[Updated March 11, 2009*]
Look closely at what is visible in the background of the picture below.
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:
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.
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, 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:
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”:
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.
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.
 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.
 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.