Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Please tell me: Can the Spirit be in a Work of Art?

My initial reaction would be 'no,' because to say such a thing would suggest that the Spirit is something which can be manipulated by man. How absurd.

But there are so many discussions where Mormons seem to say that the Spirit is not in a work of art, one might be led to believe that that is an exception to the rule. I believe that my heart has been in the right place while viewing a film or painting (rarely while reading a book other than scripture, but often afterward as I pondered it) and I've felt a confirmation of something or even revelation that expounded upon a seed planted or even just suggested by a work of art. But does that mean that the spirit is in the work of art? I don't believe it does.

But I feel, for the lack of a better word, the presence of divinity as I read scripture and it calms and heals me (how often I need it!). Does this mean that it is with in the scriptures, or is it actually the act of obedience to read them which does it?

While tear-jerkers do not bring the Spirit, I will admit that I have had spiritual... enlightenment spurned by epic emotional films... films I returned to with disgust, but whose first viewing brought life-changing decisions.

So I ask you, what your experiences are.


Bringhurst Family said...

That is something I have often wondered about. I don't know the answer. But since you asked for our experiences, I will share mine.

I have had far more experiences with the Spirit while partaking of some form or art (poetry, visual art, theatre, film, music, etc) than I have had while participating in church services of one kind or another. However, I firmly believe that I would not have those spiritual experiences with art if I were not attending church services.

Bryan said...

I do not believe it is doctrinally accurate to say that the Spirit can inhabit an inanimate object, if that's how "in" is being defined here. That isn't part of His role as a member of the Godhead.

I do, however, believe that the things we do and create build an atmosphere that is either conducive to the Spirit or not. Certainly works of art (including film) can stir up feelings and emotions within us that enlarge or diminish our capacity to use the gift of the Holy Ghost. And sometimes those spiritual experiences occur regardless of the objective "quality" of the work itself.

I would also say that movies which make us cry are not necessarily bad, unless "tearjerker" is being applied solely to those films whose raison d'etre is to emotionally manipulate at the expense of character, story, etc. (I would argue that all movies manipulate the viewer; the trick is to do so without calling attention to yourself, which is a judgment call made by each individual.) Tears are an easy out that shouldn't be confused with spiritual experiences, but sometimes tears can be a precursor to a life-defining realization.

Speaking for myself, I've cried during my first viewings of some movies, but never again during subsequent screenings. That doesn't mean the moment is lost on me; usually it indicates that I'm processing it on another level. And sometimes I'll cry during movies I've seen many times previously, because my own circumstances and feelings toward a subject have changed.

I've had many "spiritual" movie-watching experiences, and a fair number of the other kind too. I'm trying to pay more attention to that Still Small Voice to increase the former and decrease the latter.

whitney said...

I think you pose an interesting question. My first inclination was that, yes, there are some works of art that should - if tuned in to the right place - evoke a spiritual feeling no matter what. But after thinking about it for a little while I think that's wrong. When I was in high school I saw Life is Beautiful and had an extremely spiritual experience. However, when I go back and view that film its effect has dwindled with each new avant-garde holocaust film I see. Now Life is Beautiful has nothing on The March and Schindler's List is a bit of an atrocity in many ways. But that doesn't mean that my initial spiritual experience was any less real. I'm of the camp that believes that spiritual truth is relative, so it makes sense to me that truth in art is relative as well. Someone who views Derek Jarman's Carravaggio might be horrified, while I find it moving. On the other hand, someone might have a great experience watching Legacy and I want to walk out.


Anonymous said...


Are you familiar with Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art?

I think that Heidegger -- infused with LDS philosophy, which he probably would resist -- can answer this question quite nicely.

The work of art opens a space in which truth can enter into being -- if anything happens at all. There really isn't something about the art itself that does this, but the clearing that the art opens is only meaningful in relation to the person. In this respect, the Spirit would be neither in the art nor in the person, but in the space that is opened by both the art and those who engage the art.

The big mistake comes when a person thinks that they can manipulate the art for their own ends -- and this can serve to demonstrate why a person can have a totally unexpected spiritual experience with a certain work of art one time, and then, in trying to recreate the experience, are disappointed later. It could be because the person was trying to constrain the art, rather than simply trying to open a space where the Spirit can reside.

I think we can say similar things about prayer, relationships, and nature, among other things.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, correction:

"There really IS something about the art itself that does this..."

Trevor said...

Great comments everyone.

Dennis, thank you especially for the Heidegger. I wasn't familiar with this phrasing, and I'm very grateful for it.

My Heidegger has been very sporadic, and unfortunately with little context, but that hasn't stopped me from taking issue with much of what I have read. Especially in this light I think that I'll need to re visit him.

I love what you wrote so much. I hope we'll discuss it much more.

Adam said...

I personally believe that truth can come from any source, but must be communicated by the Spirit. Also, that truth doesn't have to be intentional.

I frame the issue as one of truth because the Doctrine and Covenants states that spirit, truth, and light are one in the same. That opens a great metaphysical discussion that I think directly relates to the craft of filmmaking. I would love to have that discussion sometime, but not here or now.

Backt to the point, I've been enlightened by cinema that I would never call spiritual. I've experienced the Lord's lessons through media that I'm sure were not designed for that purpose.

On the other hand, I've seen art that I thought was intentionally crafted to teach spiritual lessons, but others I know saw no such intention.

All this leads me to believe that the Spirit of God speaks to the spirit of man according to his understanding. I think that this is why so many media are used by the Spirit. They offer parables through which the Spirit can teach us on our level. When we create art we sometimes do so with the intent to communicate a specific truth. This is the same device the Savior used to teach his followers. We use something easily understandable to convey something less readily perceived. However, even for Christ, the receipt of the message depends on the hearer.

I once heard that all truth is found in paradox. Assuming this statement, I wonder if the answer to the question is not yes and no.

I think great spiritual craftsmanship can be poured into the creation of a work of art. Remember that the Spirit is not just the Holy Ghost, but the substance that fills the immensity of space. It can be worked with.

Such is the case with the world we inhabit and its environs. "All things denote that there is a God" (Alma 30:44, emphasis added). The spiritual meaning - the testimony - is inherent in the things. Also, "for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them" (Ether 12:24). This seems to imply that the Spirit in the brother of Jared's writings was so strong it could not be missed, although that could have just been Moroni's experience.

On the other hand, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 13:9). And, "there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught" (2 Nephi 33:2). Just because it's there doesn't mean we get it. Here's where Dennis' thought applies in my mind.