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.

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