Monthly Archives: July 2016

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.

Why Christians Should Care About Meaning in Art

Christians claim to be concerned with meaning. They debate over the meaning of texts of Scripture, and urge particular hermeneutics, so as to arrive at the correct meaning of Scripture. Many claim to be concerned with the meaning of cultural trends, explaining their ethical significance. Some are fascinated with current events, and are hungry to hear some Christian interpretation of the meaning of these events. Few Christians would openly confess to an indifference to meaning in general.

Enough Evangelical Christians are indifferent to meaning in art, though. Art (meaning music, literature, poetry, film, theatre, architecture, painting, sculpture) is relegated to the category of either decorative entertainment, passive amusement, or the province of those “artsy types” or “Renaissance men”. Having embraced a secular split between objective and subjective knowledge, between science and faith, between matter and morality, art doesn’t feature much in their idea of how truth is communicated. I think this is fatal blind spot. I suggest five reasons why Christians should care about the meaning of art, and I doubt any of these reasons is dispensable.

  1. Art is necessary for worship. We are commanded to worship, and to do so using “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” At the very least, Christians have to employ two of the arts: poetry and music. To be ignorant of the meaning of these things is the equivalent of singing in a foreign language. Unless you understand how these media communicate, you are going to miss much of what they communicate.
  2. Art shapes and reflects entire worldviews. Take these quotes, culled from Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo:

    “Art tries, literally, to picture the things which philosophy tries to put into carefully thought-out words.” —Hans Rookmaaker

    “Through art we can know another’s view of the universe.” —Marcel Proust

    “Through modern art, our time reveals itself to itself” – William Barrett

If you want to know how your neighbour perceives reality, look at his DVD collection, his iTunes favourites, or his bookshelf. If you want to know why your neighbour thinks the world is the way he thinks it is, find out what books, songs, magazines, TV shows, YouTube channels, and radio stations are his regular companions. Much art is nothing more than passive time-wasting with an amusing spectacle. But much of it communicates ideas about God, humanity, evil, good, beauty, truth, morality, and salvation. And art persuades at the imaginative and affective level, which is far more immediate and permanent than persuasion on the cognitive and abstract level.

3. Art shapes moral judgement. Art persuades towards a system of good and evil. It does this not only explicitly, but implicitly. Explicitly, when the hero of the movie is living with his ‘partner’, fornication is celebrated. Implicitly, when the music is simplistic and predictable, we grow in a narcissistic love of what effortlessly amuses us. Both the form and content of art mean something, and those meanings are shaping what we love and hate, what we endorse or repudiate, what we permit and what we forbid.

4. Art shapes imaginative perception. The imagination understands the world by comparing, contrasting or otherwise analogizing the sensory experience that comes to it. Analogy and abstraction is the stock-in-trade of the arts. The various elements in art combine to abstract some idea, and then provide an analogy. The music, the painting, the poem, or the story uses its various elements to take some idea from reality, and say, “This is like that.” Whether the art is very abstract (such as music), or very concrete (such as film), it still calls for imaginative perception. And since Christians believe that ultimate reality contains transcendent realities such as truth, goodness, and beauty which cannot be perceived by the senses but must be understood by the imagination, we can say that imaginative perception is the most important kind. Bad art is bad not only when its content is untrue or immoral, but when its form weakens, corrupts or destroys the best kind of imaginative perception. It forms cataracts over the eyes of the heart.

5. Art is the form in which Scripture has come to us. The Bible is a work of art: its form is artistic (narrative, poetic, apocalyptic, parabolic) and its content is artistic – its abundant use of imagery. If we become urban blockheads and trousered apes when it comes to art, we will fail to do justice the very meaning of Scripture.

I doubt then, that we who wish to know the Truth can afford to dismiss art. The pagan Cicero saw more clearly than some Evangelicals when he said that art is “a copy of life, a mirror of custom, a reflection of truth.”

Naming the Trinity

I have felt for some time that a recovery of ordinate worship and beauty in Christianity lies partly in a robust Trinitarianism. I agree with Chesterton’s remark on the lovelessness that must exist in the monadic religion of Islam:

“THERE is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king…If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)—to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.”

Before the recent kerfuffle over eternal subordinationism broke out, I dipped into some potpourri theology, one of the many many-views books, this time, Two Views on the Trinity (classical vs. social, for those keeping score). Stephen Holmes was particularly enlightening. (I think many Christians are functionally tritheists in their conception of the Godhead – we can be grateful that our faith is God-given and better than our reason.)

But perhaps the best find in that book was a line written in passing by the editor, James Sexton, in his conclusion. He wrote, “One recent effort, perhaps the most serious and game-changing proposal on the table, has been set forth by R. Kendall Soulen, and is rapidly working its way through the trinitarian consciousness of contemporary theologians.” Skeptical but curious, I found and worked my way through Soulen’s The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices.

I was not disappointed. Soulen writes readable prose. His approach is not one of invention, but of discovery. He suggests that Scripture names God in three ways: a theological way, a christological way, and a pneumatological way. Each of these ways, Soulen suggests, corresponds to something in each of the three persons: the Father’s declaration and setting forth of the Triune God’s uniqueness, the Son’s incarnating God’s glory through His presence, and the Spirit’s enlargement and blessing of God’s glory. Each of these ways is “a most appropriate way” of naming God, showing equal ultimacy in oneness and threeness.

Soulen is no innovator. He finds this pattern of naming in the Nicene Creed itself, and demonstrates its wax and wane in various eras of church history. He demonstrates the thesis in Old and New Testaments. His reference to how the name of God was written by scribes, even in New Testament manuscripts, was new to me, and demonstrated a thread in the Christian tradition of which I was unaware.

Some of the exegesis is forced or contrived, but much of it is not. He seems far too tolerant of some feminist theology, though that is not his primary concern in the book. Volume Two of this series will show whether his thoughts lead to heterodoxy or clarify orthodoxy.

Soulen’s book is not a ‘way out’ of discussions of homoousious and hypostases. We should not seek that. What it does is suggest a biblical pattern that has always been in the text, one which can assist us in how we think and speak of the Triune God.