Archive for January, 2013

Cheap Thrills – What Popular Art is Not – 2

January 25, 2013

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. We will consider this next.


Topics I’d Like To See At a Conference (But Probably Never Will)

January 22, 2013

1. “Ridding Your Church of Entertainment”
2. “Training Your Future Pastors When They’re Still Children”
3. “Music Education in the Church: A Priority”
4. “Replacing Youth Groups With Effective Discipleship of the Young”
5. “Meaning and Morality – Teaching Christians Discernment for All of Life”
6. “Preaching and Classical Rhetoric”
7. “Thinking Christianly: The Real Objective of a Christian School”
8. “Returning Four-Part Hymn Singing to Your Congregation”
9. “Less is More: Supporting Less Missionaries With More for Sustainable Indigenous Ministry”
10. “Why It Takes Ten Years (Or More) To Get a Church Planted”
11. “Equipping the Saints: The Pastor As Coach, Not Performer”
12. “Architecture and Reverence: Designing Meeting Places Meant for Worship”
13. “Membership and Covenanting: The Lost Art of Mutual Oaths”
14. “Pragmatic Ministry & Why It Doesn’t Work”
15. “Body-Life: Teaching a Church Community to Behave Like One”
16. “Contextualization: An Excuse For Anything-Goes Evangelism?”
17. “The Lost Art of Public Prayers”
18. “Evangelism in an Apostate Culture: Redefining ‘the Lost’”
19. “Table Manners – Approaching the Lord’s Supper As More Than A Tag-On”

Feel free to add to the list.

Cheap Thrills – Pop Art and Transcendence – 1

January 18, 2013

In the land of TolerateAll, the outlaw is the realist critic. Civil order is maintained by quelling all disagreements over beauty with a few simple, and widely accepted, cultural manners. Should someone voice his view that a particular song, poem, book or other work of art is beautiful or ugly, better or worse, useful or useless, he needs to issue at least three disclaimers:

1. The critic must be quick to point out that his criticism is purely his own, and might have no relevance outside his own mind. (We are tempted to ask him why he opened his mouth and voiced his criticism to other humans, if it has no relevance to them, but we politely remain mum on this wrinkle in the logic.)
2. The critic must admit that one subjective judgement is neither truer nor better than another, for all judgements simply represent a person’s preference, or even his psychological state of mind. (We are tempted to ask him if his mother is as ugly as he is, to see if he is willing to practically apply this tolerant acceptance of all personal judgements, but we suspect he is not, and prefer discussions that end without grievous bodily harm).
3. The critic must demurely agree that those who disagree with him “have a point”, and send them away content that they have in no way been wrong in their judgements. (We are tempted to ask if one plus one can equal both two and three, to see if he understands the law of non-contradiction, but we do not. We know he is simply a law-abiding citizen.)

If this simple etiquette is adhered to, then sweet peace and good-natured harmony will prevail in TolerateAll, and the happy citizens will dwell content in the knowledge that truth, goodness and beauty are simply states of mind, except for this truth, which is absolute for all men everywhere.

Here and there, some upstarts have not learned their manners, and think truth, goodness, and beauty can be evaluated and judged, and such judgements can be true. One such upstart was 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 restoring biblical worship. 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.

The worship battle of the day is falsely caricatured as high versus low worship, traditional versus contemporary, or hymns versus choruses. With these categories setting the direction, debate gallops off at a frightening pace, only in completely futile and fruitless directions. The battle of the day is between real art and its opposite. Whether the music or poetry comes from 1613 or 2013, whether it be an iambic hymn or a folksy ballad, whether the songs be short or long, fast or slow, ornate or simple, these are not the true matters of contention. Regardless of age, length, or relative accessibility, the question to ask in evaluating something intended for worship is, is this real art? That is, can it 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?

Kaplan contends that popular art, as he defines it, cannot. If he is correct, then popular art can hardly be an adequate vehicle for worship. The themes considered and pondered in worship are the weightiest and most significant in human experience. We need nothing less than serious and real art for this endeavour. 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.