Mormons and kitsch part 2: My kitsch picks

January 11, 2005 | 48 comments
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Enough theory. It’s time to get to actual examples of Mormon kitsch. The following represent my picks — some because I actually like them (don’t tell anybody), some because they’re just weird, and some because they’re hecka funny.

Christus 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’ll find many different versions of it. I admit, that while I suspect the mini-statuettes are kitsch, I kind of like them. Part of it is because of the work of art itself — it does come across as iconic but in a Protestanty, no-nonsense kind of way that I can respond to. The stickers on the other hand are pure kitsch and kind of creep me out.

Friberg’s “Prayer at Valley Forge”
I was a rather patriotic young child and had a serious case of Washington worship. My grandparents bought a print of Friberg’s “Prayer at Valley Forge” for me. It hung above my bed from the day I received it (age seven or eight) until I left for my mission. I recognize that it doesn’t depict an historical moment. And that George Washington was an imperfect being and that his religious beliefs differ quite a bit from mine. But I still like the painting. I like the idea of a man such as him kneeling in the snow to pray. But mainly I like the dappled grey horse. Incidentally, a quick Google search suggests that this work is popular among other Christians as well.

CTR rings for adults
When I first returned from my mission, I was rather indignant about this phenomenon. To me the idea of taking the CTR ring you bought for ten cents from your CTR teacher and making reproductions in silver and gold was the epitome of the tendency of the saints to lust after the things of the world while still trying to maintain their Mormon identity. Now, although I don’t wear one and probably never will, I don’t see it as all that bad. It is, after all, one of the few examples of Mormon-specific semiotics. The coolest rendition has to be the glow in the dark model. You could totally pretend to be the Mormon green lantern.

Book of Mormon action figures
Okay, so you knew this was coming, and it’s old hat in the Bloggernacle. But I’m fascinated by the whole idea of Book of Mormon action figures. Yes, I suppose in some ways my GI Joes figures could be conceived as role models who taught me values, but not really. I pretty much just like to place them in vehicles and crash them into things. It’s also kind of weird to think of, you know, what happens when you see Nephi hanging out in the Barbie Dream House. Is it appropriate to allow prophets — well, representations of prophets — to be played with in the way that kids play with action figures?

By the way, I like the Ammon action figure best. There he stands his sword ready to lop off arms. You can get Ammon in the same basic stance in a tie bar as well. Might be a good way to appear subtley threatening. If there were Mormon mobsters, this is what Mormon mobsters would wear.

Parable of the ten virgins lamp
I don’t have much to say about this. There’s something about it that makes me uneasy. And yet at the same time, the idea of bringing one into Elder’s Quorum and lighting it up as an object listen really appeals to me.

Greg Olsen
I’d actually rank Greg Olsen ahead of Thomas Kinkade. Although much of his work is way too, umm, soft? glowy? idealized? accessible? for me, I do like his work A Light to the Gentiles very much and would even consider hanging it in my home.

reproduction of Nauvoo Sunstone
A funky piece of Mormon history. What’s not too like? Also perhaps a subtle way to tip off to others that you are part of the Mormon Studies crowd. Also available as a tie tack.

Mortality: the board game
Shh! Don’t tell the evangelicals, but you really can earn your way to heaven. I’ll let the marketing copy speak for itself:

“Mortality is the exciting and popular LDS board game that helps everyone feel good. Rather than driving the other players into bankruptcy in order to win, in Mortality you actually get ahead by helping others! It also teaches you to laugh at and grow from your troubles. As you build up enough inner strength, you are able to meet the trials of life and actually become stronger because of them.

“It’s competitive, because there is a winner, but it isn’t the cutthroat competition that forms the foundation of other games. It becomes a great deal of fun for all the players, not just the winner. Do you have children with sensitive feelings? Or do you have children who tend to be ruthless in games? Don’t play Sorry! or Monopoly, play Mortality, and everyone will enjoy it and learn a little about how to truly succeed in life.”

The first one to earn 150 Testimonies wins the game. See the rules for more [trust me -- it's worth clicking through].

Joseph Smith painted on black velvet
The summer I was 19, the priests in my ward took a trip down the Calif. coast (chaperoned by a parent — a former Bishop who was fluent in Spanish). We went to Tijuana. At one point, after we all bought those poncho pullover things, I stepped into a shop selling black velvet paintings. Up on the wall, alongside James Dean, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Elvis was Joseph Smith. I had a half-second of outrage before a mixture of laughter and pride filled my soul. And I still feel that way. I think it’s quite cool — seeing Joseph Smith presented in that medium along with all the other ‘icons’ actually pleases me. I might feel different if I were to see it displayed in someone’s home [it'd depend on the context], and I don’t think that I would hang one in my own home — people would read it as more kitschy than I would mean because of who I am. Sadly, I couldn’t find a link to an example.

So those are my picks. How about you? You know there’s some dark secret love you want to confess.

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48 Responses to Mormons and kitsch part 2: My kitsch picks

  1. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 6:59 pm

    Its never too old to recatch that serious case of Washington worship.
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000871.html

    I’ve still got it myself. I’ve got the painting too, though I don’t flaunt it, mostly from cowardice.

  2. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 7:03 pm

    Adam:

    I forgot that I had commented on that post. Well, at least I’m consistent.

    But you’ve already made your Washington confession. What else do you own but would never flaunt?

  3. Steve Evans on January 11, 2005 at 7:11 pm

    Karen Hall has already pointed out my new favorite.

  4. danithew on January 11, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    I kind of like Greg Olsen’s paintings as well. But I can’t help but notice every time I see his works how big the hands and feet are on the figures in his paintings.

    How about those little olive wood figures and carvings from Jerusalem? There’s all kinds of carvings that are adapted to LDS teachings and stories.

  5. Clark on January 11, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    What bugs me about the BoM action figures is that they aren’t action figures. They are “sculptures.” i.e. they are great to sit on a shelf but not to play with. I always was upset as a kid that the Star Wars figures we so lamely poseable (you could raise arms up or down, or legs up or down, but not out and the elbows and knees were non-functioning) But they seem like those wooden body figures artists use compares to these so called “action figures.” I’d love some BoM action figures to give my kids – especially ones more informed by Sorenson and the rest of the FARMS research. How about a darker skinned Ammon with a macuahuitl?

    One you missed is that reproduction from mesoAmerica of a circle with carvings on it that is supposed (in weak apologetics) be about the tree of life. It vaguely looks like Fac. 2 in the BoM. These were all over the place in the early 80′s and then dropped out of favor.

  6. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 7:25 pm

    Along those lines, Clark, (I would assume) is the Came To Pass glyph tie tack.

  7. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 7:30 pm

    Do crocheted scripture book marks count?

    Or copies of the Proclamation on the Family with the engagement photo in the corner? I love ‘em.

  8. Clark on January 11, 2005 at 7:30 pm

    That one is a little more defensible William. Plus I think it actually looks “artful.” But then I’m a sucker for realistic looking reproductions of ancient art. The theory that this relates to a Book of Mormon phrase is just icing on the cake.

  9. Clark on January 11, 2005 at 7:43 pm

    I will say that some of the picture frames with raised pictures of the temple or so forth drive me crazy. Actually I don’t like framed marriage certificates either. Always makes me think people are comparing marriage to dentistry. Actually most of the LDS “art” bugs me.

    I know I rail against the separation between “real art” that somehow can do know wrong and folk art of various types. But that’s largely because I think far too many artists are pretentious and simply want to always characterize what they are doing as inherently good because it is “Art” with a capital A. At the same time though, there is a lot of bad art.

    The reason I don’t mind things like the Cristus statue is because it is good art. How well a small reproduction works really depends upon your home. But that would get us into a whole issue of home decorating. . . (Which I can’t talk too much about since outside of our baby’s room we’ve not decorated any of the rooms in our house and most don’t even have furniture)

  10. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 7:45 pm

    Clark:

    Yeah, but as a tie tack? I don’t know about that.
    —–

    Adam:

    There’s an engagement photo in the corner? That totally counts.

    And yes, my wife and I are so cool that we didn’t have an engagement photo.

  11. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 7:45 pm

    I think I mind the reproductions of the Christus statue because its size is indispensable to its effect. So maybe full-size reproductions of the statute would be OK, but then they’d look ridiculous in the average home, and that would ruin the effect too.

  12. Rosalynde on January 11, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    Sometimes time can burnish kitsch… the resin grapes that used to be produced at homemaking are now high-end collectibles.

    Other unfortunates… mini-reproductions of the family groups sculptures commissioned by the RS. Enormous enlargements of wedding photos in front of the temple hung above the sofa. Quilted scripture carriers.

    I have finally acquired a Minerva Teichert I can stomach, so that I can have a picture of Christ displayed in my home. I’m still looking for a way to display an image of the temple, as has been recommended, but I haven’t yet found anything I can handle.

  13. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 7:58 pm

    Uh-oh — this is not good: I Never Said It Would Be Easy with Christus Photo.

    Now that’s kitsch — taking a photo of what is a nice piece of art and pairing it with a saying that is something Christ never said.

  14. William Morris on January 11, 2005 at 7:59 pm

    Rosalynde:

    Take one yourself or have somebody you know that is good with a camera take one.

  15. Rosalynde on January 11, 2005 at 7:59 pm

    Yes, that reminds me… any poem framed and hung on the wall (refrigerators allowed), think “Footsteps.” Scripture verses are not far behind.

  16. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 8:01 pm

    The other problem with the Christus is its ubiquity. Dover Beach would be banal if it were set to music and played on the air every hour.

  17. Keith on January 11, 2005 at 8:20 pm

    Someone once suggested that a breakfast cereal for Mormons should be marketed. Call it “Every Fiber of My Being”. My addition to the idea was that it include marshmallow Book of Mormon characters–Nephi, Alma, Mormon, etc. (including Laban whose head falls of when you pour milk on him).

    This never caught on. Too much or not enough kitsch?

    The most annoying kitsch in my book (and this is expanding the category to more than painting scultpure,etc.) is Saturday’s Warrior. An honorable mention goes to a framed copy (with a sand-dune in the background) of “Footprints”.

  18. Julie in Austin on January 11, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    Keith–

    Oh! There’s an _entire_ market for Mormon food.

    Think little packets of fruit snacks, already ubiquitous in sac. mtg. with BoM characters on them, or Liahonas, or a pack of just arms. . .

  19. gst on January 11, 2005 at 8:45 pm

    The (half-size?) Christus replica that I saw two days ago in the LA temple visitor’s center looks terrible. I think it’s plastic, and with visible seams. My one year-old daughter was impressed, however.

    As long as I’m complaining about the visitor’s center, I’ll add that I noted Kieth Merrill’s liberal use of blackface in the movie “Testaments.”

  20. MDS on January 11, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    Compared to these “inspirational” statues of Jesus playing sports, dancing ballet, etc., we’re not doing too bad:

    http://www.catholicshopper.com/products/inspirational_sport_statues.html

  21. Mark B on January 11, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    Well. He never did say it would be easy. Did he?? :-)

  22. Mark B on January 11, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    Ah Rosalynde, were those grapes made of resin? I always thought that they were glass, and wondered why we never had any. I guess my mother was absent that day. (By the way, it wouldn’t have been homemaking meeting back when those grapes appeared–it was work meeting, and it was the third Wednesday of the month, so we didn’t walk home down 6th east to our home for lunch, but at lunch at the school cafeteria.)

  23. Hanna Tycc on January 11, 2005 at 11:28 pm

    Charm bracelets are very popular now and a llittle chair charm is selling particularly well. It symbolizes “no empty chairs in Heaven”, i.e. someone not sealed to family,someone who has left the church, yadda, yadda… I think I could think of an object lesson for just about any charm I’ve ever seen. A little broom,”sweep sin out of your life’, a heart “turn your heart toward Christ”, a diamond encrusted dollar sign,” always pay you tithing” of course each of the charms would have to be accompanied by special little story, maybe found in Especially for Mormons or some such publication.

  24. Jeremy on January 12, 2005 at 12:11 am

    Sigh — I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the market sees a dashboard-sized Cristus statue.

  25. Sheri Lynn on January 12, 2005 at 12:45 am

    I saved some water from the baptismal fonts when my children were baptized. The bottles are pretty, though not terribly expensive, and they’re sealed with wax. I don’t know if I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done or if it’s silly or what, but…someday when they’re teenagers and in need of a reminder, perhaps it will do some good to bring out the bottles of the very waters of their baptism.

    Is that kitschy?

  26. Karen on January 12, 2005 at 1:19 am

    Mark B: My yoke is easy, my burden is light….sound familiar? (okay, I paraphrased, cause I’m too lazy to get my Bible, but I’m not too far off am I?)

  27. Hans Hansen on January 12, 2005 at 2:39 am

    Oh Lord, I’m going to burn in heck for this one! There is a JC dashboard statuette, but it’s the “Buddy Christ” one from the movie “Dogma”!

    http://shop.store.yahoo.com/jsbstash/budchrisdass1.html

  28. claire on January 12, 2005 at 8:35 am

    How about the temple pictures with hidden images in them? Can’t think of the artist (illustrartor?) off hand, but my in-laws were given a whole book of them after serving a temple mission.

    Oh, and if anyone can find them, I (and Rosalynde, they might fit your specifications), I once had an architectural drawing of the Bountiful temple. It was just a straight line drawing on cream colored textured stock. I’d love one to frame.

  29. Wayne Wells on January 12, 2005 at 9:05 am

    Jeremy,
    I’d like to get dashboard-sized Joseph and Hyrum Smith statues like those on the Salt Lake Temple grounds. My Buddha and St. Christopher are getting lonely. ; )

  30. NFlanders on January 12, 2005 at 10:28 am

    On my mission in Argentina, kitschy leather BOM covers were inexplicably popular with certain Elders. A local member made them with color versions of the Red Robe Savior on the front and Second Coming Savior on the back. I always wondered if any investigators were put off when the Elders whipped out these monstrosities during the discussions.

  31. SFW on January 12, 2005 at 11:33 am

    As long as we’re fantasizing about currently unavailable kitsch, how about a set of bobblehead prophets?

  32. J. Stapley on January 12, 2005 at 12:00 pm

    Sherri: I don’t know if it is kitschy or not, but if you run into any vampires it might come in handy. Either that or you could try to score some sacrament leftovers (i.e., if the deacons don’t beat you to it).

  33. Hans Hansen on January 12, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    I don’t know about Joseph and Hyrum bobbleheads but a minor-league baseball team in Nashville gave away Bible Bobbleheads of Moses, Samson, and Noah for their team’s “Faith Nights”. See the link below with picture:

    http://www.tennessean.com/sports/baseball/archives/04/04/49550520.shtml?Element_ID=49550520

    The Lutherans have come out with a Martin Luther bobblehead

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/147/51.0.html

    And you can get Jesus and Pope John Paul II bobbleheads at this site:

    http://www.fadtoys.com/religious-bobbleheads.shtml

    .

  34. Nate Oman on January 12, 2005 at 2:03 pm

    Don’t forget this post on “Prayer at Valley Forge”

  35. William Morris on January 12, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    Clearly I should have done a T&S search so I could give some trackback love to Nate and Adam’s posts.

    It is nice to know that I’m in such good company. I mean, if even Russell has a print on his office wall…

  36. Sarah on January 12, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    I think a quick stop at a CA/UT Deseret or Seagull Books and then a voyage to a midwestern generic Protestant bookstore (we don’t have any LDS bookstores in Columbus, OH that I can find — we had an Abinadi Books for a while after the temple opened, but I think they closed down a few years ago) will reveal that we are now and likely are to be far behind in the race for the creepiest religious collectible ever.

    http://www.christianbook.com/html/specialty/51500.html

    Of course, even a trip to the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles (the Museum of Tolerance, et al) reveals skullcaps that look like soccer balls and footballs… with sequins.

    (my personal least-favorite creepy religious collectible is currently a full-sized “crown of thorns”… comes with in a box with a certificate of authenticity… handmade in the Middle East, I believe)

  37. ryan on January 12, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    Food items? One only need mistype your very own url–www.timesandseasons.net

  38. Cugeno on January 13, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Say, GST:

    I believe that the Christus statue at the LA Temple was recently vandalized by an axe-wielding kook. Seriously. That may be why it looked funny — temporary hands and the like.

    And, for the love of Mike, ANYTHING as a tie tack is a poor fashion idea. =)

  39. danithew on January 13, 2005 at 4:33 pm

    The worst Christian kitsch I ever saw were holographic pictures of Jesus with eyes that moved.

  40. gilgamesh on January 13, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    I served my mission in Italy. Very commonly we would peer through a door in the evening and see a crucifix on the wall with a glow in the dark Jesus. Though funny to me – and still mind boggling – many people found great comfort in the glow of the crucifix.

  41. William Morris on January 13, 2005 at 5:24 pm

    Cugeno:

    I believe the incident you are referring to took place at the Oakland Temple Visitor’s Center.

  42. Hans Hansen on January 13, 2005 at 9:18 pm

    The comment on the glow in the dark crucifix reminded me of this story I heard about a kid who was having math problems in school; his parents enrolled him in a parochial school and his math grades increased significantly. At the end of the semester he received an “A” and his parents were thrilled. When they asked him what motivated him to get good grades he said “On the first day I went to class they had some guy nailed to a “Plus” sign on the wall so I knew they meant business!”

  43. R.G. on January 13, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    It seems interesting to me that the same land that gave the world the Sistine Cieling would also give us a glow in the dark Jesus.

  44. gilgamesh on January 14, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Back onto Mormon kitsch 0- the movies are bad- but anybody with the Singles Ward Christmas Album – has a taste for things Kitschy.

  45. Jed Woodworth on January 15, 2005 at 7:18 pm

    The oddest Mormon kitsch I have found is in Nauvoo. The greeting card store on Mullholland sells shot glasses with a picture of the Nauvoo Temple painted onto them. Obviously the market is non-LDS. Or is it? Perhaps the manufacturer is counting on the Mormons to buy the glasses as gag gifts.

  46. greg.org on January 17, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    1) there are 19th c. periodical engravings of the Nauvoo temple from across the river that aren’t bad.

    2) They Will Know Us By Out T-Shirts is a blog maintained by a guy working in a Christian mall store. It’s truly special.
    http://christianretail.blogspot.com/

    3) We tried– OK, I tried–to get pastel-colored temple mints for our NYC wedding reception, but it was vetoed by my brighter, better half. I still want them, along with the temple replicas they used to make out of glass piping at a kiosk in the University Mall.

  47. a random John on January 18, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    I always thought that the framed marriage certificate was pretty cheesy until I saw a framed certificate of sealing in a home in Brazil. It was strangely touching so far away from Utah. In Utah it would have been cheese, there it was gold.

  48. Dennis Harvey on April 8, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    Does anyone out there have specific recommendations re: Mormon kitsch music? My interest was sparked years ago by a documentary about gay (mostly ex-) Mormons, which at one point soundtracked a song by some folk-ish female duo (I think) that was a jaw-dropping list of do’s and don’t’s for women. I have an academic interest in certain kinds of specialized religious and propagandic music, and haven’t gotten too serious about pursuing Mormon types, but I sure could use some pointers/recommendations. I’m interested in more idiosyncratic material than just the Tabernacle Choir doing standard sacred classical musics, etc. Any help would be greatly appreciated…

    Dennis

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