OK. I don’t want to go to film school any more. Last night I watched a really hideously bad production from Mollywood. Painfully bad. Awful. Horrible. Since I figure that if I was to go to film school, in all likelihood this is the sort of movie that I would produce, I think I will stick to the law. Watching this monstrosity, however, did get me thinking about the importance of Mormon kitsch.
By kitsch I mean any sort of cultural production — movies, music, plays, etc. — that makes you want to hide under a rock in order to escape. As Mormons, I am sad to say, most of our cultural production is kitsch. For myself, I take the prevalence of kitsch in Mormon culture as a kind of intellectual challenge. Is there any way of taking an optimistic view of this sea of mediocrity (and sub-mediocrity)? How do I reconcile the habitually abyssimal state of our cultural productions with my own predilection for seeing contemporary Mormonism as the germ of great things to come? It is hard, but here are a couple of strategies.
First, I am happy to report that kitsch is not a Mormon monopoly. The sad truth about humanity is that pretty much the vast majority of everything that is ever produced by anyone anywhere and at anytime, basically sucks. Hence, Mormon kitsch is probably less evidence of Mormon cultural depravity than of the simple fact that Mormons (or at least most of them) are human beings.
Second, I can take hope from the fact that there is Mormon non-kitsch. I suspect that I am one of the few people on the face of the planet who was subjected to extensive lectures on Mormon art history at a very young age (like seven or eight). I had the philosophical and stylistic distinction between 19th century Mormon paintings by Scandinavian and British converts memorized from repeated paternal explanations by the time I was ten or so. Some of the earliest memories from my childhood are of watching conservators restore C.C.A. Christensen’s murals, hearing stories about Minerva Tiechert, and driving deep into the Navajo and Hopi reservations with my father to collect rugs and pottery produced by LDS artists. (I have memories of people trying to use horses to get the Church van that we were driving freed from a river wash south of Navajo Mountain where my father had sunk it up to the axels in sand.) I know that Mormonism is capable of producing some wonderful art because I grew up surrounded by it.
Third, I think that kitsch can probably be taken as a sign of health. I think that the absence of production would be much more unsettling than productions of poor quality. If most of what gets produced is kitsch, then it seems to me that we cannot hope works of quality or genius without also getting a huge production of garbage. Perhaps more encouraging, the production of kitsch suggests that there is a real demand for Mormon culture. I don’t harbor great hopes that this demand can be weaned away in large measure from its love of kitsch. People are people, and most schemes for the radical transformation of human nature have proven unsuccessful. However, kitsch does serve to orient us toward a certain cultural possibility. Hopefully amidst the scramble for plaster-of-paris models of the Ogden Temple, there are those who will not see the possibility of Mormon sculpture as absurd, and they will find Fairbanks or Smith.