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.