Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. With this series, I’m approaching the same topic from a different angle.




At the turn of the 20th century, artists from a variety of disciplines sought to break free from the grip of Romanticism. They saw that realism was as much of an artificiality as what it was reacting against, and they saw that the original things that Romanticism had reacted against–cold rationalism, industrialization–had only gotten worse. What’s more Darwin and Nietzsche had showed (in very different ways that God really was dead; Freud that everybody was all messed up inside from repressing things (and because of our parents); and popular culture that Romanticism could take on virulent, sentimental, wildly successful, lucrative forms (the penny dreadful/dime novel, light opera, advertising, Beaux-Arts architecture, etc.).

Seeing all this groups of poets, painters, fiction writers, essayists, musicians and architects all cast about trying for something new–something that could express the modern condition. And, specifically, they wanted art that wasn’t tainted so much by nationalism and consumerism and Romanticism. And so we get wild formal experimentation. Taboo breaking. Manifestoes. All that jazz.

Where Romanticism looked to the rural and medieval, modernism looked to the urban and the primitive. Where Romanticism looked to elicit awe and deep feeling, modernism looked to elicit shock and confusion.

There were numerous forms that modernism took across a variety of disciplines: Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Brutalism, lost of other -isms–but they were all attempting the same thing: escape from the modern condition, especially the way in which Romanticism had fused with bourgeois notions of taste and propriety in attempt to paper over the horrors of the industrial age.

Many of the modernist artists were libertine, elitist, sexist, racist jerks. Some of those jerks were also major geniuses who combined craft and experimentation in unique, interesting, challenging ways.

The irony, of course, is that Romanticism (with help from postmodernism) absorbed them and turned them into Romantic heroes. Picasso, Rimbaud, Joyce–they and many others are now the stuff of biopics and museum retrospectives. Their iconoclasm has been gentrified into the broader culture. Not always fully digested–but the undigested lumps (Finnegan’s Wake, for example) can be safely ignored. The modernists have been tamed.

In the latter half of the 20th century, postmodernism reacted against modernism. It was responding to new philosophical movements in linguistics, anthropology, sociology, comparative literature, psychology, philosophy, etc. but also to a post-WWII world (some of those modernists were kinda fascist). Postmodernism distrusted the elitism of the modernists and (depending on your view) was either liberated or thrown into despair by the deconstruction of modernist values and experiments. The author was now dead. Popular culture was now worthy of attention. Culture was relative and situated in particular contexts. The ineffable or transcendent may or may not exist, but whatever the case it was unreachable.

All sorts of ills and attitudes have been ascribed to postmodernism. Most of it is wrong. But that doesn’t really matter. The wrong interpretations simply become part of the main cultural currents. More importantly, the techniques associated with postmodernism-play, collage, pastiche, fragmentation, self-performance, the use of technology, unreliable narration, meta-fiction/commentary, etc.–have not proven so radical that they have been able to resist being absorbed by Romanticism just like the modernists they were reacting against. They have their own undigested lumps (most of which, however, turn back in on their own incomprehensibility), but postmodernism turned out to not really be post anything. It’s all just part of the mix.

More disappointing for many, postmodernism made it all to easy to justify collaboration with the market, whether that is on a highbrow or pop level (or hilo or even middlebrow). The gaping hole created by unfulfillable consumer desire turned out to be hungry for whatever artists tried to feed it with.


Mormon culture as a whole did not embrace either modernism or postmodernism even if individual artists did. Most of the Lost Generation of Mormon writers were at the tail-end of Modernism and participated in that conversation albeit more in the vein of regionalism than high modernist literature. And insofar as some of the techniques and principles of modernism carried into the post-WWII Raymond Carver MFA version of literary fiction, most of our writers of faithful realism reflect that influence. Postmodernism is a bit trickier to track, although also a bit more prevalent simply because more Mormon artists became active during its key decades. If we include those who don’t identify as LDS such as minimalist composer La Monte Young or dark/new weird/postmodern fiction writer Brian Evenson, then there’s quite a bit of representation. When it comes to active LDS, there’s work by Steve Peck and Theric Jepson and maybe a few other writers I’m not remembering. When it comes to other art forms, I’d argue that Jared and Jerusha Hess are genius postmodern filmmakers and also see this Mormon Artist interview with curator Laura Allred Hurtado for an excellent discussion of LDS visual artists who are in dialogue with postmodernism. But on the whole Mormons have a reflexive distrust of postmodernism which was created by the caricature of it presented during the culture wars of the 1980s/90s. And, of course, some of that caricature is true, especially since postmodernism as a theory or cluster of theories was usually quite hamfistedly taught and interpreted and embraced in the U.S. Therefore, Mormons shy away from deconstruction and fragmentation as techniques for art or criticism and dismiss anything that can be labeled as relativism.

I think we should distrust both modernism and postmodernism. Just like we should distrust Romanticism. We should especially distrust the way that modern and postmodern motifs and themes and techniques have been fused with advertising and popular culture and Romanticism to tear away at or tempt away from those identities and practices and relationships that bind us to Christ and the gospel.

I also think that we could learn from both. The energy and innovation of modernism, the grappling with the big issues of the day can be inspiring (even as it can be ponderous and insipid). And I’ve never had a problem with postmodern critique and art that’s done well because in my view it’s tearing away facades and highlighting the artificiality of the world. And some of what it has to say about the slipperiness and impossibility of communication via language seems correct to me. That’s why we need the Holy Ghost. Or to put it another way: I share much of its skepticism of the institutions and discourses and value systems of Western Culture. Of course, I lay that over a metaphysical belief that has many intersection points with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Wester Culture (e.g. the Restored Gospel) and has turned towards other who seek to bolster that tradition (although, remember that Joseph Smith started out critiquing it quite strongly). So I’m not a good postmodernist. Nor do I want to be a good modernist or neo-Romanticist or post-postmodernist or new-sinceretist or whatever.

I want to be an artist of the Restoration.

In the final post in this series I will point towards some vague possibilities of what that might entail.

10 thoughts on “Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM”

  1. .

    This is just a small point you made, but I think in one sentence you’ve captured more about the Hesses’ work than most of the thousands of words others have poured out trying to explain them. And you didn’t really even say anything. It’s remarkable how misunderstood they are.

    I’m curious where you’ll head in the final post. Although you haven’t shut any doors completely, you seem to have close most of them most of the way.

    Sometimes I try to figure out what it is that appeals to me about modernism and postmodernism. With the latter I think it’s the narrowness. With the latter I think it’s the madness. Madness, I think, is underrated.

  2. Thought-provoking as always. I have a sense that in this (necessarily simplified) narrative you’re using Romanticism as a kind of proxy for the dominant, other-objectifying and coopting discourse of our culture, which I don’t think is entirely fair: Romanticism had itself to be coopted before it became the discourse of the middle class. In short, I don’t think Romanticism is the enemy, so much as commercialism. Or complacency. Spiritual sloth. Or whatever other aspect one chooses to emphasize.

    Which is important, I think, because labeling the problem as ongoing Romanticism (i.e., the thing to be resisted) is to put an ideological label and suggest ideological solutions for something that I think transcends ideology. If the purpose of the gospel of Christ is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, then ideologies and artistic approaches represent primarily tools for the Mormon, would-be Zion artist. Means, not an end.

    Which I think is where you wind up as well…

  3. You’re right in the specifics, Jonathan, but there is something about Romanticism that seems to be particularly well-suited to becoming co-opted. So while I don’t blame any single artists or thinker associated with any of the -isms — they all were responding to the post-Enlightenment era of human history — I do think it’s clear that they got some things wrong. As do we all.

    And I do want to put an aesthetically-related ideological label on it because I personally think there’s value in the labeling even though there, of course, numerous socio-economic, political, natural, psychological and other forces that come into play.

    As to shutting all the doors and suggesting ideological solutions: we’ll see. I haven’t quite worked out the final post, although I have a framework for it.

  4. I’m curious as to why you see less impact on Mormonism from postmodernism? It seemed to me that among Mormon thinkers there was a lot who fell under the broad postmodern rubric. It’s just that with the excesses of self-professed postmodernists in literature, anthropology and cultural studies I think many decided to drop the label. I probably self-identified as postmodern in the 90’s by with the aftermath of Sokal and the term’s mangled use I stopped self-identifying. If someone self-identified as postmodern the past 15 years I probably saw it negatively even though overall my views haven’t shifted that much that I can see.

    Anyway, I notice that among apologists there was a strong postmodern surge in the 90’s and then critics used the negative connotation of postmodernism to attack such apologetics (rather than on its own terms). My own view is that the term covers so many disparate contradictory movements and has such a negative connotation due to Sokal and related things that it’s singularly unhelpful. (I’d argue that a lot of terms including feminism and perhaps even romanticism fall into this as well)

  5. A follow-up thought: Harlow Clark, as I recall, makes much of the Restoration as itself a Romantic movement, not only culturally but in its main thrust (if I understand him correctly — always an important caveat with Harlow). Do you think that’s a fair assessment? If so, that might help to account for why efforts to create a Mormon artistic esthetic can’t seem to get beyond Romanticism in some manifestation. If not, then what do you see as the key distinction that makes early Mormon culture Romantic (as you argued in your last post) without the Restoration itself being Romantic?

  6. Clark:

    I’m talking mainly about Mormon culture. Certainly there’s a whole cohort of Mormon thinkers and writers who absorbed postmodernism (including me). The label is probably not entirely useful when applied to individual writers or works, but I think that insofar as it captures a set of cultural conversations and influences, that it’s useful. And, as I state at the outset, I’m speaking in very broad strokes with all of this. Not a good idea if one is trying to do in-depth cultural criticism or legitimate philosophy, but this is more of a polemic.

  7. Jonathan:

    I think that Romanticism (along with American Transcendentalism) is the cultural climate in which the Restoration takes place and so it can’t help but be influenced by it. For me, a key distinction is that the more the Restoration failed, the closer it moved to Romanticism (in its late/neo) form. Separating out what is pure Restoration and what is not is impossible. But the struggle to do so is where, in my opinion, interesting things can happen.

  8. Jonathan, my personal feeling is any big movement fits into many taxonomies. A new movement like Mormonism probably won’t fit into existing categories well. There are romantic elements, existentialist elements, postmodern elements, neoplatonic elements and even Hegelian elements. I don’t think any really explain it that well although they often offer an interesting lens to reinterpret the religion.

    Romanticism is usually brought up because Mormonism was at odds with the rationalism thoroughly affecting mainline Christianity in America in the late 19th century. “Angels in an age of railways?!?” I think though that Mormons play this up too much. There were lots of movements opposed to this. Likewise I think they tend to focus on the late 19th century and ignore the early 19th century when Mormonism had a lot more in common with other movements. Even Evangelicalism can be seen in the same sort of spirit, even if it differs from Mormonism a lot in the details.

    The interesting thing about Mormonism is there are so many strains going on at any one time. So you have during the early “correlation era” not just tensions about transforming Mormonism away from the polygamist and United Order type pioneer world into the more modern world but also tensions about Mormonism’s connection with reason. Thus the Roberts/Widstoe/Talmage vs. JFS etc. debates can also be seen as how to figure out Mormonism’s relation to reason. And it’s not reason vs. romanticism but two competing places of reason & hermeneutics with both acknowledging a romantic element but perhaps downplaying it more than in the past.

    Anyway, I don’t think for the movement you can pin it down in any simple way. There are too many people involved. It’s more helpful looking more narrowly at particular individuals. Even there I think it’s difficult though. (I’m sure others disagree)

  9. William, I think though the broader culture is affected by thinkers and by the cultural currents of the age they live in. We can say (and it’s true) that all the doctrinal and apologetic writing don’t really get to people that well. People tend to have vague notions of their own religion at best and typically reflect the broader national cultural current they live within. Yet I also think we all recognize that how the religion gets framed in media affects how even members think about it. There was and remains a framing of Mormonism that I think is an odd mixture of a view of science as trump and postmodernism with a strong influx (still) of conservative Christian hermeneutics. So we see apologetics tending to try and rethink exegesis in harmony with science as much as possible. (Thus the limited geography of the Book of Mormon which affects the broader culture each yet) Likewise the notion of the open text or underdetermined text from broad postmodernism affects Mormon culture in general as well as how critics approach Mormonism. I think that the move away from “doctrines” that are more open and rest upon perhaps shakier textual grounds fit into this. You don’t see the same sort of discussion of pre mortality today that you did in the 60’s for instance.

    There’s no one move of course. Like I said our group is large and has lots of competing ideas within it. How Pres. Packer views things is likely quite different from say Elder Oaks who has some talks that are extremely in the broad postmodern movement.

    But the culture broadly is conservative in the sense of it changing slowly. So the things that were discussed in the late 80’s are just now starting to appear in say Temple Square displays of Nephites & Lamanites. (Some of the art is an odd mix of traditional Friberg Nephites with Sorenson styled macahuitl held by Lamanites — hopefully we’ll reach the day where both groups looks mesoAmerican with the Nephites not being portrayed as Scandinavians and Nephi and company portrayed as relatively darker skinned Palestinians who were likely closer to what 6th century Jews looked like)

    Regarding Romanticism – while it developed in the broad era of American Transcendentalism I confess I think that doesn’t explain much. At best Transcendentalism was part of a broader American rethinking of religion that Emerson and company partook of. I think the Great Awakening and in particular Cambellism, Evangelical Methodism and Masonry were the more dominant influences. What one calls romanticism is of course a moving target. It’s such a broad label that one can apply it without people being sure of what’s meant. I think Romanticism probably entered in more during the later Utah period. Especially with the influx of British Spiritualism (of which the Godbeit apostasy was a part)

    Part of the problem is that Romanticism, German Idealism etc. are all more formal traditions mainly dealing with the elite educated. While a few Mormons like Orson Pratt were moderately educated (and that’s *very* overstated) by and large the bigger influences were folk traditions.

    Of course come the 20th century that changes a fair bit although the folk traditions still matter a great deal.

  10. An aside: the very fact that it’s hard for modern Mormons to reread Orson F. Whitney’s enthusiastically uncritical embracings of Romanticism without squirming suggests to me that consciously or not, we have in fact embraced some of the post-Romantic criticisms of that position. Or maybe even some of the contemporary criticisms of Romanticism’s excesses.

    Of course, this is assuming that other people do in fact squirm (as I do) when reading Whitney…

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