What is beauty? Growing up in an active LDS family many Latter Day Saints come to know beauty as defined by the 13th Article of Faith: “…If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praise worthy, we seek after these things” Every Primary student is expected to memorize this declaration. But what does it mean? What is lovely or of good report or praise worthy? What constitutes this concept? Identifying beauty is an objective task. Yet, still it is diluted by a strictly “Mormon” mindset to think what is beautiful is always and only completely void of any hint of immorality, profanity, violence, and general sin. This focus on the bad is preventing many Latter Day Saints from discovering the good. The absence of bad does not automatically mean there is substance to the work.
Objectively speaking, there are some art pieces that are beautiful, no matter anyone’s subjective opinion of the piece. Jeff Anderson is a Humanities Professor at BYU-Idaho. He clarifies the four requirements that make art good. First, the artist demonstrates extreme skill and excellence. Secondly, the work transcends both historical time periods and society, to reach out and effect future generations. Third, great art should provoke serious thought; thoughts that resonate with your mind and spirit for days and weeks to come. This feeling is described best by the Roman word gravitas. Jeff Anderson explains synonyms of this word: “weightiness, dignity, power, magnitude, and eminence.” This correlates with the final requirement for great art: that it provokes new thought and feelings to old ideas.
This list is a perfect means for identifying good works of art. When art achieves all these requirements, a powerful feeling is experienced. An overwhelming sense of home as Merrill Bradshaw describes it. I feel this powerful experience when I listen to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody in the Theme of Paganini, see Michelangelo’s Pieta, or read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Sadly though, many Latter Day Saints miss out on this feeling of home because of the “questionable” material in art.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we are marked in the world as being a close minded and peculiar people. It is a generalization that is not entirely undeserving. This judgmental relationship has left Latter Day Saints so skeptical of the world and what it has to offer, that they avoid everything that carries a scent of wrong. They look for the bad, and in so doing, they miss out on the great.
What is so detrimental about focusing on an avoidance of the bad is Latter Day Saints tend to close their minds to many objectively great works of art. Violence, immorality, darkness, and general sin in art stop Saints from pursing it further. Though, the scriptures, the words of God, have abundant content that carry these themes.
The bad, so to speak, of literature, visual arts, and music point out social ills and are profoundly effective in pronouncing those ills when evil wins, rather than when evil loses. Thomas Jefferson describes this concept perfectly when he says “Bent stories portray evil as good, and good as evil. Broken stories portray evil as evil and good as good, but evil wins. Whole stories are where good is good and good wins. And finally, healing stories can be either whole or broken stories where the reader is profoundly moved, changed, and/or significantly improved by his reading experience.” Beauty is very often found where darkness, immorality, violence, and persecution occur. But it is through those powerful themes that progress is made.
A lack of these themes tends to lean toward a lack of substance. The same way happiness cannot be experienced without pain. Good substance in art cannot be experienced without significant themes. Simple empty entertainment is not conducive to great art as it does not usually promote new weighty thoughts. This life is meant to prepare to meet and become like God. Weightless entertainment will do nothing for us in this pursuit.
Plato held the belief that this earthly life is a less perfect copy of the perfection we had in the life before. Through art we try to achieve that perfect beauty we once had and that the Gods now experience. This concept works in harmony with Mormon doctrine of the preexistence. It is disheartening, that so many Saints would rather spend their time and money viewing or listening to works of art totally lacking in substance or meaning simply because those works are free of the bad. Coming home is how art should feel. What is lovely and of good report helps to enlighten our soul; it is an overwhelming sense of home that can only be experienced when we open our minds and hearts to true beauty.