on not liking schlock

In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha

Happy New Year, good readers. This year begins with something different. Jenna has graciously injected a line of fervour into the discussion, taking on the large and sticky question of church music, specifically “the failure of many Christian recording artists to realize that music itself actually means something, not just the lyrics.” Consequently, she says, ‘our hymnals contain some of the worst schlock I’ve ever caught posing as music’, with ‘lyrics that would make a cheap Hallmark card blush’.

Masha concurs with Jenna’s sentiments, blaming much of it on the current culture of advertising, and offers a possible explanation: ‘We stop trying to pursue beauty, to form ourselves in imitation of beauty, and follow the easy path that leads to badness and banality.’

Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s a fight I’ve been around several times, and if those of you reading this blog would like it discussed here in more details, I can certainly secure some competent guest bloggers. What intrigues me though, is the broader subject of beauty, and the lack thereof.

I believe, simply, that there is something properly basic about the human need for beauty. We are humans; therefore we will search for beauty and surround ourselves with beautiful things. This is of course true whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Pagan or whatever; this is simply, humanly true. The world is not beautiful—it is wild and tragic and heartbreaking—but Beauty is in it. And people look for Beauty.

We see this at a straightforward level if we watch a child watching a Disney film. Not even Disney enthusiasts care to argue that the opening credits of Winnie-the-Pooh is art on the level of, say, Citizen Kane. And yet the colours and sound and the invitation into “the enchanted neighbourhood | Where Christopher Robin plays” is mesmeric, enthralling, transcendent to a very young child. Beauty beckons to us, and draws us into itself.

The difficulty is following Beauty where it leads us. To recklessly paraphrase C. S. Lewis, one should never lose delight in the opening credits of Winnie-the-Pooh, and yet one should eventually try to comprehend Throne of Blood. One story, encountered earlier, gives us the straightforward consolations of childhood. The other undermines our confidence in human nature, or anything else. It is the harder lesson, and necessary, and beautiful. But looking at the reds and yellows of Pooh, we do not at first expect that is where beauty will lead.

These examples, of course, depart from Jenna’s in an important particular: there is actually artistic merit in Winnie-the-Pooh. The examples she and Masha give have none. This leads to a difficulty—one might say, perversity—which is also prevalent outside Church music. And it’s just as human as the need for beauty: the urge for ease.

We do not have to think about these songs. Emotion comes pre-packaged, and we can pick our favourite style and have a grand old weepy time. You can see this on X-Factor: beautiful contestants sing familiar tunes in the usual way, and the crowd on the screen reacts appropriately, the judges tell us what to think, etc. Music, and the art of the musician, and the reality that music arises from the art of the musician regardless of style or degree of ability, never seriously enters the frame. We are allowed to relax.

Beauty never lets us relax. Beauty bring us instead into rest, “costing not less than everything.” Beauty does not offer us anything or make demands of us; it simply is, and it points to itself. when we see Beauty, in its manifestations, we cannot but respond and follow. Even if Beauty does not wear its familiar aspect, we can still come to recognise it, though the process may be painful.

There seems to me to be a too frequent dearth of beauty, caused in part by the reality that Beauty is not static, nor does it simply exist to be observed. Beauty changes us. It knocks away the lines and boxes, and knocks away the idea of boxes, and shows us the absolute stillness of rest and hope and despair and tears and laughter that lies within and behind it, regions ‘where all that is not music is silence’.

Our own fear would side with the jailors, and keep us in the realm of the comfortable, the comfortably challenging, faux-development and self-important seriousness. But Beauty shows us levity in the face of tragedy, hope as the companion of despair. Beauty teaches us how to wonder; beauty teaches us how to laugh.

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7 thoughts on “on not liking schlock

  1. I like the irony of the advertisement (oddly targeted?) of middle aged women looking like they are 27 (why not 23 or 25?) that came with this.

    Agreeing largely with what you say, I’d like to disagree with a few comments.

    ‘Beauty never lets us relax. Beauty brings us instead into rest.’ The extremity of ‘never’ is too much in my opinion. I don’t know about you, but I relax when I watch or read Winnie the Pooh, and I do think it has beautiful aspects. Nor do I think that Citizen Kane is more beautiful–only beautiful in a different way. I think encouraging one to relax is definitely a good thing in this world of stress and strife. Perhaps the problem comes when a work of art does not ALSO encourage us (however subtly or implicitly) to re-engage, when it does not point beyond itself. This leads to my second disagreement:

    ‘beauty does not offer us anything or make demands of us; it simply is, and it points to itself’ I might first note that this seems to contradict your later statements that ‘beauty changes us’ and ‘beauty teaches us’. The first sounds like the lonely ‘one’ of Plotinus, the second like the more relational description of beauty given by Pseudo-Dionysius and other Christian mystics. Needless to say I prefer the second. If beauty does not offer us anything or demand anything of us, then we can safely ignore it, and it seems to me that people would be correct in choosing music and art that lacked beauty. If it does not point beyond itself, then it would be rather narcissistic and disdainfully prideful, whereas if it does (as the transcendentals always do) then there is reason to trust it and listen to what it teaches.

    Were I not out of time (must drive back to Horninghold), I might reflect on how Epiphany (celebrated yesterday) comments on this discussion, but I will leave that to the imagination.

  2. Danny–I certainly don’t endorse the ad!

    “Never” is of course hyperbole, and I could perhaps have employed subtler rhetoric there. Naturally, one can relax whilst enjoying Beauty. But I wish to make a distinction between relaxation, the necessary escape from stress, and rest. Which latter I align with silence and stillness, and the divine rest from creation. This is not the rest in the manger but the rest in the tomb. If relaxation is sleep, itself a gift to the beloved, rest is the ecstasy of the contemplative. This is what Beauty leads us to.

    I think you’re right, though, that Beauty is not narcissistic. But I’m not sure it points beyond itself by pointing to something other. The idea is that Beauty points into itself, which, if Beauty is Truth, where else can it point? But into itself is beyond itself and without itself: think of Diamond passing into North Wind. Entering into Beauty and moving beyond it are the same thing. I would thus associate Beauty with Dante’s vision of the burning pinpoint at the heart at the cosmos; the dimensions are reversed, and the all-encompassing round is the utter centre. For Beauty to passively point to itself and actively lead beyond itself is precisely the same thing.

    There is much that could be said here about sorrow and levity leading ultimately to the sake end–sisters of the same road. “Weep for gladness, weep for grief, / The tears, they are the same.” But that’s for another post.

    Thanks for the comment! Great arguments.

  3. We probably agree, but I can’t help a few more points.

    There is a problem in how we are talking about beauty or rather some semantic slippage. If we are talking about beauty in the abstract, beauty as a transcendental, beauty as emanating from God, then I agree that it points to itself. Although here, the paradoxes are so thick that as soon as you say one thing you must deny it in the next breath and affirm its opposite. Within God there is perfect stillness and perfect motion. Beauty is defined by the love of God which is ever outgoing and yet never diminished in itself, and so forth.

    And–this leads to my second point–God is beauty, but beauty is not God. In this world, when we talk about ‘beauty’ it MUST point beyond itself (to God) or else it becomes an idol. Anything that stops our vision from passing on to the source of all things is an idol that from a Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) perspective must be smashed. I might add that the same applies to truth (and goodness)–in the abstract they are emanations from God, but as we experience them in this world they are not themselves God and always point onward.

    Perhaps levity and sorrow are sisters on the same road, but surely levity is the older and yet also–in a MacDonaldian sense–the younger. Levity–as in joy, love and festivity–was in the beginning and will be in the end, whereas sorrow was not and will not be–it only is. This suggests that we should not take it too seriously. Levity will one day teach her sister to see the lightness of all tears.

    I’ve always wanted to write a great defense of kitsch (at least since reading Chesterton). I hate it as much as the next over-educated person, but whatever the reasons for disliking it, I am convinced that lightness (or even slightness) is not one of them.

  4. Mr. Pond – I can not thank you enough for this post. I have spent hours pondering Beauty and how it influences our culture and how it has influenced human history. I only pop in to read your blog once in a while because I haven’t had enough education/training in literature to fully grasp your posts (a/k/a not quite smart enough). But I keep coming back because I learn something every time – even if it takes me a while to chew and ponder it. Thank you so much.

  5. Danny, yes, I was speaking of transcendent Beauty, which is the True and the Good and the Perfect, all being the same described in different words. Which, as you rightly point out, needs must be self-referential. The paradoxes are of course intentional. 🙂

    I would disagree, though, in saying that if God is Beauty (abstract), then Beauty (abstract) is not God. Beautiful things are not God, of course, but they have Beauty or parts of Beauty in them, and contemplation of them can lead to a full apprehension of Beauty, that is of God. If we look at the thing itself, as a thing, and worship it for being a thing, that becomes idolatry. But the heresy of iconoclasm is perhaps just a serious as the heresy of idolatry; they both desecrate the revelation of God by looking at the thing only. We may not agree here; I do not share the conception that art is a reflection of a reflection, at any rate. But this is more or less what I meant.

    And surely the levity of tears must be somehow balance by the gravity of laughter? ‘Weep for laughter, weep for grief | The tears, they are the same.’ But I agree that morbidity and moroseness are unreal, and untrue. Sorrow is unavoidable, though, even when we school ourselves to see her merrier face. But nothing at all should be taken seriously. I think perhaps Sorrow and Levity go hand in hand, with Seriousness standing against them, the opposite of both. It says we must be Serious, and not laugh so loud; we must be Serious, and not blubber so much. Errant rubbish. Seriousness makes us look at the thing and not beyond it. It does not allow for hope or healing. I’ll venture to suggest that much literature that tries to deal with sorrow, books with words like ‘gritty’ and ‘unflinching’ on the slip jacket, deal ever only with the Serious. Sorrow and Levity in all their faces make no appearance.

    If you write your defence of kitsch, I’ll read it with enjoyment and incredulity. I don’t doubt you could convince me again. 🙂

  6. tami, Welcome! And thanks. I’m glad you’re enjoying the site and coming back, and commenting. That’s a real encouragement to me. If I’m being too heady intellectual, please don’t hesitate to ask me to explain something. When writing a blog, it’s far too easy to start arguing only with oneself. Thanks again!

  7. Yes, yes. I think we do agree at heart. We have mostly the same teachers after all. Poor academics just like to wrangle over emphases.

    I of course meant: God is Beauty (abstract) but beauty (concrete) is not God (perhaps we should bring back capitals for abstract nouns), which you agree with in your following sentence. I would change the language slightly (like an obsessive academic) to say not that ‘Beauty is in them’ but in a more Thomistic sense ‘they participate in Beauty’ (if we are still using Beauty as an abstract). The first is a little too close to panentheism for my taste.

    I don’t have a problem with art being a reflection of a reflection, but then I probably have a higher view of reflections than most people. The problem is not if art is a reflection (which seems obvious to me and which you seem to admit in your post from today about art as sub-creation) but if reflections are somehow less true or good than what they reflect. MacDonald was right to correct Plato on this point, not by saying it isn’t a reflection, but by saying that reflections embody truth in a particular way and thus are not ‘less real’.

    I tend to be an iconoclast around idolaters and an idolater around iconoclasts. You must pick your heresies carefully.

    Ah, metaphors are tricky things, aren’t they? The way I tend to use levity is not as the opposite of gravity, but as its higher fulfilment. The concept of levity necessarily includes the idea of gravity, whereas the problem with gravity is that it tries to claim that it is all there is (i.e. seriousness). So again, I think we probably agree, though my emphasis would be on how levity is big enough to include sorrow, whereas sorrow doesn’t seem as ready to include levity. But this undoubtedly has to do with the way I have come to conceive of levity, so I take your point and will agree that the real problem is seriousness.

    Lots of this sort of thing in the article that should be coming your way in the next few days!

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