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.