Popular art is accused of being escapist. Kaplan agrees and disagrees. He argues that popular art seeks to escape the ugliness or troubles of this world, but it does so differently to serious art. Art may give us an idealized depiction of the world, but it seeks to transform the reality of the world. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.
It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.
Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.
Just as in the discussion of sentimentality, the problem may not be too much, but too little. Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.
Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred. It is, as Kaplan puts it, the difference between masturbation and a mature love that reaches outside the self.
Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.
Here are three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Each calls us to escape. Where do we escape to, in each one? Which returns us with a deepened sense of what such anguished grief feels like? Which actually prettifies the pain?