What is sentimental art and why is it bad for you?

by Matthew Boyleston, PhD

One of the most common objections my students raise is a vigorous disagreement to my claim that art is not exclusively a subjective experience: beauty does not actually reside in the eye of the beholder. In particular, they are often passionate defenders of sentimental art. This attitude is not limited to students. I hear it from audiences when I give readings or shop talks and even from many of my family and friends. What then is sentimental art and why is it bad for you?

Traditionally, sentimental art is art that emphasizes sentiments, emotions such as tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, at the expense of reason or logic. Sentimental art is self-indulgent and distorts a full and true representation of the arts’ subject matter through its exaggerated appeals to emotion.

However, in this essay, I will broaden the definition of “sentimentality” to include many related artistic distortions and, hopefully, explain what I think art has to do with God our maker and why appreciating sentimental art is bad for you. Sentimental art as I am using it refers to any artwork that perverts or excessively emphasizes one element of its production at the expense of all others. For example, novels that over emphasize plot at the expense of style are sentimental. Novels that over emphasize style at the expense of plot are also equally sentimental.

Lastly, I have several examples of how this works in the arts themselves, but I have chosen to not give examples of what I perceive as sentimental or non-sentimental art. I do this for two reasons. First, this is a thesis, an introduction to the idea which I hope will be applied both by myself elsewhere and at another time, and by readers as they think about the issues I raise. Secondly, I do not wish to exclude readers who may have strong feelings about specific works of art, or music, or cinema. I would much rather they contemplate my ideas and then evaluate their own tastes to see where my ideas may give them better insight into what they like, why they like it and, of course, where I might be wrong.

My thesis begins, not surprisingly, with the creation of the world. If we assume God made the world very much in the way an artist makes his art, then we must also assume that every element of an art corresponds to some aspect of God the artist and creator. I think we can see this very clearly when we look at music. Some of the many elements of music include: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, timbre among many others. Each of these elements, the parts that makes up the art, was originally created by God and reflects an aspect of his creative personality. God made original melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, timbre and all the many other elements of music. When we emphasize one element of music at the expense of all the others, say rhythm, we do several negative things: we distort the entire piece of music because we both have too much rhythm but we also don’t have enough of all the other elements. The music is out of balance from what it could have been through problems of inclusion and omission. The art does not truly achieve its full potential as an art form and it does not truthfully reflect its subject matter.

However, as bad as this is, there is an even greater problem. If we are made in the image of God then when we make art we are accessing those parts of ourselves that are made in the image of God the artist. By emphasizing one element of an art at the expense of all other elements of an art, we are not developing those aspects of our personality that are made in the image of God the artist and correspond to the aspects of his personality that originally created the elements of an art we deemphasized. In short, we are making ourselves less Godly by not developing areas of appreciation or mastery in an art form. We are made in his image but allowing that image to atrophy through nonuse or be perverted through improper use.

Let’s return to our example of music. I will often comment in class that it is an objective fact that classical music is superior to popular music. This tongue-in-cheek and self-mockingly haughty claim is actually based on my larger argument. Of the many elements available to create music, nearly, if not all forms of popular music emphasize one at the expense of all others: rhythm. Whether it is rock, rap, country, or R & B, popular music pushes rhythm to the far foreground of music and either pulls the other elements to the background or doesn’t utilize them at all. It is the rhythmic beat in a popular song that first draws us in and keeps us focused throughout the popular song. We are drawn into music that emphasizes rhythm precisely because it is one element that is easy or simple for us to focus. However, in doing so, we never learn to develop all of the other aspects of our listening ear to their highest potential because it takes so much less energy and effort to let our ear surrender to the beat of a song.

Classical music does take work to get into. This music does not bend itself to our ears as easily and with as little effort required on our part as popular music does. However, classical music requires us to take time to develop those parts of our ear that correspond to the many different elements of music being employed by the classical composer. We have an active relationship with a piece of music that requires us to grow and develop as listeners and as people. Secondly, this growth is a type of Godly growth because we learn to appreciate more deeply and more fully parts of God’s character as an artist.

This is not to say that there are not differing degrees of quality in popular music. However, I know of almost no form of popular music that balances rhythm against all the many other possible elements of music as most classical music does. Exceptions here prove the rule.

But to truly gain an insight into how sentimentality ruins art and in the process our lives, let’s give a different example: love. The elements of love include, but are not limited to, sex, compassion, self-sacrifice, patience, kindness, friendship, and loyalty. If we emphasize sex at the expense of all other elements of love, we can quickly see why sentimentality is so damaging to ourselves. Indeed, popular culture already sentimentalizes love by reducing it to one of its elements, sex. When this sentimental representation of sex is specifically designed for a lewd purpose, we call it pornography. How I wish we had word as strong for sentimental art.

But to return to the real loss. If God is love, then each of these elements of love corresponds to an element of God’s person. If you are made in the image of God, by not developing your sense of patience, kindness, self-sacrifice, friendship, compassion, and loyalty along with your sexuality in marriage, you can never grow in love and never grow to fulfill your potential as a person made in God’s image. This example even connects to the earlier one. Rhythm has long been associated with our sexual natures. Elvis was Elvis the Pelvis for a reason.

Therefore, to “sentimentalize” in a work of art is to give an unrealistic focus on one piece of the territory that art covers. The resulting work is distorted from its correspondence to reality; however, consumers will often flock to it because it allows them to more easily consume the work of art passively and not actively. This both inhibits personal growth, precludes a type of healthy relationship with the work of art, reinforces sentimentalized prejudices of reality that the consumer may hold, allows the consumer to go through life in a state of somatized passive disengagement as opposed to active, healthy engagement, and, most heartbreakingly, prevents him from becoming more Godly by allowing him to remain content in his base instincts.

Several common objections have been raised about my ideas. The most common is that I am privileging complex art at the expense of simple art. I do not see it this way. Engagement with the full palate of artistic elements does not necessarily mean the work of art itself is complex. There is little complex about Bach’s setting of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, but it is not in the least sentimentalized.

The second major objection is that my perceived goal of having everyone fully develop as many of their capacities to appreciate art is both daunting and elitist. I also don’t see it this way. The argument seems to be that if one does not develop his capacity to most fully appreciate every way in which God as an artist has made this world then he is either explicitly sinning or is not becoming as Godly as is possible. There is some truth to this. However, one simply cannot achieve a type of sub-creationary perfection in all of the arts must less one of the arts in this lifetime. I see this as one meaning of the Fall in relation to art and the nature of original sin.

What I worry about more though is the reaction of people to the nature of art as a kind of Godly fullness. I have no problem with someone that understands his artistic ignorance and willing limits himself to consuming sentimental art while knowing that the art he consumes is not good and may also be damaging. If he doesn’t take this art too seriously and has other artistic avenues in his life to pursue with the appropriate level of rigor, say fishing, or cooking, or running, then all is as well as can be in our fallen world. We all have to focus our talents and energies. However, many people try to justify their artistic ignorance and buttress their egos by either claiming a type of artistic relativism, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or worse claiming that the sentimentalized art that they love is actually morally or artistically superior to fully formed art. This is a real and corrosive problem in our society.

To end: when we contemplate the trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, we find that most people would affirm that Truth is not relative. Things are either true or false. Goodness is understood as a more relative virtue than Truth, but we still have large agreement on what is good and what is not. However, when we contemplate Beauty, the prevailing view is strongly in favor of Beauty being in the eye of the beholder. What I would ask is this: if each virtue is in moral agreement with each other how can we allow Beauty to be relative to our own limited experience and prejudices? Shouldn’t Beauty be accorded the same status as Truth and Goodness? And why are we so sensitive about giving Beauty the objectivity and lack of sentimentality that we afford to the other two?



MATTHEW BOYLESTON, PhD is an associate professor at Houston Baptist University. His book of poems, “Viewed from the Keel of a Canoe”, was published in 2016 by Educe Press. His poems and essays have appeared in over 40 national journals.