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Cheap Thrills – Pop Art and Transcendence

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series

"Cheap Thrills: Pop Art and Transcendence"

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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 judgment is neither truer nor better than another, for all judgments 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 judgments, 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 judgments. (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 judgments 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 endeavor. If popular art trivializes the human condition, sentimentalizes 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.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.