Is It Art or Entertainment?
I’m not that discouraged when I see a zero in the box that registers how many comments my blog has generated because there are fairly regular posts sent to my personal email and my Facebook page by those who don’t want to engage in “blog wars.” Of course, seeing comments posted on the NewMusicBox.org site soothes my concerns about how the staff at AMC might assess my weekly observations, but the off-site comments, particularly those sent to my email, are just as, or even more, important to me. For instance, one gentleman who “took umbrage” with my opinion of the music that Paul Whiteman produced and called “jazz” as “drivel,” inspired me to adjust my assessment in consideration of the Aeolian Hall concert. But I still hold my original consideration for the bulk of his output, just as I do for that of Lawrence Welk: well crafted and flawlessly performed drivel. I bring this up because my blogpost from last week, which has generated zero comments so far, inspired one of my regular off-site commentators to a criticism that raises an important issue about American music.
The springboard for the comment was my admission that a group I am in had agreed to explore a new strategy in our improvisation with the end of “presenting something palatable to a broader audience than just ourselves.” The comment continued with:
[A]t your advanced age, you can rest assured that if what you are doing is truly satisfying to you … it will be to others as well. [T]oo many musicians get tangled up in … pleasing an audience (and who actually is that imaginary listener anyway?) and that the music gets confused in the process.
Disregarding the “fightin’ words” of the commentator’s opening, I confess that the confusion comes from me. The original title of the entry was “Aha!”, referring to the process where a problem seems to miraculously solve itself after a period of time. Because the entry made no attempt to explain the title, the reference was too vague and the title was changed in the editorial process to “Navigating Contexts.” I had no problem with the title, since it was a fair interpretation of the content of the entry. In hindsight, I should have counter-submitted “Negotiated Contexts,” which is more to the spirit of my blog without denying the original editorial perspective. The end result, though, is that the commentator interpreted the theme of the entry as being about altering strategies to assuage prospective demographics, when the thesis was actually about exploring dormant modes of expression. This, in and of itself, wasn’t the reason for taking up the comment as this week’s centerpiece; I would have probably either responded by email or ignored the comment altogether. But the commentator’s ensuing statement struck to my core.
Entertainment works with the observer in a different part of the equation than art does. [A]s soon as you include an anticipated audience in the creation of the work, you’ve moved into the territory of entertainment, even if not fully committed to it as such.
When we decided to change from a “garage band” mode (practicing together) to one focused on public performance, we accepted the responsibility of dialectic with an audience. Spending the better part of a year once or twice a week to work on our electronic “toys” resulted in improvisations that would go on for hours with no other reason than producing novel sounds from somewhat primitive gear definitely beats sitting around watching soap operas. But performing in any venue places obvious and necessary limitations on self-expression: a time to start; a time to stop; does the audience like what you’re doing; does the venue like what you’re doing; whether or not to honor any traditions inherent in the venue. These are just a few of the considerations that public performance places on its practitioners. One can assume that a certain amount of entertainment value is included in this dialectic. It doesn’t mean that one has to adhere to a top-hat-and-cane aesthetic, though.
When our trio recently played at the Queen Vic (which we do every Wednesday at 8pm), music reminiscent of Sinatra with a big band was blasting on the house PA while we set up. One of the clients at the bar commented, “This is the music I grew up with,” obviously intent on making sure I understood that she wanted to hear us play in the same vein. My indirect response was, “It’s also the music I grew up with and that’s why we don’t play it.” To show that we know how to play tunes, though, we opened with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (which we’d never previously played together) and everything was fine. We made our minimum without having to pass the tip jar.
When we were offered a night at the 21st Century Schizoid Music Series to fill in for a cancellation, we knew we could pretty much play anything we wanted to within the time and noise constraints of the venue. So we organized two contrasting sets of improvisations that we would never have attempted at the Vic. It was a shame that more people didn’t show up. Although the room made its minimum, we didn’t. But I think our commentator would have liked the show.
This leads me to the point raised by my email correspondent: Do art and entertainment exist independently from each other? Is something that is found to be entertaining voided of some degree of artistic merit? Is something valued as a work of art somehow voided of its entertainment value? What does this line of inquiry mean when one apprehends the work of Duke Ellington, Richard Wagner, Paul Whiteman, Fletcher Henderson, W.A. Mozart, Frank Zappa, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Fred Ho, Pauline Oliveros, Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory?
I’ll take the comments anywhere they fall!