Cheap Thrills (6) – Leaving Us As It Found Us

All art is ‘escapist’. That is, all art enables a temporary escape from reality. Serious art is different to popular art in how it enables this escape, and for what reason. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.

It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.

Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.

Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.

Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred.

Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.

***
Consider how these paintings portray the idea of the Cross. What kind of escape does each provide? What kind of world is portrayed in each? Which transforms us and which reflects us? Once we return, how are we changed by each?

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carrying-the-cross

Cheap Thrills (5) – Emotions Wild and Weak

Ours is a culture of boredom. With a growing number of amusement devices, apps and entertainment choices, we would expect boredom to have been completely eradicated. Unexpectedly, people are more bored than ever. This is because the kind of ‘art’ now consumed by most does little to truly entertain (that is, to enter the mind of another artist). It entertains only in the sense that it passes time, while giving the illusion of true entertainment.

The key difference between serious or useful art and popular art is that popular art provides an emotional experience without perspective. The consumer feels, but he feels without understanding. He has little perspective on his feelings, he merely wallows in them. Serious art deepens feeling, giving it content and meaning, providing a mirror of the mind to us. Our own emotions become meaningful, as we see their details, and in their interconnections that give them meaning.

Serious art has this depth, while popular art is correspondingly shallow. It leaves our feelings just as it finds them, formless and immature. It evokes them so quickly as to have no root in themselves. “They are so lightly triggered that there is no chance to build up a significant emotional discharge.”
This weak but wild approach to emotion is sentimentality. This is what Kaplan says is most distinctive of popular art. Sentimentality has a deficiency of feeling, words without weight, promises without fulfilment. Paradoxically, sentimentality is also excessive, abandoning emotional restraint. Nothing wrong with being deeply affected, but sentimentalism has this excess without a perception of meaning. Kaplan says, “ Sensibility becomes sentimental when there is some disproportion between the response and its object, when the response is indiscriminate and uncontrolled…Sentimentality is loving something more than God does.”

It is sentimental not because it calls for intense feeling, but because it calls for more than the artist or the audience can understand or apply significantly to the object. There is simply not enough to be understood, and this vacuity of meaning is intentional. The tear-jerker elicits tears, but why we weep is outside the occasion and beyond our perception.

Sentimentality moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The focus remains my feelings, feelings about me. While real art calls us to empathise and give ourselves to the aesthetic experience, it rewards us by transforming us. Popular art takes us as we are and leaves us the same, with the illusion of having been deeply affected. In truth, we have felt deeply, but only in orbit around ourselves, drawing out of what we already know and love. It is as if we are enjoying a filmed performance of ourselves, using the bare schemas and prototypes of pop art to provide the skeleton or scaffolding on which to place the body of Self.
Pop art’s self-centeredness hollows and flattens us, emptying us of perspective on our own feelings. In essence, in becoming emptier people, we are becoming more bored, through the medium which was supposed to alleviate our boredom. We are drinking seawater.

***

Consider these three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Which of these helps us to understand and master our feelings – particularly the feeling of grief? Which might transform our emotions? Which provides us with a mirror of our own minds, and which causes us to lose ourselves in our feelings?

Gabriel’s Theodicy

He was to us bright, so without shadow.
And our praise was plain, in those pristine days:
(Strong without rival; Pure without evil!)
Yes, plain: until the covering cherub’s fall.
As lightning, at once we saw Him anew.

Cheap Thrills (4) – Merely Nostalgic

What if the culture we seek to reach has become dominated by amusement? This was Neil Postman’s argument about Western culture by the 1980s in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. When Postman and Kaplan speak of amusement, it is not the kind of recreation or avocation that involves some kind of play, exercise, creation, or the entertainment of beautiful thoughts.

Popular art is bad in that it amuses through mere reinforcement. Popular art entertains by trading in familiarity, and by trafficking in familiar emotion. Popular art does not need to be excellent in itself, it simply needs to be effective in bringing certain feelings to mind, evoking past satisfactions, producing nostalgia, and in providing occasions for reliving experiences. In other words, the emotions we feel with popular art are not expressed by the particular song, painting or poem, they are merely associated with them. In popular art, we lose ourselves, not in the work itself, but in pools of memory.

Popular art does this by using forms so stereotyped, so instantly recognizable as to require no engagement with itself. The form is so schematized as to be the equivalent of cue cards for a public speaker. The form does not have substance enough to broaden our feelings. Kaplan says, “Popular art wallows in emotion while art transcends it, giving us understanding and thereby mastery of our feelings.” Popular art is, once again, narcissistic, making our own feelings the subject matter, and indeed the goal of the aesthetic experience. We are not drawn out of ourselves, but driven deeper into loneliness.

We love what we know, therefore we love what is familiar. Popular art is always familiar, always reminds us of what we already know, and is therefore deeply attractive to the laziest parts of our souls.

What happens to a people who are used to their music evoking nostalgia, when they come to sing and make music before God? What might happen in Christian worship, if the Christians have been trained by their culture to seek what is familiar when music plays? Can worship transform the worshipper, if its forms trade in nostalgia and the familiar?

 

***

Consider these three hymns. Which of these trades in nostalgia, pools of memory, or mere association? Which is nothing more than a cue to wallow in feelings we think we ought to have?
Which calls us to investigate the poetry for itself – for its images, descriptions, language, rhymes, meter, tone? Which trades in clichés that are mere symbols for familiar responses? Which affects us but gives us mastery of our feelings? Which leaves our feelings unchanged, merely invoking what we already feel (or think we ought to feel) about the supposed subject matter?

‘Tis the Christ
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
’Tis the long expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
Proofs I see sufficient of it:
’Tis a true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress:
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.

The Old Rugged Cross
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
Refrain:
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Cheap Thrills (3) – Recognising Versus Perceiving

A culture creates art that reflects its vision of reality. If the culture values sober perception of ultimate reality, it will produce art that calls for such. If a culture values a self-indulgent celebration of what is familiar, it will create art that caters to such.

Kaplan argues that popular art is formless. It does not possess form in the truest sense. Form in good art, is precisely what invites true participation, creative perception, and diligent interpretation. Good form places demands on us. Its form even arouses a certain amount of fear and tension: we must embrace ambiguity and plunge in, exposing ourselves to the possibility of change. We will emerge from an encounter with good art somewhat changed, our views adjusted, our understanding broadened, our desires shaped.

Kaplan argues that this is precisely the encounter that we want to avoid, and which popular art caters to. Instead of perception, there is mere recognition. Discrimination is cut off, as we instantly recognise the stereotype. Since we instantly recognise the materials, they are only instrumental, and without inherent value. They merely remind us of what we already know. They are cues to feel what we know we are supposed to feel. The background music in the movie uses melodious strings to signal to us that love is being born, a very different experience to experiencing a serious composer like Prokofiev. The popular art consumer shrinks from the challenge, even perceiving such a thing as a threat to be opposed.

In short, popular art is simple basically in the sense of easy. We cannot look to it for a fresh vision, or turn to it for new directions, or find unexplored meanings.

The question we should be asking by now is, which culture does popular art emerge from, and foster? Is it a Christian culture? Will Christian culture be shaped using its forms? What happens when Christianity co-opts these forms in the name of worship?

Exercise:

Which of these paintings refuses a casual or superficial inspection? Which encourage such a use? How do they do that?

Which stimulates a mere recognition, and which calls for active perception? What is it about the form of the paintings that achieves this?

The Prodigal<br /> Son by Harold Copping

Some Offline Questions Answered Online

Some questions by email, which I thought helpful for all in the class:

What is popular art?

Popular art is the kind of art that has steadily supplanted both high art and folk art as mass culture began in the 1830s. The first mass media (newspaper) began turning art into a product, aiming to sell as many papers to as many people. As technologies allowed for mass distribution (the steam-powered printing press, followed by the radio, and then the television) media became commercialised and the art which it sold (for advertising money) increasingly commodified. Mass media also began collapsing the boundaries between folk cultures. What began driving art was no longer a vision of shared reality found within a local culture, but a product which would appeal to as many people as possible. That required that the art not only steadily stoop  toward the basest appetites that people wish to satisfy, it also changed the form. Art changed from being something which men must receive through contemplation, into a product which people use, with as little contemplation as possible. This affected music, literature, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and especially theatre. Folk art is mostly dead; the remnant that remain have already been commercialised. High art still exists, but it has travelled a lonely road in pop culture, and all too often either tries to get some pop publicity, or plays the martyr-for-art card, with its nose in the air.

Why did the connotation of exclusivity or elitism become attached to fine art?

High culture and fine art is meant to be the best that has been thought and said. This does require years of training. That, in turn, usually requires enough time and money to fund either the training or the leisure to learn and contemplate it. We would then expect high art to be cultivated where there is cultural stability, a certain amount of wealth, and an accumulation of centuries of learning. The fact that high art thrives among the learned and educated should not lead us to equate it with pride and snobbery. Pride may certainly accompany high culture, but pride is just as rank (if not worse) in those who scorn high art as elitist, and pat themselves on the back for being so humble.

Indeed, before the advent of popular culture, the working-class masses enjoyed folk cultures that learnt from the high culture. Don’t think only of Europe. Think: the high culture of the Temple Levites and Isaiah, trickling down to the folk culture of the villages in Judah.

How does one’s own culture influence which art you are drawn to? What should we say about the art of the pagan Egyptians and Chinese?

Our cultures shape our loves and tastes in ways we are hardly aware of. Having said that, mass culture is really a non-culture, an anti-culture that does not unite around a metaphysical dream, it simply reinforces thousands of competing prejudices, assumptions and cliches. Mass culture no longer favours European culture, it simply commodifies any and every form that will reinforce the prejudices of its market, and thereby sell.

The art of ancient folk cultures demonstrates the imago Dei (image of God) in all men. Human beings are worshippers and sub-creators. As soon as men gather, they worship, and when they worship, they use art. Art (from the word artisan) is the crafting and shaping of material in creation (sound, words, paint, stone) to portray ideas. Man makes things, and once he has made what he needs for survival, he turns to making those things that give meaning to his existence – explaining reality, picturing the afterlife, explaining moral ideas, describing truth, goodness, and beauty. We can expect that all cultures, pagan included, will make art that retains some beauty, and contains some truth mixed in with error – since humans are idolaters. Christopher Dawson in his book Religion and Culture shows how almost every religion on Earth has had some form of prophet, law, priest, and king.

Ours is really the first culture where art is used not worship an explicit deity, but a product which we use to narcissistically serve ourselves. Since our non-culture is really about loving ourselves and affirming ourselves, our art has become a hall of mirrors, an echo chamber, a place of amusement and titillation.

Do the rich not in the end decide the direction of art, since they fund the artists? 

All art requires patronage. If it is to retain its integrity, it cannot be a product looking for mass appeal. Artists used to have wealthy patrons. For centuries, the Church sponsored high art.

It would be more true to say that the market determines the direction of popular art. As to good art, it is still up to those with means (great or small) to support what is worthy. If Christians were serious about this, they could commission hymn writers, support the better artists, and promote the best within their churches.

From the artist’s side, it is simply a matter of integrity.  Just as the pulpit need not be subverted by financial support, nor should the composing sheet, the canvas, the manuscript. The artist who will make what is false for financial gain is in the same category as the preacher who will avoid the topics that will offend the biggest givers in the church.

Cheap Thrills (2) – Mass Culture and Mass Art

If a culture is best represented in its art, what culture is represented by the popular arts? Ken Myers wrote: “Early mass culture was secularized from the very beginning. Since it catered to an audience that was not homogeneous in religious conviction, it tended to avoid any reference to religion except in the vaguest, blandest manner. Folk culture, on the other hand, is tied to a particular people, with traditions that include religious convictions; so it almost always has some religious connection, either in subject matter…, or by virtue of where the culture was shared…, or both.  (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, 68].

In his article, Abraham Kaplan begins by defining what he means by the popular arts. In his definition, popular arts does not refer to:
1) Pop art, the dadaistic art movement that emerged in the 1950s.
2) Bad art. A work of art might fail in what it attempts to do, it might not succeed in what it attempts to do, rendering it bad. By itself, this does not make it popular art. While popular art may be bad art, bad art is not necessarily popular art.
3) Minor art. Minor art can be excellent art that is excellent after its own kind, even if it fails to reach the greatness and aesthetic depth of other works. It may be more popular than works of greater value or depth, but this does not make it popular art, by itself. Kaplan compares The Hound of the Baskervilles to Crime and Punishment as an example.
4) Folk art. Though often and sometimes easily confused, folk art is produced unselfconsciously, and perhaps anonymously, by a people group. The work is not always produced in an aesthetic context, but often grows out of the culture of that group. Kaplan regards Song of Songs, Gothic cathedrals and Byzantine icons as examples of folk art.
The popular arts are much more like mass art, what is mass-produced and received by vast numbers of people. Even here, Kaplan offers qualifications, pointing out that there is no fixed a priori relation between quantity and quality. Indeed, Kaplan does not fully agree with the thesis that the popular arts represent what democratization, technology, and capitalism does to the arts: commodifies it, appeals to the lowest common denominator, and then sells it to as many people as possible. He agrees that a good case can be made for this, but feels that the theory does not explain what the popular taste is, albeit supplied by democratization, mass-media technology and capitalism.

Kaplan’s thesis is that popular art is not the degradation of taste, but its immaturity. Something peculiar to the experience of the popular arts is the key to recognising it.

 

   ***

The popular arts are often criticized by aesthetes for their form, or perhaps formlessness. Kaplan responds to this by directing us once again to how people use the popular arts, much like Lewis does in An Experiment in Criticism.
Kaplan points out that the problem with the popular arts is not merely its standardised, simplified form. Good art can be simple, eliminating unnecessary complexity. Likewise, standardisation must be distinguished from stylisations that unite works from particular cultures, periods, schools or even individual artists. Marked resemblances do not imply a bad standardization.

Kaplan points us to the problem, and it lies within us. Popular art is not simply a recurrence of form, but in a deficiency in the first occurrence. The forms are stereotyped, not merely standardized.

What is a stereotype? It is when we are given not a true form, but merely a blueprint, an index, a digest. Since the consumer of popular art wants recognizable fare, popular art omits whatever is outside the limited horizon of what we know already. It reduces what actually is into what we would pre-judge it to be. It crystallizes our prejudices: reducing life not into a reflection of what is, but what we already believe it to be. All else is an unnecessary complication, only the dominant elements necessary to reinforce the recognizable stereotype are emphasized.

Kaplan also points out that in popular art, this schematisation means that it is essentially lacks form. Not that it is literally formless, but that its hollow schematised nature makes it a form with nothing to apply to: like a newspaper made up entirely of headlines. Popular art is pre-digested: whatever work needs to be done has already been done beforehand. The consumer of popular art has no demands placed on him. He looks only for outcomes, but is impatient with development or unfolding. He is tracing mere shapes, apprehending the work in a second-hand sense, but he is not receiving the work for itself, giving himself to understand and embrace for what it is. He is looking for what he expects to already be there. Popular art appeals to something in us. We’d do well to think what it might be.

Cheap Thrills 1 – Art Reveals Worship

To understand why people think about reality the way they do, you have to understand their unconscious idea of reality, their vision of ultimate things, what Weaver called their metaphysical dream. To understand their metaphysical dream, you have to understand the culture that shaped that dream. And to understand that culture, you have to understand its worship and art.

A culture takes shape around religious ideas. In fact, it is a religion externalised. A religion is best understood by its worship, and by the instrument that all worship uses: art. In a culture’s worship and art, you will see its view of reality most clearly.

Therefore, one of the most important things Christians can do is understand the meaning of the art that the cultures around them are producing. And since we are living in a mass culture, an anti-culture that peddles the eclectic and contradictory ideas of secularism, it’s important for Christians to understand the worship of secular culture. Popular art, as distinguished from high art and folk art, is actually the tool, the craft, by which secularism shapes the loves and attitudes of its people.

Abraham Kaplan, former professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. Kaplan’s article, The Aesthetics of the Popular Arts, should be read by every Christian leader and Christian serious about understanding culture, evangelising one’s neighbour or worshipping seriously. Kaplan’s article considers the popular arts from the perspective of form, evoked emotion, and effect. Kaplan gives compelling reasons for seeing pop music (or painting, verse, film, literature) as immature, stereotyped, and sentimental.

In studying popular art, we are really comparing worship. We are asking whether the tools of secularism’s religion sustain the weight of contemplating the transcendent? Can it do justice to the depth of the tragedy of human experience, or open up vistas of thought beyond a man’s nursed prejudices? Can it provide finely nuanced expressions of human affections, honing and shaping those of the receptive? Can it take a man out of his narcissism, and confront him with reality as it is, or as it might be? If it cannot, then you have discovered something about the metaphysical dream of secularism.

Kaplan contends that popular art, as he defines it, cannot. If he is correct, then popular art can hardly be an adequate vehicle for Christian worship or ideas, though it may certainly fit those of another religion. If popular art trivialises the human condition, sentimentalises our own experiences, and turns profound truths into mind-numbing clichés , then popular art must be the enemy of serious worship. In this series, we will examine some of Kaplan’s thoughts, with some examples to consider.

For starters, consider these two very different imaginings of death. What do they suggest about death? What are the differences in ideas? How are these differences made clear through the music itself?

 

Apologetics Narrow and Broad

Christian apologetics seems to suffer from an identity crisis. For some , it is a catalogue of evidences (historical and scientific) for the validity of the Christian faith. For others, it is the Christian faith clothed in the austere and pure garb of reason and logic. For yet others, it is biblicism with a philosophical twist.

It may be this confused identity and purpose that earns it its scorn among some: pseudo-science, a concession to rationalism, philosophy trumping Scripture, circular argumentation, and so forth. But its enemies may be as numerous as its fans, so apologetics is here to stay.

Should we see apologetics as defending the faithPhilosophical theology? Worldview critique? Much of the problem begins with the term, apologetics, derived from apologia (“defense”-1 Peter 3:15.) Christianity needs to be defended about as much as a lion needs defending. You don’t defend a lion, you set it free. But since we are stuck with the term, we should probably think of apologetics both narrowly and broadly defined.

Narrowly defined, apologetics is vindicating the faith of a Christian: what a Christian believes, the significance of those beliefs, and the faith and reason that led the Christian to regard those beliefs as true. This corresponds to 1 Peter 3:15 – a Christian explaining to an unbeliever why he is a Christian. It is giving an account for one’s faith, and the meaning of that faith, whether or not it persuades the unbeliever. In short, it is setting forth the Christian interpretation of Reality to one who asks.

What some mean by apologetics is something broader than vindicating one’s faith to oneself and others. They mean something like, “Persuading unbelievers that Christianity is plausible, and offering it as the Truth to be embraced.” This definition encompasses much more than explaining to the curious why you are a believer. Leaving aside the fact that darkened hearts suppress truth and will not find the faith plausible until enlightened, persuasion of this sort will involve several very different, but related actions:

  1. Setting forth Christian ideas, wisdom, and beauty through ordinate worship, serious art, and the well-lived vocations of Christians. Providing a compelling incarnation of the Christian imagination and providing the transcendent, Christian alternative to the spirit of the age.
  2. Vindicating the faith held by Christians by both cogent explanation and winsome living.
  3. Demonstrating that the beliefs and worldview of the unbeliever are incoherent and contradictory, and fail by their own standards. Demolishing his plausible idols.
  4. Teaching the gospel, and showing that God’s Son alone is the prophet, priest, and king that man needs.

Each of these is contingent on the Holy Spirit’s working in the human heart. I would add though, that I think all four are essential, and if one is missing, Christianity fails to persuade. And it’s my contention that the first action on that list is last, or non-existent for most churches today.