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Mere Recognition

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series

"Cheap Thrills: Pop Art and Transcendence"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Kaplan argues that popular art is formless. It does not possess form in the truest sense. Form in good art, is precisely what invites true participation, creative perception, and diligent interpretation. Good form places demands on us. Its form even arouses a certain amount of fear and tension: we must embrace ambiguity and plunge in, exposing ourselves to the possibility of change. We will emerge from an encounter with good art somewhat changed, our views adjusted, our understanding broadened, our desires shaped.

Kaplan argues that this is precisely the encounter that we want to avoid, and which popular art caters to.

Instead of perception, there is mere recognition. Discrimination is cut off, as we instantly recognise the stereotype. Since we instantly recognise the materials, they are only instrumental, and without inherent value. They merely remind us of what we already know. They are cues to feel what we know we are supposed to feel. The background music in the movie uses melodious strings to signal to us that love is being born, a very different experience to experiencing a serious composer like Prokofiev. The popular art consumer shrinks from the challenge, even perceiving such a thing as a threat to be opposed.

In short, popular art is simple basically in the sense of easy. We cannot look to it for a fresh vision, or turn to it for new directions, or find unexplored meanings.


Which of these paintings refuses a casual or superficial inspection? Which encourage such a use? How do they do that?

Which stimulates a mere recognition, and which calls for active perception? What is it about the form of the paintings that achieves this?

The Prodigal<br /> Son by Harold Copping

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David de Bruyn

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.

3 Responses to Mere Recognition

  1. This is all very helpful to learn about art but having read Kaplan's article, I find some of his observations are certainly outdated. At least if you consider he wrote before hard, punk rock and rap were invented. I would think they are part of popular art but they are certainly not naive or fit in the category of kitsch – actually, they don't care so much about beauty but about rebellion and protest.

    So once we understand what good art is we can use that in our daily lives. But how much does this understanding help in worship? Should a pastor refrain from using the first image to illustrate a sermon because it is too simple? Think about the practical implications – the other images are certainly more complex and challenging, but that is exactly what he may want to avoid if he wants people to concentrate on what he is saying. People may not have enough time to appreciate the better art in this instance.

    Also, we need to deal with the level of education in terms of art. Realizing we are still educating ourselves on these matters through this series of postings, what is the general level of understanding of any given congregation in order to sift through these questions? Is it wise, then, to use the better art if people fail to understand it?

    Also, talking about ambiguity, do we want to use ambiguous texts for worship, which is meant to teach people, or rather the simpler and clear wording of more popular music?

  2. Martin,

    I must disagree that Kaplan's ideas are outdated. In fact, Kaplan specifically argues that what he is referring to is not a specific historical phenomenon, but an impulse that has always existed in people. The impulse to narcissism is in every age. To that end, I would suggest that rap and punk represent extreme examples of it. Rap schematizes music until it is little more than a pulsating rhythm.

    As far as worship goes, you seem to be missing Kaplan's vital distinction between simple and shallow. Good art can be simple, but it can never be shallow. Good and simple art can and should be used in worship. Simplicity is good, and 'too simple' is a rather misleading phrase. At a certain point it is no longer stripping away of unnecessaries; it is stripping away of essentials to become a mere schema- a shallow, pre-digested work. No one is suggesting that we need to use what is 'complex and challenging'.

    Instead, Kaplan is helping us to see that certain kinds of art do nothing more than reinforce our prejudices. This has nothing to do with accessibility and relative levels of education, and everything to do with being in a hall of mirrors. Quite simply, worship cannot occur if all we are doing is enjoying our own thoughts, and taking comfort in the familiar.

    As a pastor, I am very aware of the great difficulty of helping people recognise these distinctions. Nevertheless, there are ways, including pointing out how certain lyrics never take us beyond our own narrow horizons, how certain melodies do nothing but reinforce our narrow affective worlds. It is a matter of pointing out the banal and the trivial, and pointing to the truly good and beautiful (be they more or less simple). I cannot turn Christians into art critics – I do not want to – , but I can encourage discernment until they can recognise the idolatrous impulse within themselves to turn worship (or any art, for that matter) into self-congratulation, narcissism, and mere reinforcement of existing prejudices.

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