other LDS family’s, and it was confusing and sometimes hurtful to hear people dismiss the kinds of movies I had loved as a teenager and learned important lessons from as evil in some way. I also think that people tend to throw around these sorts of terms in a way that assumes that they have simple, easily agreed upon definitions, but that if we question our terminology a little we may find that we are not on the same page at all.

      And, for the record, I really like a lot of animated films as well as other movies that are happy and free from violence and bad language.

  10. Kelly Frome says:

    I was touched by Jessie’s comment above. I have been watching her develop her skills and voice as an author and observer/ commentator on life in general and issues involving LDS life in particular for many years.

    I’m her father and I read and admire all of her published work.

    Her revelation that she arrived at BYU with a different mindset about art, in this case movies, than a lot of her peers made me feel good. I did not understand or agree with the guidance that a group of entertainment industry executives (the Motion Picture Association of America – MPAA) should be arbiters of our family movie choices, or that the value of a particular movie could be meaningfully described by a system of letters and numbers. I believe that we are all responsible and accountable for the art we choose to consume, and that critics, committees, boards, etc cannot relieve us of that responsibility – regardless of the good intentions inherent in the attempt. I wanted our children to understand this as well and I exposed them to the art I considered appropriate to each child based on their personality and maturity. This is a dangerous path for the father in an LDS family, I was saying to my children that the church leaders were wrong on this issue and that we were going to disobey them – scary stuff….

    For example I would not take an 8 year old to Schindler’s List, but in my opinion every 14 year old should see it and cry at the end. There are life lessons in the film that are perfect for young teens to understand, and are better learned sitting with your parents in a movie theater than from your 14 year old peers who have extremely limited knowledge of suffering, good, evil, perseverance, and redemption in the real world. There are many other powerful movies that educate and entertain…

    I believe that Jessie survived our disobedience with her testimony intact, and the willingness to assume responsibility for her own art consumption. Now she is a Mom and is teaching her kids how to consume and appreciate art. And I know that she will do a wonderful job.

  11. Gamila says:

    I feel like most of these comments point out the standards of family-oriented, clean, and uplifting to be barriers to good art. That they don’t typify good artists. Yet, I would disagree with those arguments. Like Mahonri said before there can be extreme beauty in simplicity. There is something very joyful in viewing something that can be widely appreciated and shared with everyone you love no matter their age or stage in life.
    A lack of complexity doesn’t mean that art has less value to a culture or that it is bad. In fact, creating this type of art well is extremely challenging, and takes a great deal of skill and talent. Ask anyone who writes a picture book how extremely trying it can be to condense a story into 500 words. Simplicity, accessibility, as well as beauty have made people laude the stylistic genius of Julius Caesar for centuries. Condensing ideas and conflicts to their very foundations and expressing them accessibly, beautifully, humorously is a tall order that I think we should pay respect to instead of disparage because it isn’t complex enough. In fact, it is a skill that I envy.
    The reason these animators are sought after is because they have these skills. When you strip a story down to its bare essentials, take away those complex ideas and baggage, there is so little room for mistake. There can be no weaknesses in your form. Your arcs must be perfect, your conflicts immediate, your characters instantly compelling. I have learned more about good storytelling by reading hundreds of well-written picture books than I could by reading the same amount of novels.
    I don’t mean to argue that simplicity and accessibility should always be the primary goal of all Mormon art, but there is nothing inferior about artists who find their home in this style. Many of the artists who find themselves at home with these stylistic benchmarks are Mormon and I think it is a particular reason why so many of our authors and entertainers produce work for children. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a very specialized skill set, and they should be recognized for that. I am kind of sad about the fact that with all the recognition for Mormon novelists that our successful picture book authors, beyond a spare few, are mainly ignored.
    The student who created the animated film with complex heavy emotions did not feel offended at all by the reaction of her classmates. She said in the newspaper article that she felt like her work was respected. I think the reaction of her classmates can also be explained on the fact that she wrote a work inconsistent with genre. These are animators. Animators in the main are hired to write and produce stories for families and children. Most students probably went into the major expecting to produce for this market. They looked at that short animation and asked where does it fit? Who will buy it? What audience will appreciate it? Perhaps changing to 2-D would reflect the more serious style of the piece and earmark it for adults as something to be taken more seriously. What a wonderful thing that this student had the opportunity to write this story while in college and share it with her fellow students. She might not get as friendly and thoughtful an audience if she tried to market it to people who were expecting to make money off it.
    It may be hard and practical to say it so bluntly but I think that is what the Shibboleths come down to. We’ve discovered as Mormons we can excel at conveying these themes and that there is an audience who will pay for that skill. I don’t think your disillusionment with this style makes you unable to be a good artist in the Mormon community. I just think you are not the same type of artist and that you have to find another niche suited to your prefered style.

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