There is a dividing line between entertainment and art. I should preface this statement by noting that it is entirely possible for entertainment to be art and for art to be entertainment. These are not mutually exclusive terms. They are, however, descriptors by degrees, a hierarchy, that affect us as humans in different ways.
Pro Wrestling is not art. It sure is entertainment though. Chuck is my favorite show on television right now. It’s immensely entertaining, well acted, smart, well scripted, everything you would want in an hour long show. But it’s not art.
Some will contend that reading some of the great works of literature can be a painful experience. My personal nominee for this category would be Jane Eyre. I find nothing entertaining about that novel at all. But I’ve read it. And I know it’s art.
I’m not going to go ahead and claim that this dividing line between art and entertainment is objective. The claim that art is objective is, from my perspective, one of the least tenable philosophical arguments that can be made. Just try it. I’ll wait here.
So, with that little exercise failing spectacularly, we can move on. Art is not objective, this is certainly true, but what it can be is societal. The western world will, without hesitation, understand certain works as art. The aforementioned Jane Eyre is a classic of literature, despite my personal distaste for it. Were it up to me, I would be hard pressed to consider it art. But it’s not up to me. So that’s a non starter. Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, Beethoven, the works of Michelangelo, all of these are art. Society, over years and generations, has deemed it so. Is this objective? No. It remains ever changing. What one generation or society may consider art may not hold true fifty years from now. Art is a microcosm of the eternal philosophical debate between absolutism and relativism, between Plato and Protagoras, between Kant and the Empiricists, between Nietzsche and, well, basically everyone.
If we subscribe to the belief that things are absolute, that The Waste Land is an unparalleled work of poetry, with a depth of meaning, allusion and symbolism that positions it as a quintessential piece of twentieth century fiction (it won’t come as much of a shock that I personally subscribe to this belief, but the key word here is personally), and that this will never change no matter the circumstance, we’re locked in for good. Others are just as hasty to point out that Eliot’s writing, both in The Waste Land and in his other works, is dense for the sake of being dense, and the allusions go nowhere, mean nothing, and amount to a lot of bluster that doesn’t actually give us anything. If art is absolute, and if The Waste Land absolutely, 100% art or not art, then one of us isn’t just a dissenting opinion, but is objectively wrong in the same way that people who still believe the Earth is flat is wrong. And that just doesn’t sit right.
So we have art. And we have entertainment. We have certain works that have reached the art echelon on a societal basis as classics of the form, but on a tangible, personal level, it all comes down to what we put into it. Entertainment is easy. Entertainment is designed in such a way that we can consume it passively. There isn’t a whole lot to really dig in and study about Chuck or How to Train Your Dragon or Rock Band or the vast majority of mainstream comic books. They may make you laugh, make you think, foment various emotions in your brain, but their main function is to take yourself away from the long, drawn out, unending and constantly challenging struggle that is life. You watch an episode of Chuck, and for those forty-three blissful commercialless minutes, you don’t have to worry about your bank account, your bills, whether that woman you really like likes you back, none of it. It just melts away. And, for the most part, when it’s over, it’s out of sight and mind in any significant way.
The dividing line comes into play when a work demands attention from the perceiver in order to be truly enjoyed and understood. Of course, the final product still needs to be good, a positive experience in some way, which can often be lost in the shuffle when discussing the need for active participation. For examples, let’s turn to music. Three challenging pieces of popular music from the sixties and seventies, to be precise. If you listen to The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” Genesis’ “The Waiting Room,” or (and god help you for doing this to yourself) Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, you basically have to be attentive if you have any prayer of getting anything out of them. At the very least, “Revolution 9” and Metal Machine Music could be argued to be statements on some level (pretty sure “The Waiting Room” is just six minutes of noise, full stop, a disappointing interlude in the otherwise near flawless The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), but I would never consider them art because the actual experience of listening to them causes me pain. All I can hear is garbage and nonsense, and I have spent the time and effort to at least try to figure out “Revolution 9” to no avail. It remains distant, impenetrable, cold. Others see the art in these avant garde experimentations, and enjoy them immensely, which is another dagger in the heart of art as an objective and unchanging ideal.
Some quick examples of contemporary pop culture-y things that I would consider art:
- Tom Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine, the ultimate musical rumination on death, and possibly at the top of a very short list of the greatest pieces of modern contemporary music ever released.
- Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book that gives you more and more back the more effort you put into reading it closely.
- David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (the first season only), if only for the pure audacity of this mind fuck sneaking onto network television and then becoming WILDLY SUCCESSFUL. Still, it’s a wonderfully Lynchy hallucinogenic fever dream (Mulholland Drive is another suitable example of art).
Interestingly enough, Tom Waits’ seminal (well, I consider it seminal at least) 2004 release Real Gone offers its own internal dichotomy between art and entertainment. Two of my favorite non-Bone Machine songs Tom ever wrote are “Hoist That Rag” and “Make it Rain” from Real Gone. “Hoist That Rag” is an anti-war song disguised as a raucous sea chantey, while “Make it Rain” is the sort of apocalyptic love song modeled after the chilling “Earth Died Screaming” (it seems like the ‘you’ that Mr. Waits was singing about as the Earth died may have ended things prematurely…). “Hoist That Rag,” to me, is entertainment, despite having one of the single greatest verses ever written (“Well, we stick our fingers in the ground/Heave and turn the world around/Smoke is blacking out the sun/Tonight I pray and clean my gun/The cracked bell rings as the ghost bird sings/The gods go begging here/So just open fire as you hit the shore/All is fair in love and war”), whereas “Make it Rain,” with its biblical and contemporary allusions that just quietly layer themselves under the naked emotion, pushes itself to another level entirely. This is a song that moves mountains.
What I’ve realized looking back at the past months is that a truly enlightened person can’t survive on entertainment alone. When I wrote about growing up back in October and becoming an adult, I talked about the unfulfilling nature of living my life in such a way that I was always looking at what I wanted to come next no matter how likely it was such a thing could actually happen (here’s a hint: it wasn’t likely. At all.). And I’ve changed that, which has allowed for a lot of positive movements in my life toward becoming a functional adult. But here’s the thing. Life is fiendishly difficult to deal with on a regular basis. The pressures are immense. I’ve spent the last six months wallowing in the simple and seductive pleasures of entertainment. I haven’t even tried to seek out art. I got hooked on reading legions of articles on Magic: The Gathering, and while they may have good content from the perspective of learning how to better play a card game, the VAST majority of them are terrible writers mechanically. You can’t hold it against them. They write articles because they’re good Magic players, not because they’re good writers. A blessed few are both, but they’re the exception to the rule. I’ve been watching the same solid but spiritually (like that word even means anything coming from me) unremarkable movies and TV shows. Listening to catchy music that doesn’t move me, despite being some excellent entertainment (I love Queens of the Stone Age more than the average person, and will listen to them incessantly sometimes, but it isn’t art). But there’s something missing, that yawning fissure in the gut that comes from a lack of fulfillment that’s flirting around just beyond the periphery. It may not have arrived yet, but I could feel it coming. Well, it’s here.
Where do you turn when you need an escape from your life and simple entertainment isn’t doing it for you anymore? Why, back to art, of course. I read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for the first time this morning. It’s the only major Eliot poem I hadn’t read, and like The Hollow Men and The Waste Land, it’s lovingly available entirely free and full text on the internet. I haven’t given it the full and exhaustive read that any Eliot poem requires, but the simple act of reading it, even studying the interactions and word choices on a purely surface level, is pregnant with possibilities out of sight. A wonderful feeling washes over you. It’s a struggle you’re eager to undertake, knowing the result will be more than satisfying on a deeper level. And, as an added bonus, I understand the Crash Test Dummies’ “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” a little better than I did yesterday.
It’s putting away the comics (not that I’ve even been reading them) and picking up As I Lay Dying. It’s putting away the Coheed and Cambria and firing up Abbey Road.
Just now, as the breezy, reverent tones of George Harrison’s ultimate masterpiece “Something” spill forth from the speakers, I feel the undeniable need to smile. It’s all going to work out in the end.