What a pleasure to read the comments on last week’s blog entry (“Is It Art or Entertainment?”). I conclude that there were three general types of comments: (1) comments focusing on the question of whether or not an inherent art/entertainment dichotomy in a given cultural product exists; (2) those focusing on a definition of the difference between the two adjectives; and (3) those focusing on my motives.
I’ll address the last category first by clarifying two points: (1) I don’t claim the music of Frank Sinatra to be “inferior” to anyone’s and I have no problem, per se, with his music. In fact, I like it … a lot—even his drivel, like “High Hopes.” Ole’ Blue Eyes studied his craft diligently and held his music to high artistic standards. His bands played great arrangements and included top-notch musicians. But Sinatra’s music isn’t a vehicle that I find conducive for my artistic standards. For one thing, there aren’t enough bass solos. There’s also the point that the performance I was involved in had nothing to do with playing high-end ballroom dance music. It wasn’t a matter of having to “always move to something better”—that’s between an individual and whatever motivates her/him—although, personally, I try to (I may not always succeed, but I always try). And I do understand that for some, even many, there exists an ideal performance representing their imago of perfection (e.g., the music of Frank Sinatra). I say to them, “More power to you.” I don’t mind playing in situations where that’s the policy from time to time, but that’s not what I was doing at the Queen Vic that night. Furthermore, the music I was remarking about wasn’t performed by Frank Sinatra; it was performed in the style of Frank Sinatra by a contemporary vocalist whose name I don’t know and, for the sake of argument, don’t want to know (while this might be entertaining to some, it isn’t even close to art—unless you count the art of forgery). And (2) no, I wasn’t really asking “How does one find an audience?” I was asking, “Do art and entertainment exist independently from each other?” For that comment I would specify a re-phrasal of my question with, “Is the output of Alan Sherman artistic?” But that’s a rhetorical question.
I liked the request posed in this set of responses of being “a little more specific as to the differences [between art vs. entertainment],” though. It led to an interesting set of opinions on the idea that art is “something that aims to leave a listener/viewer changed by their experience of it, while entertainment does not.” I would argue that entertainment is also designed to alter its audience’s point of view; principally to suspend negative feelings for a time by addressing issues common to us all, like unfulfilled urges and desires. Art, though, addresses different types of issues, such as technical mastery of medium. One could make the case that art deals with form while entertainment focuses on content. Whether or not one is “changed” after being entertained by a work of art has little to do with the intent, nature, or merit of that work, though. I was changed when I first heard Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” performed by the Monkees in 1966. I’m sure that if I had heard The Free Spirits’ “LBOD” in the same year I would have been unimpressed. When I heard the song in 2006, however, I was moved. So I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the comment that the question could be “better answered by looking at the reception” of the work. While I’m not the biggest fan of reception studies, they do remind us that music won’t exist until it’s heard.
It’s important to note that the culture we describe, American music, is one that includes commerciality as a value. We don’t play music to heal the sick, raise the dead, bend the will of God, or alter the weather (however, it is still used to enhance the attitudes of warriors and break the will of enemies); but, at the rate education funds are being slashed, it’s doubtful if it will be used for teaching for much longer. To put it simply, the American musical audience is considered a non-participatory consumer class, usually faceless, largely manipulated into contact with music not meant to be paid attention to. The music of the dentist’s office or the supermarket is meant to change you into a patient or a compulsive shopper.
So, is that art or entertainment?