Mormon LitCrit: Coward, or What is Not Art

Yesterday I happened to turn on the radio to hear Terry Gross in the middle of an interview with singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. I had never heard of Vic Chestnutt, but I like Gross’s Fresh Air program and settled in to listen.

Gross and Chesnutt were talking about a song Gross had just played. Chesnutt explained that it had been about his love-affair with death. He had, he confessed, attempted suicide several times in his life.

At this point, Gross’s voice interrupted the interview to explain that the interview was pre-recorded; it had actually taken place in early December of 2009. Then she explained that Chesnutt had actually succeeded in taking his own life this year on Christmas Day (2009). Then she returned us to the interview.

After talking a little bit more about his depression, Gross cut to another of Chesnutt’s recordings, a song called “Coward.”

As I listened to this song, I was amazed at Chesnutt’s artistic ability. Because the mood in my van (I was driving alone) got darker and darker, and soon I felt as if I were inside the mind of an insanely depressed person. It was the darkest, sickest feeling I had experienced in a very long time.

Finally, I realized I was damaging myself by sitting in this darkness, and changed the channel. It was many minutes before I could regain any feeling of lightness or hope.

The whole experience left me thinking about the role of art. I have always been a big advocate of the good that can be done by art which refuses to look away from evil and ugliness. I don’t think we can ultimately learn from art that allows no pain and darkness, because life isn’t all light, and because I think that the hope I believe in means nothing without the darkness that comes before. I hate “art-lite” that calls itself art but which is really propaganda or cartoon, because it teaches lies about the universe and about the Atonement which, after all, is nothing without the darkness it heals.

So why did I turn the station? Was I being a “coward”?

No. Despite all I believe about the important role darkness plays in making something art, there is a line–there MUST be a line—over which something dark ceases to become art, which can heal because of its truth—and merges into propaganda of another kind, or, basically, the vomit of a diseased mind. (And I’m not talking just about salacious elements, but including also spiritual elements, the philosophical sum total of a work–the way it can suck hope of growth out of you, drain your ability to sense the ultimate, optimistic truth of the universe and how God works.) There is danger here, danger to my own sanity and spiritual balance. Some works can harm my health.

I believe there is nothing to gain and much to lose when a work crosses that line. In essence, I believe that a work that is ultimately hopeless may have some value as a historical artifact, but it isn’t art. Because, in ignoring light, it is as false as the works which ignore darkness.

What do you think? Where are the lines, for you, in calling something art, or “praiseworthy”? (By the way, if you are the type who needs to “prove all things,” you can listen to the interview here .)

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14 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Coward, or What is Not Art

  1. Austin says:

    There certainly is a line, but I think it is different for different people. I happen to love the movie Requiem for a Dream, but many people I know describe, after watching it, the kind of feelings you got from Vic Chesnutt’s song. For me, however, it is a powerful tragedy that teaches me a lot. It’s very intense, but for me it ends up being a positive experience every time I view it; for others, it is very much the opposite.

    After hearing the song, I kind of like it. I can relate to some of it, and it allows me to let out some of the frustrations I feel. That said, I can see how it would be a negative experience for some, and I don’t think anyone is a coward for staying away from things that are harmful to them. By all means, don’t delve into things that make you feel horrible, but know that others might interpret them very differently.

    So yes, there is a line, but it’s something that every person needs to draw for themselves. I think it’s a very good thing to keep in mind, though, and be careful of.

  2. Margaret says:

    I acted in Gorky’s [i]The Lower Depths[/i] years ago and found that it sucked the life out of me–which is actually a line from the play. Gorky was talented. No question. But he was (as his name suggests in Russian) BITTER. I have never found art I like which doesn’t have something redemptive about it. I would label some depressing stuff as "art," but I won’t likely partake if it takes up residence in "the lower depths." I need some light. I like the idea that the best art will "delight and instruct" (Horace)–as long as the instruction isn’t done with a hammer.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    This is always a hard question, and like Austin I think it must be answered by each of us as individuals (the reason for your request, I think)–and each of us needs to learn charity in keeping our value judgments to ourselves and not just allowing other to draw the line differently, but respecting their right (and responsibility) to draw it.

    To me the key is to have reasons, and to know what they are. Mere reaction requires neither mind nor spirit; reason requires both.

    I was going to say that my line is hope, that a story can contain nearly any kind of darkness or ugliness so long as the presence of hope exists to make it tolerable. And that’s mostly true. I don’t care for stories that wallow or justify, though I have no problem with stories that examine or explain.

    For me an edge case that tests my own hypothesis is the animated Japanese film _Grave of the Fireflies_ that I consider to be praiseworthy and something I give good report of–but that contains essentially no hope. It’s a film that I don’t recommend to many people, and that I don’t watch very often; it’s hard on me and puts me in a funk that it takes me days to recover from. And yet it has also helped me discover and develop a little more compassion for those who suffer deeply and find no answers in that suffering. It’s helped me see a world event from the other side of the glass, and separate historical meaning of those events from the individual meaning.

    In other words, it was transformative precisely because it was difficult and it required me to consider the contexts, causes, and effects of both my emotional and my intellectual reactions. That consideration, with the art as vector or catalyst, led to my discovery of some plain and precious truths.

    For some that catalyst can be very different than it is for someone else.

    Merely avoiding the unpleasant or challenging doesn’t seem virtuous to me; avoiding the unnecessary because the lesson is already learned and the instance neither invites nor deepens understanding seems like wisdom to me, and is a virtue to be actively pursued.

    The difference is consideration. I must consider it before I reject it so that the reasons are clear and the choice justified. And I must also understand that what does not instruct me might well instruct someone else. All things are a type of the Savior, and many come to him by ways or paths that I would not (or could not) travel.

    That’s okay, and it does me little good to make value judgments on someone else’s path–though I think it’s necessary to be highly critical (analytical) of our own experience.

    Cowardice is when you walk away even when you understand the value and you avoid it anyway, then lie to yourself about the reason for your avoidance–the sin against knowledge justified through self-deception (evil being the sin against knowledge without self-deception).

    Where are my lines? I can accept an extraordinary amount of darkness, ugliness, and even hopelessness as long as it explains or reveals rather than justifies. That’s an ephemeral line that’s hard to put a clear boundary on, but I tend to know it when I see it.

    Much that presents itself as dark is merely indulgent or silly–just as much that presents itself as uplifting, clever, wise, or important is. Separating the useful from the irrelevant requires active consideration, which requires sifting, which requires exposure.

  4. Angela H. says:

    Great post, Darlene. A lot to think about.

    I do think there are movies and books and music out there that revel in darkness and exploit horror–there’s certainly NOTHING praiseworthy about sadistic movies like _Saw_ and _Hostel_. They’re simply pornography of a different kind.

    But then there are movies and books and music that are dark but are also trying to illuminate in some way. I’m thinking of books like Cormac McCarthy’s _The Road_, or Dennis Lahane’s _Mystic River_. Both of these are books that I read and appreciated on a certain level–both of these books are artistically meritorious, even moving–but both of them also left me feeling unsettled and bereft. They aren’t evil books. In fact, I would argue that both of them are ultimately moral. But they took me farther into the darkness than I personally wanted to go, and a part of me regretted reading them after I was done.

    But that’s where individual choice is so important. Tragedies where the hero dies or all is lost have been part of human artistic expression for a very long time for good reason. I’m thinking of one of my husband’s favorite movies–Clint Eastwood’s _Unforgiven_ (gave it to him on Blueray for Christmas). It’s a classic tragedy and doesn’t offer a lot of hope in the end. But there is so much richness in that film! So much that is meaningful, even beautiful. Would everyone find that movie meaningful or beautiful? Definitely not. But many people have.

    I also think that different works of art might disturb or damage different people for different reasons. I had just had a baby when I read _The Road_, and I can say without equivocation that was NOT a good time in my life to read that novel. But I don’t think there’s anything "cowardly" about thoughtful people making choices about what kind of art they choose.

  5. Annette Lyon says:

    I agree with you–you weren’t being a coward at all. There is absolutely no point in dwelling in something that pulls you down and where you can feel yourself being metaphorically soiled.

    Just as you said, that doesn’t mean that all art must be cotton candy and happy, not by a long shot. There’s a massive scope for what can teach, uplift and edify that doesn’t pull down, ranging from that cotton candy to far more realistic, gritty works.

    On the other hand, Austin has a point–I’m sure that some things that edify me might well horrify others, and vice versa. Everyone’s "barometer" is a bit different.

    Which is why we can’t put blanket statement on individual works and call them good or evil. It bothers me when I hear someone pointing at a novel and saying it’s evil because of such-and-such and that "good" Mormons wouldn’t read it because of that. I could counter those arguments with plenty of things in the same book that are praiseworthy and edifying and taught me valuable lessons. Or, on the flip side, that a book is so great and I should read it, but then I open it and find that it has crossed over my line, and I get judged because I refuse to read it, but I just can’t go there.

    We must each make those judgments for ourselves–and that includes not judging those who decide to read only "clean" books.

    I had a friend with a background that made certain types of works bring out different things in her than they did in me. She knew that SHE had to stay away from them for her own spiritual well-being, because she was ultra-sensitive to them. But she was also very aware that not everyone had the same sensitivity.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    <blockquote>I believe that a work that is ultimately hopeless may have some value as a historical artifact, but it isn’t art.</blockquote>

    Because something crosses someone’s personal line doesn’t make it NOT art.

    There are things that cross my lines too. Stupid example: I can’t listen to the soundtrack of LABYRINTH in the winter. Just too depressing.

  7. Angela H. says:

    Okay, the editor in me can’t leave this alone. I wrote, "But I don’t think there’s anything ‘cowardly’ about thoughtful people making choices about what kind of art they choose." Ack! How about this for a redo: "But I don’t think there’s anything ‘cowardly’ about thoughtful people making personal choices about what kind of art crosses the line."

    But is it cowardly to pop back to a blog post and edit yourself?

  8. Good questions. Here are my thoughts in response…

    I find it liberating to think of a work of literature as being not the words on the page, but rather the interaction of those words with the mind of the reader in the experience of reading. (Change as appropriate for other artistic media.) The act of criticism, then, lies in describing that interaction in ways that show how the response of an individual reader connects with specific cues in the text–and how those reactions might echo in larger populations. We find such criticism valid if the story it tells resonates with our experience, or with ways that we can imagine other people responding–and also if it opens us up to what seem to us powerful and positive new possibilities in the text that enhance our own experience of reading.

    I like this way of viewing things because it allows us to talk about the value of art, as Darlene has done here, without making other people necessarily wrong or right if their reaction is a different one. It’s not just a matter of one person tolerating more or less than another person, or having greater or lesser sensitivity, or being better or worse able to abstract value out of a particular kind of literary experience. Rather, it’s a matter of different kinds of readers bringing something different to the table, so that the work of art I read is quite literally a different work of art than the one you read. I can’t judge your reading experience, though I can question it. (I almost wrote "interrogate it," but decided that sounded too strong.)

    Part of what this implies is that we must take responsibility to be sensitive to our own areas of vulnerability and willing to accept that while a given work of literature may be positive for some people, it may be negative for us. I, for example, am someone who cannot read and derive any value from works of art that are intended primarily to scare me (and then bring me down from that experience of fear). Horror is–and should remain–a closed book to me, though I must believe others when they say their reaction is different. Someday perhaps I will understand myself well enough to know why I react the way I do.

    I’m not denying that there may be works of art (so-called) that are utterly without any redeeming value for any readers, if judged on an eternal scale. All I’m saying is that we don’t have to go that far in order to describe the kind of reader for whom a given work of art has no value–and without necessarily creating a hierarchy of readers where those who are or aren’t bothered by a particular work of literature are either more or less sophisticated, spiritually sensitive, etc.

  9. Good comments, everyone. You have all convinced me that I cannot determine whether something is art based on my own particular spiritual reaction to it. I like how your assessment of art includes the interaction it causes with the viewer/reader, Jonathan, and agree.

    So, then, is there any non-subjective way to determine whether something is artistic–aside from technical achievement? Is it emotional and moral complexity, maybe, which we could agree is an integral part of this definition (in addition to technical skill)?

  10. Responding to Darlene’s latest: I think perhaps judging art is one of those things that’s inherently subjective, in that the evidence resides experientially within the subject–like a spiritual witness of the truth, come to think of it. But there can be metrics applied, and many aspects are susceptible to intellectual analysis.

    One of the evidences of art (or of positive art, if you take the view that "art" is a neutral term that can have either positive or negative moral application) is that a convincing argument can me made about its value by someone whose spiritual insight you respect, and/or in terms that resonate with what you consider spiritually valid. So for example my experience with both Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies as a teenager was utterly barren–but later on, people I knew and respected, not just intellectually but also spiritually, had a different reaction that forced me to believe in the potential value of those books. I had a similar reaction as an undergraduate to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. I’ll still argue that Old Father Time is one of the most utterly unlikely children in all of literature, and that Jude’s second wife is mentally ill. But other people see different things in the book (and maybe I’d see them too if I read it again). So while I can’t bear a personal witness of the positive artistic value of Jude the Obscure, I’m willing to accept the testimony of others.

  11. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Emotional and moral complexity [i]are[/i] subjective. There is no non-subjective way to determine artistic merit. Thank goodness. Such a rubric would likely destroy art. And creativity.

  12. Marvin Payne gave me permission to post his thoughts on this topic, which I think are extremely astute:

    "I think art has very little to do with content. I believe there are thinkers and there are artists. Some are blessed to be both. Some are even so blessed as to be thinkers, artists, and good people. I think that there is artful thinking and thoughtful art, but that thought and art really are different things. A writer can have a great idea or a stunning insight, but so can anybody else. The writer will make art of it, others won’t–although their reportage may have immense value. Once I wrote on the AML list something like, ‘Is our art so weak that we think it has to propped up by a good idea?’ Take out the idea, and the art should stand. Take out the art, and the good idea should stand. It’s nice when they happen together, but not necessary. Some great books have emotional and moral complexity and no art in them. Lots of great art has no ideas in it, except for artistic ideas, which don’t have anything to do with emotional and moral complexity. And there is certainly no cowardice in choosing which art to consume–there is no art that deserves consuming just because it’s art. Was it cowardly to pass up the creamed peas at Chuck-a-Rama? You don’t have to eat everything that’s food."

  13. Th. says:


    Very nice. Reminds me of this from Oscar Wilde:


    To Lisa: Tell me about it. One of the maddening things about teaching high school is the requirement to rubrickify EVERYTHING.

  14. Lew says:

    I have been a long time fan of Chesnutt’s. I think the song is far more uplifting than darkness. Truth however dark is always uplifting, as is the energy and passion it takes to express things that others cannot or will not express, or even acknowledge. To me, that was an act of bravery, to write and sing that song. I loved his music, and respected his struggles. I’m sorry, for you more than anything, that you missed the point. But his work seems to be somewhat cult like for the very reason that many people seem unable to take what he dishes out. His death is a sad loss for the soul of music.

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