Art and Entertainment

Some months ago, I went to a large and impressive function at Juilliard, a public forum on the arts in America, featuring some all-star guests: Renee Fleming, Stephen Sondheim, David McCullough (the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. This turned out to be a no-bullshit symposium. All of the stars talked sense, and talked from their personal experience. You could agree or disagree with what they said, but they weren’t speaking empty words. The same was true of Juilliard’s president, Joseph Polisi, who led the discussion.

Twice Polisi asked what the difference was between art and entertainment. This, for many people, is a crucial question, because the value of the arts—and especially the value of classical music—seems to hang on it. Art, many people think, is lofty and profound. Entertainment, by contrast, is shallow and predictable. The very word “entertainment” seems to carry and inherent qualifier: mere entertainment, diverting, maybe, but worthless compared to art. Naturally popular culture, and especially pop music, is dismissed this way. It’s all entertainment, and nothing more.

But none of the panelists took that view! They wouldn’t go there. They wouldn’t make any rules, especially rules linked to musical genres. Fleming was especially determined here. “Right now,” she said, “I’m singing Manon at the Met. But that’s not art. It’s entertainment. It’s romantic fluff.” But she’d just been to see Verdi’s Falstaff at the Met, and that, she said, really was art. She went on to talk about pop music—how much she liked it, how important it had always been to her artistically, and how she planned to sing much more of it in the future.

Polisi asked both Fleming and Sondheim if they’d ever had to compromise their art for commercial reasons. Sondheim, who’s worked all his life in the commercial world of Broadway, said he never had. Fleming, who works in the lofty non-profit sphere of art, said she had to compromise constantly. Opera houses wanted her to sing popular repertoire; her record company wanted her to make recordings that would sell.

So if we can’t formalize the difference between art and entertainment, Polisi asked, how can we justify funding for the arts? A good question, and also a fine example of how well Polisi led the conversation, always sharpening, focusing, refining. Sondheim immediately granted the importance of the question, which nobody quite knew how to answer. I’d say that the arts (as traditionally defined) should be funded not because they’re better than popular culture, but because they’re different, and because the different things they do are valuable. Though where we draw the line is problematic. Why aren’t independent films art, and therefore fundable? And what about noncommercial pop? (Which is already funded, in a way, in Britain, where each year a noncommercial band can win a special prize.) And can’t art sometimes be commercial? (A point insisted on by all the panelists, who rather strongly noted—McCullough with special poignancy—that artists don’t mind at all when people like their work, and when their work can make a living for them.)

But leave those questions for another time. Right now I want to say that I think the whole art and entertainment thing is bogus. Art and entertainment, in my view, are separate qualities, and any piece of music, film, or play (or poem, painting, pop song, jazz performance, sculpture, dance, or graphic novel) could be either, both, or maybe even neither. Art might be a quality of freshness and unpredictability that tells us something new about our world and ourselves; entertainment, as a quality we potentially might find in any human endeavor (or in nature), would be the mere fact of being entertaining.

(And if we define art as an experience, as a special way of paying attention, rather than as a quality somehow inherent in things that people deliberately create as art, then we could find art in anything. That’s part of what John Cage was about.)

With this in mind, we can rate things separately for their art and entertainment value. The Schoenberg Violin Concerto is pretty artistic, but not very entertaining. Webern’s little pieces for soprano, E flat clarinet, and guitar, on the other hand, are wildly artistic and also wildly entertaining. And maybe other people won’t find Webern as entertaining as I do, but that, as the old line goes, is why there’s chocolate and vanilla. All of us like different things, and, on top of that, we like them in different ways. I could go on with the rating game, and say that Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska is tremendously artistic, and not entertaining at all, and that, in Götterdämmerung, the scene for Hagen and Alberich is a comparative low ebb, given Wagner’s standard, for both art and entertainment, but that Hagen’s call to the vassals rates high on both counts.

I guess I should name something that’s entertaining without being artistic, but I have to admit that’s harder for me, because I’m not all that likely to be entertained by something that isn’t, at the very least, artful. One of my Juilliard students, faced with this question in a class, said she named eating contests (like the one each year at Nathan’s, in Coney Island in New York, to see who can eat the most hot dogs). That’s a good answer. But the important thing here, for me, is to clarify what entertainment and art really are — that (at least in my view) they’re entirely separate concepts, which in practice can often be united in a single endeavor, but which ought to be thought about separately, and should never be opposed to each other.

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  1. caward says

    In our society we expect everything to be entertainment. When you stand in front of a classroom of kids you are well aware that whether you can successfully convey the content of your source or not hinges on the entertainment value of your lesson. Thanks to the proliferation of advertising in nearly everything: you can now sit in a doctors office and watch a television impoverished from any kind of narrative and infested with infomercials for medically themed widgets and balms. Teaching school becomes more and more difficult as kids reject the notion of learning as a challenge and replace it with the expectation that it should be a pleasurable distraction. As a visual artist, I’ve seen people at a gallery no longer give time to the artwork but rather they pass quickly through the gallery either unable or unwilling to fully ‘read’ what is in front of them. It is disturbing that the expectation to be entertained is vastly eroding the whole spiritual and intellectual purpose of art – to initiate the learning process and change the way we see ourselves.