What of Art?

Les Misérables

Les Misérables

The following was written in response to a comment by “nate” on a post at Millennial Star which discussed the merits of the new film Les Misérables. In summary, the commenter claimed that art is “just art,” and in the end is escapism, overrated, simple entertainment, will not change your life (no matter how great or inspiring it is), won’t have long term influence on your soul, is overblown, is an addiction, is short-lived, no matter how seemingly life-changing it is dangerous, an idol, a quick fix, a drug, not “real life” or a part of our “real world,” and a distraction. I thought such condemnation of art called for a reply.

Allow me to resuscitate art for a moment (as if it needs it).

Art is not simply entertainment. It’s not simply art. It’s not simply escapism. And it is certainly not simply a drug.

Art is found abundantly in most expressions of humanity, including the traditional forms of drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and dance, but also in literature, industrial design, architecture, film, interior design, graphic design, puppetry, music, singing, drama/theatre, animation, poetry, woodworking, weaving, vocal performance, interactive media, calligraphy, printmaking, pottery, sound, and technology.

Without art, most of what we know in our world today would not exist.

Art captures beauty and it beautifies, it depicts emotion, it communicates stories and feelings, it makes connections between people, it heals, it invigorates, it moves, it enables, it expresses, it illustrates, it decorates, it converts, it inspires, it imagines, it influences, it explains the indescribable, it changes, it’s aesthetic, and it’s symbolic.

Anything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things (A of F 13). “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God… Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ” (Moroni 7:16, 19).

We are blessed for seeking art – “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads” (D&C 25:12).

Art is used in religion, in ritual, even in the temple, to communicate the most sublime things of God. Film, acting, drama, song, painting, music, architecture, vocal performance, and even dance are all used to communicate the most sacred rites and covenants of the Atonement. In fact, it is where most art forms originally came from. Hugh Nibley noted, “All the arts and sciences began at the temple. Dance, music, architecture, sculpture, drama, and so forth—they all go back to the temple.”1

The scriptures inform us that Jesus Christ’s vocation growing up was carpentry, an art form (Mark 6:3).

The prophets have had much to say about art. Elder Boyd K. Packer noted in “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord” that because of what artists do “we are able to feel and learn very quickly through music, through art, through poetry some spiritual things that we would otherwise learn very slowly.” And, “How much we could be aided by a graceful and modest dance, by a persuasive narrative, or poem, or drama. We could have the Spirit of the Lord more frequently and in almost unlimited intensity if we would.” Indeed, we are to aspire to art, as Elder Orson F. Whitney said, “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own… [God's] highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heaven…”

Brigham Young said, “Every accomplishment, every refined talent every useful attainment in mathematics, music, and in all sciences and art belong to the Saints.”2

Elder Ballard has said, “Spiritually successful artists have the unique opportunity to present their feelings, opinions, ideas, and perspectives of eternity in visual and sound symbols that are universally understood. Great art touches the soul in unique and uncommon ways. Divinely inspired art speaks in the language of eternity, teaching things to the heart that the eyes and ears can never understand. Aristotle said, ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’… God’s purpose for the artist is to inspire, to give us visions of ourselves that we might not otherwise see, to make us better than we would have been. The world is better for the arts and righteous artists in it.”3

What would Christ think of art? Elder Packer speculated, “I think He would rejoice at the playing of militant martial music as men marched to defend a righteous cause. I think that He would think there are times when illustrations should be vigorous, with bold and exciting colors. I think He would chuckle with approval when at times of recreation the music is comical or melodramatic or exciting. Or at times when a carnival air is in order that decorations be bright and flashy, even garish.

“I think at times of entertainment He would think it quite in order for poetry that would make one laugh or cry—perhaps both at once. I think that He would think it would be in righteous order on many occasions to perform with great dignity symphonies and operas and ballets…

“I would think that He would think there is a place for artwork of every kind—from the scribbled cartoon to the masterpiece in the hand-carved, gold-leaf frame.”4

God, our Father, is the greatest artist of all, and art is one of his greatest tools to do his work. Elder Ballard continued, “That the creative process is rooted and revered in heaven is evident in the Lord’s use of the word workmanship to define not only the artistic accomplishments of his children but the results of his own creation… In fact, many great artists have humbly acknowledged the source of their inspiration and the power behind their creation. No one can feast his or her eyes on the art of Michelangelo and not see the hand of God. Michelangelo himself knew it, as he expressed in this statement: ‘The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.’” And quoting famed composer Bernard Rands, “Really, the commitment to be a composer-or an artist or poet-is not less than a commitment to seek that which is divine.”5

I perceive we would be quite lost in this world without art, if we had a world at all.

  1. Letters to Smoother, etc., 104 []
  2. Journal of Discourses, 10:224 []
  3. Filling the World With Goodness and Truth“ []
  4. The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord“ []
  5. Filling the World With Goodness and Truth“ []


  1. Michael Towns
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Agree with your sentiments. Well done!

  2. Glenn Custer
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Yes, you are thoughtful, articulate, and erudite. Art in all forms is the gateway to the subconscious mind… And the subconscious mind is gateway to the Devine. We should not forget the expertise of the patiarchs such as Joseph and the prophet Daniel in thier proficiency in dream interpretation… Dreams which emanate from the subconscious mind. I am also impressed with the Temple architecture with its Tripytch design and it’s spiritual statement. Also, the entrance fountain in the viciapicis design with the half that is water representing the subconscious mind as overlaying representing dominance. This would seem to indicate the temple as a place where the egoic conscious mind must let go to be emerged into the eternal all connecting spiritual waters of the subconscious when entering the Temple. Art is the spirituality of the mind .

  3. Alece
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I love art, too; but I would add an important caveat — that it actually be uplifting. Unfortunately, in today’s world there is much that is called art which is degrading — some of it even vile. We need to look for art that uplifts and support that.

    Although I love Les Miserables — both the book and the musical — there is one song in that musical that I don’t find uplifting at all — “Master of the House,” which is sad because the tune is catchy and fun. Unfortunately, there is both vile and blasphemous language in the lyrics of that song. Also, the portrayal of that song in the new film is disgusting — think Santa Claus in the middle of a sex act! (What were they thinking!)
    I don’t think everything in life needs to be sugar coated, but we didn’t need such extreme visual images to get the drift that the Master of the House and his wife were low lifes or that Fantine was actually a prostitute (i.e., the scene during which she becomes one — which, by the way, is not depicted in the musical.)

    Again — I love both the book and the musical (with the one exception of the song “Master of the House”, in the latter.) I just wish that the film would have depicted less of the vile amid the depictions it did have of that which was “lovely and of good report.”

  4. Posted December 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments Alece. I agree “Master of the House” is an extremely vile song, and I think it’s supposed to be that way, even blasphemous. There are some exceptionally vile and blasphemous characters and events in the Book of Mormon too, to teach us important lessons and principles, to show us evil for what it is, which is countered by the gospel light. We aren’t supposed to “like” such parts, but without them I wonder if the full weight of the message would be equally conveyed.

    Art can show both beauty and filth, and everything in between; I think it is more important to try to determine what message it is trying to send, what the author’s intent was, and if they were successful in sending a good message, to know whether the piece is quality art. Was the author’s intent goodness, or was it darkness? Art with vile or ugly elements can still convey a positive message in its overall context. Nephi beheading Laban with his own sword is a disgusting event, but it teaches us principles about listening to and obeying the Spirit, the importance of the scriptures, and of preserving records. Some depictions of the crucifixion (if not all) can be quite vile, but that doesn’t mean the message is likewise. An artist who portrays vile things may simply be showing things as they really are, for a higher good.

    I haven’t read Les Misérables the novel, but I think I’ll start this weekend. I wonder what kind of depictions are found there.

  5. Alece
    Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    The novel is wonderful. I first read it when I was a Junior in High School. He writes about darkness, etc., but I don’t remember his writing being blasphemous, or vile, etc.

    I also don’t think we need to use vile and blasphemous language to portray evil. I think we can certainly get that “drift” if you will without that.

    (I do hope you draw the line about art for arts sake somewhere short of a portrait of Christ in a vat of urine — also considered by some to be art!)

    As to the need to portray evil so we may understand it better — I watched the Passion of the Christ and parts of it were difficult to watch and disturbing, but I felt that that violence, etc., did have a point — to help us understand more of what the Savior went through. However, much of what we see in film these days is gratuitous violence and sex, etc. I think that is the kind of content the Savior would want us to refrain from supporting. It is the gratuitous sex and vile and blasphemous language that I felt went over the top in the film, Les Miserables. I didn’t need all of that to get the point that the Threnediers were despicable people or that prostitution is awful and degrading; and I’m pretty sure no one else did either.

    I also agree that the scriptural account of Nephi cutting off Laban’s head can be considered violent. However, I don’t remember that account including any gratuitous violence!!!

  6. Posted December 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    To be honest, I didn’t see much gratuitous sex or vile language in the film myself. The “sex” parts were quite short and fully clothed, and I think there was one swear word in the whole movie. It is likely the gun violence that attributed most of the PG-13 rating.

  7. JR
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    When reading this the first thing that came to my mind was all the art pertaining to the Temple – inside and out. As already mentioned art should be uplifting and beautiful, not vile and vulgar and shocking.
    I never cared for Les Miserables. You made some good points.
    My kids are very artistic and they do beautiful and wonderful things with their talent.

  8. Alece
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I don’t see the need for ANY gratituous sex and blasphemous language in any type of art. Huge didn’t detail the sex, etc., in his story; so I don’t think we need to detail it in our depictions of his story!

  9. Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    “12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
    13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
    14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
    15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
    16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.
    17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime…
    30 And it came to pass that when he was brought before Alma and the chief judge, he did go on in the same manner as he did in the land of Gideon; yea, he went on to blaspheme.” (Alma 30)

  10. Irvin ( Irv ) Fager
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I am a would be writer; I write only 3 G rated things. My imagination is the only thing I can draw on to write about; and I think writing is a form of Art. I know that President Monson and most other of our leaders have quoted many poems and lines from movies, plays and even Shakespeare. I love simple stories, I have been a movie buff all my life, I love all kinds of art. P S The temple is my life, and my home away from home. Happy New Year to all and to all Gods Blessings.

  11. Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you Bryce for your “What of Art” piece. It was a work of art itself.

    A quote from Brigham Young during the dedicatory service of the Salt Lake Theatre may be relevant to the discussion: “Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it.”

  12. Rebekah
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen many versions of Les Mis and have read portions of the novel. Yea, I keep starting it and get bog down on it usually in the middle of it somewhere. I am starting up on it again. Hopefully, I’ll get further along on it this time. I think Victor Hugo would be appalled to have his work of social commentary, of the world around him at that time, being degraded to the point of being called “Just Art”. Victor Hugo had a point to the reason why he was writing what he was writing.

    Les Mis touched my life when I was in middle school as a young pre-teen. I had a teacher who had us read excerpts in play version of the musical version of it in a Scholastic publication. I’ve been hooked by the story and the concepts of a poor man who went to jail for stealing a loaf of bread, a kind bishop who showed him mercy and how that act of mercy ended up affecting the lives of others. Plus the overall concepts of Justice and Mercy, which in the end are very powerful doctrinal concepts.

    Art has a powerful influence both for good and for evil.

  13. Posted January 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    a very interesting look at the topic of art. theres been a lot of debate lately on just what it is and I think its because there is so little art education in schools these days.

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