This past weekend, while watching a rerun of Boston Legal of all things (judge if you must, but William Shatner just keeps getting more entertaining the older he gets), I had a thought about the difference between art and entertainment.
In the scene that inspired the thought, Denny Crane (Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader) discuss the difference between the promise of the future and the joy of the moment. Denny and Alan were talking about love, but I think you can apply the same principle to art/entertainment.
“Art” – as in, “serious” Art – is all about the promise of the future. Someone participates in Art in order to improve themselves by gaining valuable insight or wisdom about themselves, the world, whatever.
In a sense, participating in Art is about sacrificing the present. You’ll never get back the two hours you spend watching Citizen Kane, but ideally, you’ll have learned something about life or about film or about something that makes you just a slightly better person. Those two hours are gone, but they were an investment in your future self.
Watching Transformers, on the other hand, is a whole different experience – it’s fun and it’s loud and there are cool transforming robots and explosions and uplifting lines like (Megatron) “Humans don’t deserve to live!” (Optimus) “They deserve to choose for themselves!”
Now, you likely didn’t learn too much from watching Transformers – chances are, you’re precisely the same person you were at the beginning of the movie as you are at the end. You haven’t gotten any farther ahead in terms of your personal development as a result of watching this movie. But there’s a good chance you had a lot of fun watching it. Your future self is none the richer for your Transformers experience, but your present self sure enjoyed the heck out of it.
With that in mind, it’s not really hard to see why Art gets privileged over Entertainment in intellectual circles – intellectualism, of course, is all about self-improvement, all about sacrificing your present self for a better, future one. But it’s something of a shame when someone can’t put that aside and live in the present for a little while – I think you could even argue that one would be better for it.
Either way, the best examples of Art/Entertainment, I think, are the ones that manage to have one foot in both camps, that manage – as Phillip Sidney would put it – to delight, as well as instruct.
My personal favourite example of late is the movie The Dark Knight. The film is emminently watchable as an action flick, with excitement, suspense and the coolest super-villain since Star Wars. And who can get enough of those adolescent power fantasies? Not I.
At the same time, the film deftly poses questions about the nature of the hero, of violence and its justifications, and, of course, the social roles of chaos and order (one of the most brilliant parts of the film is during Batman’s interrogation of Joker at Gotham PD when Joker starts to talk about the insanity of a system of rules – and actually starts to sound like he’s the only one who’s got things at all figured out).
Because it blends the promise of the future (i.e, an investment in the future self) with the joy of the moment, The Dark Knight can be enjoyed on many levels, allowing it to have a deeper and more lasting impact than a film that focuses on just one or the other.
Perhaps Art vs. Entertainment isn’t so much a dichotomy as a spectrum, but either way I think that the most successful examples of culture and media are the ones that manage to land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
What about you – what’s your favourite example of art or media that delights as well as enlightens?