A Secular Age (8): Subtraction Stories
Leave of Absence

Art vs Entertainment

Despite the insistence of a distinction, art and entertainment are fundamentally the same domain - stimulation for it's own sake.

Yes, art claims loftier goals (culture versus commerce), but if you examine the history it is usually entertainment that has met those goals more effectively - Shakespeare, Dickens, Ella Fitzgerald... all entertainers who achieved artistic and cultural significance from within a commercial medium. Perhaps the paradigm case would be to note that The Beatles had more influence than Yoko Ono, although this is open to various objections, of course.

People who work in entertainment, such as commercial videogames, fool  themselves into believing what they do is art and thus sometimes  forget their role as entertainers. People who work in the art world deny what they do is entertainment,  yet still hope to collect gigantic fees for the sale of their work in  auctions, thus undermining the commercial distinction between the two spaces.

Art and entertainment are fundamentally the same: money is charged for stimulation. The key points of contrast are a claimed difference of intent (that often vanishes on closer inspection), radically different audiences, and a distinction in the role of prestige within their respective business models. (An artist uses their prestige to increase the value of single sales, while an entertainer also tries to leverage greater volume of sales).

Honestly, I suspect entertainment might be the more honest of the two.


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"Art and entertainment are fundamentally the same"

Controversial claim Chris, but one I see as ultimately void because art should properly be seen as a bleeding edge of entertainment media. Art is more like intellectual inquiry or science - once a certain area is established and accepted it can no longer be inhabited by true practitioners - those who remain are entertainers, like in the other realms I mentioned, those who remain are teachers and engineers. (Of course, individuals can be both explorer and settler, but is it not the nature of the work, not the worker, that is under debate?).
And then you have actions of time on these established areas, what was once accepted is overturned or eroded, sometimes to come back around again through fresh exploration or archaeology. Like music - we call discordant some note combinations that once were concordant. It is a weird evolution of what we think of as aesthetic invariances - beauty is in the training of the brain of the beholder.

I couldn't agree more with the central thought of this post. I've been having long discussions about this with a friend of mine, until I realized that what were doing was arguing arbitrary definitions.

Sometimes it can be useful to have terms for certain classes of concepts, but I didn't feel that the way most people use the term art was in any way useful. I've seen it used for "entertainment that's not fun", "entertainment from hundreds of years ago" or for "entertainment that's better than other entertainment", and clearly we can't want either of those.

The "are videogames art?" kerfuffle from last year (I guess it became most evident when Ebert and Barker started flinging poop at each other) was twice-useless. Once in that no one seems to be able to agree on a useful definition of art (Ebert tending strongly toward the "entertainment that's better than some other entertainment" definition, with not a hint of a criterium what makes that entertainment better), and twice in that most commonly used definitions cannot apply to videogames (or only to videogames aggressively designed to fit an arbitrary definition) as fun is closely linked to the concept of playing and the entire medium of videogames being too young to have produced entertainment that would have had time to age sufficiently.

Yet still I feel that there are many different ways in which entertainments cause an internal reaction in me, and that there is one class of reaction (which I really don't want to try and define now, but that troublesome adjective "profound" comes to mind) which would be useful to describe and classify--but I should probably take more time to sort my thoughts on the subject.

Where does art/entertainment that is distributed for free fit into your assessment?

I doubt that most people who work in videogames think of it as art as opposed to entertainment. (I work in videogames, and I havent met any that think that way.)

It's only the game CRITICS (pundits, bloggers, writers, reviewers etc) who sometimes try to treat games as art, presumably because it gives them more interesting things to say.

Oh, and maybe game designers. But 90% of designers are full of BS anyways ;)

I've been thinking about the same thing (again) lately as well. Art is probably just another form of entertainment, in the sense that people appreciate it because it gives them pleasure. But there's a much more important distinction to be made, that applieas to both art and entertainment. And it's the dictinction between art/entertainment made for the sake of giving pleasure and art/entertainment made for the sake of making money.

Dear all,

Thanks for your thoughts here! To clarify: I'm not saying we can't apply "art" or "entertainment" as terms, I'm just saying that both terms apply to one domain - the domain of stimulation for its own sake.

So Deirdra's question, which asks me to decide if her lovely free gamelets/artlets are art or entertainment, is neither here nor there for me since I'm expressly putting everyone into the same boat. :)

zenBen wants to call art the exploration to entertainment's exploitation... I like this a lot. But it seems to reinforce my claim, rather than overturn it! :) It does suggest an alternative fence for the boundary of art - but I don't think this fence will stand up to comparison with art history. It's a claim that better describes modern art. I don't think it applies to (say) Rembrandt at all.

In terms of zeech's objection, he answers himself: game designers consistently fall into the hole of thinking they have some higher claim to art that trumps their role as entertainers. Their employment conditions speaks otherwise, however! :)

I like Daniel's implication here that the "games as art" objection rests solely on the youth of the medium. I have to agree with this. In twenty years time, the idea that we haven't had art through games will be absurd. It's already absurd when you look at the cultural influence of both Space Invaders and Pac-man, frankly! :)

Michael's issue is an attempt to put a fence around commercial art and entertainment, as opposed to that which is motivated towards pleasure. But what about art that attempts at other emotions, like disgust? ;)

Honestly, that our artistic communities have developed a bizarre ethic that suggests that something which is pursued with no commercial intent is somehow sufficiently distinct in value from that which is pursued with the intent to make money troubles me greatly. Apart from the objection that the market corrupts everything given time, what does free art have that can distinguish the product of its actions from the product of commercial action?

The difference of intention here seems to vanish into the mystique of the starving artist living in a garret. That this artist's story is more exciting and engaging doesn't make their art significantly different from something equivalent produced in a commercial vein - or do you feel otherwise?

Perhaps there is a distinction here that can be regained, but I feel it will always be quite slight.

Thanks for the comments!

I'm sorry I didn't see this a few days earlier, but I was in Norway teaching.

Some modern philosophical conceptions of art concentrate almost entirely on the act of expression itself. Whether the resulting work is ever seen by anyone is irrelevant. They would deny that art is a form of stimulation at all, which rather undercuts your argument.

The distinction, then, is not to do with money, except as a by-product. Art is an expression of a vision. To the extent that the creator's vision is _driven_ by considerations of what the audience will think about it (or worse yet, to the extent that his vision is _subverted_ by such considerations), it moves away from the purity of self-expression.

Charles Dickens is less of an artist than Emily Dickinson, because he wrote with his audience in mind, whereas Dickinson, for the most part, never expected her poems to be seen. She wrote for herself -- pure self-expression.

Dickens' works may be considered "better" than Dickinson's, according to somebody's metric; but whether a thing is or is not art is unrelated to its quality. Quality is a separate issue. Stylistic preferences change, and this decade's rubbish is next decade's brilliance, and vice versa.

Your final comment seems to me more of a cynical observation about the commercial art world than about the nature of art itself. Artists can desire to make money. The real question is whether they permit the pursuit of money to subvert their vision or not. If they do not, then their works are still art. If a work turns out to be hugely financially valuable, it is because it appeals to someone, not because it is any more, or less, a work of art.

It is true that there are a great many hypocrites out there, mouthing pompous peans to the purity of art while all the while seeking to maximize profits, but such people are more likely to be art dealers than artists themselves. Most artists are never seen or heard of, working quietly along in their own way, and many never make any money at all, e.g. Emily Dickinson. (This doesn't mean their works are any good -- but they're still art.)

As for computer games, there's no question in my mind that they fall along the same continuum between pure art and popular entertainment as every other art form. The vast majority of computer games are light popular entertainment rather than works of art, not because they are sold, but because their design is driven by considerations of popularity. But a very, very small number of computer games are works of art because they are primarily self-expression.

The difficulty with games is that we _must_ consider the player to some degree, and so games can never be quite a pure an art form as e.g. poetry. I address this briefly in my Designer's Notebook column "The Tao of Game Design," in which I say:

"It's not possible to make a completely solipsistic video game. A designer can't make a game that is purely personal expression; she must give the player something to do, or it's not a game at all."

But then, not all computerized works _are_ games; not all of them are interactive; and some are unquestionably works of art and not intended to "entertain" anyone at all.

I still regard the distinction as a useful one -- not least, for an entirely pragmatic reason: When video games get the cultural status of an art form, then they will begin to get the respect they deserve, and will be more immune to efforts to censor them. So I resist any reasoning that would appear to relegate them to "entertainment," or to deny that the distinction is meaningful.

I don't have a problem with your argument in principle, although I do disagree, but I do have a problem with the gross generalizations you use to support your claims.

Let me say first that if you could use Ella Fitzgerald to approximate a modern Shakespeare, that would certainly bolster your claim that the most "effective" art springs forth historically from professional entertainers. But of course we both know Ella Fitzgerald, a performer with a wonderful quality of voice, is not Shakespeare, a one of the greatest poets and playwrights in history. I only hope the laughable list, "Shakespeare, Dickens, and Ella Fitzgerald" insults your intelligence for the sake of rhetorical convenience.

To move on: Shakespeare was extremely popular in his time and is popular today. But his popularity does not really suggest, as you say, that "it is usually entertainment that has met [the loftier goals of art] more effectively" than non-commercial art. It does not bode well for your argument to say "if you examine the history," when you have examined history selectively to suit your claims. Yes, Shakespeare and Dickens were popular entertainers of immense artistic quality. But what about Van Gogh, or Emily Dickinson, or William Blake or Hart Crane, artists with brilliancies largely overlooked until after their deaths who certainly can't be consider popular entertainers, much less commercial artists?

"People who work in the art world deny what they do is entertainment, yet still hope to collect gigantic fees." I'm sorry to disillusion you about whatever elitist high society conspiracy you may be envisioning, but there is no such thing as "the art world." There is only our one solitary rock, my friend. And people do "what they do" for a frustratingly complex variety of reasons. Yes, some people create art hoping to get rich or be famous, but many artists don't, especially those wondrous hordes that *gasp* you've never heard of. Some artists, believe it or not, don't get paid at all. Not every artist is a whore, even if it's convenient for your argument to say so.

To bring my treatise to a long overdue close, I'll note what seems to me the most interesting claim you've raised, that art, like entertainment, is simply stimulation for it's own sake. But here's where I most fervently disagree. Art is to entertainment as nourishing food is to tasty food, which is to say they may overlap but aren't both stimulating for the sake of stimulation. It's a simple, maybe childish metaphor, but it will serve I hope for this essential point. Art nourishes us emotionally and spiritually and yes, intellectually. It has a definite societal and psychological value, even if that value can't be expressed in dollar signs. That art may also be tasty, as with Dickens and Shakespeare, doesn't make it fast food.

Thanks for sharing your viewpoint, Shakestaffe! This is an old post, and just a short throw-away piece intended to provoke discussion at the time. I don't feel the need to add anything, and the only thing I can offer that's counter to your comment is that there clearly is something we can call "the art world" just as there is something we can call "the movie industry", "professional sports" or "academia". They may be abstractions, but it's pretty clear what they refer to. :) Thanks for stopping by!

The phrase "the art world" may be commonly tossed about, but that doesn't mean it's as clear as you say.

"The movie industry," "professional sports," and "academia," aren't abstractions. 'The movie industry' describes the conglomerations of production companies, distribution companies and theater outlets involved in film production and distribution. 'Professional sports' are any organized sports played for money, and 'academia' describes the community of those involved professionally in research, education, and scholarship.

On the other hand "the art world" is almost entirely an abstraction. Is it made up by only those who create art? Or does it also include those who appreciate art? If so, who is not a part of the art world? Does "the art world" include musicians or composers or novelists or only visual artists, and what about those who create art without pay? It's not really clear at all what "the art world" refers to, which makes it problematic when you try to condemn tendencies in "the art world."
When you generalize that people in the "art world" deny that their work is entertainment and collect huge paychecks, you can ignore the fact that most artists aren't paid very much if anything and that many artists work virtuously, because the phrase "art world" doesn't really mean anything.

And the post may have been a throwaway, but the age-old discussion about art vs. entertainment needs less provocation and more earnest approaches, especially on the internet. Provocative words without consideration only muddy the debate.

Seriously, Shakestaffe, there's no point wasting time on this impulse rant... If you don't like the term 'art world' go bug Howard Becker - I didn't coin it! :)

There's far more substantial posts here if you want to have a serious discussion - but if your only interest is art-versus-entertainment, I doubt I have much to offer you.

As possible things that might interest you I can only suggest:

- my serial on Kendall Walton's Mimesis as Make-Believe.
- Maybe Pluto and Eris - a dialogue, since you seem to enjoy debating terminology.
- Perhaps Ebert's Fence and Games as Art, since it at least deals with questions of what qualifies as art.

Otherwise, you're probably better served elsewhere.

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