Mormons and kitsch part 1: reckless theorizing

January 10, 2005 | 37 comments
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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.

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37 Responses to Mormons and kitsch part 1: reckless theorizing

  1. […] s reproductions The mini-versions of the Christus by Bertel Thorvaldsen has come up in the comments to part I. If you click through to the link above, you& […]

  2. […] mons and kitsch part II: My kitsch picks

    by William Morris

    Enough theory. It’s time to get to actual examples of Mormon kitsch. The following represent my […]

  3. Bill on January 10, 2005 at 3:34 pm

    Kitsch can be seen by opening almost any issue of the Ensign since about 1985. Although not yet quite as bad, artistically they are coming more and more to resemble The Watchtower, and Awake.

    I’m doubtful that kitsch helps people “make their way to ‘good’ art,” especially if it “doesn’t require an active critical faculty,” and “places no demands.”

    As for mormons adopting the kitsch of the broader culture, is this why I see on display in so many mormon homes the productions of Thomas Kinkade, the “painter of light?”

  4. Rosalynde Welch on January 10, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Very interesting, William. I’m not sure that Mormonism is any more susceptible to kitsch than other religious communities; on the contrary, our emphasis on higher education–and the resulting induction into critical modernism–might counter kitsch to some extent.

    But kitsch, an important limb of post-modernism, is essentially anti-modern–and the enemies of modernism can make strange but very ardent bed-fellows. Mormonism is not high modernism, in the aesthetic and epistemological senses, at least; indeed, it may be seen as anti-modern in some senses. So perhaps in this way kitsch and Mormonism find themselves allied against the (quailing) modernist armies.

  5. Kaimi on January 10, 2005 at 4:39 pm

    I think the ultimate Mormon kitsch is the miniature porcelain Christus statue.

  6. J. Stapley on January 10, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    Americans consume that which is cheap, ubiquitous, and accessible. Further, I submit that Mormons are more susceptible to kitsch than the average American because there is a market for Mormon themed arts, but, within Mormon culture, there are substantial impediments to excellence in the arts. The American kitsch propensity is therefore compounded in the Mormon because of a lack of genuinely fine outlets.

    Side note: being accessible is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve mentioned this before, but I give my kids PB sandwiches on Wonder Bread – though I can’t stand the stuff.

  7. William Morris on January 10, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Shhhh, Kaimi. Save it for part II.

    This thread is for reckless theorizing.

    ——
    Bill:

    I have some of the same doubts, but I found it interesting that there are some scholars out there who see *some* value in kitsch.

    —–
    Rosalynde:

    Yeah. It’s interesting that my own journey from (pseudo)romanticism [as a kid] to modernism [mission + early undergrad] to post-modernism [later undergrad + grad] meant that I developed a renewed interest in Mormon art and culture. What seemed kitschy and quaint still seems that way to some extent, but I find it more interesting and relevant now.

  8. William Morris on January 10, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    J. Stapely:

    That reminds me — I need to respond to your post on Mormons as producers of art on A Motley Vision.

  9. Russ Johnston on January 10, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Thinking about this reminded me of a story that my brother once told me. He and his girlfriend (both musicians) were sitting in his living room listening to music and talking one night when, to his surprise, she jumped up and ran out the door. He followed her out and asked what the problem was. She explained that the song that was playing on the radio is one that she performs, she has never heard it, and she did want it to affect the way that she performed it.

    What is the relationship to this topic? Well, there seems to be a lot of artistic inbreeding that takes place in the mormon culture. There are so few topics that are addressed artistically that each one is based on all the others that have come before. It seems to me that this increases the kitschy aspect of the items.

    I may be way off on this, but it seems to me that variation on a theme often is kitsch.

  10. danithew on January 10, 2005 at 5:52 pm

    I thought kitsch might be a Yiddish word. When I looked it up I found that it is German, probably of a dialectical origin (American Heritage Dictionary).

    Here’s the definition:

    1. Sentimentality or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts.

  11. William Morris on January 10, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    Russ:

    I don’t think that it’s solely the fault of the artists — I think it more has to do with the editors/producers who believe (perhaps rightfully) that only a certain sound or narrative or painting style will make money in the Mormon market. Mark Hansen (Mo’ Boy Blog) could say more about this, but the good news is that, at least in Mormon music, there are a few artists who have broken out of the Mormon pop model.

    dani:

    Calinescu traces several different possible origins of the word. It’s one of those terms where the entymology is not entirely clear. One of the theories is that it is linked to the verb kitschen which is part of a phrase found in southern Germany that means “to collect rubbish from the street.”

  12. Wilfried on January 10, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Actually a difficult topic. It would be snobbish to condemn Mormon kitsch, because it obviously fullfills a need — religious and/or social. Religious as a reminder of doctrinal and historical aspects, social as a visible sign of our allegiances. I remember that as a young convert I did want to have reproductions of the then available Mormon “art” (I won’t identify it, for fear of attracting anathema’s…). It helped me identify with my new world. But I should add that I have heard many of the better-educated European members complain about the kind of art found in Church magazines…

    The most interesting part for me, when it comes to understanding the success of these Mormon gadgets sold in bookstores, is a comparison with Catholic traditions. Mormon popular culture seems to evolve towards what Catholics buy in Lourdes or Compostella and place prominently in their homes. How long will it take before a candle is burning in front of one of our porcelain Christs?

  13. Adam Greenwood on January 10, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    It’d be no great loss if there were, I half think.

  14. Kristine on January 10, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Right-o, Adam, if we’re going to re-embrace the concept of original sin, we might as well add in some papist idol worship while we’re at it. You’ve been reading Evelyn Waugh again, haven’t you?

  15. J. Stapley on January 10, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    Wilfried: It is snobbery…and I’m unopolgetic. I do agree with you that there are many parallels (some of which have been discussed on other threads) between Mormon material tendencies and those of our Catholic brethren.

  16. Hans Hansen on January 11, 2005 at 1:38 am

    I find it rather humerous that Mormons regard the “Christus” as being LDS. I have even heard several people claim that the artist was LDS. It was scupted by an Icelandic/Danish Lutheran artist named Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) in 1821 and the original can be found in the Lutheran Vor Frue Kirke (The Church of Our Lady) in Copenhagen. Interesting that many now regard the mini-versions of it as Mormon kitsch.

  17. Jack on January 11, 2005 at 2:22 am

    I think mormon kitsch has sprung up as a result (in part at least) of an increased desire for phylacteries in lds culture. The increased desire for phylacteries is a result (in part at least) of an increase in technology which has resulted in increased access to things worldy. (which is a formidable demon considering the downward turn of morality in the last forty years) Thus, folks are adorning their homes with religios kitsch in an effort to ward off the worldy demons (so to speak). Sadly however, our demand for phylacteries is a few steps ahead of our demand for great art (speaking collectively). Therefore what we have is a culture zealously deriving as much meaning as it can from mediocre “works of light” in order to find some kind of expression that will set it apart from an encroaching world.

  18. Bryce I on January 11, 2005 at 7:42 am

    If Mormons do indeed have a predilection for kitsch, there’s a strong reinforcing influence, namely homemaking/enrichment meetings. Although the emphasis has changed in recent years (my second-hand observation), the fact that our religious practice includes group instruction in home decor tends to reinforce certain normative tendencies in Mormon culture and to valorize certain low-cost, easily reproducible forms of art which may or may not have religious themes.

    Which is just a fancy way of saying that it’s hard to create fine art in 90 minutes once a month.

  19. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 8:55 am

    I’m going to add a smiley face after your reply to my comment, KHH, at least in my mind. I knew I was opening myself up to some gentle kidding with that one. Harrumph!

    Statues of Christs aren’t idols because we don’t worship them. They’re symbols of the real thing. Likewise, I can imagine candles being used in a way that wasn’t worship, that was symbolic of a household’s respect for Christ or and acknowledgment of his Eternal Light. Lots of things can be done as symbolism that aren’t worship and idolatry, though the human mind being what it is, its hard to do to much of them without shading over into it.

  20. Jonathan Green on January 11, 2005 at 10:00 am

    Adam: yes, I definitely hear a smiley there. I still think it’s amusing how people–not you, just ‘people’–can rail against popish idolatry, then deck their homes with candles and statuettes of St. Joseph, St. Mary, and the Christ Child, often located at the focal point of family seasonal devotion, and see nothing unusual about it.

    Bill is just trapped in a modernist master narrative that valorizes elite notions of high art. I’ve tried to get him to throw off his intellectual chains, but he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that kitsch and popular forms are as significant for their consumers, and that the act of their consumption is no less adequate to the situation, as are products of premier cultural institutions. To no avail–but what can one expect of someone who once performed an avant-garde harpsichord concert?

  21. Boris Max on January 11, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    This discussion begs the question of how to tell “art” from “kitsch.” Indeed, as Jonathan’s post suggests, this may be a false dichotomy. Another perspective on this dillema is provided in Theodor Adorno’s _Notes to Literature, Vol 1_. In discussing Paul Valery’s aesthetic theories, Adorno posits that “to construct works of art means to refuse the opiate that great sensuous art has become since Wagner, Baudelaire, and Manet; to fend off the humiliation that makes works of art media and makes consumers victims of psychotechnical manipulation” (107) In other words, since all artists struggle with the pull of the kitschy, isn’t it a little bit unreasonable to expect Mormon art and artists to regularly win a battle that has been lost by so many others?

  22. Kristine on January 11, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    Yes, Adam, I was mostly kidding–I’m trying to eschew emoticons in the New Year; alas, I fear I will also have to also *say* nice things so that my good intentions can be recognized.

    Bryce, I’m going to memorize this–“the fact that our religious practice includes group instruction in home decor tends to reinforce certain normative tendencies in Mormon culture and to valorize certain low-cost, easily reproducible forms of art which may or may not have religious themes”–and use it in RS Presidency Mtg. as an argument against all crafts proposed for enrichment nights. It is so deliciously graduate-school sounding that I’m sure everyone will be bamboozled into thinking I’ve made a convincing argument!

  23. Bryce I on January 11, 2005 at 2:24 pm

    Kristine —

    I worked hard on that sentence to make it sound like grad-school speak. In a thread on theorizing about kitsch, it seemed appropriate. I’m glad you appreciated it.

    Plus I see that I may have planted the seed for “valorize” in Jonathan Green’s comment # 18.

  24. D. Fletcher on January 11, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    I accompanied the ultimate word in Mormon kitsch music this past Sunday, a rendition of “His Hands,” by Kenneth Cope. The singer is a fine and well-known Mormon pop singer, and she sang it (very well) from the microphone at the pulpit. I played the accompaniment perfectly (of course), but I’m surprised if anyone could find real feeling in my rendition, since the song is pretty loathsome.

    I don’t mean to cause an altercation, but I seriously don’t understand why this kind of art speaks to anyone. It diminishes the Savior, to me.

  25. Steve Evans on January 11, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    Arrrgh! His Hands?? Oh, D. And you were making such progress…

  26. Mark B on January 11, 2005 at 2:36 pm

    Such a short distance from kitsch to real art. Imagine that damnable train switchman story as a ballad, and you can find yourself reaching for the airsickness bag right away. But, as blues! Oh, the story might be rescued yet!

  27. Bryce I on January 11, 2005 at 4:20 pm

    D. —

    How did it come about that you were the accompanist? Couldn’t you have refused on principle? I imagine there are several reasonably accomplished musicians in your ward.

    Just curious.

  28. D. Fletcher on January 11, 2005 at 4:23 pm

    They’re trying to get me to come to Church.

    ;)

    Actually, I’m the perfect choice for this kind of music, since I improvise very well. As I said, I think I played it very well (not trying to brag here). I just didn’t like it. I don’t like this kind of pop banality, particularly when it’s about Jesus. The Jesus that knows me is a little more divine than the one portrayed in that song.

  29. Jack on January 11, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    D.,

    A true act of charity. (did you wash you hands with sandpaper afterwards?)

  30. D. Fletcher on January 11, 2005 at 4:34 pm

    Mmm… I guess I deserved that.

    My own setting of an Easter text is called “To Christ Crucified.” This one was called “His Hands.” Just comparing the titles is… enlightening, at least to me. (I didn’t write the text of “To Christ Crucified,” it’s my a spanish monk circa 16th century, St. John of Gaunt? I think.)

  31. Jack on January 11, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    D.,

    I empathize with you brother! It was a friendly jab. I too have found myself in the restroom washing my hands with 60 grit sandpaper after accompanying a friend that I couldn’t say no to.

  32. Wilfried on January 11, 2005 at 5:11 pm

    Hans Hansen reminded us rightfully that our Christus is Icelandic/Danish and not orginally Mormon. Thanks, Hans. Joining us all the way from Denmark? Or ancestry?

    Mark B. mentioned “Such a short distance from kitsch to real art”. Maybe. But the other direction seems also true. Thorvaldsen’s Christus is art. Duplicated in mini-versions it seems to become kitsch, just like Michelangelo’s David or Egypt’s Sphinx, which one can purchase in all sizes. So why would the real thing be art and the mini-duplicate kitsch?

  33. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    Wilifried:

    Kitsch is not just about the form of the art product, but also has a lot to do with context. Calinescu, for instance, says that kitsch is also when a millionaire hangs a picasso in his elevator.

    I think that the mini-duplicate is kitsch because it is mass produced and infinitely reproducible — there is no craftsmanship in its making — but also because the context changes. The mini-Christus placed in the home operates as a homily (so-to-speak) rather than as a work of art.

  34. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    Can that really be it, Mr. Morris? It seems to me that many of the great works of art were originally in contexts where they were supposed to serve homiletic purposes as well artistic ones. The awe for the artistry was to be transmuted into an awe of the Almighty. I dont’ know much about it myself, but lots of people have lamented the fact that art is now separated from everyday life, etc. You yourself, in the 19th Century, had something to say about that too, if i recall.

    And yet, those Christus’ do seem kitschy. Maybe y’all educated folk have colonized my mind more than I like to think.

  35. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    Adam:

    Part II is forthcoming wherein all my weaknesses will be revealed and my credibility shredded.

    ——-
    But to respond:

    You are using homiletic in a more positive sense — a sense that I think is worth looking at and exactly why I try and complicate Mormon kitsch in my initial post above. Indeed, I was trying to be clever in my use of ‘homily’ — both condemning in the popular sense of the word and redeeming it by invoking the traditional meaning.

    I do lament that art is separated from everyday life. And it’s why I find Mormon folk art to be so interesting. Quilting , specifically, You’ll never find me singing the praises of tole painting. I think for instance of the quilts created where all the men in the family donate their old ties — esp. ties that had some meaning, worn on missions for baby blessings, etc. — and the women cut and arrange them into a quilt top and you end up with a work of art that is both inspirational — made from the very stuff of church activity — and yet aesthetically pleasing.

  36. Jonathan Green on January 11, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    Bryce, I was valorific when you were still liminal.

    Kristine, thank you for eschewing emoticons, especially those silly yellow GIF images. Talk about examples of kitsch! I always assume that people commenting here are normal human beings, until they reveal that they are actually spherical yellow cephaloids.

  37. Hans Hansen on January 11, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    “Hans Hansen reminded us rightfully that our Christus is Icelandic/Danish and not orginally Mormon. Thanks, Hans. Joining us all the way from Denmark? Or ancestry?”

    Joining you all the way from Valencia, California and with Norwegian ancestry!