Saturday, August 04, 2007

Art and Entertainment

When I finished writing my epic, 130-or-so page thesis, I thought my life would slow down quite a bit. But I have found that teaching two 8 unit classes over the summer is a lot of work. I plan on getting on here more and posting more creative writing and nonfiction, but until then I thought I would share a few posts I made to forum concerning the difference between art and entertainment. Someone posed the question, "What is the difference? Where do you draw the line? When is something both?":

Linguists talk about being prescriptive and descriptive with language and grammar. Some linguists tell people what a word should me, how it should be spelled, or how a sentence should be punctuated, and others simply describe how people define words, spell them, and how they use grammar. Typically, prescriptive linguistics is not helpful for languages or linguistics because languages are almost impossible to control, but in the case of the arts and philosophy, I firmly believe that prescriptive linguistics are beneficial.

In the case of differentiating between Art and Entertainment I think we need to ask ourselves what we want these words to mean before we talk about how to apply them. For example, some people want to define art as anything that expresses the art's emotions, but if that is true than "flipping the bird" or honking your horn at a careless driver would have to be labeled a work (or act) of art. Most people that define art in such a way don't fully consider the ramifications of such a definition.

How can we define Art and Entertainment so that the words are most useful in discussions and personal reflection?

I choose to think of entertainment as that particular time of media which encourages and/or produces passiveness. We can see this concept work out in our language. A person can be the objecting of entertainment, "That show is entertaining him." But we cannot do the same with art, "That painting is arting him." The implication is that in with entertainment something is being done to us, and we do something to art (I.E. we attempt to understand it).

Where this issue gets complicated is with the use of "entertaining" as an adjective to describe a work of art. If something causes us to be pleased, if it produces joy or exuberance, and if it is exciting, we might call that work of art "entertaining," but this does not mean it is entertainment (at least in the sense that I would like to use the word).

A great work of art might capture your attention, cause you to laugh, and yet still force or encourage you to be active. For example, Huckleberry Finn is extremely entertaining, but Twain's commentary on the cruel nature of man (or at least man in a government or organization) is profoundly compelling. Thus, we could say that this work of art is also entertaining, but it would be misleading to say that it is entertainment.

What is interesting to me is that much of the difference between a piece of media which encourages us to be passive and one that encourages us to be active is not necessarily inherent in the work itself, in general it is merely our cultural or personal disposition towards a type of media. For example, when I sit in front of the TV I might begin to disengage my mind because I have been culturally predisposed to "receive" TV rather than engage it. Likewise, when I go to a museum I prepare myself to analyze the paintings, to engage them, because I have been culturally conditioned to believe that paintings are things people wrestle with. Therefore, I believe that the heart of this issue lies not so much with the individual works, but with our attitude as consumers.

As believers, I firmly believe that we have no right to be "entertainment" because to be entertained connotes passiveness, and we must always be vigilant to take every thought captive. That does not mean that I think that television or animated films are wrong for Christians to engage; instead I believe that we have an obligation to treat all "entertainment" as art and take an active role in understanding it's message, themes, concepts, and underlying assumptions. If we take the same approach to viewing sitcoms as we do to viewing works of high art in a museum, we will gain a better understanding of the world we live in, we will be more well guarded from ideas and worldviews which are antithetical to our Faith, and we will be able to give honor and praise to those works which are deserving of it.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Good definitions:

If I may offer a nitpick that might be useful. Occassionally, the "art v. entertainment" subject is brought up, for various very good reasons. However, it is my experience that more commonly people assume "art" to be a subset of "entertainment," as in "The Stories in Coach's Midnight Diner are not only thoroughly and chillingly entertaining, but rise to the level of art in their engagement with the deeper difficulties and complexities of Christianity within a fallen world."

My point: is there a specific reason why you don't allow art and entertainment to overlap within one work?

noneuclidean said...

No, I agree. They often overlap.

But I would say that works of art can be entertaining, but are not entertainment.

I think the very idea of entertainment encourages a passiveness that is fundamentally unhealthy for critical thinking and righteous discernment. I think Christians should abandon the idea of entertainment altogether and treat all media as worthy of critical thinking and reflection, since all media posits a worldview, whether purposefully or not.

However, I fully acknowledge that art has an entertaining quality, which is a very good thing.

Does that make sense?

Thanks for the response.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I see what you are trying to say, and I really want to agree with it (as an author of dark fiction, as a literary critic, etc.) I think my objection is that to a certain extent passive entertainment is an important and valuable part of the aesthetic experience. Hamlet is a story in which a prince struggles with his impossible duties, edges over to a madness that is only partially pretend, and demonstrates a whole lot of the struggles of humanity. It also is chock full of scenes that have no other purpose than to make the audience sit back and laugh in a disengaged manner. Hence the idea of passive entertainment.

It was thinking about your post, in part, that lead to my latest blog entry, so maybe that'll help clarify what I was trying to say.

noneuclidean said...

I'd have to go to the specific passages to be precise, but I would venture to guess that those scenes in Hamlet which might appear to serve as mere disengaged entertainment actually draw us in to the humanity of the characters; so while we might not, at that specific moment, be thoughtfully considering some profound idea drawn from the play, we are given information about the characters which allows us to have such contemplative moments later, when the characters mean more to us.

Of course, I'd have to reread Hamlet to be sure that I'm characterizing the play properly, but don't think I've misrepresented it. The other possibility--one which I am much more hesitant to posit--is that the scenes you're alluding to could be weaknesses in his play, places where Shakespeare needed to please his audience rather than keep the consistency of his theme. Just a thought.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Hmm...perhaps you are right (you certainly wouldn't be the first to have valid criticisms of Shakespeare!) I think I may need to rethink my argument before responding further--I think that at the very least I am compounding two separate issues (1 - the usefulness of mindless entertainment. 2 - the importance of art that remembers to be fun while making a serious point, and uses the fun (maybe a bit self-indulgently) to make the point.)

In unrelated news, my name is Robert Garbacz, my story is "The Salvation of Sancho," and my email is my first name, followed by "TheScott," and is a GMail address. I just don't tend to announce any of those specifics on my website, largely because I'm paranoid about talking to multiple audiences and don't want that to be the first response when someone googles my name.