Friday, July 02, 2010

Art and Entertainment

Roger Ebert recently wrote an interesting article on why videogames can never be art which caused quite the stir in the online community. At the time of this writing Ebert had received just shy of 4500 comments to his article, most of them lambasting him for his inexperience with video games and lack of a clear definition of what he meant by "art." Ebert, being the fair minded, sensitive writer that he is, recently posted a few concluding thoughts on the matter where he acquiesced to these charges and admitted that he had no interest in finding out for himself whether the games his commentators recommended could be considered since this would, obviously, require him to spend several hours playing video games. And as Ebert notes: "there are books to read and movies to see."


A scene from the popular video-game Counter-Strike

I'm not interested at all in getting into this discussion. Let's just say that I agree with Ebert but that I am similarly handicapped as he is when it comes to knowledge of the newest cutting-edge video games. I've certainly played my fair share of games but I've never seen anything remotely resembling artfulness, sensitivity or beauty in any of them. They serve fine as entertainment but they have, at least in my (so far unargued for) opinion, little if anything to do with art.

But this, of course, is begging the question of what art is and what its tenuous relationship with entertainment might be. These questions, I think, are worth raising outside the discussion of video games (of which I have no interest or knowledge so better people than me and Ebert need to have that discussion) since it applies just as well solely to the form of film. Being a great fan of genre films, including the much-ridiculed genres of Western, action films and horror I have always been interested in this question with regards to the aesthetic quality of these films and whether or not they transcend entertainment.

If we are to begin discussing some fundamental differences between art and entertainment I think we must immediately accept the fact that entertainment is largely a subjective thing. A person who enjoys rollercoasters is obviously not going to get into an argument with someone who would rather ride the bumper cars. This would be like a fan of vanilla icecream making an argument for its superiority over strawberry. Furthermore, entertainment seems culturally relative.

I've always hated rollercoasters and this one looks especially obnoxious. Yellow and purple? Really?

That being said, I do not think that art is similarly subjective. The philosophical study of aesthetics is an attempt to understand human response to - and creation of - beauty through a certain kind of techné, a craft or skill that allows us to express ourselves and to touch on spiritual and philosophical truths, that expand our empathy and deepen our understanding and wisdom of ourselves and the world around us. Even though there is, obviously, a "subjective" element to this, meaning that the way in which we experience and understand beauty is going to differ from the way someone else experiences it, we are nonetheless experiencing and understanding the same thing. As I've mentioned before, the subjective vs. objective dichotomy is based on a philosophical mistake that remains to be culturally corrected. There is, of course, an element to my experience which is untranslatable to others but to somehow reduce art to this untranslatable, "subjective" realm (the realm of mere opinion) is to relativize art, which means to rob it of all meaning and truth. If this were all that art is then it would not be worth talking about or writing about, or even experiencing. It would simply be a way to pass the time much as roller coasters, bumper cars or (in my humble opinion) video games.

Now, the reason why these two obviously different realms of human experience, entertainment and art, are so often confused in our modern age seems to be primarily due to the fact that our unquenchable thirst for entertainment is a truly modern phenomenon and so it seems natural for the more modern forms of art, like that of film, to become intrinsically linked with the satiation of that thirst. It is interesting to note that it is really only in the 19th century that the word "boredom" starts to pop up in literature and and philosophy. This is not to say that people weren't bored, at one time or another, before that (were French aristocrats in the 17th century not bored? Or Roman emperors?) but rather that boredom did not exist as a kind of existential mode, a way of being-in-the-world to use Heidegger's phrase, as it does for us modern people. Dostoyevsky, primarily in his novels Crime and Punishment and The Brother's Karamazov points to boredom and the constant need for entertainment as clears signs of the spiritual sickness of nihilism that is engulfing the modern world (beating Nietzsche's prophetic writings to the punch by a couple of decades).

With increased leisure and the rise of the middle-class in the 19th and 20th century entertainment became an enormous part of culture and human experience. With the loss of traditional spiritual practices and the erosion of certain universal cultural values the need for "fun" becomes almost a religion in itself, a way to anesthetize the ennui and existential angst of a modern age that has foregone any traditional philosophical and spiritual wisdom in favor of everything that is "new," "exciting" and "innovative," a condition that is made all the worse by the rampant development of the new elite of scientists, technocrats and businessmen. The relationship between consumerism and entertainment has, of course, always been a happy and flourishing one.

Film is, in some ways, the quintessential 20th century art form. It arises out of certain technological developments and owes its enormous popularity to the aforementioned middle-class, thirsty for the new and the exciting. And it is obvious when one views some of the first films made that the medium was primarily thought of as a means of entertainment. The simple spectacle of the moving image was enough to fill people with excitement and awe. Yet early on the possibilities of this form started to capture the imagination of true visionaries and artists. Viewing a film like George Méliès' La Voyage dans la Lune is a truly breathtaking experience because it shows a film that expresses a sense of wonder and beauty without it being reducible to mere entertainment. Viewing a moving image of anything back then was considered a form of entertainment but Méliès' images are not only fun but also beautiful, strange, thought-provoking and wondrous.

A scene from La Voyage dans la Lune

And this brings me to another essential difference between art and entertainment. What was entertaining for previous generations is boring and trite for the young of today. Show an old black and white film of a train moving through a European landscape to a modern teenager and he or she will be playing "Farmville" on their ipad in twenty seconds but for a young man or woman in late 19th century America this image would have been pure magic. Similarly, whatever is considered entertainment today will be considered boring in just a few years, perhaps even a few months. With the ridiculous rate of innovation in the field of online entertainment and technology the addiction for the new and exciting becomes more and more intense. It is similar to drug addicts, going from Benzedrine's to cocaine to crack, each one providing a high more intense than the other yet each more short lived, superficial and destructive. This is the reason why videogames continually have to become louder, more violent, more spectacular. (A question: This is true of many of today's films also, especially special-effects-driven CGI monstrosities such as Transformers. Does this mean these films are mere entertainment or rather that they are bad art? Do they aspire to - and fail to achieve - any artistry at all?)

Art, unlike entertainment, transcends time and place. Art is forever. True beauty continues to touch us throughout the ages, transcending cultures, beliefs, philosophies, everything that separates us. Art unites. The films of George Méliès are just as beautiful today as they were when they were first made. So are the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Dante, the odes of Rumi. A modern Christian may be filled with a sense of wonder and awe, may understand something fundamental about himself, other human beings and God by seeing a 500 year old Buddhist mandala if he or she is open and sensitive to the nuances, the subtleties, the power of form and spiritual and philosophical truths portrayed therein. The same may be said of a Buddhist hearing the Christian poetry of John Donne. Each understands the truths conveyed immediately if he or she is not close-minded, not shut-off from what connects us, what makes us human.

A Tibetan Buddhist Mandala

And this is another difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is easy, it is effortless. It simply provides a thrill, some fun, some enjoyment, and then it is gone. It is the equivalent of eating a hamburger at a fast food place: whilst eating the burger you experience some mild enjoyment but after passing gas once you're hungry again and probably don't feel that good. Art, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a fine meal accompanied by the perfect wine in a beautiful, tranquil setting in the company of good and wise friends. It fills and nourishes both body and soul, making us more sensitive and more open to new experiences and new people. Yet it takes patience and some struggle, it demands of us a certain amount of responsiveness and thoughtfulness. Art demands that we be a certain kind of person in order for her to reveal to us her secrets, much like lady philosophy does. This is not elitism. Anyone can choose to be this kind of person, yet so many choose not to. So many choose the thoughtlessness and crudeness of entertainment over art exactly because it is easier, much like so many choose the shadows of material comfort and luxury as the paths towards happiness instead of the truths of wisdom and contemplation.

Yet after all of this are we any closer to knowing what art is? Do we have a clear definition? Of course not. There are no clear definitions of things that truly matter in this world, no matter what the nihilistic exactitude of analytic philosophy may claim. Art, like love, wisdom, truth and goodness is mysterious, elusive. It must be treated with respect and care. We move closer towards understanding it through dialectic, by sharing our experiences and our thoughts. This is why film criticism, at least to me, still remains such an important area of study and expression. This is why I love doing what I am doing right now, writing these words in a spirit of (what I hope to be) honesty and truth. Yet even though we learn more and more about what art is we can never reduce it to necessary and sufficient conditions. And thank God for that.

It is clear that films are extremely entertaining, at least the films made at each moment in time for each generation (the children of today's teens and pre-teens will inevitably find The Dark Knight and Transformers to be horribly boring). Yet it is also clear that films are art insofar as they are beautiful and true. Can they be both? Surely, for all art is entertaining to those who are sensitive and open to its magic. But it is also something more. What this "something" is is, of course, very difficult to understand and know but that is what I hope to learn more about through writing on this website and talking to people who also seek to know.

All of this was supposed to lead to a discussion of genre films and whether or not well-made films within those genres could be considered art. I think I will wait a bit to discuss this and write another article solely devoted to that question. For now it has been good to think about the difference between art and entertainment. To close I would just like to briefly quote Dostoyevsky who said something very true about art and human spiritual potential that fills me with a great deal of hope: "Beauty will save the world."

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