Cheap Thrills – 3 – Crystallised Prejudices

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.


With these thoughts in mind, consider these three poems, all considering the death of a believer. Read each one (preferably aloud), and then ask these questions, adapted from Professor Spiegelman (in How to Read and Understand Poetry).

1. What do I notice about this poem?
2. Does the poem demand I inspect it? Does it surprise or stretch me?
3. What new words or new images do I see? Does the language delight?
4. Why is the poem this way, and not another?
5. Do any of these poems fit Kaplan’s description of stereotyped fare? If so, how?

(I’ve omitted the authors, in the hope that we might evaluate these poems for what they are. Read ’em before you Google ’em.)

The sweetest blossoms die

The sweetest blossoms die.
And so it was that, going day by day
Unto the church to praise and pray,
And crossing the green churchyard thoughtfully,
I saw how on the graves the flowers
Shed their fresh leaves in showers,
And how their perfume rose up to the sky
Before it passed away.
The youngest blossoms die.

They die, and fall and nourish the rich earth
From which they lately had their birth;
Sweet life, but sweeter death that passeth by
And is as though it had not been:—
All colors turn to green:
The bright hues vanish, and the odours fly,
The grass hath lasting worth.
And youth and beauty die.

So be it, O my God, Thou God of truth:
Better than beauty and than youth
Are Saints and Angels, a glad company;
And Thou, O Lord, our Rest and Ease,
Are better far than these.
Why should we shrink from our full harvest? why
Prefer to glean with Ruth?

As the shadows of the night

As the shadows of the night round are falling,
I am thinking of that day by and by;
When the trumpet of the Lord shall be calling,
As the day breaks o’er the hills.

I’ll go singing, I’ll go shouting on my journey home,
Till the day breaks, till the day breaks;
There’ll be singing, there’ll be shouting, when we all get home,
When the day breaks o’er the hills.

When we gather home at last there’ll be singing,
Such as angels round the throne never heard;
For the song of souls redeemed shall go ringing,
As the day breaks o’er the hills.

I shall rise to be with Jesus forever,
I shall meet the ones who passed on before;
We shall meet to part no more, never, never,
When the day breaks o’er the hills.

Asleep in Jesus

Asleep in Jesus, oh, how sweet
The scene of closing day,
Where holy angels come to greet,
And bear the soul away!

The angels bore our loved one home
In shining garments fair;
And some bright day we hope to come
And join thee over there.

With grace divine and perfect love
Thy pilgrim days were blest,
But sweeter far thy joys above,
And more serene thy rest.

Thy prayers and tears have gone before,
Thy works shall follow on,
And gather gems forevermore,
To glitter in thy crown.

May we who knew and loved thee here
With angels bright ascend,
Thy blessed heav’nly rest to share,
When mortal life shall end.


6 Responses to “Cheap Thrills – 3 – Crystallised Prejudices”

  1. Seth Says:

    Thoughtful reflections on forms, David.

    But what would you say to someone who wants to use the final paragraph to support modern art? Lines like: “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.”

    I could imagine someone answering, “That is exactly why I liked the art display in London a few years back with a door and red paint being shot at it every 10 minutes for several weeks.”

    • drew Says:

      Interesting post. I’m glad you included the poetry along with Spiegelman’s guidelines. I attend a poetry group where we critique each other’s work using a similar set of criteria.

      Ever read The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe?
      It’s a hilarious critique of the intentional obfuscation of modern art from a conservative perspective.
      I love the chapter poking fun at NYC Bohemians “The Apache Dance”. Highly recommended.

      And yet…certain things God commanded Ezekiel and Isaiah to do in their prophetic ministry look an awful lot like modern conceptual art. I need to re-read your post carefully.

  2. David Says:

    Such a man could use the paragraph to justify his taste, but such taste is not justified. That is, a man may use fragments of an argument to point out why he loves garbage dumps and landfills, but this will not persuade us to see garbage dumps as beautiful; it will persuade us to re-evaluate our view of him.

    This is much of Kaplan’s point, and very much Lewis’ in ‘An Experiment in Criticism’. The way certain people read, the way certain people listen to music, the way certain people look at paintings is a very different experience to those who want the full aesthetic experience of John Donne or David or Isaiah, Bach or Bosch. And since the difference lies in what the people actually want out of art, that, in turn, drives the wheel of popular art. You can read serious poetry or literature in that superficial way, but it will be painful and irritating. On the other hand, you can’t read true pop literature or poetry in a serious way, for it won’t withstand the treatment.
    If we desire an aesthetic experience that re-confirms our prejudices, we will tend to produce a certain kind of music, art, poetry and literature.

  3. paul Says:

    Can a hymn be a good hymn suitable for ordinate worship and yet fall short of being good poetry?

  4. David Says:


    Here we’d do well to define ‘good’. That’s really what this series is about. What does ‘good’, or perhaps ‘serious’ art do, that its opposite numbers do not?

    All hymns are poems, but not all poems are hymns. Hymns are a form of poetry, a form designed to be sung, not merely spoken, and that by a congregation. We do not expect a hymn to do what a sonnet or free verse might do. And since the forms are different, it would be unfair to complain that a hymn is inferior to a Shakespearean sonnet or to free verse, from a critical point of view. These forms are different because they aim at different things.

    We would judge a hymn to be good when it achieves lofty thoughts, smooth lines, language that delights, interesting rhymes and natural meter, all the while firing our imaginations. It is good when it can do this within the strictures of its form.
    In this sense, a good hymn, as a form of poetry, must by definition be good poetry. If it fails, then it would not be suitable for worship.

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