On the Possibilities of Kitsch

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.

19 comments for “On the Possibilities of Kitsch

  1. August 3, 2005 at 3:40 pm

    “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.”

    It’s Sturgeon’s Law, Nate: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

  2. Jack
    August 3, 2005 at 4:15 pm

    The problem with mormon kitsch is that, all too often, it is elevated to a level of quality beyond what it deserves merely because it reflects religious values. I have no problem with the fact that some are edified by such, but what really gets on my nerves is when something like a glossy mural of a weeping Joseph Smith is heralded as great art merely because it’s Joseph Smith.

  3. The Wiz
    August 3, 2005 at 4:17 pm

    Nate, you just want a new job, and pretty much anything besides what you’re doing looks fun to you. And I’m dying to know which Mormon movie turned you off on the idea of being a filmmaker.

  4. Nate Oman
    August 3, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Jack: You hit on one of my pet peeves as well. I am reminded of a story that I once heard about the poetry editor at the New Yorker. He received an irate letter from a woman whose poem he had rejected for publication. “You just refused to publish my poem because it was about God!” she wrote. His reply letter read, “Madame, I rejected your poem because I did not think that it was up to its subject.”

  5. Jack
    August 3, 2005 at 4:29 pm

    Nate,

    That’s classic. I love it.

  6. August 3, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    It seems like the prevalence of “Mormon kitsch” in cinema and art might be related to the popularity of Mormon pageants, semi-professional productions of uneven quality. Mormons like performance, but are more interested in the message than the quality of the performance. Sort of like political art or drama, where the overt message generally overshadows other artistic qualities.

  7. August 3, 2005 at 5:18 pm

    I also think that Mormon kitsch might not necessarily be a bad a thing.

    However, in regards to your points one and three — a huge stumbling block in terms of Mormon art and kitsch is that our cultural market is modeled after the Christian (esp. evangelical) market. Indeed we seem to be about 4-5 years behind the Christian market in terms of trends (for instance, Mormon romance is now going strong, but we’ve seen in that past three years an emergence of Mormon thrillers ala the Left Behind series).

    This is a problem because there just doesn’t seem to be much room for works that are faithful yet well-crafted and ‘challenging’ (in the generic way that good art is — not challenging like Mormon dissidents challenge). Or to put it another way — because the dominant Mormon bookstores (and to a certain extent publishers) follow this model, they have certain categories that works need to fit in. Otherwise they don’t get shelf space. This is a problem for all literary (esp. middlebrow literary) works to be sure, but I think that’s it’s exacerbated in the Mormon market because there are not many alternatives. Although, of course, it’s par for the course for any niche market.

    This all, of course, relates to Jack’s comment on the perception that a work of art should be valued simply because it is about Mormonism. Or even worse — that it is somehow superior (even if lacking in craftsmanship) because it is not “of the world.”

    Also: I agree with Dave’s comment on Mormons and performance, but wonder if that aspect of Mormon culture is as strong as it once was.

  8. August 3, 2005 at 5:20 pm

    I think I’ve heard a complaint somewhere that the most talented LDS artists most often create art that lacks an identifiable Mormon component. LDS culture then hasn’t achieved its potential and perhaps there is a hint here as well that some of the people making “Mormon kitsch” are the ones with burning testimonies. This can’t be true for them all — but no doubt some are using the meager talents given them to express their love in the best way they know how. (I know … someone is saying “awwwwwwwwwwwwww”).

    The success of “Mormon kitsch” might also have a lot to do with demand for that sort of thing. There are people who really profit off of handcraft or sewing patterns of general authority sayings and the like. I know because I once heard a sister (a person I admire and respect completely) describe how she received a “cease and desist” letter from the Church because her pattern for a saying of President Hinckley’s was “flying off the shelves” to the point that it gained someone’s attention. She had gotten permission but then obviously someone with influence became irritated or changed their mind. Her take on this was that perhaps someone at HQ was tired of seeing this particular pattern in so many LDS homes.

    I worked with a non-LDS person who complained about “that painting that is in every single LDS family’s living room.” I guessed at what she meant and she confirmed that she was referring to the painting of Jesus in a red robe. I don’t know if we should refer to that painting as kitsch or not — in my opinion it’s fine. But perhaps it’s like that top-ten single that has been overplayed too much. I thought maybe her point had some validity. Kitsch or not, perhaps we need to diversify a little more. If the religiously-themed painting in your living room is also in the homes of other people in your ward, perhaps that is a wake-up call.

    I say this as I look at our blank walls in our NYC apartment. As a couple we’ve never had so much wall-space to hang things on …

  9. alamojag
    August 3, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    This reminds me very much of the time my family went to the touring production of “Saturday’s Warrior.” At the end of the show, I was the only one not giving it a standing ovation. My dad kind of cussed me out, and asked me why. “I didn’t think it was that good.” “We’re standing for the message, not the production.”

    I also remember well attending the play “Charlie” at the old Capital Theater in downtown SLC. More than once, the female lead called her counterpart by his real name, not the name in the play. I didn’t stand at the end of that production, either. But you know, I still know most of the words to the finale of “Promised Valley.”

  10. Eric S.
    August 3, 2005 at 6:45 pm

    I don’t think the only reason for the prevalence of kitsch is a lack of talent on the part of LDS artists. A case in point: a friend of mine from law school is a composer. He is very talented. But he has been shut out of much of the Mormon mass market by those of lesser talent but greater name recognition. There is a lot of politics involved in the decisions about who receives commissions for certain things. And, as fro church-sponsored materials, the correlation folks are quite adept at forcing artists to alter their works–to fit the kitschy mold.

  11. Andrea Andersen
    August 3, 2005 at 7:18 pm

    you may be interested in this. they are wonderful artists and they are also mormon….

    http://www.horseshoemountainpottery.com/

  12. Milo
    August 3, 2005 at 7:21 pm

    I have a few close friends who are heavily involved in the LDS music industry and the reason they turn out so much kitsch is socialism, pure and simple. Whoa, hold on a minute there. That’s the word one of them used, but what they meant was that there are too few people making the decision of what’s good and therefore will be produced and marketed, and what’s not good and therefore not worth signing. In the “real” music industry, if Arista Records turns you down, and Maverick Records turns you down, and A&R Records turns you down, then you can still call all the other record labels and find one that likes you and signs you and mass produces your stuff. In the LDS market, you’d just be stuck, out of luck after being turned down a few times. Not to mention, that in the LDS market, for some of the people who make the decisions, “good” music (and it’s probably the same for film) entails not only good quality, but the right message, and “the right message” too often means it must be delivered in a certain music style (as though the particular instruments you use or tempo of the song could render an otherwise “good” song questionable). Thus, everything sounds the same, and stuff that would otherwise be fine music is excluded because it doesn’t sound like everything else.

    It was quite a depressing conversation.

  13. jjohnsen
    August 3, 2005 at 9:06 pm

    “The problem with mormon kitsch is that, all too often, it is elevated to a level of quality beyond what it deserves merely because it reflects religious values. I have no problem with the fact that some are edified by such, but what really gets on my nerves is when something like a glossy mural of a weeping Joseph Smith is heralded as great art merely because it’s Joseph Smith. ”

    This is my biggest problem with LDS literature and movies. I’ve lost track of how many times people have described movies like God’s Army and Single’s Ward as though they were Oscar-worthy productions. Then, when I make an attempt to tell them how horrible I think they are, I am usually met with a look of horror like I’ve burned a BOM and thrown it at them. I don’t feel a responsibility to pretend something is good just because it’s Mormon-made.

  14. Jesse
    August 4, 2005 at 11:13 am

    What is kitsch can change over time. For instance, I’ve heard that Jefferson had one of those shiny round balls (sorta like a smooth, chrome plated soccer ball sorta thingy) in his garden. They were used as meditative aides. You can see them up and down the east coast, mainly in the type of garden that has small statues of gnomes and possibly plastic flamingos (which, I understand, actually outnumber live flamingos).

    I toured Montpelier, the family home of James Monroe, a number of years ago. It had been purchased by the DuPont family and then given to an historical society. Anyway, the society was putting the thing in shape, but had left a single large room decorated as the DuPont’s had it. There were built in shelves made with plywood. There was no edge banding on the plywood, so you could see the layered plys. This, we were told, was done because plywood was the “in” thing at the time, being extremely expensive and imported from Europe. There were other countertops that were covered with that really old formica, the kind that has white flecks in a teal green base color (or red, as my family’s ancient kitchen table was), and the edging around it was the stuff that’s aluminum stripping, about an inch wide, with three grooves in it. Like what you might see around the edges of a fifties diner’s counters. There was a gigantic, billboard sized sepia photographic print, of horses in a field (yes, with daisies), covering an entire wall. And the mantle around the fireplace was this chrome monstrosity that looked like it could have been levered off of a ’57 Chevy and then nailed onto the wall. It was a rather jarring room, really, given the stately georgian decorating of the rest of the house. And pretty funny too.

    Kitsch, as you say, Nate, is human.

  15. Clay Whipkey
    August 4, 2005 at 1:59 pm

    “in the LDS market, for some of the people who make the decisions, “good” music (and it’s probably the same for film) entails not only good quality, but the right message, and “the right message” too often means it must be delivered in a certain music style (as though the particular instruments you use or tempo of the song could render an otherwise “good” song questionable). Thus, everything sounds the same, and stuff that would otherwise be fine music is excluded because it doesn’t sound like everything else.”

    ding! ding! ding! Tell him what he’s won!

    As a musician who is consquently LDS (meaning I have never made “LDS music”), this has been my great lament. Frankly, its not something that can be overcome through existing channels. Its a Mighty Mississippi in its inertia. So instead a new river needs to be formed. I’m actually working on that with some appropriate help. Good things may be on the way, at least for music.

    I have a guess as to what movie it was Nate mentioned. I’ve seen all the Mo-vies (pronounced mow-vees) except for Saints & Soldiers, Pride and Prejudice, and BoM Movie (don’t care to either). Some I thought were actually good, and most I managed to suspend normal cultural taste long enough to be mildly amused. However, there was one that was so abysmal that I think it actually caused a little bit of nerve damage in my brain. The filmakers have a history of ripping off other popular films for subject matter and then putting a mormon twist on it, but this one was not only the most blatant (the director actually admitted it in the “making of” feature), but it was horribly done. The story was brutually contrived to get characters into situations where they could pull similar gags to what was amusing about the source of inspiration. Oh the humanity.

  16. August 4, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    There’s a great quote that I have to look up to get exactly right, spoken by Boyd K. Packer. You can find it in his book, “That All May Be Edified”. To badly paraphrase, he says that the best art, music, theater, and literature can and will be produced by members of the church during the latter days.

    I, like most of those who have commented, have yet to see this happen. But I am truly hopeful, and look forward to seeing the quality improve over time and with more support. Though some of these films have been unbelievably painful for me, I can’t help but want to support them.

    I’ve studied theater and theater history most of my life. This is one artform where I believe MUCH in the way of light and truth can be shared to anyone of any or no faith. As the choices for uplifting and intelligent entertainment in this world grow few, the church and its members are attempting to offer substitutions or better replacements for the general grime coming out of L.A. We’re not there yet, but there are some grassroots beginning to form.

    I am hoping, with time and continued support, financial interest from quality investors will grow, therefore creating the means to hire the goods that WILL meet that standard of professionalism we all want to see. Unfortunately, like with everything else it seems, it takes serious money. Not to mention someone who’s brave enough to say, “Man, that line stinks. Change it.”

    I’m so confident that we’ll get there someday, that already I’m working on a couple of script ideas with substance and heart. There are real stories about real people that will be shared, and I’d love to be part of that.

    Now, if someone reading this has $10,000 and no place to go, give me a call.

  17. August 5, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    Isn’t part of the issue simple market demands? There’s a relatively small market asking for anything that qualifies as “art” and “LDS” at the same time. That’s pretty much exactly what they’re asking for, too. If they want stuff that’s “really good art” they know where they can get it, but — at least outside of Utah/Arizona/Idaho/California — there’s just not that much that qualifies as both “art” and “LDS.” Most of the active adults I know in the church with any real disposable income (out here) own all the same things because those were the things our Abinadi Books (which closed a few years ago) and the Distribution Catalog and the Deseret Books catalog had. Why didn’t those stores have more? Because people didn’t seem to be wanting/needing anything else in numbers sufficient to warrant an investment, which would have been large. Also, that stuff sells well. You might call it kitsch but they like it.

    Now, obviously, depending on the members in Ohio or Maryland or Georgia, you’ll likely not get sufficient demand anytime soon. But I bet that most members (the only significant group of people who want Mormon art) don’t have any real desire for the LDS version of Star Wars, or the Mormon-flavored Law and Order or whatever. What they’re getting is sufficient to meet their interests. I don’t know about you all, but I like my red-robed picture of Christ. And for that matter, I like the replica of the Nauvoo sunstone (which I bought from the Smithsonian, where I’ve gotten almost as much kitsch as I’ve gotten from LDS sources.)

    In any case, I don’t think much of anyone — LDS or not — is demanding a ton of ‘high culture’ art; if you don’t want them to want kitsch, could you define what it is they ought to want? I would love to live in a world where 95% of art didn’t involve scatalogical humor or stupid gags, and wasn’t in pastel colors, but there doesn’t seem to be enough of a market demand to warrant producing a ton of non-pastel, in particular, LDS art…

  18. Vince Jones
    August 8, 2005 at 7:02 pm

    I love theatre, art and literature that’s a bit challenging and speaks to me about the human condition, or just gets me thinking. And it ires me that LDS art (at least here in the UK) is so superficial and simplistic. I know that it’s a characteristic of the musical genre for there to be narrative resolutions around traditional simple themes of good/evil, boy meets girl/looses girl/finds girl again, etc. So I guess Church musicals tend to follow that convention.

    But my feeling is that any creative members fear that if they attempt to portray the complexities of life, as lived by most of us, they will be condemned for not ‘towing the gospel line’. To me that’s a sad loss.

    In our Sunday School lessons we have some great discussions about situations where decisions can be very complex. In the Book of Mormon we have people breaking the 6th commandment after revelation from the Lord. We have General Authorities that regularly quote from Shakespeare. But I imagine an LDS playwright putting on a production that included themes of murder, infidelity, emotional breakdown, etc. would get short shrift for not creating ‘uplifting’ plays. And so most productions are banal.

    (And it’s not just down to market economics – plenty of artist of the past created their works with little thought of an audience. It was about expression and the search for truth through their art. Many artists died in penury, but we are enriched now for what they created.)

  19. Richard Oman
    August 10, 2005 at 8:00 am

    This comment drifts from much of what has been written on this thread, but I wanted to post it anyway. Some comments were posted about linking Mormon subject matter and Mormon art. This seems like a useful connection. A stylistic definition for Mormon art is too restrictive for a multi-cultural, international church, and besides what would we do with all the sylistic shifts even in the last hundred and fifty years of of American L.D.S. art? So what about defining any art made by a Mormon as Mormon art. This would make the catagory of Mormon art so so broad as to almost loose any meaning as a recognizable catagory. For example are some automobile tires “Mormon automobile tires,” just because a Mormon made them on some assembly line? This doesn’t mean that all art by a Mormon artist on a Mormon theme is great stuff. Much is dross. But it probably means that Mormon art should probably be created by a Mormon artist and would often depict some kind of Mormon theme. There is at least one additional factor that could sometimes be added to a definition of Mormon art and that is Mormom context in its creation. For example, I would definately define a hand grained pine amoir made in a United Order cabinate shop as a work of Mormon art.
    As to quality in Mormom art… that would require a more lengthy post and I have to get ready for work.

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