As Kaplan concludes, he considers the social functions of popular art. He sees its appeal in finding a common denominator among people. It is popular because it appeals to almost universal tastes. As to its function, popular art is no longer associated with serious cultural concerns, such as religion, love, war and politics, and the struggle for subsistence. Instead it has become, in Dewey’s words, “the beauty-parlor of civilization.” In other words, popular art is where we go to indulge our love of self, to enjoy ourselves, to escape into worlds of our own making.
Kaplan does not feel particularly alarmed by the rise of popular arts, seeing a limited place for it. He ends by saying, “If popular art gives us pleasant dreams, we can only be grateful-when we have wakened.” In other words, popular art is no more real (or significant) than our own night-dreams, but if they are pleasurable, who’s to complain? As long as we wake up, Kaplan seems to urge. A life lived in dream-state is pitiable and sad.
Of course, Kaplan is arguing as an aesthetician, and not as a Christian defending worship. While Kaplan is enormously helpful in identifying the nature of popular art, he cannot help us determine its appropriateness for worship. Here we must take his descriptions of popular art, and then compare it with our mandate for worship. To summarize Kaplan’s argument, popular art
* schematizes and reduces art into an easily recognizable stereotype. Whether musical, poetical, literary or visual, the art is pre-digested so that its consumers instantly recognize the stereotype and fill in the outline with their own feelings.
* replaces perception with mere recognition. Popular art is essentially formless, it is simple in the sense that it is easy. It reminds us of what we know, it prompts us to feel what we already feel. Our familiar feelings are simply reinforced. Through its stereotypes, we associate certain feelings with the work, while not being transformed in our own emotions.
* 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 result is wallowing in our own feelings: feeling, without understanding of our feelings. This is sentimentalism.
* creates an escape into childish versions of reality which exist nowhere, and which return us to reality unchanged.
In essence, popular art represents childish and immature taste. It appeals to narcissism and infantile self-obsession. It flatters an impulse in every human.
Here we would do well to ask ourselves several questions about worship:
1) Should worship transform the worshiper? If so, how does this occur?
2) Is worship a response to revelation, or a record of my experience?
3) How is a worshiper’s experience of God to be related to worshiping God?
4) Should a worshiper be aware of his feelings while worshiping, or does this detract from the authenticity of worship? If this awareness is needful, describe what this awareness is like.
5) How should the imagination be used in worship?
Once we’ve answered the questions regarding what kind of event worship is, and once we’ve considered how an artist has used his materials, we’re in a position to evaluate if it is appropriate in the life of a Christian. If popular art really is an exercise in narcissism, sentimentalism, and escapism, and if it dulls and flattens us, it is hard to see how much of this can be healthy for the life of a worshiping Christian.
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.