In his 1977 work Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Matei Calinescu writes, “What constitues the essence of kitsch is probably its open-ended indeterminacy, its vague ‘hallucinatory’ power, it’s spurious dreaminess, its promise of an easy ‘catharsis’” (228). Kitsch, then, is the experience of art made easy. It is junk food consumption. It is manifested in products that can be easily reproduced, acquired and enjoyed. It doesn’t require an active critical faculty. It places no demands.
It is also a notoriously difficult concept to define so don’t hold me to what I just wrote.
When I think of Mormon kitsch, I think only of kitschy products — Book of Mormon action figures and Angel Moroni coasters — but after reading Calinescu (and his reminder that there are varying definitions and interpretations of kitsch), I wonder if there’s more to it than that. It’s not a field that I’ve surveyed in any amount of depth, but surely anyone who has stepped foot in an LDS Bookstore cannot deny the existence and (probably immense) popularity of Mormon kitsch.
So here are a few intial thoughts on Mormonism and kitsch:
1. One of the things that kitsch implies is “the notion of aesthetic inadequacy” (236, orig. ital.). Perhaps part of the Mormon fondness with kitsch has to do with the inadequacy of our own aesthetics. There are other factors as well (more on some of those below), but to start out on the theoretical level — because Mormon aesthetics — in theory and criticism — is underdeveloped, we don’t have a the type of culture that can resist kitsch (whether we should is a different matter — Calinescu points out that there are possibly postive aspects to kitsch).
2. Part of it — and this is the problem with any theorizing on Mormon culture — no doubt is simply a reflection of our engagement with American culture. Most Mormons develop their tastes as Americans more than as Mormons. As such, it’s no surprise that we should have a taste for kitsch — Most Americans do.
3. If I were to go out on a limb (again, without any real research on the matter), I would in fact guess that the movement in Mormon cultural products from folk art to kitsch parallels the movement of the LDS church more into the American middle class and mainstream. Or in other words, the explosion in the Mormon market for kitsch products occurs during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. As I understand it the move our people made to become solid bourgeois Americans really took off after World War II. Kitsch is, according to Calinescu, “the life style of the bourgeoisie or the middle class” (244) [Sidenote: however, don't be put off by the use of that term -- Calinescu thinks the Marxists get some things wrong when they write about kitsch].
Calinescu writes: “By and large, kitsch may be viewed as a reaction against the ‘terror’ of change and the meaninglessness of chronological time flowing from an unreal past into an equally unreal future. Under such conditions, spare time — whose quantity is socially increasing — is felt as a strange burden, the burden of emptiness. Kitsch appears as an easy way of ‘killing time,’ as a pleasurable escape from the banality of both work and leisure” (248). I don’t think Mormons are immune to that reaction — despite our efforts to fill our time and a theology that (somewhat) resists chronological time [and yet a culture that embraces it -- Franklin Planners, etc.].
4. Mormon tastes seem to be firmly rooted in romanticism [I would appreciate reading suggestions on this link or examples if you have them]. If kitsch is a “hackneyed form of romanticism” (240), then it makes sense that we would be susceptible to it. But again, it’s difficult to separate this from mainstream American culture.
5. On the other hand, our theology may also have something to do with the flourishing of Mormon kitsch and it may complicate the theoretical views of kitsch I mention above. For instance, the reproducibility of kitsch and the sort of bottom-line form it often comes in means that it offers the enjoyment of aesthetics to all. In Mormonism, we all have the seeds of perfection and Godhood in us just like, perhaps, pieces of kitsch have within them the reminders of ‘pure’ art.
In addition, I would imagine that for many Mormons the form of the object doesn’t matter so much as it’s effect — the spirit of it so to speak. The timelessness of it isn’t a reaction against the terror of change (see No. 3 above), but rather a reminder of our ability to tap into the eternities. In other words, while Mormon kitsch may reinforce bourgeois ideology, at the same time it also reinforces Mormon ideology, adding layers that aren’t found among the American middle class in general. Thus a picture of the Salt Lake temple done in gold leaf is kitsch. It’s also a reminder of eternal covenants.
6. If we take No. 5 to a further level, then perhaps Mormon kitsch isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Calinescu writes: “If we acknowledge that kitsch is the ‘normal’ art of our time, we have to recognize that it is the obligatory starting point of any aesthetic experience” (258). He then quotes Abraham Moles who writes” “Kitsch is essentially an aesthetic system of mass communication” (258). Perhaps Mormon kitsch provides a dual positive pedagogical purpose — it can help Mormons make their way to ‘good’ art and at the same time it can aid them in their struggles to integrate Mormonism into their daily life.
I have my doubts about this. The whole relationship between Mormonism and art is rather strange and complicated, but I have to say that I have softened my stance toward the Mormon market after reading Calinescu.
I apologize that this is all very sketchy, but a reward is forthcoming in part II — my Mormon kitsch picks.