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Sentimentality and Increasing Boredom

Kaplan disputes the idea that popular art provides relief from boredom. In one very real sense, it perpetuates it.

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 superficiality and spuriousness 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.

And what happens to a generation fed on worship music that is sentimental? What happens to their ability to feel, or to understand their own feelings? What happens to the understanding of the event of worship, if we teach people to wallow in their own feelings during corporate worship?

***

Which of these helps us to understand and master our feelings? Which might transform our emotions in contemplating Psalm 130? Which reminds us of ourselves, using Psalm 130 as the occasion? Which provides us with a mirror of our own minds, and which causes us to lose ourselves in our feelings?

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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.

10 Responses to Sentimentality and Increasing Boredom

  1. Jesse says:

    It really isn't fair, putting Arvo Part and the Estonian Philharmonic up against Sideshow Bob like this!

  2. Jesse says:

    Thomas Aquinas and Josef Pieper speak of the begetting of the Son out of the contemplation of the Father in beholding His own perfections. Both speak of the intellect as that which beholds a thing and is impregnated by that thing which in turn gives birth to something after that objects own kind.

    My mind immediately went to Tolkien's view of sub-creation, but I think it fits Kaplan's thinking equally well. My view of sanctification is basically an earthbound, finite, "looking through a glass darkly" version of the beatific vision. In that great vision, we will enter into the perfect love of the Trinity and by it be made perfect ourselves. It is the same here on earth as we contemplate God in everything (especially Scripture).

    Contemplating God–being open and naked to His searching eye and letting His perfections impregnate our souls, so to speak, we partake of the divine nature and thus give birth to like perfections in our lives with the likeness that is proper to man.

    Contemplation (reception, as CS Lewis calls it in his Experiment) cannot occur with popular art. We can only use it for the short lived satisfaction (I use that term loosely) of our passions.

    Anyway, this is really putting the nuts and bolts together in my thinking. I appreciate these summaries, David!

  3. David David says:

    Jesse,

    True enough, and hard to find examples of even intermediate stuff, so polarised are we.

    You've hit on something that goes missing in this debate, which Kaplan helps us to see. Debates about pop art circle endlessly around red herrings such as democratization of taste, sophisticated vs. ordinary, contemporary vs. traditional. Kaplan confronts us with the fact that pop art lives and thrives because of an impulse in us: the desire to drool over ourselves, and to avoid hard and vexing scrutiny of reality as God has made it. To meditate, either on God's Word or God's Works, requires a selfless gaze, until we receive the meaning God intended. Popular art won't sustain this kind of scrutiny; serious art cannot be enjoyed any other way. Since God's Word (and World) is serious art, people who are looking for themselves in every aesthetic encounter are hamstrung before they begin, and non-starters as to worship.

  4. Scott Welch says:

    First off, I've really appreciated these posts David. Kaplan's articles introduces a lot of new categories, many of which I'm unfamiliar. However, this post is a little more perplexing.

    Would you mind if I tried to answer your questions?

    Which might transform our emotions in contemplating Psalm 130?

    You seem to be saying that only Part's De Profundis takes us outside of ourselves. But how is that possible if the singing is in Latin?

    Which reminds us of ourselves, using Psalm 130 as the occasion?

    Sovereign Grace's song. It seems to mix Psalm 130 within feelings about myself and the themes seem to go all over the map.

    Last, the guitar solo and 2 voices in the last song seem to trivialize a wonderful psalm of longing.

    I'm struggling to understand all this. It's hard when you've been raised on a life of pop.

  5. David David says:

    Scott,

    Well, join the club. Most of us working on this kind of thing are trying to rehabilitate our deformed sensibilities. And Kaplan is difficult – and yet refreshingly penetrating. He takes us far beyond the 'sensual beat' arguments, and into seeing how bland and narcissistic pop really is.

    You've easily identified the rather banal and trivial interpretations of Psalm 130, so a word about Part.

    Yes, the Latin is a hurdle, but it needn't be an insurmountable obstacle. After my baffled first listening, I found the Latin lyrics, with their English counterparts. I then listened again. This time, I was able to orient myself a little better, and pay attention to the movement and shape of the music itself. New meanings opened up (and did so with later listenings), particularly as Part deals with "O Israel, hope in the LORD; For with the LORD there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption." The shift in emotional timbre here is fitting and yet striking. My own experience was to find Part's interpretation enlarging in my own understanding of the longing for mercy, and the depth of consolation found in deep trust in the Lord.

    I'm not doing the piece justice at all, but my point is more to point out how serious music transcends my own familiar concepts and grows and develops them. I think I can honestly say that Part has helped me grow emotionally, to develop more nuanced ideas of hope, suffering, mercy, and consolation. The other two pieces left me as they found me.

  6. Scott Welch says:

    Is there a membership fee for this club? Or a secret handshake? :)

    Thanks for the response to my moment of mild frustration. It's exhausting to work in a seemingly never-ending uphill battle against sadly natural love of kitsch.

  7. David David says:

    The entrance rite is to sing any Bernard of Clairvaux hymn backwards, including a backmasking message that says "Devil CCM" :)

  8. Martin says:

    I'd say Bob Kauflin's song sounds like a summary of a sermon he may have heard (or given). The part towards the end which is very loud and intense disturbs me when I listen. It sounds aggressive and overpowering but does not express trust in God. Impacting imagery or a concrete example of trust are missing. It certainly does not go beyond the words in the psalm – which would be fair enough if it is meant simply as the biblical words put to song. Yet as such, that challenge is missing and it sounds more like a rallying call than a questioning of how/if we are prepared to trust God when calamity comes.

    For De Profundis, I must agree that the Latin is a problem. The easy solution is, of course, to realize it's simply the Psalm's words. So we're really back to psalm singing. An interesting approach to the text but only as art, not so much as worship. I think Kauflin's song will be used much more often simply because it is not reminiscent of the dark ages. Part's work smells so strongly of Catholicism that it will be almost off limits in any protestant church. Also, given it is rather monotonous I don't find it that impressive either. It becomes more intense towards the end but I would have thought of something more joyful or glorious to express the trust that God will redeem Israel. Maybe I just need more understanding but so far, this one does not leave me changed but rather, wondering…

    Certainly, the third one is a classical mismatch between words and music. The easy-peasy tune trivializes the deep meaning of the psalm and does not allow even to empathize with David as he wrote the original words that are paraphrased here, never mind to sense the agony of such a prayer.

    I tried Luther's original as well, but it is likewise fairly monotonous (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLDeaZG0wCY); I guess he also was a child of his time. His words (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale085-Eng3.htm) are well thought through, though, and teach clearly about salvation through grace. Maybe there is a better attempt to put Psalm 130 to music out there somewhere.

    As to your last question, do you share the concern such singing may lead to a confirmation of our present ways, rather than their challenging and progress towards a deeper understanding of God's ways, and a deeper trust? It reminds me of the statistics that most of our young folks leave church when they get older. I guess singing that we all (are supposed to) trust God is not enough. There have to be some real answers, and they will likely stir the pot. It all seems to project a picture of Christian life consisting of staying with God no-matter-what but without providing any basis for that other than it being the 'right thing' or because God wants us to. 'He is always there' and 'loves us' but once we are tested we don't really have anything to defend those ideas. There are probably better words to express what I mean – I guess failing at the Clairveaux backward singing means my mental capacities are too limited to really understand :-)

  9. Martin says:

    Adding to this, I guess there are two ways to put Scripture to song: leave the text and try to create music that strengthens the meaning of the words, or try to go beyond the original words, i.e. I pick out elements and elaborate on them, apply them, turn them on myself and the congregation.

    The first has not been done well in any of the three in my opinion. The second, neither, and that may be the bigger problem. I think you mean popular music will confirm us where we are. it will make us 'think the right thoughts' but will not challenge the thoughts we have. This psalm could certainly be used to challenge: do we really wait before the Lord as David did? What about the fear he writes about that is linked to God's forgiveness? Lots to ponder but we rarely take the time…

  10. David David says:

    Martin,

    Thanks for your thoughtful criticism. I think the greatest threat to the Western church's worship is the ongoing trivialization of what is profound, transcendent and beautiful through the use of what is overly familiar, stereotyped, and banal.

    Popular music, at least the kind that gets commercial airplay, performs well in it 4':30" radio slots precisely because it is unsurprising, while being amusing. It titillates, tickles, and pleasures, without transforming, challenging, disturbing, or most of all, demanding. Truthfully, its schematized form forbids that kind of development.

    Part is certainly not going to be sung by a congregation any time soon. The disturbing thing is that Watts' version of Psalm 130 is not going to be sung in many congregations any time soon, either. Or worse, that Kauflin represents how many (most?) in the 21st century church comfortably imagine the thoughts and affections of Psalm 130.

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