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Escape To Never Never Land

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?

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Towards Conservative Christianity.

One Response to Escape To Never Never Land

  1. Martin says:

    Thanks for this one, David. Although I'm risking to get off on the wrong foot again as on a previous post, here's my initial attempt, starting with the last:

    3) Whitacre, to me, seems minimalistic. He appears to concentrate just on one moment, stretching it in time and trying to musically describe the grief that struck David at realizing his son was dead. Artistically interesting but I find it more like an experiment in sound than a great combination of lyrics and music. It definitely makes us feel something and together with the lyrics, the connection with the death of a child is there. But where we get lost, I thought, is in the polyphony. We escape into art itself, enjoying the soundscape and being carried away with it, but in that process I think the focus on what happened to David gets lost somehow. The art is not subservient to the message but the message becomes an excuse for sojourning in an artistic dreamworld.

    2) The soundtrack is the winner to me, in the sense that it strongly communicates the grief. I also liked the thought process where David is thinking back of the moment when the split between him and his son happened, wondering whether he could have averted this outcome. It is a soul-searching process that does not leave the audience untouched. Clearly, it is much more detailed than the other two and thus also can be more realistic (or more easily so). I find the acting/singing well enough done to convince the hearer of the feeling of grief and self-examination. I'm not sure it lets us escape (unless, as you wrote, maybe into reality); rather, it seems to capture one and draws us into David's thought process.

    1) The Good Players are not as reductionist as Whitacre but certainly less detailed than the soundtrack. It switches between two sections that do not go beyond the biblical text. They fail to convey more than what the verses say, and actually diminish the agony David must have felt by adding the dominant beat and casual melody (though the abrupt change between the two parts helps a little with that but when returning to 'normal', the audience is quickly consoled from any feeling of empathy; any sense of being disturbed is not further developed but rather, relieved). Since it is so limited it does not challenge. It only repeats what we already know but does not pull us into it. There is little interaction with the hearer, only that the piece sounds a bit like the Beatles (maybe) and somewhat mysterious, which may make it different from most of the pop art out there. Again, the piece suggests to me that there is more emphasis on writing some music and taking this passage as a pretext, rather than delving deeply into the implications of David's loss and trying to challenge the hearer to interact with this story.

    That's what comes to mind. I feel like at school again but probably that's exactly what is needed. From past discussions it seems crucial to hear others on this, as they may dig up details another did not think of or could not see because of some bias. We need to go beyond saying a piece is lesser art just because it is short or simple; many psalms are short or simple. There needs to be something else, and I hope we all got closer to understanding what that is through this series of posts. Thanks again David.

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