What are the themes of Mormonism?

About a decade ago I read an essay on the modern artist Wayne Thiebaud which talked about the communal aspects of his work. The essay attributed these aspects of his work to the communal aspects of his youth, from his birth in a Mesa, Arizona LDS community. Of course there are many communal aspects to Mormon culture, and at least some of those are unique to Mormonism. But as I’ve thought and read about Mormon art, I’ve increasingly realized how at odds this view of Thiebaud is with views from within the Church about Mormon art, where Thiebaud’s work is not considered Mormon.

The difference I see comes down to a disagreement about themes in art.

I was reminded of this again after reading a tribute by Nate Oman to his father that he posted to Times and Seasons. Richard Oman was an acquisition curator at the Church Museum, and as the museum got started, Nate reports, they ran into intellectual difficulties:

The first was the ambiguity of the very idea of Mormon art.  Was it simply art that was done by Mormons?  Was it defined by some particular style?  Was it confined to particular mediums?  Ultimately, my father and others working at the museum converged on consensus that stressed content:  Mormon art was art that had an identifiably Mormon content.

Personally, I don’t like excluding art that was done by Mormons simply because you can’t see the Mormonism in the work. I know that I personally do not always see everything that is there in a work of art, and I suspect that many times a culture as a whole doesn’t understand a work of art at a particular point in time. We see this regularly in the art world when works that have been dismissed in the artist’s lifetime later become classics, because the culture has learned to understand them.

But, for the moment, let’s accept this ‘Church Museum of Art’ definition. We still have a problem because the Church museum doesn’t include Thiebaud’s work among Mormon Art, but we have an essay that says the work includes Mormon themes — themes that were apparently clear enough that they were apparent to the non-Mormon author of the essay.

I’ve seen the same differences of viewpoint among critics discussing Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series. Many Mormon commentators have suggested that the books aren’t particularly Mormon (suggesting that these books are considered Mormon simply because they are so popular among some Mormon readers), but some outsiders (often those who don’t like Meyers’ books) claim that the works are very Mormon, and a few even go so far as to suggest that the books are an attempt to convert readers to Mormonism. (I know this view seems silly, but this view is out there.)

Again we have an outsider view of what makes up the Mormon themes in a work that is different from what Mormons would count (or at least a conventional Mormon view of Mormon themes).

Perhaps we can chalk this all up to outsiders’ misconceptions. But at least it points out a weakness with defining Mormon art as art with Mormon themes: its often difficult to say what a Mormon theme is, and not everyone agrees about what is a Mormon theme. The ‘Church Museum of Art’ definition is ambiguous.

It might be simple to write-off this whole question by just saying that this definition is unworkable. But, I do think it is at least widely accepted, and is often useful in many practical situations. Like the definition or not, I don’t think it can be ignored.

It seems to me that instead of dismissing this definition, we might be better off trying to figure out or define what the themes of Mormonism are. Perhaps the essayist who wrote about Thiebaud is right and there is a communal aspect that appears as a theme in Thiebaud’s art. Or perhaps Meyer’s work does contain Mormon themes that conventional Mormons don’t recognize.

With my (admittedly) imperfect knowledge of how to think about art, I find that my view of a work is often changed when a critic or another describing the work presents the work from a different viewpoint or shows the meaning in that art that I missed. I saw something like this in the comments to Laura’s post “A Litmus Test for Mormon Literature?Harlow Clark there defends (successfully, in my opinion) an often misunderstood work of art, showing that art can often be seen from very different viewpoints.

Perhaps this means that when we aren’t happy that a work or an artist has been excluded through the ‘Church Museum of Art’ definition, or feel a work has been unairly maligned, showing another viewpoint, or demonstrating how it can be seen to fit a widely-accepted definition.

I still am not willing to concede that the ‘Church Museum of Art’ definition is what should be used, but I also  recognize that changing that definition may take a major shift mormon culture. So, I’d like to figure out how to bring other works into the definition–by expanding the themes that are recognized as Mormon.

Somehow I wish I had a list of Mormon themes — something that could be expanded and used in the criticism of Mormon art. A few weeks ago, in his post Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism, William listed a few Mormon themes, and in the comments there were a few others.These included agency, progression/stasis, “aesthetics,” ‘wresting civilization from the wilderness’ (which could perhaps be called the ‘pioneer’ theme or aesthetic), continuity between spirit and body and the temporal and the eternal, individual v. the zion community, transformation, mental-physical trial, etc.

Of course, the list of Mormon themes is probably endless to some degree. Perhaps there is a way of organizing or categorizing such a list?

What themes (or categories or structure) should be included in a list of Mormon themes?

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5 thoughts on “What are the themes of Mormonism?”

  1. .

    The Church Museum of Art of course also has an editorial mission which obviously influences their definition. And rightly so. I wouldn’t expect them to purchase works which, to me, seem worthy of the label Mormon Art. Their collection needs to reflect perceived attributes of orthodoxy and to support the mission of the Church, specifically Proclaiming the Gospel and Perfecting the Saints.

  2. Kent,

    You raise good issues with respect to identifying themes in art, literature, etc. Part of the game of criticism is to point out themes and other patterns for which there is evidence, but evidence that isn’t obvious on an initial review. That’s a perfectly legitimate, indeed I think valuable, mode of criticism.

    I suspect that the Church museum’s emphasis, in their definition, is on “identifiable” – that is, something that can been seen and recognized by a member of the Church coming into the museum, or at least that such people can be taught to recognize. Clearly that involves a function that might evolve over time, as critics become better (or change emphasis) in identifying Mormon themes in art. I suspect, though, that the main point was that people coming into a Mormon art museum should be able to see – or understand, after a short explanation – why the piece is there, based on elements that appear within the artwork itself rather than rely on the identity of the artist as Mormon. And that seems legitimate, to me.

    I like the idea of an inclusive definition of Mormon art. But different purposes call for different kinds of definitions. On AML-List, for example, “Mormon literature” was defined as broadly as possible – including anything anyone thought they could tie into Mormon literature, whether written by a Mormon or not. On the other hand, when it comes time for AML to make its annual awards, I think it’s appropriate to draw the lines much more strictly and limit the competition to works of art with a discernibly Mormon content.

    I agree that there will always be disagreement as to what “Mormon content” constitutes. But that very disagreement, it seems to me, provides fruitful ground for the kind of discussions Kent is calling for. Inevitably, it’s often in contesting the boundaries that we come most interestingly to grips with the question of what the territory is and should be.

  3. [W]e have an essay that says the work includes Mormon themes — themes that were apparently clear enough that they were apparent to the non-Mormon author of the essay.

    Did the writer of the essay notice the communal aspects in his work and think “That guy has got to be Mormon,” and then discover he was right? Or did the writer notice the themes, do some digging, and decide that his Mormon roots were at the heart of it?

    I.e., if I encountered a piece of visual art called “The Celestial Kingdom,” I’d be pretty surprised to discover that the artist wasn’t Mormon or didn’t have any ties to the community.

    But if I encountered a piece called “family,” I wouldn’t assume the artist was Mormon, because there are many communities that put an emphasis on family.

    It sounds like the Church Museum of Art is picking pieces more from the “Celestial Kingdom” category and, like Theric, that seems reasonable to me.

    The second category might be summarized as “not ours alone but of special resonance to us” and I agree that it would be interesting to develop a list of those themes.

  4. Katya, who knows. It has been a decade since I read the essay.

    Its really kind of beside the point, anyway. Yes I’m dissatisfied with the Museum definition, but without having some way of listing or identifying what themes are Mormon, or without specific themes to look at that are Mormon but aren’t included in the Museum definition, its not concrete enough to discuss.

    I suppose I could try to pull out this particular essay (I may have it in my files), but even if I find it, I think I would also disagree with the idea that the communal theme was Mormon. IMO, this isn’t a good theme to explore.

    This is why I’d like to see a list of themes. I think it will allow us to discuss the adequacy of the Museum definition, and many issues like it, much easier.

  5. ” . . . some outsiders (often those who don’t like Meyers’ books) claim that the works are very Mormon, and a few even go so far as to suggest that the books are an attempt to convert readers to Mormonism. (I know this view seems silly, but this view is out there.)”

    This is why I wrote a criticism of the “Twilight” critics at my blog. A lot of the themes of “Twilight” as I said:

    “are mostly [similar to other] romances with vampires made for young adults. Arguments with any real merit made against the books can be related to any number of literature from the same traditions. The fact that another writer can issue a lawsuit for what has been described as ‘Mormon’ elements should make critics reconsider their conclusions. Mormonism is either more universal or the books are less Mormon than has been supposed.”

    Despite what one respondent said, this isn’t about polemical LDS reflex paranoia. It is about responsible criticism built on solid foundations rather than stereotype conclusions.

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