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!

9 thoughts on “Is It Art or Entertainment?

  1. Lisa Alvarado

    I personally believe that all art exist in a context and has implications for the viewer/artist. wile one may choose no to cater to the ‘flavor of the month,’ there is both the real life considerations of any working artist, which I feel are germane, as well as the desire to have one’s art be a place of connection.

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  2. Clint Needham

    When has art ever not been, at least in part, entertainment? Even when you only play for yourself, you are still entertaining someone (yourself). I really don’t think art and entertainment are independent from each other… I can’t think of anything artistic that is not at the same time entertaining.

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  3. Colin Holter

    This is a big question – and one I feel could probably be better answered by looking at the reception rather than the content of artworks – but I just want to point out that the words “art” and “entertainment” as we imagine them may not represent logically comparable categories. We can be “entertained,” for instance, but we can’t be “arted.”

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  4. Phil Fried

    What you are really asking Ratzo is; how does one find an audience?Also, can an audience be “scienced?” (For me there are three kinds of audiences; interested, disinterested, and captive).

    If you look at my youtube vid hits http://www.youtube.com/thisby1 you see that some of my works are more popular than others even within similar styles.

    To me that just means that some works take longer to find their audience than others. No matter. I myself intend to stay true to my vision and start a regular series of improvisation performance here in the twin cities.

    Phil Fried

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  5. Terence O'Grady

    I’m a little troubled by Mr. Harris’ remark “It’s also the music I grew up with and that’s why we don’t play it.” I have a lot of difficulty assuming that this criterion is a worthy one for determining what to leave out of someone’s repertoire. Is the idea “we’re always moving on to something better?” Hmm. Maybe the improvisations to which Mr. Harris refers to were in fact markedly superior as music to anything ever produced by Frank Sinatra and maybe they weren’t. Even if they were, I’m still a little wary of assuming something is inferior because you grew up with or were perhaps enamored by it when you were young and “naive.” And, I would think it very interesting if any discussion along the lines of “art vs. entertainment” would actually try to be a little more specific as to the differences. Is this about subtlety? Level of complexity? structure or architecture? I would love to hear some of those things (or comparable things) referenced in any discussion of jazz vs. drivel.

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  6. Leon Shernoff

    Leonard Atherton, a choral conductor at Tanglewood when I was there, defined art as something that aims to leave a listener/viewer changed by their experience of it, while entertainment does not.

    And on a completely different note, my father had a favorite cartoon that I imagine he must have seen in the sixties or so, of a man and woman in a gallery looking at a scribble in a frame on the wall, and one of them saying “Well, it’s ugly — but is it ART?”

    These ideas can both be discussed and reparsed ad infinitum — if a work intended as entertainment changes someone (and what does that mean, really?) does that switch its category to art for that person? — and I’ve certainly encountered numerous creators of stunningly vapid work over the years who put a tremendous amount of artistic integrity into their work and were absolutely convinced that their work was transformative and life-changing — but I think we get the most bang for the buck with the short original statements.

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    1. Terence O'Grady

      I wonder which of the Mozart symphonies was the first to leave a listener “changed” by the experience of hearing it? No. 25? No. 40? I suppose it’s all dependent on what we mean by “changed,” but if we set the bar too low, it’s going to include an awful lot of stuff. And if we set it too high, there’s not going to be much that fills the bill.

      I have experienced a great deal of art that I have not been “changed” by in any appreciable way, although I suppose that could always be chalked up to my insensitivity.

      Still, degree of sensitivity not withstanding, I think it’s perfectly possible to understand and appreciate a work of art without being changed by it.

      Reply
  7. Frank J. Oteri

    Funny, I used to constantly describe certain pieces of music as “life-changing.” It sounded good and it felt good to say it… But now the more I think about it, I’m not sure what it actually means. Particularly, and most importantly, I’m no longer sure if “life changing” is necessarily a good thing. Wars are life changing as is the death of a significant person in one’s life. Granted, there are positive life changing things as well: finding one’s soul-mate, winning the lottery, and on and on. But perhaps we’re putting too much of an onus on music and art overall here. I listen to music all of the time and am stimulated and fascinated by a great percentage of it. Entertainment on the other hand seems totally subjective; personally, I am usually entertained by the very experience of encountering something new. But were all of it to change my life, my life would be changing so much I’d barely remember who I am! At this point in my life I mostly quite like my life the way it is and I don’t want it to be changed; but I still want and need music.

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  8. mclaren

    Colin Holter claims “We can be “entertained,” for instance, but we can’t be “arted.”

    Sure we can. I’ve been arted nearly to death in all too many concerts of new music…and I alone am escaped to tell thee.

    Seriously, though, is there any piece of music that has ever been composed without an audience in mind? Even if you only compose it for yourself…hey! The audience is still you.

    Reply

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