catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 19 :: 2010.10.22 — 2010.11.04


The popular and the absolute

I had very long conversation with a friend about standards of quality in popular culture about a week ago. To him, art is almost an untouchable force beyond any method of criticism not derived of our own personal experience. It is the idea that art is so personal and unquantifiable that leads him to believe that criticism and intellectual engagement take a back seat to personal preference. Yet, he punctuated the dialogue with the statement that he just wants people to be thoughtful about the media with which they interact.

What reason is there to be thoughtful at all without some universal quality for which to search?

The subject at hand is absolute truth. As a Christian, I believe that there is absolute truth. The Christian worldview demands faith in a personal God. The Christian worldview demands a lot of things of people. We work on the premise that God is working for the good of those who love him and I am comfortable in faith that God exists and is doing marvelous things for all people. Faith is not optional. Without it we would be unable to continue on with any meaningful discussion on popular culture.

Because this is what I believe and it informs everything that I do, I have to apply the concept of absolute truth to the dialogue of popular culture.

But popular culture is a complicated system. To understand difficult concepts, I have to break the concept down into neat little packages easy to digest and memorize. For example, in philosophy class, I had to learn Descartes via bullet points. With the same seriousness I gave to the study of philosophy, I approach my engagement with the world around me as it is mediated through music, movies, books and so on. And so there is a bullet point process I used to implement when talking to others about popular art. I would apply two categories to the conversation.

The first category is a studied side, the kind of objective learning you gain in class at a liberal arts college that values holistic engagement with popular culture. I have to put in a lot of work to be well-versed in the discussion at hand because I am responsible to the history of the medium, to the artist, to the critics and culture at large. To understand these things I have to break the studied side down into manageable bites of information to mull over. Similar to building a pyramid, the bullet points start to support more complex and heavy theories. This category of discussion is as absolute as science.

One the other hand, there is the subjective side of the conversation. This side is easy to participate in because all one needs is the taste you were born with or the environmental stimuli that shape your taste.  Everyone has an opinion, regardless of how well-informed one is about the topic. I am rather inclined to think that we should have universal health care like the Swedes. Ask me why and I will probably mutter something about personal narrative or anything to distract you from the fact that I have never been to Sweden and know very little about their health care system.

We generally have the freedom to like whatever we like. We generally have the freedom to try to change others’ minds. It is the American way.

It is gratifying to have popular culture tucked into an easily packaged discussion. It makes everything worth discussing. It is dandy to impose an elite standard of quality to music and movies, while at the same time acknowledging that there is room for understanding. It is nice to say that Lady Gaga’s music is poor quality but that is not going to stop me from rocking out to “Bad Romance.”  It is fine to say that Chris Thile writes quality songs with The Punch Brothers, but the bluegrass vibe just isn’t my jam. People do not have to listen to M.I.A.’s Kala as long as they acknowledge that the album is an Olympic feat for globalized music.

Everything is perfect within that dualist system, but you don’t need a microscope to see that the process is fundamentally flawed. Nothing is that easy, even the work put into some quantifiable standard of art never comes close to any sort of definition. To follow the idea to its conclusion I would, with enough study and understanding, be able to tell you which song is the perfect song or which genre is the perfect genre. That is impossible. Even in the sciences, discovering something new opens a whole new can of worms of research and dialogue.  My knee-jerk reaction is to throw away the objective side altogether. People can listen to what they like because that is their prerogative. It makes for a pretty easy-going discussion.

But that is not the way things are. God is still the way, the truth and the life; yet because of the fall, the human race has lost whatever it is that made us understand how and why God does his work in heaven and on earth. We might never regain our ability to see and understand absolute truth, maybe not even in the life after death.

And so I have reason to be thoughtful and engage with music as an important medium of God’s general revelation to us.  The task of discerning the light and dark in popular culture is not only based on our own experience but something greater. My friend is right in the regard that popular music and culture at large is beyond any method of criticism. Instead of making concessions in the discussion on subjective and objective, concessions should be made in the way that we look at absolute truth and objectivity. It is something that is not attainable, but something that we still search for.

And there is no compromise for Ke$ha. I need to discuss it all because the truth is out there.

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