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.