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art vs. entertainment

6.20.98

"No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved."
- Oscar Wilde, to whom this section is humbly dedicated

It began when I started wondering what I want when I go to a movie, read a book, slap on a CD, etc. Do I want art, or do I want entertainment? Obviously a good deal depends on context and packaging: one doesn't, unless one is stupid, go to Godzilla for art, nor does one go to The Ice Storm for a popcorn-munching wacky evening. Beyond that, though, what makes something succeed or fail as art or entertainment? Obviously an infinite number of subjective factors...which is why I plan to be an idiot and come up with a bunch of guidelines and generalities that I will shamelessly pass off as the truth, when in fact they are only the truth of what's in one person's head -- mine -- at this specific moment in world history.

Anyway, what began as a regular bite-sized Tirade took on a life of its own and mushroomed, or metastasized (depending on your view), into a whole other thing.

You may have your own guidelines. That's great. I'd love to hear them. I'm interested in your take on art vs. entertainment. I'm not interested in your take on my take. Don't react -- create. Get in the spirit of the thing. Don't say "There are no guidelines." That's a cop-out, and besides it's no fun. Also, everything I say about art and entertainment is movie-oriented, though I hope much of it can be adapted to other media as well.

I. art vs. entertainment

"A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it."
- Oscar Wilde

My favorite oppositional quote about it comes from David Cronenberg: "Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don't know you want." To continue and riff in that vein, I offer the following guidelines, to be amplified throughout this section (and perhaps even contradicted -- hey, I'm makin' this up as I go)....

Entertainment is part of an evening -- mini-golf, pizza, a movie, ice cream. Art is the evening -- you generally have to make plans to see an art movie, and then you find somewhere to sit and discuss it afterward.

Entertainment is terrified of losing you, and is willing to change itself to be more to your taste. Art doesn't give a fuck whether it loses you -- if you're lost, that's your problem.

Entertainment condescends to what it perceives as your level. Art assumes you're at a high level and wants to take you higher -- it conascends.

Entertainment wants to make you think you're thinking, but actually steers you toward its chosen conclusion. Art actually does make you think, and allows you to arrive at your own highly subjective conclusion.

Entertainment generally isn't personal or obsessive or visionary. Art often is.

Good entertainment often is not artistic. Good art often is entertaining.

If entertainment is unappealing, offensive, and hell to sit through, you just wasted your ticket money. If art is unappealing, offensive, and hell to sit through...maybe you should see it again.

II. what is art?

"It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."
- Oscar Wilde

The dictionary is no help whatsoever on this word: "An aesthetically pleasing and meaningful arrangement of elements, as words, sounds, colors, shapes, etc." Or this: "Any system of rules and principles that facilitates skilled human accomplishment." They might as well just say "things that don't suck." If art is so nebulous and subjective as to resist definition, you may ask, why bother trying to define it? Well, that's a fine attitude. Why bother doing anything? Because we believe it's worth doing. Or at least trying to do.

So what is this thing called art? It's easy to define it by what it isn't (i.e., entertainment ... though art can be entertaining), but let's try to define it by what it is. Art, to me, is a work that speaks to those who are willing to rise to it; a work that speaks to all genders, races, sexualities, religions, etc., at any time and in any place, and yet is not blandly homogenized -- i.e., it isn't that way by cowardly design, intended to reach a mass audience. It may in fact not reach an audience until decades or even centuries later.

Art is, generally, also selfish. If it reaches you, it does so almost in spite of itself. Art is about expressing one's inner state, one's personal vision of the world. You may respond to it because you share the artist's feelings and vision; you may not share those things, but respond to the purity of the vision, the forceful and vivid way it's expressed. Or it may leave you utterly cold. In which case, who's to blame, you or the artist? Neither. There's the artist, and here's you, and the two just don't intersect. It happens.

Art also tends to subscribe to "less is more." Art films in particular are often plotless. When a film is too plotty, too narratively complicated as opposed to humanly complex, you can feel that it isn't art. (There are exceptions. BTW, to save space, can we just assume there are exceptions to everything, so I don't have to keep saying it?) In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud shows us a basic icon of a cartoon face, and says that the less detailed and specific it is, the more we project onto it and see ourselves in it. A circle with two dots and a dash for a face could represent you. A red-haired woman in her 30s with a pierced nostril and eyes of two different colors might not represent you. (Or she might, but she might not represent the person sitting next to you.) If a movie features such a character, it's that much harder to get you to hook into her instead of seeing her as Other or just a quirky person. Skillful writing would help in that regard, as would skillful acting.

Art is ambitious and tries to suggest where we are now, or rather, where we always have been and always will be -- the rest is just details. At the same time, art does not try to be art. Art that tries to be art is failed art. Art is art without really trying to be. Many artists can wax quite eloquent about why they were moved to do their art, but only after the fact. During the time they're doing it, the process is highly instinctive, unconscious, subverbal. It's only afterward that meaning and interpretation are imposed onto the work by its admirers (or by the artists themselves).

The best art -- and here, in the realm of film, I think of masterpieces like Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, The Seventh Seal, too many others to count -- often is not comforting. It can be disturbing, even depressing or sickening. It doesn't have to be "entertaining," in the sense that we generally perceive the word; more precise adjectives might be "compelling," "engrossing," perhaps even "shocking," but not necessarily a popcorn flick, not a movie you'd take home to meet your mom. But it still leaves you satisfied, the same basic feeling entertainment gives you. Art gives you what you didn't know you wanted, scratches an itch you didn't know you had, and that's part of the thrill of art -- making new connections, discovering new corners of yourself.

Finally, it helps if we genuinely enjoy the art; we are then inclined to do all the interpretive work, which is really part of the art -- the admirer brings something of him/herself to the art and completes it. And this is where it gets really subjective. One person's art is another person's pretentious shit. And if you think, say, Crash is pretentious shit, you're likely to laugh at my fervent theories about its larger significance. And I can turn around and laugh at your passionate defense of what you consider art and I consider shit. And once we're all done laughing at each other and ripping one another's opinions to shreds, the art is still there, untouched, unaffected by our arguments pro or con. It will outlive us; it will outlive its creator. As it should. People come and go, as do trends and theories about art, but art lives forever.

III. what is entertainment?

"Yes, the public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius."
- Oscar Wilde

I looked this one up in the dictionary and it said, quote, "Something that entertains, you dumb motherfucker." My dictionary has an attitude problem.

You'd think an essay about entertainment couldn't go any further than that, but our concept of what is entertaining is as subjective as our concept of what art is. Many people found Independence Day entertaining. I did not. Many critics were not entertained by Starship Troopers. I was -- very much. Whether we're experiencing art or entertainment, our receptive process functions in a similar way, though on different levels. Either way, we are looking to be transported. It's wrong to say in entertainment's defense that it's "just escapism." Entertainment that fails to take you out of yourself -- that leaves you sort of sitting there feeling ripped off and wishing you'd waited for video -- fails as entertainment, and therefore cannot properly be said to be escapism.

Perhaps one wildly generalized difference between art and entertainment is that the latter takes you out of yourself and into another world, whereas the former takes you deeper into yourself, where you and the artist co-create an inner world. Entertainment is mostly about mass appeal and plays on the moods and prejudices of the moment. It is generally unreflective. It is a straight narrative arrow, a good story well told. (Big exception: Pulp Fiction, which is actually three straight narrative arrows intersecting.)

There's nothing in the world wrong with great entertainment. The best entertainment -- my picks off the top of my head would be Raiders of the Lost Ark, much of Hitchcock (except Vertigo, which I consider his one film that succeeds as art; dazzling as his other classics are, they're entertainment), Treasure of Sierra Madre, Clerks, dozens upon dozens of others -- gets your blood going, excites you on a motor level, makes you laugh your ass off, whatever. Entertainment tends to be visceral, art is more often cerebral. You can feel an adrenaline rush when a great action sequence in a Spielberg film is working; when a Woody Allen comedy or South Park episode reduces you to helpless, breathless, almost soundless laughter, the response is equally physical. Entertainment does it to your body and sometimes to your heart; art does it to your mind and sometimes to your soul.

Entertainment is more about emotion, and though art is often about expressing emotional states, it often doesn't allow itself access to populist strategies of entertainment, like catharsis or tearjerking. When entertainment fails in that regard -- when you're supposed to cry but instead sit there dry; when you're supposed to be knocked through the back wall but instead wait for a scene with a lot of light so you can read your watch -- then it really fails, big time. Ask anyone who saw Godzilla. How can entertainment fail? The same way that art can fail -- you've seen it before, it doesn't rock your world or your boat, it doesn't do anything for you or to you, it just kinda sits there.

But when it works, it can take you for a ride that art, for all its intensity and complexity, often can't. It can dazzle you, make you feel like a kid again. And that's one thing art doesn't do. Art usually assumes you're mature, and treats you accordingly. Entertainment can be refreshing in its sheer happy atavism; you willingly regress. Or at least you do if it's done right. If entertainment fails, you resent being treated like a dumb kid. When it works, though, you are a kid again and you don't resent anything. Even entertainment for adults, like an Albert Brooks film or a John Woo action classic, can make you respond as an adult the way entertainment you saw as a kid made you laugh or thrilled you. Entertainment can give you what you want. Nothing to sneeze at.

IV. okay, so which is better?

"We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless."
- Oscar Wilde

It used to be that the popcorn flicks were reserved for the warmer months -- from May to early September, when the kids were out of school and in the plexes. Not any more. In Hollywood, summer is now year-round, and hardly a week goes by without a moronic comedy or a moronic action film or a moronic thriller. Consider that two of the first movies of 1998 were Firestorm and Hard Rain -- action no-brainers that the studios correctly guessed wouldn't survive the tougher summer competition (and barely survived their January release -- Hard Rain flopped despite co-starring Minnie Driver, hot off of Good Will Hunting and sloshing around in wet, clinging clothes).

So entertainment, or feeble attempts thereof, now dominates American theaters as never before -- while true art movies founder. I don't really understand why a great film like The Sweet Hereafter, which is not that difficult or artsy, failed to find a larger audience in America. In light of all this, it's tempting to elevate art above entertainment purely on elitist grounds, to root for the underdog against the corporate monolith. But I've done that before, and I'd like to take a different approach.

Entertainment is not easy to do. A seamless, beautifully crafted, consistently engaging mainstream American movie requires formidable skill. If it were easy to do, we'd be getting great entertainment every week. The fact is, we aren't. Most attempts at mass-appeal entertainment end up being more frustrating and hard to sit through than the most stubbornly interiorized art film. And art isn't easy either -- there's certainly a lot of bad art out there, though not as much bad art as bad entertainment, if only because the studio money is always there for bad entertainment, whereas less commercial projects have to appeal to at least a certain number of investors or producers if they're to be made at all.

Yet I prefer failed art to failed entertainment, and sometimes I even prefer failed art to good entertainment. Your average piece of good entertainment is competent, moving, perhaps intelligent. In other words, it's doing what it's supposed to do, considering you peeled off seven fucking dollars for the thing. Failed art, to me, is more valuable because at least it took a risk. Robert Altman's Short Cuts, James Mangold's Heavy, Larry Clark's Kids -- these are several examples in recent years of art films I didn't care for, but I'm still glad they were made -- I like to see the attempt. Godzilla, on the other hand, I can't say I'm glad that was made. Or Six Days, Seven Nights. Or the X-Files movie.

I'd rather see a movie that aims high and misses than a movie that aims low and misses. I have a kind of bipolar taste in movies anyway -- I love movies that aim high and hit, like Schindler's List, and I love movies that aim low and hit, like Starship Troopers. I don't, however, have much use for movies that aim right in the bland middle and hit, like The Truman Show, a clever piece of entertainment that many people are praising as art. The Truman Show is a textbook example of entertainment that makes you think you're thinking. It doesn't make you actually think, unless you haven't seen any of the movies and TV shows (like Twilight Zone) that handled the same themes before, and better. It comes on like art in entertainment's clothing, but beneath the inner layer of art you find a layer of reassuring themes found in populist entertainment. Right now it looks to be the year's first Oscar contender. See what I mean?

If art can be entertaining, can entertainment also be art? Can it do what it does so brilliantly that it transcends itself? Yes, but rarely. De Palma has done it, in such films as Blow Out and Casualties of War. Spielberg has done it -- some of the moments in the Indiana Jones trilogy are pure cinema, driven by an obsessive momentum very close to art. That's also true of Sergio Leone, John Woo, Luc Besson. Somehow the title "entertainment" doesn't fit such movies as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Hard Boiled -- it seems diminishing.

Indeed, some rare movies seem not to fit comfortably into the categories of art or entertainment. They occupy a realm between. I think of L.A. Confidential, which, as both book and movie, is hard-driving pulp with the obsessive complexity of art. A film like L.A. Confidential resists either-or logic -- it's its own thing. It's neither. It's both. Does it contradict itself? Very well, then, it contradicts itself. It is large, it contains multitudes. The term "middlebrow" was invented for work that cannot be classified as either highbrow or lowbrow, but it's a pejorative term -- all three terms are pejorative, actually -- and doesn't allow for the kaleidoscope of pleasures that a successful blend of art and entertainment can offer.

For me, the premier artist/entertainer is not any of my three filmmaking gods -- Kubrick, Lynch, or Cronenberg, artists who don't seem all that interested in entertaining anyone but themselves and fans like me. No, the guy I'm thinking of is Scorsese, who grew up on unapologetic pulp entertainment, swam around in the art of Fellini and Bergman and Godard in film school, and has managed, in his best work, to combine the best of both worlds -- the lurid propulsiveness of pulp and the emotional/psychological complexity of art. It's there in movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and GoodFellas -- though GoodFellas is more entertainment than art, and is not his best film, I don't think (I'm ready for the shitstorm of hostile e-mail on that one).

Scorsese may help me make a final point, using two of his movies that illustrate the difference between art and entertainment -- two movies that both star Robert De Niro as an unhinged stalker, and which I hated at first viewing. The King of Comedy is an airless and profoundly uncomfortable black comedy that left me absolutely cold. Then a few years later, I watched it again in preparation for a college paper on Scorsese, and it had somehow become a great film, an unsung masterpiece. Well, of course, the movie hadn't changed -- I had changed. I was ready for it, ready to accept it. The second movie was Cape Fear, which completely put me off when I saw it in the theater. Too in-your-face (literally -- I've never seen so many invasive close-ups in one movie), too violent (and I have a sky-high tolerance for movie brutality), too loud, too everything. A few years later, after preparing by reading J. Hoberman's appreciative review, I gave Cape Fear a second try on video. I hated it then, too.

The lesson? For me, it's this: If a work of art upsets you, bores you, or just generally puts you off to the point where you never want to see it again ... wait a while and see it again. It may surprise you. And if a piece of entertainment has the same bad effects on you ... in all likelihood, it ain't gonna improve with age. It's gonna remain a piece of unentertaining shit.


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