Criticism: What we talk about when we talk about Mormons

Greg Call of Times & Seasons alerted me more than a month ago to an interview that Mormon fiction writer Brian Evenson did with Mormon visual artist Lane Twitchell for the February 2004 edition of the Brooklyn Rail.

So this is way late, but you know, that’s why it’s ‘Criticism’ instead of ‘News.’

A quick primer:

Brian Evenson is known for writing very dark, violent fiction such as Altman’s Tongue and Father of Lies. His relationship with BYU and the LDS Church soured as a result of his work and reactions to it on the part of church leaders and BYU administrators.

Lane Twitchell — actually let me just steal from the Rail:

“Artist Lane Twitchell grew up Mormon in Utah but in the mid-1990s moved to Brooklyn. His work involves an intensive paper folding and paper cutting process, with paint being applied to cut paper; the results are elegant, lacy designs of repeated American, religious, and place-specific icons that are at once ironized and celebrated, and that make gestures toward both high art and popular culture. In his novel Father of Lies, Brian Evenson similarly tried to come to grips with his own Mormon past.”

The interview itself is an interesting exploration of Mormon artists who use Mormon elements in their work, yet gear their work to the world of high art. Evenson does a good job of bringing out the tensions that result.

See for instance this exchange:

“Rail [Evenson]: Glen Nelson recently wrote that admirers of your artwork fell into two distinct groups, one art world, the other Mormon. I wonder how you feel about that. I’ve always felt very schizophrenic in regard to my own split sense of audience.

Twitchell: It is an oversimplification of course but it is true to the degree that Mormons and Mormonism are so self-referential. I have always heard talk in church communities about the world at large, whether it is helping at a local soup kitchen or everyone going to a Broadway play together, but in my experience these gestures remain, for the most part, just that, gestures. So then as a culturally identified Mormon that is only interested in the ‘real art-world’ you find yourself outside the ‘culture’ of your roots, your people.”

I understand this idea. But the result is also unsatisfying on a certain level. The art is always interpreting Mormonism, rather than Mormonism critiquing the elitist forms of art i.e. literary fiction and fine art. That’s almost an inevitable choice for someone who wants to make a living in such fields. It’s the tyranny of modern(ist) art.

Mormonism becomes a cultural resource rather than art an expression of faith (although that in and of itself as a complicated — perhaps impossible — thing, as I’ve mentioned before). Again, the results can be powerful art. But at the same time when ripped from its theological grounding (the validity of and implications of the restoration), Mormonism looses some of it’s sap, it’s vitality.

For example, Evenson writes:

“I also think that finally when I write a story, the story functions on two levels, one of which addresses the larger literary world, the other of which addresses Mormons. My work tends to be much more painful for Mormons to read because they hear the rhythms of Church talks hidden in descriptions of extreme acts or sense the peculiarities of Mormon religious diction creeping in. Non-Mormons feel the same rhythms and peculiarities but don’t sense the cultural baggage behind it.”

Notice that his emphasis is on using rhythms and dictions in the service of his literature of the extreme. Some have argued that Evenson’s work functions as via negativa art (the same thing has been said about filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute). And yet, in the end (and again this may be inevitable) the demands of modern art require that his way remain negative, that there be no hints at an ideology that supersedes that of modernist discourse.

In this regard, I think their final exchange is illuminating:

“Rail [Evenson]: You provide keys for most of your work and I wonder if we can’t in your case think of this notion of a key as something drawing on Mormonism. As a kid, I remember looking at the maps in the back of my scriptures, sorting things out according to the key. And keys (symbolic) and interpretation of course are very important in Mormonism in general: the Urim and Thummim for instance. One thing I like about your keys, though, is that they end up raising as many questions as they resolve, revealing things about the iconography but not making the work of art ‘solvable.’

Twitchell: I’m glad you say that. Over the last couple years I’ve grown very skeptical of the ‘key’ because it was an exterior explanatory device that I was afraid was meant to control the viewer. The funny thing is when I stopped making them people missed having them. I’ve resolved it by making ‘partial keys.’ This of course is exactly what Joseph Smith did. As any theologian will tell you one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths is its incomplete nature. Anyone can fill in the blanks pretty much as they want. People don’t like being left in the dark and they don’t want to be told everything either. People like the mystery of half-knowing-not-knowing.”

Facinating. So this is what artists talk about when they talk about Mormonism.

5 thoughts on “Criticism: What we talk about when we talk about Mormons”

  1. William,
    As you know, I was also fascinated by this discussion. Thanks for adding your observations. Richard Bushman’s article “Colonization of the Mormon Mind” comes to mind a bit here. 

    Posted by Greg

  2. Thanks, Greg.

    And I fully agree with your linking this post to “Colonization of the Mormon Mind” and am disappointed that I din’t think of it first.

    Incidentally, I discuss that Bushman article here.

    A quote that I think applies (and doesn’t apply) to the post above:

    “We are a hybrid (post-colonial?) people, trying to live in the world but not be of it. As much as some of us might wish that that means we walk around in a bubble, unaffected by the cultural forces around us, that’s clearly not the case. A full withdrawal is not an option — it didn’t work the first time. The saints fled west. American cultural forces still caught up with them. I agree with Bushman. We can gain but little freedom from these forces. In the end that doesn’t matter — Christ’s culture will reign. But if we can raise our hybridized, post-colonial voices at this point in our history and at the very least subvert a little, mess with, use and transform pieces of American culture, then let’s do it.”

    I like Twitchell’s work, and I think it’s more difficult to easily do what I’m talking about above in visual art.

    But I’m not a fan of Evenson’s work — it is interesting and he’s a very good writer. It’s just that I think he is thoroughly colonized. 

    Posted by William Morris

  3. ALSO:

    For those who came here via the link on Times & Seasons:

    You may notice that I didn’t fully address the whole issue of these two artists status as members of the LDS Church. Thus the “once Mormons” used in the promo (and I appreciate the promo) may not apply.

    I believe that Evenson addresses his LDS status in his Irreantum interview (Summer 2001), but I don’t have it at hand.


    Posted by William Morris

  4. I wonder if I had Artists like this in mind when I wrote this. (Warning: “fraught” poetry ahead)

    Fascinating post, William.

    “Partial keys.” Honestly. Weren’t either of these guys at church the day the lesson was about constantly seeking light and knowledge so that the gaps in our understanding would be filled by the right things instead of just any old thing?

    Posted by ccwbass

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