Mormon Communalism and the Arts

Image Source: Sunstone Magazine

This is not meant to be a full-fledged post, but I came across something during my research today that I thought was interesting.

Here it is:

“In the arts Mormons seem more accomplished in ensemble than individual expression: bands, choirs, the theater, and dance, over painting, sculpture, or creative writing. Employers complain at times that Mormons are good followers but poor innovators. Visitors to Brigham Young University campus are impressed by its tidiness but wonder if such order and apparent unity are conducive to creative thought. To the degree that these widely held impressions reflect reality, they may indicate trade-offs communal societies make for the mutual support, efficiency, and strength their common endeavor affords. And though many in today’s liberal society would not be willing to make that trade, it may be that such communalists possess the means to mitigate the great fear Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, had for America, that ‘each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.’”

–Dean L. May, “One Heart and Mind: Communal Life and Values among the Mormons.” 

“Communalism” isn’t a word Mormons use very often in church, but they have a long history with the concept. Can it be that Mormon excellence in communal or cooperative art is, as May suggests, a result of this history? It is a connection that I have never made before, but it makes a lot of sense now that I think about it. 

What do you think? Do Mormons lag in individual creative expression because of some cultural unease about individualism? Is the literary anthology, which has had much critical acclaim lately, another successful product of a Mormon communal consciousness? Should an awareness of this communal consciousness inform the way Mormons write literature? Could the Mormon novel, like a play or film, become a group effort? Is the Romantic notion of the individual artist detrimental to the future of Mormon literature?

Work Cited
May, Dean L. “One Heart and Mind: Communal Life and Values among the Mormons.” America’s Communal Utopias. Ed. Donald E. Pitzer. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 1997. 135-158.


8 thoughts on “Mormon Communalism and the Arts”

  1. I think this communal creativity idea has discussion merit . . . however, using a cartoon that uses the word “socialist” is totally off-base, and completely inappropriate for the discussion. For some readers it may tie the idea of socialism to the Mormon ideas of the United Order and the Law of Consecration. And that is 100% inaccurate, false.

    Not being a prude here. I really like this blog. Just be more careful on word choices.

  2. I don't think we lag in individual creative expression, I think we make those who express themselves individually feel unwelcome until only the conformists are left.

    (And while a discussion of the complex relationship between socialism and the United Order would be fascinating at some other time or on some other blog, I do hope that the discussion doesn't get derailed along those lines.)

  3. .

    I think the arts are so suspect (they don't make money) that locking yourself away makes you dangerous. Or at least crazy. So doing it with others moderates the weirdness.

    FTR, I don't think as many people feel this way as the popular imagination suggests, but many artists I've talked to feel that others feel this way.

  4. I think there is a tendency to make some who express themselves individually feel unwelcome, although I think the extent varies based on factors like location, kind of expression, level of perceived faithfulness, etc. I don't think that tendency is ingrained, however, in Mormon doctrine itself, although I think Mormonism and its emphasis on being a Zion-like people fosters a communal feeling within wards, stakes, classes, and quorums that makes individualism harder. Ideally, though, a Zion-like people is comprised of people who bring different things to the table. They are a cooperative of individuals.

  5. I agree. I think there's the impression out there–whether it's in the heads of the artist or the community, I don't know–that working without making money is immature. One grows up when one finally buckles down and gets a “real job”. I've heard this a few times, and it's certainly not restricted to Mormon culture. It can be credited to the way America idealizes individualism, the American dream, the Protestant work ethic, and other notions that privilege personal industry over cooperation.

    Nephi Anderson, incidentally, tries to addresses this issue in “Added Upon” when the King of Poland asks about the perceptions of artists in Zion. I wonder if Anderson ever felt undervalued because his art–fiction–was individualistic. I wonder if the scene in “Added Upon” is in response to his personal experience.

  6. I picked the picture deliberately and I think it's appropriate to the discussion. I think it reflects the unease we feel in Mormon culture with communalism, which may explain why I never made the connection between communal art forms and nineteenth century Mormon cooperative efforts. I also think it touches on the paradox that we are a deeply cooperative/communal people who are also fiercely individualistic.

  7. .

    Yeah, I love that scene. I used to bring up Anderson's millennium all the time, but it takes to long to put in context and generally only garners chuckles. I wish people still read it.

  8. “FTR, I don't think as many people feel this way as the popular imagination suggests, but many artists I've talked to feel that others feel this way.”

    Interesting. It could be a very small minority of the population, but if you run into it enough times, you'll get tired of justifying it to people and so put your resources elsewhere (or at least quit talking about it).

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