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?