Mormon Art

So what the heck is Mormon art, anyway? Putting aside the much larger question of what is art (but using the term broadly to cover all creative expression), we might instructively ask: What is a Mormon? Do we count only members of the mainstream organization, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Do we draw the line at active members only? What about people who are active members but non-believers? Because there are plenty of those. Feminists? Intellectuals? Democrats? If you decide to let the term Mormon refer to anyone who self-identifies as a Mormon, the circle becomes much, much wider. You get not only members of the mainstream organization, but you get members of the multitude of splinter organizations (there are probably far more than you think), and you must include the ever-growing ex/post-Mormon community, many of whom still self-identify as Mormons. Even when you consider art created by active, church-going, temple-recommend holding Mormons, you have to ask: does the art have to actually be about Mormons or Mormonism directly to be considered Mormon art? Can someone who has been steeped in Mormon culture ever produce anything other than Mormon art? Should art that’s about Mormons, even when created by non-Mormons, be considered Mormon art?


The question of what constitutes Mormon art is one that has been engaged by the humanities community at Brigham Young University for quite some time, and has more recently been taken up as well by the quasi-academic Mormon publications Dialogue and Sunstone. Eugene England, probably more than anyone, led the charge to answer this question within the mainstream Mormon community, in the context of his Mormon Literature class at BYU. To paraphrase his answer (from memory, so my apologies to the late Dr. England if he would take issue with my summary): Mormon literature, broadly speaking, is literature that has theological underpinnings consistent with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Good Mormon literature is Mormon literature with complex, true-to-life representations of people attempting (though often failing) to live in harmony with those principles.

As I’ve thought about this question, it has seemed useful to me to explore a few analogous cases, such as the definition of Jewish art or Catholic art. Not surprisingly, many of the same issues arise in discussions of these topics. There are some writers, for example, who are closely identified with their religious traditions. There are the obvious cases, the big Catholic guns, like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, who we might call, as a category, devotional. Lesser, and more recent, luminaries include G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Flannery O’Connor, who weave Catholic themes through their writing, but are less focused on Catholocism per se. We could possibly call this category (and I’m totally making this up as I go along–some literary scholar somewhere has probably devised better terms already) affiliated, because it’s closely affiliated with a religious tradition, but its aims could be said to be broader than simply elucidating and promoting a particular theological tradition. Further out on the periphery, you find something typically called secular literature (I didn’t make this one up), which may have very little if anything to do with Catholicism directly, but since it’s written by Catholics (even lapsed Catholics), it gets associated with Catholicism. In this category, you might have people like F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.R.R. Tolkien, who you might not have even known were Catholic just by reading their books (though Tolkien insists that his work is deeply Catholic in nature).

In the Jewish world, you find a similar range. There are the religious teachers, eminent rabbis, like Maimonides or Yisroel ben Eliezer (aka, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, though his legacy is known almost entirely through the writings of adherents)–your devotional sources. Then there are your better-known, and more contemporary, writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel and Chaim Potok, who could be called affiliated Jewish writers. Then in the category of Jewish secular writers, you have people like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and David Mamet.

Of course, categories are always faulty, because in life everything happens on a continuum, so you could argue all day about where to place certain writers. But given this basic framework, I’d like to argue that Eugene England essentially ignored whole swaths of Mormon literature in his definition, especially what I would refer to as the secular category. In fairness, Mormonism is not equivalent to Judaism or Catholicism. Those religious traditions have been around much longer, and have penetrated culture at large much more broadly. In the case of Judaism, there is no central organization or doctrinal authority. So perhaps it makes sense to tighten the boundaries of Mormon letters a bit by comparison. As time passes, though, I think that Mormonism is moving in the direction of Judaism and Catholicism–there’s an ever greater presence of things Mormon, however far the fruit has fallen from the tree, in our popular culture. Mormonism clearly has its devotional literature, like the writings of the prophets and general authorities, and its affiliated literature, everything from Jack Weyland to Levi Peterson. Increasingly, though, there’s a more distant category of secular literature as well that has clear and identifiable ties to Mormonism, just as its authors do. Contemporary secular Mormon authors include people like Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, Brady Udall, and Brian Evenson (you could arguably include someone like Walter Kirn as well, but his ties to Mormonism are tenuous). Writers outside the faith who have written about Mormon culture would include Wallace Stegner and Ron Carlson. In theater and film, you’d have to include someone like Neil Labute in the secular category (with Richard Dutcher being in the affiliated category).

Now that I’ve finally mentioned something other than a book, you’ll note that I started out with the promise to discuss art in the broad sense of the term, but mostly failed in that task. I confess that I know the most about books, and far less about music, the visual arts, or theater, and less still about dance. I think you could have a similar discussion about any one of these areas, however. In the visual arts, you have devotional artists like Arnold Friberg (the guy who did all those Book of Mormon paintings), and an affiliated artists might be someone like Wulf Barsch, with Lane Twitchell as an example of a secular Mormon artist. In theater, there’s your devotional, like Saturday’s Warrior or My Turn on Earth, and playwrights like Thomas Rogers, Eric Samuelson, and Tim Slover represent the affiliated category (though some of the work of these people blurs towards the secular), and in your really out there secular category you have someone like Tony Kushner, who isn’t even (and never has been) a Mormon, but who writes fascinating material that touches on Mormon themes.

The further you get from the source, of course, the less useful it becomes to make such associations–a natural pitfall of categories, because they can function to ghettoize art. Is Sylvia Plath a feminist writer, or just a writer? Must Ralph Ellison be considered a black writer? Do you miss out on something vital by thinking of Sherman Alexie as a Native American author? It’s hard to say. There are benefits and liabilities to going either route. Ultimately, I think, how you draw your lines, and where your interest lies, is a lot like taste itself: in the end, there’s mostly just what you like. I myself am interested in the cultural spaces on the edges of Mormonism (it’s where I myself live, after all, as a non-believer who still lives in Utah and remains interested in Mormon culture), so I tend to want to know about the art that falls into the secular categories, as well as some of the affiliated art (though considerably less of the devotional). There are faithful LDS people who will never, ever have any interest in seeing a Neil Labute movie or reading a book of poems by Timothy Liu, and I don’t blame them. Perhaps, for them, these things are not Mormon art. We all have our reasons for enjoying the experience of art. I happen to think it would be a shame to draw the boundaries too narrowly and miss out on some of the great creative expression flowing from the fringes of Mormon culture.

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Robert

Loves to read books. Frequently does so. Currently lives and works in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

29 thoughts on “Mormon Art

  1. Thanks for your tour de force through the who is who in Mormon literature. You even gave us an overview of Jewish and Catholic writing. I am so out of it.

    Coincidentally, I only saw Evelyn Waugh’s Swords and Honor last week. I loved the characters, which depicted human nature in war pretty accurately, I thought. The story line was choppy though, which might be a function of the movie. Now, I am curious to read some of Waugh’s books.

    Given that there are only some two million British Catholics, it is quite amazing how many quality authors they are producing. Agatha Christy is another one who belongs on that list. In my mind, she transformed her genre single handedly. In terms of gender politics, her Miss Marple was just a stroke of genius.

    Embracing humanity’s sinful nature, the little old lady turned Catholicism into an analytical perspective. Splendid.

    By the way, Anneke from Motley Vision discusses the challenges of art critique from a faithful, Nauvoo, perspective.

  2. Not to sound like a SSP (shameless self promoter) but I would not consider my novel, Always Listen to the Ravings of a Mad Woman Mormon Art/fiction. That would be like calling the Da Vinci Code Catholic Art.

    I think one would lassify Mormon Art and Literature as something that utilizes Mormonism as the main theme, whether it be positive or negative in context.

    My two cents.

  3. It’s hard to pin it down precisely, but to me Mormon Art would be any art that is strongly influenced by Mormon traditions and culture.

    However, as I was saying in my latest post about Mormon lit, the polarization within the cultural Mormon community (especially between believers and non-believers) makes it hard to group all of these works together, even if they have lots of common elements.

    Personally I’d love it if Mormon lit were closer to the Jewish model (as I discussed here), however the fact that the Mormons don’t have nearly as long a cultural tradition makes it very difficult to just apply the same logic wholesale.

  4. May be, we could shrink time by embracing the Mormon experience of the tiny little Mormon communities abroad. There are a lot of people that relate to the same scriptural canon in radically different circumstances.

    Embracing the complexities of Mormon perspectives and situations can be empowering for Mormon culture, couldn’t it?

  5. Hellmut, I think I just sort of grazed the surface of the actual authors out there. I’d like to do a post that’s a more comprehensive survey of Mormon literature at some point, because there’s lots of really interesting stuff out there.

    JulieAnn, I find it interesting, after reading the blurb about your book, that you wouldn’t call it Mormon art, because I most definitely would. The main character is a Mormon, after all. But then I most definitely would call The DaVinci Code Catholic art–secular Catholic art. As I said in my post, I think there are different categories of culturally associated art, and the two examples you gave fall into the secular category–art that has a strong association with a religious culture, even though it would not be considered religious in nature.

    Chanson,
    I agree that it’s kind of hard to pin down, and that I prefer the Jewish model. I think the main difference is time. Judaism has had literally millennia to fragment, whereas Mormonism is still, by comparison, much more unified. I think over time that will change, and Mormonism will grow more fragmented as well. In spite of the Mormon church’s efforts to rein in intellectuals and feminists, eventually that force within Mormonism (along with gay Mormons, probably) will bubble back up into Mormon consciousness, and a more definably “liberal” wing of the culture will form again (much as with American Anglicans). It seems inevitable to me, with time. How much time? Well that’s anyone’s guess.

  6. Robert…

    well she’s sort of a jack Mormon…does that still count? LOL The book’s cultural backdrop is Mormonism, but it isn’t about Mormonism, it’s about addiction. Hence my earlier assessment. I would call it a more general ‘chick lit’ novel. I dunno, It gets muddy in these waters, huh?

  7. I would not call the Da Vinci Code Catholic art. It much more reflects sixteenth and seventeenth century protestant attitudes about Catholicism than Catholicism that a self-critical Catholic could actually recognize.

    I think that the Da Vinci Code is actually secular Puritan art. What do you think?

  8. JulieAnn,

    Well, I guess all categories are at least somewhat suspect. I guess I think of art as having identities somewhat like those of people, which are overlapping and non-exclusive. You can be Mormon, a woman, an American, Hispanic, middle class, etc., etc., all at the same time, so why can’t art be like that as well?

    Hellmut:

    You’ve called my bluff, and now I must confess: I haven’t actually read The DaVinci Code. I only saw the movie, and that probably doesn’t give me much authority to speak to the subject of the cultural origin of the material. Because its origin is obviously, um, Hollywood, as far as I know.

  9. It seems that there are two different issues going on here — first, “What is Art?” (A question that has kept many college professors gainfully employed despite any real capability at doing anything other than argue about “What is Art?”) and second, “What makes a particular piece of Art, something that can be classified as “Mormon.”

    I’m also particularly found of the Jewish version of what is Jewish Art, which I think definitionally you would classify as coming out of the Jewish culture, regardless of whether it was secular or religious.

    The active going Church crowd wants to limit Mormon Art to the faith promoting, which is completely unacceptable, not so much on the “Mormon” part of the equation, but on the “Art” portion. Didacticism and Art don’t go well together very often.

    Why limit ourselves to Mormon Art? Why not Mormon genre fiction? Mormon chick lit for JulieAnn? Mormon thrillers? All of those Mark Hoffman books and Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven as Mormon true crime books.

    The moniker “Mormon” should be broadly defined as arising out of the Mormon culture. Let the debate on “Art” be on an individual work.

  10. Twank,

    I left the discussion about “what is art” alone, mostly because it’s such a huge topic and so well addressed in other places. I tend to have a pretty broad view of art as any form of creative expression, which is a definition that has room for pretty much all the stuff you mentioned. In the area of fiction, for example, I think limiting the definition to only literary or highbrow fiction is a mistake. It seems much better to just let things into the big tent first and then make value judgments later. After all, today’s pulp can easily become tomorrow’s masterwork, and vice versa (and numerous works have made just such transitions over time).

  11. I do art. And I was/am Mormon. So. Maybe that means I do Mormon art??

    To me “Mormon Art” means art that has references to Mormonism or Mormon images in it. If I hear that term, that is what I picture, either visual art paintings, drawings, or sculpture (or other media works) that portray distinctly Mormon stories or paintings, drawings, or sculptures of distinctly Mormon characters or items like the gold plates.

    I love art. I too feel that art is anything that is creative, such as dance, literature, visual art, poetry, etc.

  12. I agree with Robert that “art” should include popular culture in addition to the highbrow stuff. Yet I also would like to comment on Wank’s point about didacticism:

    It think it’s hard to grow a vibrant literary tradition in a climate where all of the works are required to promote a particular ideology. I get the impression that a lot of faithful Mormons would like to see great works that are faith-promoting, but — in all seriousness — I think they are more likely to get one by building a vibrant literary tradition in general by widening the range of possible themes. (I know there’s some good Mormon lit out there, but the frequency of blogosphere posts on “Why don’t people read Mormon lit?” indicates there’s some work to be done.)

    At the same time, I like what Chris Bigelow is doing with Zarahemla Books — even though he’s specifically restricting works on the basis of message and theme (basically his books allow anything that’s not apostate or glorifying sin, which means my book is right out 😉 ). Still, he’s widening the range of what is possible in Mormon lit by getting people who actively avoid apostate or “glorifying sin” works to try something Mormon that’s a little more daring.

  13. I have a broad view of what constitutes art as well. I also gave a broad definition of what constitutes the “Mormon” part of the equation.

    My main point is that any art can be evaluated based on its effectiveness in acheiving its aesthetic goals. Looking at the genre is another subcategory for making that evaluation more clearly. Also it shouldn’t be limited to just looking at literature, but graphic art, fine art, theater, movies, ets.

    The biggest problem with didactic art is that by limiting opposing points of view it negates the conflict that makes art vibrant and ignores the strong arguments on the opposing side. The same weakness can be found on both sides of the faith promoting versus the faith destroying camps.

    Rather than speak in a vacuum, I’ll give an example of how escaping a one-sided view creates better art. I see Levi Peterson’s novel The Backslider as one of the best Mormon novels. The novel’s message in its own tobacco spitting Cowboy Jesus sort of way is quite faith promoting. Peterson only achieves this however from challenging cherished Mormon conventions, such as the Word of Wisdom. A more conservatively rigid work wouldn’t have had the same success.

  14. These discussions are always fun, but I just want to clarify this idea of polarization.

    The level of polarization of Mormon art all depends on which genres/form, audiences and markets, we’re talking about. It’s a complex matrix of competing ideas, attitudes, businesses, personalities, etc.

    Also: The points about didactic work are well-taken and generally supported by the critics/readers/authors in a variety of campus that I’m familiar with. But what’s interesting is that once we get beyond the obviously not-well-crafted, overtly didactic, folks perceptions of whether a work is didactic (or has didactic elements) or not really vary. TWank makes this point well in pointing out that the “same weakness can be found on both sides of the faith promoting versus the faith destroying camps.”

    But to get to the central point of qzed’s post — for all the reasons brought up in the post and in the comments that follow, I don’t think the Jewish or Catholic models really work. If anything, Mormon art has more in common with smaller Hyphenated-American groups where because of the newness of the tradition and the relative cohesiveness of the culture, there’s more at stake when it comes to defining who is representative as well as who is not — in addition to the somewhat easy way out (into broader American culture) for artists (such as many of those qzed mentions in his post). I’m wondering, for example, if Armenian-American culture might be a better comparison.

    Or perhaps Mormonism is unique enough that it needs a hybrid treatment. Certainly, an interesting study would be a review of how Mormon art is defined by critics and artists (artists answers to the question of are they a Mormon artist are often interesting) as well as how the cultural products of artists with ties to Mormonism and/or cultural products that have Mormon content are received by Mormon and non-Mormon audiences.

  15. William,

    Good points. I do think it’s a very complex question, with one of the key aspects being the question, “To whom?” or, in other words, from the viewpoint of what audience? I do think this question tends to follow the fault lines of identity. Most mainstream Mormons (temple recommend holding members of the mainstream church) have a fairly narrow definition of what is a Mormon, and along with it a similarly narrow definition of what is Mormon art. That seems fine to me. We all want what we want, out of life and art alike. But there really is an ever-growing community of people (as evidenced by this blog itself) who view themselves as Mormon in more marginal ways, so it’s not at all surprising to me that there’s a growing body of art in the same category.

  16. I don’t think it exclusively follows the faultlines of identity, Robert.

    There are plenty of “mainstream” Mormons who actively read Timothy Liu, Evenson, LaBute, etc. and have a broad definition of Mormon art.

    I would imagine that there are plenty who place themselves in the ExMo camp who haven’t read, say Doug Thayer or Alan Rex Mitchell or Margaret Young.

    There are several spectrums here — the first is support of the institutional LDS church; the second is LDS worldview (there are, for example, people who may be in the same place on the prior spectrum, but diverge in the latter on things like evolution); a third would be art form (fiction vs. visual art — I can see there being Mormons who would buy work by Lane Twitchell, but would never own anything by Evenson); a fourth would be popular–elitist; a fifth would be interest in Mormon art/culture as a category; a sixth would be actual market behaviors; a seventh would be participation in various aspects/forums of Mormon cultural production and criticism. I could go on.

    My point is that it’s never quite as simple as we tend to want to make it — and a big part of that is that there really aren’t schools, groups etc. that we cohere around.

    The good news (I think) is that this may just mean that we all have room to meet and engage in discussion, production and consumption of this thing that we tend to call Mormon art or Mormon culture.

    This is not to say that the LDS Church as an institution and/or affiliation doesn’t have an impact on Mormon art — but for whom and in what ways has yet to be satisfactorily outlined, imo.

    I do look forward to Terryl Givens cultural history of Mormonism which may advance our thinking greatly. Or at least, I hope it does.

  17. I should also add that as a broad picture, I agree with what Robert says. I also think his point about the marginal category deserves more discussion.

    For example, there’s marginal and then there’s self-identified Ex-Mo. I think that the marginal (in some senses, but in other senses no) artists that qzed mentions above really aren’t all that marginal to the bulk of the Mormon literary community. They get read, written about, referenced, interviewed. This is, of course, a function of the success that these artists have had in the broader venues of American culture.

    More interesting is someone like CL Hanson who identifies herself with the ExMo blogging community, but is also creating marginal literature that has (I believe) been rejected by the more middle venues (Irreantum, etc.).

    Of course, authors in her situations of all stripes have issues with getting published — the Mormon market for literary fiction just isn’t that robust (and props to her for self-publishing — I do think that that is the future).

  18. We can certainly agree that it’s a complex issue to try to describe and categorize. I’m confident that any generalization about Mormon art (or almost anything else about human beings for that matter) qualifies as an oversimplification.

    I do think that most of the kind of art we’re talking about, by dismissing the heavily sentimental/didactic, is a pretty specialized interest, with a pretty small audience, regardless of religious affiliation or level of belief. Which is to say that few people, as a percentage, read Liu, Evenson, LaBute, Thayer, Mitchell, or Young, or have even heard of them (more people probably know about LaBute’s films, but far fewer probably know that he writes plays). Which is another way of saying, I guess, that I agree with you. There are many ways to slice that pie up, and mainstream Mormon/ex-Mormon is only one, and perhaps not even that significant. I also agree with you that we all have room to meet and discuss and share, which is certainly my interest in spending time here at MSP.

  19. I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the sentimental or didactic. I’ve done a post discussing the work of Jack Weyland, and I wouldn’t have the characters throughout my novel relating their situations to scenes from Saturday’s Warrior if I thought Saturday’s Warrior was an unimportant work. I just would rather not see Mormon art confined to these categories.

    I agree with William that appreciation of Mormon literature doesn’t have to follow the fault lines of identity, or at least it’s not obvious precisely where to draw the line. That’s one reason it’s interesting to get people of opposite camps discussing their ideas about this.

    Regarding getting a couple of pieces rejected by Irreantum, I didn’t get the impression it was a question of ideology, however it’s possible the reception might have been warmer for work of similar quality but with a more faith-affirming theme. But I’ve decided to go with self + online publishing because it’s a fun and familiar way to reach an audience; basically because I can and I’ve found readers this way.

  20. Wouldn’t it be exciting to get all those works into the same forum for audiences to compare?

    For now, it’s an idle dream, at least on my part, but may be we can have a Mormon theater festival some day.

  21. A shout out to William for kindly linking this piece on the sideblog pane of A Motley Vision. AMV is a great forum for discussion of the issues I tried to raise with this post.

    BTW, to answer your parenthetical about my identity (“whoever that is”), my name is Robert Raleigh. I’ve long been interested in Mormon fiction, in particular, and Mormon arts generally. I was the editor of a short fiction anthology published by Signature Books called In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions. It was a really great experience to do that collection and read lots of wonderful Mormon fiction, since I saw many more stories than I was able to fit in the collection.

  22. Thanks, Robert. I’m sorry I was a bit flippant with that. I was in a bit of a silly mood as well as annoyed by the seemingly proliferation of Internet handles being used in the Bloggernacle. I think we’re all a bit more civil (and interesting) when we’re somewhat up front about who we are.

    Of course, I’m a 19th century socialist poet and designer, so who am I to talk?

    BTW, I’ve been thinking that I need to track down that anthology again. I read it several years ago, but there are so few Mormon short story anthologies that if you are looking to get a picture of the short story landscape, it’s difficult unless you own every single issue of Sunstone, Dialogue and Irreantum.

    Any chance you can convince Signature to do another one? :-)

    Finally: My apologies for the use of ExMo in the above comments. I had forgotten that the preferred term is DAMU.

  23. Actually, since it’s been a decade since it was published (can that possibly be true?), I have been thinking that it might be time to do another collection along those lines. I haven’t said anything to Ron or Gary, though, at Signature, so I’m not sure if they have any interest. It does sound like fun, and it would be interesting to re-appraise the state of the art, so to speak.

    In Our Lovely Deseret has, unfortunately, been remaindered, so it has become harder to find a copy. But I’m eternally grateful to both of the people who bought one when it was still in print. :)

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