Art vs. Entertainment

A band I cannot recall the name of playing at Pollywogg Holler in Belmont, NY, 2016.  They had to hike their gear through the woods to play to a handful of folks that day.

Last week I talked about the aim of performing music, and today I’d like to shift to a related subject that often comes up in conversation when live music is discussed: the difference between art and entertainment.

At its core, art is the doing and the product of human creative skill, that results in something that is pleasing to behold for its beauty or emotional power. Entertainment is the creation and presentation of something that provides amusement or enjoyment.  When one creates art, they have simultaneously created entertainment. When one entertains, they draw upon art to craft the presentation. These definitions overlap, but where does the overlap end?

Take for instance a television show wholly meant to entertain, like Family Guy, Modern Family, or The Big Bang Theory. These are money-making vehicles that survive based on their popularity. They are created to please people who are not looking for emotional power or inspiration, but rather something that amuses them, maybe gives them a giggle here and there.

But is there not art in these entertainment endeavors? Of course there is. The writing, the lighting, the set design, the acting methods, the makeup, the sound design, the comic delivery… and the list goes on. These are the products of art, works of creative skill that birthed something inspiring to behold. You may not perceive or connect with the use of subtle choreography by a director to achieve the maximum comic effect, or the vocal inflections utilized by a professional actor to do the same, but these techniques are art. It could even be argued that the cheap gag they are used to create is art, in the way its writer created it. So why then does cheesy TV seem so very not artistic?

Or, take for instance Bach’s Ninth Symphony. This is near universally regarded as a work of art. Listening to it evokes the feelings that art is meant to tug upon. And there is no doubt that great creative skill went into its creation. Owing not only to the skill level but also to the uniqueness of each of us, literally no one else in any time in history could have made that particular piece of music, except Bach, right when he did.

But is there not entertainment in this art? Of course there is. Bach himself would cite practical reasons for composing it, having to do with money, station in life and in society, and the pressure of expectation of his peers. We see these as coals that fuel the furnace in which his creative work was forged, but they are wrapped up in his work nonetheless, just as what The Wall represented to Roger Waters is caught up in the music and art that spun from it, and just as performance and financial needs drive a band to tour, or drive a painter to set up showings.

There is a perceived dichotomy between art and entertainment that arises at least in part as a contrarian response to the understood significance of each thing. One is deeply personal, profound, and represents the best in us. The other is pandering for attention or gain. Artists reel at the suggestion that their work is entertainment. But, as it happens, not at the suggestion that their work is entertaining.

Because all artists create things that bear the ability to move others. It’s part of the work. An artist creates for themselves, because they must. And they make work that moves them; this is how they know it will move others. From the start, the desire to make something that people will enjoy is a part of the process. And that is entertainment whether they would claim it or not.

So where do we draw the line? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, do we draw one at all?

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