Think through this with me: How much art do we see through the Church or because of the Church?
I’m talking about all forms of art; visual and performance, representative and symbolic, etc. and etc. What art is delivered to us by the Church? How much art is in our worship and lessons? What impact does it have? And what art do we participate in because of the Church?
I’ve given these questions some thought, and I made a list of what comes to mind immediately. The list seems much shorter than I thought it would be:
- Hymns during meetings
- Images in lessons
- Stories told in meetings
- The buildings we meet in
What can you add to this list?
I ask simply because I suspect this will tell us something about the role of art in our worship, and how we understand art. And I believe that understanding art and its role will help improve our spiritual lives.
Based on the above list, I think art is often seen as an “accent” to our services. We use art to set an environment for worship and to emphasize what is taught in lessons.
Is this really the principal role of art in the Church?
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The view of art as accent or entertainment may originate in the broader Western cultural view of art that has developed in the decades since the rise of consumer culture. I think its a simplistic view. It’s almost like our Western culture is saying “if you can buy it, its value is reduced to what you pay for it.” In our culture we have moved toward believing that value comes from money instead of from meaning. And when we apply this to art it implies that works of art become accents, paintings become decoration, music becomes Muzak and books are increasingly classified only as entertainment.
I don’t think the Church has avoided this tendency. More than fifty years ago the presence of art in our Church lives was larger (although perhaps not as meaningful as we might want). Church magazines included poetry and fiction. Wards put on roadshows and plays and the Relief Society taught lessons on all the arts as part of its curriculum. I don’t mean to suggest that the sophistication of these efforts was high, just that there was more—the arts were a bigger part of life in the Church.
Starting about 1970 the Church reduced the arts in its programs, perhaps unconsciously, and probably because the arts weren’t understood as necessary to the spiritual life of Church members. As a result Church members’ experience with art became less connected with spirituality.
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Is this really correct? Can spirituality be separated from art?
Answering that question says a lot about how we understand spirituality and also how we define “art.” While both spirituality and art resist easy definition (regardless of the definition used, it seems easy to find an example that doesn’t fit.), both have characteristics that make a connection clear.
First, spirituality requires expression and exploration. We urge Church members to express their spirituality, and we provide a venue at least monthly to make that possible. And we urge members to develop spirituality, exploring how to put it into practice.
Second, art is a form of expression and exploration. Whatever art is, artists are using it to communicate their understanding, and explore meaning. And the recipients of art give expression in their reactions and find in art a vehicle for exploring their own understanding.
Given this, shouldn’t our Church life involve such expressions and explorations? And, doesn’t dedicating our time and talents to building the Kingdom of God mean that we should express and explore through art?
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Lest I come across as unnecessarily negative, I do think that the status of art in the Church isn’t as bad as it might seem. If we expand how we think about art in the Church, I think there is more art than meets the eye. Using this expanded view, I think I can expand the above list of the arts that we receive through the Church. Let’s add the following additional art forms:
- Sacrament Meeting
- Hallway discussions
- The Sacrament
- Temple ordinances
No doubt you can also come up with several more.
I’m not suggesting that these art forms are always good art, nor do I claim that most practitioners are particularly creative. But creativity is not exactly a requirement of art—art requires little more than simple expression.
For example, there is great variation in how the sacrament prayers are said. Good delivery of these prayers can make a large difference in how we experience our worship. Indeed, I claim that the degree of artistry in the delivery of the sacrament prayer directly influences the spirituality that the congregation feels. Some of the most spiritual sacrament prayers I’ve heard in recent years were given by a young man with a bit of a speech impediment. The impediment led him to pause between most words, slowing the delivery and enhancing its impact. The delivery of the sacrament prayers is an art.
[Yes, its a limited art; a very limited art. The words can’t be changed. It’s more limited than even theatrical delivery—because the person praying can’t move or gesture to add emphasis. But limits are very important in art. Artists have self-imposed limits for millennia as a way of increasing creativity. The various forms of poetry, for example, are self-imposed limits.]
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So what does all this say about the role of art in the Church?
Part of the answer is likely found in how we see worship and Church life. We can change what we define as art, and perhaps in doing so improve both art and worship.
Another part might be in expanding what we see as our Church life. Either because of culture or through neglect, we often limit our Church lives to those things that are directly pushed at us by the Church. We limit the art in our Church lives to what happens at Church, what appears in the scriptures and manuals and what the Church provides. Instead, we could use every resource we can find to express and explore our understanding of the Gospel.
And along with finding resources we can create art ourselves. When was the last time that you brought creativity to a lesson or talk you prepared? When did you last create art to go with a lesson? When did you last make your own expression in reaction to the Gospel?
Let me say this way: if we really believe that we should dedicate our time and talents to building the Kingdom of God, if we really are seeking spiritual growth, shouldn’t that involve art?