But Is It Art?

I got into a discussion with a coworker today about the nature of art.  His thesis, as near as I could decipher it, was that Art is somehow different from Entertainment, and that the two things should be judged by different standards.

I disagree.  I believe that entertaining is one of the functions of art–not the only one, but a prime one.  Art that does not entertain can’t do anything else, because if the audience isn’t entertained, then the audience won’t stick around for it.  (Unless they are strapped to a chair like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.)

This is why that I feel that Atlas Shrugged, while I applaud Ms. Rand’s intent, is an abysmal failure.  It’s not an entertaining book.  It is, in fact, only readable in the most broad sense of it being a collection of sentences in the English language.

Art that does not entertain is bad art.  Now, I will readily admit that there is a huge subjective component to entertainment.  Not every work will reach every person.  Some artists will be popular with a lot of people, some artists will have a very small audience.

My point, though, is that the primary focus of a work of art should be to entertain the audience.  Artists have a greater or lesser degree of skill in their craft, and audiences have varied tastes.  Striving to entertain does not guarantee success.

However, I believe that not striving to entertain guarantees failure.  Yes, art can educate, it can edify, it can wake us from our contented slumber and make us think and feel.  Art can, and great art does, engage us on the deepest levels of our souls.  Art can make us better, more fully human, than we would be without it.

It does that by entertaining us.  Nineteen Eighty Four is a novel that changed so much of how I personally saw the world and thought about what I saw.  It hit me like a sledge hammer when I first read it, thirty something years ago.

It would have meant nothing to me if I hadn’t cared what happened to Winston Smith.  I didn’t sit down to read it because I wanted to challenge my preconceptions and I didn’t keep reading it in order to better understand the abuses of collective power.  I read it because I wanted to know what happened next.  I read it because a man who never lived stole my heart and made me fear for him and bleed for him.  I read it because it entertained me.

I’ll confess, I am a populist.  I have always felt that there is an element of sour grapes in the segregation of “popular fiction” from “literary fiction”.   I don’t believe that writing something that the “masses” can’t understand is something to brag about.  I believe that art is communication and that an artist with a large audience is one who communicates well.

All of which means that I am not likely to ever be the darling of the New York Times Review Of Books.  It’s okay, I’m not writing for them.  I’m writing for the great unwashed, the plebes, the people who pick up a book to lose themselves in a story, and not because the right people say that it’s “significant”.

I write to entertain.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to But Is It Art?

  1. Oh, that is definitely how I feel when I write a piece. To entertain the readers. I may not be a wordsmith, and know floral and pretty words to describe scenes, but I will put my all into fleshing a character so you can get a sense of their emotions.

    Thank you for sharing this. ❤

  2. Vagrance says:

    I think you’re right here. Art exists to pleasure the human mind. If it fails to do so, then it is bad. While no one can agree on what is and isn’t entertaining, I think in the end the work must have an audience to which is appeals to.

    Just because something has mass appeal does not make it any less artistic than those that target niches.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      And that’s the thing that bugs me–people who claim that a writer who is a best seller must somehow be less of an “artist” than someone with a smaller audience. I honestly believe that’s envy talking.

      • Vagrance says:

        It could simply be intellectual arrogance. Not too long ago, fine art was reserved for the aristocracy. Anything that appeals to the common folks must therefore be inferior. I however, don’t think that is the case any more.

  3. The Husband and I had a conversation on this topic recently, which started with me wailing about how my “prose” did not match up to some other book I was reading. He kindly sat me down and asked me if I remembered when it was common for musical artists to be labeled as sellouts for signing with big labels and if I had ever given a rat’s hiney what any hipster said about music I liked. “Of course not! I like what I like!” Oh, I see what you did there, you tricky man!

    If something speaks to you, whether it’s floral prose, horror, comedy, hair-thrashing music (that annoys The Husband), or sidewalk chalk paintings it’s art.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Absolutely! I remember back when “People Are People” was released and suddenly a lot of my friends who loved Depeche Mode when they were obscure started talking about how they were “selling out”. It was kind of fun listening to them claim “well, I guess their early stuff was okay…” when Depeche Mode was so consistent musically. It’s just that a larger audience got to be exposed to their sound.

  4. Misha, you really put your foot in it, I, as well as Wikipedia, agree with your co-worker. Here is the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art. I will not reproduce here the afore mentioned article, just a few words in support of your co-worker.
    Art is a collage of “forms, genres, media and styles”. We love and appreciate the Fine Arts and Creative Arts. Performing Arts, when great skill and craft are well employed, are an integral part of the “Arts and Entertainment” world.
    Paintings, as well as other plastic arts have “value judgement” issues. As the Wikipedia article points out, Francisco Goya’s “3rd Of May” painting, depicting a horrific event in Spain on 1808, produced social and political outrage. I doubt it could be classified as “entertaining”.
    In conclusion, I agree with Wikipedia that art has many purposes and different functions. “Art has long been controversial”.
    That said, thanks Misha for getting some of us off our easy chairs and actually getting excited about your topic.

  5. Wanderer says:

    My dad and I have this conversation regularly about movies and books! What is the point of “art” if no one enjoys it?

    Write for the mob–give us panem et circenses!

  6. I’ve never liked the word “literary” and for me this just stands for “boring”. I’m glad someone else also feels that we need to entertain.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I really wonder if anyone actually reads “literary” fiction, or if they just buy the books so that they can be seen carrying them around at Starbucks.

  7. Pingback: But Is It Art? | mishaburnett | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

  8. It could also be that “art” is a function of time, defined as entertainment that is still found to be worthwhile at some future point in time. For example, Dickens was popular entertainment in his time, and only became “literature” later on, while on the other hand, Jean Auel’s “Clan of the Cave Bear” series was just as popular in its time, but didn’t stand that test of time. In this sense, there are no artists, only entertainers who may or may not someday get that designation.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I can see that perspective as well. It depends on how one defines “art”, and I have a looser definition of the word than most. I would say that both Dickens and Auel created art, but Dickens’ art endured longer. But that’s just arguing about how to define a word, the fact is that some writers are still being read long after they have died, and some are forgotten right away. It’s damn near impossible to predict which way a book will go in advance, which is why the test of time is so important.

      • Right on Misha. Dickens wrote for his contemporaries and yet he has gained new fans every generation. His “Art” is like classical music, while, as you point out some others are soon forgotten. It’s seems impossible to me a writer can “formulate” enduring entertainment. I believe it’s like a lottery: a few win, most lose. That’s my two cents worth.

  9. I think art can be entertaining, but it does not have to be entertaining to be art. But art is subjective, and what I consider art is very rarely entertaining, and what I find entertaining, I rarely consider art.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Again, I see an issue of definitions here. Suppose I use the word “enjoyment” rather than “entertainment”? The point that I am trying to make is that in order for art to reach an audience, the audience must derive some sort of satisfaction from it.

      I don’t see people saying, “Well, actually I hate having that ugly thing on my wall, but since it’s art I force myself to endure it.”

      • Yes, but that satisfaction does not always mean enjoyment or entertainment. In Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” he gives “melancholy” as the featured emotion derived from the greatest art.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I think that’s more a comment on Poe’s taste than any absolute standard of artistic merit.

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