Canonization of Kitsch

[Updated March 11, 2009*]

Look closely at what is visible in the background of the picture below.
bm_01_s
Apparently, for whatever reason, Arnold Friberg’s artistic license/imagination of what Abinadi’s encounter with King Noah and his court might have looked like has become obligatory in representing the episode. This is Friberg’s “classic” Abinadi painting:

fribergabinadi

Friberg’s pet leopard jaguar and other paraphernalia descriptive of a corrupt and evil king as well as Abinadi’s chains and bare chest/beard combo, recognized by virtually every Mormon because of this painting, are visible in the “Hero” poster above. Has Friberg created an image that has now, in essence, been canonized in Mormon kitsch?

In another example, I am told that an exhibit is travelling around the United States entitled the Reflections of Christ Exhibit. These are photographs taken and arranged by a Mormon photographer to depict scenes from Christ’s life. I’ve heard the full range of reviews of these — some seem to really love it while others dismiss it as kitsch. From what I understand, the photographer is invited by wards, stakes, and missions to set up the exhibit and non-members are invited with the events made possible by staffing from local members volunteering from the wards where the exhibit is displayed.[1]

With reference to this exhibit, a friend asked about the way Mormon art invents, and then canonizes, certain images. For example, in the Lamb of God, Jesus drags his fingernails along the dirt in Gethsemane. In this exhibit, he’s doing the same. Do Mormon artists have a sense that that image from the Lamb of God is doctrinal or meant to convey something historically accurate about the event that therefore needs to be included in subsequent depictions to retain authority/validity? Or is this truly an expression of kitsch in the material sense: an artist senses that including such a previously used image in a work of art will trigger recognition among the target audience that will in turn help the mass-produced item sell better?

A prime example of this informal artistic canonization process is fleshed out at the narrator’s blog with regard to artwork depicting the translation of the Book of Mormon. This is perhaps an even more established meme, for lack of a better word, in the concept of the Mormon canonization of kitsch. Although the Church has made no official effort, that I am aware of, to suppress the idea — the true fact — that Joseph Smith translated much of the Book of Mormon by means of using a seer stone in a hat that he closed around his face to exclude outside light[2], at some point in time, a Mormon artist depicted Joseph Smith reading directly from the plates while translating. I imagine this was a flourish of artistic license on the part of some artist (out of curiosity I would like to know who the first artist was to take this approach) — there is nothing wrong with that; the pose works better artistically and dramatically than a painting of someone looking into a felt hat.

Where it gets interesting is that this artistic flourish then became, essentially, canonized in Mormon art. Take a look at the series of examples below, which might not be exhaustive, collected by the narrator:
jstrans1
jstrans2
jstrans3
jstrans4

The final and perhaps most recent phase in the canonization process of this particular Mormon artistic flourish, probably not originally meant to portray an event with historical accuracy but rather dramatically, is that it then became enshrined in the new Joseph Smith movie that is played in Salt Lake City’s Legacy Theater. I happen to think that its presence in that film also is not meant to be a statement as to historical accuracy but rather is included for artistic/dramatic purposes just to show the idea of translating the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. But many mistakenly seem to infer that this is the Church’s official statement of the process of the translation of the Book of Mormon.

By contrast, below is an unattributed offering that is part of a project whose stated objective is to make any artistic depiction of the Restoration of the Gospel historically accurate, implying that anything else is “materially inaccurate and misleading”:
jstranslatingbom1

This unattributed depiction found at imagesoftherestoration.org is jarring for many Latter-day Saints precisely because it breaks the long-established meme in Mormon art relating to this event. Although Mormons are theoretically aware of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by means of a seer stone in a hat (ideally more Latter-day Saints would be actively aware of this) and through use of the Urim and Thummim (“two stones in silver bows — and these stones, fastened to a breastplate”), we have become accustomed to seeing Joseph Smith reading directly from the Golden Plates in the translation process because of this Mormon artwork. A Mormon artist once chose for aesthetic reasons to exercise artistic license and depict Joseph Smith in this way and that was picked up by subsequent artists in their own work so that by now, many Latter-day Saints actually seem to interpret the posture depicted in the traditional examples as being a historically accurate representation of the translation process. First, the image became canonical in Mormon art; then, because it became artistically uniform, it seems to have become quasi-canonical in a doctrinal sense to its audience.

But in broader society we don’t generally expect art to be doctrinal or to be historically accurate. It is unclear why that is expected of Mormon art in certain circumstances — to the extent that someone could use the presence of a Gospel Art kit picture of Joseph Smith translating directly from the plates hanging in a ward building classroom as an argument that the Church is obscuring its history. Or that the South Park episode that irreverently depicts our history and origins can literally shake some people’s faith because of its depiction of Joseph Smith translating by means of looking at the seer stone in the hat.[3]

This seems to come as a result of the canonization of Mormon kitsch: a Mormon artist once imagined something a certain way and depicted it in art; subsequent Mormon artists liked it and included it in their work(s) perhaps in part because of a desire to tap into recognition by the audience either to create a relationship with the audience more quickly or, in the case of some, perhaps in an effort to sell more items; some of these works find their way into the Gospel Art picture kit — not because the Church endorses them as definitive doctrinal or historical statements but rather because that is what is available from Mormon artists that is relatively passable about a certain event; finally, the audience takes it as a doctrinal statement of the Church or a statement as to historical accuracy of the depicted event, when none of that is necessarily intended by any level of Church leadership or, especially, by the artist him- or herself.

This process strikes me as ironic given the fairly involved process that is required for the actual canonization of scripture in the Church. The canonization process is there for a reason. It is an interesting phenomenon that this process is circumvented entirely in the realm of Mormon art.

———————–

* For ease of reference, this post was updated to include the actual Mormon pictures of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon directly from the plates that are collected at the narrator’s blog, linked above. Also, for purposes of contrast, an unattributed depiction of Joseph Smith translating using the seer stone in the hat that is displayed at a project called imagesoftherestoration.org is included to throw the canonization of this particular meme in Mormon art into stark relief. The reference to Arnold Friberg’s “leopard” was also changed to “jaguar” after that point of lazy drafting was pointed out in the comments.

[1] Although not directly related to this post, as a side note, I understand that the display of this exhibition is billed as an outreach effort but the photographer’s CDs and coffee table books of the exhibit, etc. are for sale at the events. It seems that the advertizing for this photographer’s goods is thereby subsidized by local ward members taking time off work to staff these events as volunteers.

[2] To the contrary, the Church published an article by Elder Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles highlighting these details of the translation process in the Ensign, its flagship magazine.

[3] It seems clear that art doesn’t have to be either 100% historically accurate or else a lie; rather, it is a given that an artist will take the artistic license that he or she deems appropriate to make the desired aesthetic points.

Bookmark Canonization of Kitsch

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Wonderful thoughts, John.

  2. In a similar vein, there are a whole host of images in the Gospel Art kit that feature Lehi, Nephi, and crew dressed exactly as they are dressed in the Friberg paintings. Apparently that red bandana with the black headband on Lehi holds deep religious significance.

    I think this is mostly laziness on the part of the producer and consumer of Mormon art. It takes too much effort to create original work dealing with old tropes, so just name check (or image check) already approved material in order to make sure that your art choices are within the bounds of orthodoxy. We can’t have unauthorized portraits of Amalickiah or Amulek making it into LDS homes.

  3. It also makes it easier for an artist to sell an image to people. If they feel like they know Nephi, and an artist paints a whole new (perfectly legitimate) Nephi, her/his marketability goes down substantially.

    Not that that makes it ok.

    Nice post John F.

  4. Thanks Steve.

    John C., I’m wondering why people think that things in these works of art are either “authorized” or “unauthorized”. Where does this de facto canonization come from? I think that laziness might well be the answer. But then why the sense of authority?

  5. Tracy, I think that is probably true, particularly with the mass-produced stuff like the Hero poster.

  6. I think that since most of these are sold through Deseret Book, they appear to have the church’s seal of approval. I also think that the tendency to use LDS art not to explore beauty or truth, but as an indicator of personal orthodoxy lends the art toward easily identifiable tropes. If no one understands that my painting is of Mary, then why buy it?

  7. Not to quibble, but I think those would probably be jaguars, not leopards, given the geography.

  8. Terrific post!

  9. finally, the audience takes it as a doctrinal statement of the Church or a statement as to historical accuracy of the depicted event, when none of that is necessarily intended by any level of Church leadership or, especially, by the artist him- or herself.

    Soon, people will be losing their faith as anti-Mormon writers definitively argue that their were no spotted leopards in ancient America.

  10. ah, thanks WMP — I thought something didn’t quite sound right when writing this.

  11. Wonderful post. Later this week a followup to my own post today concerning Book of Mormon art will demonstrate through one instance how quickly visual images can be canonized in the popular mind. (Just to establish that my followup was already in the works and that I’m not, you know, jumping on your bandwagon.)

  12. By the way, I’m not a fan of all of Friberg’s Book of Mormon paintings, but I love that Abinadi painting. I studied it very closely and carefully hundreds of times as a kid growing up as I searched for something to hold my attention during Sacrament Meetings and lessons. This was in the old Books of Mormon along with some other Friberg paintings.

    Actually, although this post takes a somewhat hard stance on the kitsch aspect of the mass-produced “hero” posters, I actually really like the one depicting the Brother of Jared seeing the finger of God. That one deviates more substantially from the Friberg mold than does this Abinadi example.

  13. Cool Ardis! I will enjoy reading that.

  14. Friberg’s painting is also responsible for the prevailing notion that King Noah was morbidly obese.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    We should all be thankful to Friberg for telling us The Truth about Nephites and steroid abuse.

    Thanks for this post, John.

  16. Great post, John. What Tracy M. said in #3.

  17. Cynthia L. says:

    Excellent post, and Brad said what I was thinking about the big cats.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    Is it just me, or does Abinadi’s robe in the new poster kinda look like Batman’s?

  19. Cynthia L. says:

    The bottom edge of the cape is Batman for sure. The overall composition and colors recall The Matrix though.

  20. Very interesting. I had never given this much thought before.

    I really enjoy seeing new LDS art that renders familiar scenes in unfamiliar ways, but I am also a fan of that old Friberg Abinadi painting. My son is a fan, too, not in any small part because of the jaguars. (The “Hero” version, though, is kinda creepy.)

  21. Margaret Young says:

    I have to speak up for _Reflections of Christ_, since my family and I are viewing chapters of its accompanying DVD for FHE every Monday. I think the depictions are quite lovely, and the photography beautifully creative. I also love hearing the thoughts of the actors who portrayed the various characters. I personally would not classify it as kitsch, though I can see how others might.

    I recently agreed to be the president-elect of the Association for Mormon Letters. This was not something I had planned, but I will give it my all. I want to see new ways of picturing not only our Savior, but the lives of Mormons–throughout the world. I want the AML to become fully multi-cultural.

    I saw a documentary recently on what Jesus probably looked like. Believe it or not, the image finally produced, after much discussion of the customs of the Savior’s day, the skin tone most common in the Savior’s region, etc., looked just like Darius Gray as a young man. It was a bit surprising. I’m wondering who I’ve really been hanging out with all these years…

  22. Thomas Parkin says:

    Someday I’m going to write an essay on problems with Mormon art, and I’m going to lift this whole and claim it as my own.

    Those hero pictures make my skin crawl. The only ‘Mormon’ art that disturbs me more are the paintings of young missionaries getting dressed, looking in the mirror. The reflection in the mirror shows them putting on armor and taking a sword, while the new kinder, gentler version of the Del Parson Jesus* looks on approvingly. (An interesting outfit for going out with love to serve others. It looks like you might be going out to chop some people up.)

    I personally like the Reflections of Christ collection. Although the music that accompanies it in online videos is subsumed by the also canonized “Lilting Piano Introduction and Accompaniment.” Goodness, can we shake ourselves loose of some of this stuff??? ~

    * My non-member wife calls this the “Charlton Heston Jesus.”

  23. We confuse sentimentalism with meaning sometimes–I think. And kitsch is a way of enshrining that sentimentalism–a very difficult thing to let go of as a culture. It “means” too much to us because of the way we feel about it even though we don’t really know what it means–if it means anything at all.

  24. John, are you saying that Nephi may not have worn arm and headbands? I can’t get my head around that.

  25. Margaret Young says:

    #22–OOH! I hate that image of missionaries! I spent about 1/2 hour last Sunday perusing the halls of the MTC, since it was our last Sunday there. Many of the photographs are simply stunning. I had my husband take pictures of my favorites. Those are the kinds of things I’d like on my walls. My favorite–a Zambian man just post-baptism, smiling broadly beside a missionary. They are in a makeshift baptismal font. His smile gets to the core of the joy I want reflected in Mormon art.

  26. Cynthia L. says:

    SteveP, headbands and wristbands in canonized art prove that the 80’s were the most true of any decade.

  27. Margaret Young says:

    How about those Viking horns in the scene of Mormon and Moroni? Can we possibly let those go?

  28. I always liked the Friberg stuff, but I kind of realized as a kid that he had probably buffed up the arms of the Book of Mormon characters. After all, we really don’t know what they looked like, but the images stuck in my mind. Art is an expression of the artist and his/her vision, and historical accuracy might be a secondary consideration, if considered at all.

    However, not everyone views art in that way, and these images become the reality for many. The Reflections of Christ photos are compelling and well done, but they haven’t resonated with me, the way that I have been affected by some of the art (not all) that hangs in the Church Museum of History and Art on West Temple. I only get there every couple of years, but I am usually reduced to tears by some of the paintings, especially some of those by the Impressionist era painters who were sent to Europe to study in preparation for painting the murals in the Salt Lake Temple.

    I appreciate Elder Jensen’s discussion referenced in the narrators blog about church media not coordinating with the church history department, something he (Elder Jensen) is trying to correct. I really think we still haven’t come to terms with our history if we get hung up on historical accuracy of our art, and if some of us can’t distinguish between art and history. I’ve heard the rumors of visitors to Nauvoo asking to see the Steed’s home from The Work and the Glory series. Canonization of kitsch indeed.

  29. Re #4 and matters “authorized or unauthorized.” A BYU
    anthropology colleague once described a lecture in which he had been, at some length, differentiating between various scholarly theories on some very arcane and specific topic–something like the origin of Tibetan pottery discoloration. As his lecture went on, a hand went up in the hall, a hand that waved more and more frantically. Finally, Myers stopped and asked the student what she wanted.

    Pleading came the question: “What I want to know is, what do WE believe?!”

    Prof. Myers was stumped as to the “authorized” view.

  30. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Church Museum of History and Art on West Temple”

    The two things I like best about the museum is that my parents are now both working in there, and that they regular hang pictures by David Linn. Linn is my favorite “Mormon” artist – deeply gnostic and tangentially wonderfully Mormon, in my opinion.

    (I pretty much have to plug his every time these art discussions come up. :) )

    This moves me so deeply:

    This is one they had at the museum during for the handcart company exhibit:

    http://davidlinn.com/2006/IMAG008A.JPG ~

  31. I guess I have no artistic taste at all, but I have always thought those missionary in the mirror pictures were pretty neat, especially because you could buy one using your own missionary’s face. I bet no one from this group likes the poker playing dogs, either.

  32. Aaron Brown says:

    John, I think your post undermines my oft-voiced argument that it’s kosher to use steroids since everyone in Book of Mormon times did so, and for that, I resent you.

    AB

  33. Thomas Parkin says:

    Noray – one never need to apologize for the art one likes. There is a lot of subjectivity when it comes to art. I personally like poker playing dogs. ~

  34. Thomas Parkin,

    I’ve seen a few of Linn’s paintings, but neither of these you referenced. I like them both, along with this personal favorite: http://www.meridianmagazine.com/images/worldviewart/linntheascent.jpg

    (Sorry, but I have to have an example to do html links properly, but I’m okay with manipulating text. I just hope the link works)

  35. Thomas Parkin, I positively adore David Linn. I love the painting of the solo figure on the rocks, with dim light, called “The Convert”.

  36. TA Esplin says:

    Re: #14
    Similarly, Friberg’s painting of Helaman’s army has caused generations of Mormons to think “stripling” means buff instead of young. Where was Arnold on last year’s BCC list of most influential 20th Century Mormons?

  37. Left Field says:

    Friberg’s cats are definitely jaguars, not leopards. The circular spots with a dot inside are characteristic of jaguars. Leopard spots are quite different.

    Jaguars are now extremely rare in the US, but were once found throughout most of the Americas. The idea of jaguars in in King Noah’s court seems a bit farfetched, but at least Friberg’s painting depicts cats that would likely have lived in his kingdom.

  38. john f,

    You articulated that far better than I was able to. Thanks.

  39. Just as an aside… I have little kids, and without pictures our Family Home Evenings don’t work very well. So for quite a few years now, before getting rid of an old Ensign I go through it and cut out any pictures of scripture stories, then put them in page protectors in binders for us to use in FHE. There have been a few interesting trends that have emerged, but one thing I’ve been surprised by is how many different pictures of some scripture stories the church has published in the Ensign over the years, yet how entrenched the “one true” depiction is in our culture. It is very nice when talking about a scripture story to have a few different pictures for my kids to look at. I like that it emphasises to them that these are all artistic representations and none are necessarily True.

  40. John Mansfield says:

    Building on the established body of work that preceded them in the culture is what all artists do, good, bad, indifferent, fine or commercial.

  41. I know people who upon meeting the Savior will be seriously unsettled to realize that Del Parson’s Christ in a red robe was merely art.

  42. Jonathan Green says:

    Very nice post, John. If we ever end up with a distinctly Mormon artistic vocabulary, I’d guess it’s far more likely to come from popular kitsch than from edgy artwork that problematizes historicity, or anything similarly respectable.

  43. I loved that exhibit at the Church Museum of History and Art with all the handcart art. When they do a showing of art with a single theme it alllows for a diversity of expression to work in comparison and contrast and allows the patron to see many reflections of the same truth. That is why I loved the museum’s semi-sort-of-annual LDS Art competition. You can see the expressions of faith and testimony seen through the eyes of different cultures and media. That strengthens our message instead of diluting the orthodoxy.

  44. Excellent post. My kids have a Bagley book with a cartoon Abinadi, complete with fat King Noah and jaguars.

    I also noticed in church film productions the conscious use of imagery familiar from paintings, especially in the new First Vision movie. That seems to add to the canonization of mormon art, kitsch or not.

  45. Aesthetically the hero image is crap and I don’t see the benefit of promoting any ‘art’ that is aesthetically crappy just because of the subject matter.

    To me it is the equivalent of leveraging one’s Church membership to succeed in an MLM scheme.

  46. John Mansfield says:

    How about Moses? Very long, flowing beard and holding some stone tablets , as if he carried them around with him all the time, right? Michaelangelo depicted him that way. So did Rembrandt. So does everyone great and small, and thus when we see a figure of Moses, we know who it represents.

  47. I always wondered how Samuel the Lamanite “cast himself down” from Friberg’s wall. I always have thought that he would have broken something.

  48. Yes, John M. — excellent point. How is that different from a Mormon artist including Friberg’s jaguar in an Abinadi painting or incorporating Jesus’ fingernails scraping the dirt in Gethsemane from the Lamb of God video?

  49. Peter LLC says:

    Nice collection, John and the narrator.

    Now if somebody could just do something about the stick legs on the hero, then we’d be getting somewhere.

  50. I love Walter Rane, in contrast to most LDS artists. Not all of his paintings are equally spectacular, but it is clear he has true artistry in his work. He conveys movement and captures emotion in a way that most LDS artists fail to do.

    I remember the first painting of his I saw was “Jehovah Creates the Earth”. I was astounded. He also seems to set his scenes and paint his characters to how he thinks they may have looked, not to what everyone else has said they were.

  51. Oh . . . for those who wish to see it, his version of Abinadi/King Noah is here.

    It’s not my favorite of his paintings, but it still breaks from the norm, and is probably more accurate to how it actually looked.

  52. Margaret Young says:

    Nice additions! Very interesting post.

  53. esodhiambo says:

    Love the post. I have been thinking about it though, and those hands of Christ in Gethsemene are pretty good visual shorthand for “pain.” It is preferable to grimacing faces, I say, even if unoriginal.

  54. I loved this post too, but I need to tell you that when I was in YW, we had some sort of fireside in which we were told that the Del Parson’s red robed portrait of Jesus was what He really looked like. This TRUE knowledge is based on stories surrounding the divine inspiration the artist received while painting it and a voice telling him, “no change this; do that there, etc.”

    Just thought you should know!

  55. I think the informal canonization of LDS art has been reinforced by including certain images in the official standard works of the Church. Whether intended or not, this has given these images an elevated status of authority maybe equal with the words in the scriptures. I wonder how they were selected for use in the scriptures?

  56. SilverRain, whose painting is that?

  57. nasamomdele says:

    I saw the “Reflections of Christ” exhibit and found myself rushing to get through it. I had the impression I was looking through a wedding album of sorts.

    These “Hero” posters strike a similar chord. I appreciate the Book of Mormon paintings with the caveat that they are a representation of possible contexts, and defer to them at least in some way as original ideas.

    The hero posters and later depictions, as was mentioned, tend to copy ideas or themes form earlier accepted depicitons for many reasons, I think, one being the recognition factor mentioned.

    But I think it is worse than that, unfortunately. I think such things are often guilty (perhaps as art ought to) of eliciting feelings, rather than impressing faith. And in reproducing the themes in which those feelings were originally elicited (Christ’s clutching hand in the Lamb of God v. Reflections), I think we see poor judgment and a certain ammount of shameful plagarism of an already questionable method of presenting the Gospel.

    The worst thing I think I can say is that I don’t appreciate Church art for the purpose of eliciting feelings. I have a 3′ x 4′ framed Carl Bloch in my living room of Christ at Bethesda that, in its realism and plainness, does far more for eliciting introspection and meditation than an emotional response. This brings up the old argument as to the purpose of Religious Art.

    Disclaimer- Lamb of God is my favorite Gospel Film of all time. My coworker’s uncle-in-law turned out the classic temple movie-worthy performance of Judas in it. The sisnister line “Master”, followed with a kiss still gives me a shiver. Love it.

  58. nasamomdele says:

    #56 and Silverrain,

    That is Walter Rane if I’m not mistaken?

    In my opinion he is one of the great Mormon artists of all time, only including Minerva Tichert and Friberg in that category (The rest is fluff to me) .

    http://www.walterrane.com/

    He is also the father of one of my close mission friends.

  59. nasamomdele says:

    Sorry SilverRain, I didn’t see your earlier reference to Rane, but I second your praise. He does amazing work. I someday hope to own all of the prints on his site.

    The First Vision and “He is not Here” prints are my favorites.

  60. Natalie B. says:

    Excellent post. I never realized before how many images we have canonized, and how those images have shaped my understandings of history and doctrine.

  61. John Mansfield says:

    Arriving home, I found a Tintin book that one of the children left open it an interesting page. Tintin and Captain Haddock are searching for a treasure in a mansion’s cellar and come upon a statue of St. John the Evangelist.

    Haddock: What a lot of junk! . . . All this junk!
    Tintin: Oh yes, the Bird brothers used this as a storeroom. Look, that’s St. John the Evangelist. We must be in an old chapel . . . Hooray! The Eagle’s cross! “And then shines forth th Eagle’s cross”! There it is . . . the Eagle’s cross.
    Haddock: The Eagle’s cross? . . . I can see a cross, but where is the Eagle?
    Tintin: There, in front of you! Yes there, look! St. John the Evangelist–who is always depicted with an eagle . . . And he’s called the Eagle of Patmos–after the island where he wrote his Revelation. He’s the Eagle!

  62. I think one of the important things to remember about the iconic images of Mormon history is that they are just that: icons.

    St. Patrick is always depicted with a snake, just as Moses is always depicted with the tablets. They’re not so much a historical representation as a visual one. Friburg’s depiction of King Noah as obese recalls images of excess and gluttony. The leo…jaguars are there because, well..let’s face it. They’re pretty sweet.

  63. The Church used to publish a “Book of Mormon Reader” for children that illustrated the translation process by showing Joseph Smith with the Urim and Thummim:

    The newer version replaces it with a more traditional depiction:

    New Book of Mormon Reader

  64. When my friend and I were designing prototypes for toys for the LDS market, we had many discussions about this problem (I don’t claim to be an artist, so my choices may have been very different with different goals in mind). We didn’t want to copy anything or perpetuate Mormon myths (like the idea that all Book of Mormon events definitely took place in South America). On the other hand, people had to recognize the story with few or no accompanying words. Sometimes we relied on the shorthand (Nephi has a headband), sometimes we rejected it (our King Benjamin’s tower is stone instead of wood, even though wood is more likely for a quickly erected tower), and sometimes we just tried to reference the iconic tropes (in a toy we never ended up producing, King Noah’s court has accents of red velvet and leopard/jaguar print fabrics). But, for me at least, I try to be very conscious of what’s actually in the text and what has become ‘canonized kitsch.’ It doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes choose to go with the familiar over the innovative (although I try not to contradict the scriptural/historical record). My favorite art tends to incorporate the familiar and iconic in new and revealing ways. Sadly, I can’t think of a good example right off the bat.

  65. Markie, toys of the type you are mentioning are in interesting example. That is actual kitsch, without even the need for subjective determination between kitsch and real art. I don’t think someone would argue that plastic toy action figures are art?

    I think this post lends itself a little more to material that is trying, or claiming, to be art but that is actually mass-produced kitsch. Making your toys look just like the Friberg figures would have been a great move that would have gained your product instant recognition. It is true that this would have been a prime example of the canonization or Mormon kitsch but it seems natural in the field of mass-produced toys.

    In works of devotional art that also end up getting mass-produced for the Mormon audience’s consumption, the line is a little more blurred. In such instances, resorting to arbitrarily conceived images of a previous artist for the sake of triggering recognition in the audience does indeed come across as somewhat lazy. This isn’t necessarily referring to iconic traits that John M. brought up, such as Moses with tablets as a tag but rather to banal details that don’t matter (like Friberg’s jaguar and other kingly accoutrements).

    You mentioned that you would strive to avoid contradicting the scriptural and historical record and I think that is an important point that I tried to bring up in the original post. I actually don’t think that art should have to be constrained in such a way. We don’t expect it of paintings of the French Revolution or Waterloo but for some reason that expectation has come to accompany people’s expectation of Mormon art. It does not seem to have been the case previously.

    The paintings of Joseph Smith translating the plates are an example of that. The universal pose of Joseph Smith reading from the plates actually contradicts the historical record, at least to the extent that we don’t have an eye witness describing such a pose (but we also don’t have a statement that would require us to think that he never used this method — we just don’t know for sure). But it is much more simple to depict him this way — and the end result works better aesthetically — so an artist took the artistic license to depict Joseph Smith in this way (a natural choice, I think). The problem seems to have come in when subsequent artists seemed to feel that this flourish was then obligatory. The causes for that might be very complex — I just don’t know.

    Perhaps that is not even where the problem is since the subsequent artists might have employed the exact same reasoning in placing Joseph in this pose, and not because they thought it was obligatory. In such a case, perhaps the problem is with the audience: why do we Mormons think that because an artist depicts Joseph Smith translating in that manner that it must be an accurate representation of history? Why would we have ever thought that the picture implies that no other translation method was used such that a picture of Joseph Smith looking into the seer stone in his hat alienates us?

  66. john f. said:
    #65
    “I think this post lends itself a little more to material that is trying, or claiming, to be art but that is actually mass-produced kitsch. Making your toys look just like the Friberg figures would have been a great move that would have gained your product instant recognition. It is true that this would have been a prime example of the canonization or Mormon kitsch but it seems natural in the field of mass-produced toys.”

    I think that the Abinadi poster in your OP is in exactly the same class as my toys (not action figures) or the Book of Mormon Heroes action figures (not mine) – a mass produced item (yes, kitsch) aimed at the Mormon market to fill a particular need. In the case of the poster, it looks to be aimed at kids to decorate their walls with something “cool” but with a message that their parents also love. I doubt the producer would claim that they were even trying for devotional art. And I would bet that the artist consciously chose to go for recognition over originality for the very commercial reason you suggest. Abinadi doesn’t have a prop in the scripture story (like Moses’ ten commandments) to easily identify him. The jaguars and the fire in the poster are what let us know who we’re looking at.

    “Why would we have ever thought that the picture implies that no other translation method was used such that a picture of Joseph Smith looking into the seer stone in his hat alienates us?”

    This is a more interesting question to me. I doubt that it is just the artists’ representation that make us uncomfortable with the idea of Joseph looking in a hat. When we say “Joseph Smith translated the golden plates,” it is natural for modern Americans to assume a process of translation similar to one we usually employ. It is also natural to assume the golden plates were involved. In our modern world, we don’t like to talk about seer stones or divination or hiding your head in a hat much. Artists aren’t immune from the same discomfort that many of us have with the way the translation process is described. You may be ascribing too much power to them to suggest their choices caused the general discomfort, although the continued repetition of the same choice may very well add to it.

  67. I agree that the posters are kitsch — that’s why they headline this post. I think you make a good point with lumping us (the audience) together with the artist for purposes of analyzing the Joseph Smith translation art.

  68. Left Field says:

    It may be worth pointing out that only the fourth painting actually shows Joseph translating. The first and third show him simply studying the plates. The second painting (though it may be difficult to tell at this resolution) actually shows him transcribing the characters, not translating.

  69. not because the Church endorses them as definitive doctrinal or historical statements but rather because that is what is available from Mormon artists that is relatively passable about a certain event;

    I disagree with this. No evidence, of course, but I think the church endorses them and includes them in Gospel Art Picture Kits because that’s EXACTLY what they want people to think.

  70. re 68 — excellent points, Left Field. The same can’t be said of the Joseph Smith movie at the Legacy Theater, however.

    Ann, I don’t get what the point of that would be, especially since the GAs are aware of and don’t cover up the translation method of using the seer stone in the hat — neither do BYU religion professors etc. It might be that seminar and institute teachers don’t talk about the seer stone in the hat (as quoted from Emma and David Whitmer) but that might be because they don’t know about it for other reasons and have jumped to the same conclusions based on such artwork as discussed here.

  71. happyman says:

    john f. and ann,

    I actually learned about the seerstone and the hat in my seminary class. Church history, in fact. Junior High, in Orem, Utah. I was a bit surprised and put off, but I’ve known it ever since.

    I’ve also learned, since then, that seminary teachers have no particular training in history and often teach things that I’m pretty sure aren’t endorsed by the church in any form. They seem to have their own culture and cultural history, one that’s out of sync with any other Mormon culture I’m familiar with. These extra cultures include Utah Valley, Washington D.C., and Germany.

    So I wouldn’t take ignorance or pictures from one part of the church as an indication of policy as a whole. Sometimes the left hand really doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,514 other followers