In My View: On the art/entertainment divide

A while back, I did a rant about Art. Now, I still stand by my statement that “Art doesn’t exist.” But something Hidoshi wrote in the comments has been niggling around in my brain for the past few weeks:

I should note in addendum that I think art is the most useful of all labels in anything considered culture. Art serves as the axle of the cultural wheel, and without it there are no standards by which to create — no mental or emotional tools, as it were.

This has been bugging me. Not necessarily because it’s wrong, but because I don’t necessarily understand why something has to be Art to create the standards that are used to create. Now don’t get me wrong, I respect Hidoshi’s viewpoint. I mean he’s a smart guy who can manage to write like he’s an average Joe and that’s no mean feat.

But I’m still struggling with why Art as a distinction is important.

Okay, so here’s how I see it. On the one hand, you have Art, which is held out as something to be admired. To borrow Hidoshi’s words, it’s the standard by which anything creative should be judged. Now, I’m not going to touch the subjective nature of that, simply because well… I shouldn’t need to. But I can understand that certain creative works should be held up as benchmarks of what a medium or a genre can do.

On the other hand, you have the crass pandering to the masses called entertainment. Basically it’s meaningless throwaway garbage that you use to turn off your brain (or at least that’s the argument.) Okay, I can understand that some stuff might not seem like it’s important. Or just seem like it appeals to some baser instinct in people.

But, and it’s a big but, that assumes that entertainment is meaningless. Which it isn’t.

Let’s take Rome for an example. What’s the first thing people think about when that word comes up (well other than Julius Caesar)? I can bet it’s not Virgil’s Aeneas. It’s probably not Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I doubt it’s the Roman comedies. And I’m pretty sure no one’s singing, “There’s something for everyone –”

Nope, they’re probably thinking about the Coliseum. And if there’s a bigger entertainment fest then watching two grown men face off against each other with swords, I’m not sure what it is.

The thing is that the Coliseum (and any of the bread and circuses programs) is important when you’re looking at Roman culture. In fact, I would say that they’re a defining factor. I mean what it says about daily life in Rome that people flocked to see people try to run each other off of the tracks at the Circus Maximus or that they wanted to see people face off against lions in the arena.

Not only that but it says something about humanity that we’d want to see slaves try to kill each other. Or that we’d create a business. Or that politicians would set something like that up to distract the masses of people who were unemployed because of the large wave of slaves that were coming into country.

The same could be said about a show like The Simple Life, which follows the follies of two very rich girls trying to do very common things. Do you see a parallel here? Because I do. America has a tendency to want to tear down its idols. The middle and lower classes content themselves with the idea that “Well those people couldn’t do my job.” And a show like The Simple Life comes around to reinforce it. Is it pandering to the baser instincts of people? Sure. Does it show any type of creative drive behind it? No, of course not. Is it still important to wonder why something like that is popular? Yes.

In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s just as important to look at the message that a show like Speed Grapher is trying to convey, and what it’s trying to appeal to as looking at a show like Kaiba and seeing what it’s trying to say. Or to put it another way, it’s not as important to figure out what the creator is saying to the viewer as why the viewer is enticed with the show in the first place.

But then again, I might be a Philistine.


6 thoughts on “In My View: On the art/entertainment divide

  1. [I]t’s not as important to figure out what the creator is saying to the viewer as why the viewer is enticed with the show in the first place.

    I think art might be a useful concept. But that quotation, and the idea that even the most everyday, by-the-numbers entertainment deserves thought, are things I heartily agree with.

  2. Yes and no. I don’t think this necessarily then has anything to do with the idea of “art” as a label, nor its opposition to the crass entertainment, but rather ideas of use and reception (see my lexicon for these). Can we rate a product by its audience, or an audience by its chosen products? These are the questions you seem to be asking.

    As to what I see when I think of Rome, I see a parallel to art becoming entertainment: The end of all the decent conversations about Western civilisation, and in time the utter corruption of philosophy, religion, and idealism into the materialistic greed of the power-hungry elite.

  3. @Hidoshi – I think that’s pretty much the question I look at. I tend to think the message and lessons that we can take out of a particular piece of creative medium is as interesting and telling as any piece of art. I know Hige mentioned a while back that you can use Joyce to spot pretentious academics.

    The funny thing is that I just watched Rent again, and my favorite character is still Benny, because as much as I’d like to say idealism is great, I still think it needs to be tempered with pragmatism. I mean almost all contemporary creative works are a business. They have been for the last 100 years or so. I mean Fitzgerald wrote probably his best book, “This Side of Paradise” as a way so he could get enough money so Zelda would marry him. I don’t think that there’s a way to remove commercialism from art.

    And in all fairness, Rome has some of it’s most creative years just after the Empire started, well after most of the bread and circuses programs had already been in place (although ironically still before the Colisuem went up.) So I think business and art and entertainment and art can coexist. Bohemenian ideals aside. I mean even the Sistine Chapel was a day job.

  4. I know one reason people think art as a term is important is so that it can be used to draw up lists of books which remain important (I’ve heard this described as ‘educational perennialism’, but it’s not something I’m knowledgeable about). And the Aeneid, which always features on such lists, was the product of Augustus’s cultural program – indeed, I suppose Maecenas funded Horace’s Odes as well.

    Thinking about it, gladiatorial combat would be an interesting study (I suppose some academic(s) has/have got there first, though): the different classes of combatants being based partly on exaggerated caricatures of people the Romans considered exotic, and so on. It would be like Barthes writing theoretical analyses about wrestling and striptease in Mythologies.

  5. First thing about the empire of Rome that I think of is that it is a republic.

    Anyways, talking about art is so… ugh. High school? Nonetheless I appreciate the attempt to articulate, I suspect, what many people have already internalized.

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