Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Art or entertainment? Pop songs of today, in the year 2300, treated as classical music of the past, in the year 2014.

This is a reaction, in part, to Alan McKee's essay, 'The power of art, the power of entertainment'. The essay which I'm about to talk about is available through Sage Publications, published in Media, Culture & Society 2013 35: 759 - the online version can be found here.

Before I read the whole essay, I read the title as it was printing. I took the printed essay with me to read on the train on the way to work. As I walked down the road, I was thinking about what the actual differences are between art and entertainment - what are their purposes, what are their essences?

Based on Adorno's assertion that art is not art if it makes you happy and that it is the philistine who enjoys art (since this is a blog post I will reserve the right to not have to reference that - it's harder than I imagined it would be), art and entertainment must be completely polarised. Adorno's view stems from his belief that cultural products, unless they are revolutionary are mere pacifiers. Depthless rubbish which only distracts you from how terrible life is.

Plato's theory of art, as demonstrated in The Republic, is that art is representation. Making the assumption now that the world around us is terribly depressing, as it was in the eyes of Adorno, art must represent a bleak and monstrous universe if it is to be art. This ties in with the Greek theory of mimesis, which judges art and poetry by how well it reflects the world around it.

With these points considered, is the realisation that the world around us is bad an entertaining one?

Maybe it doesn't actually matter about the product being consumed. Maybe it matters more about the form it comes in, or way it is consumed. Is there a difference between analysing art and visiting an art gallery? Art is a form, the gallery is a leisure activity - a day out. Shakespeare's plays were originally performed to a rowdy lower-class audience; now they are analysed by scholars who have taken the entertainment factor out of it, and turned it into art - something more to be analysed than to be absorbed without reaction - whether you enjoy analysing it as much as a TV watcher enjoys watching television, for example, (or are 'entertained' by it) is immaterial.
 I think the point not is whether something is entertaining to the individual or audience (considering that 'the audience is an abstract entity representing all consumers'), but that there are two separate categories: one for art, one for entertainment. These were created and have been perpetuated by two opposing camps: the academics and the media.

McKee starts by saying that 'art wants to change audiences; entertainment wants to be changed by audiences'. This is not entirely true. While art is personal self expression which has 'the power to raise you to a higher spiritual level', the agenda of the artist may not have actually been to change the audience. It might have just been plain and simple self expression.
 I would argue the other way round; not that art wants to change audiences, because in some cases it doesn't even care, but that entertainment wants to change audiences. While it needs some sort of starting point to base itself off, it is, in the end, mediated by capitalist gatekeepers. Marx says that in capitalism, the product precedes the need. The need is created by the existence of the product. Rick Roderick puts it a good way on of the lectures he did for The Teaching Company. He says something about how when companies invented the hula hoop, the whole nation didn't breathe an excited sigh of relief that their needs had been met, but in fact an entirely new need was created.
This is how entertainment works. Did people used to need reality TV shows? No, but now half of the TV listings is filled with them. They do work on the human desire to spy on the lives of others, for evaluation against our own life, but I'm sure that has always been available by just going outside.
Going back to Adorno, McKee says that '[entertainment] they argue, does not represent the masses. It is imposed on the masses by capitalist institutions that have the 'power' to control what is seen'.

 The boundary between art and entertainment is blurred in musical performances. McKee points out that 'in the creation of art, audiences must be silenced'. In the 19th-century, he says, audiences at classical music concerts 'stamped, hissed, whistled and groaned' until the orchestras played their favourite songs. Today, you are judged to be a better member of the audience at a classical concert the more you make it seem as if you are not there. Again, like Shakespeare, this is another shift, over time, between art and entertainment. What started off as a means to entertain a crowd has become a text to be picked apart. It seems that the era a text was produced in gives it more power in the fight to become classed as art instead of entertainment. Perhaps today's action films and popular music will, one day, be classed as art. Perhaps the audiences of 2300 AD will gather in a silent concert hall, waiting for a world acclaimed cyborgian cover band to perform a meticulously accurate representation of Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball, waiting until the piece is firmly over before a polite applause ripples through the hall and writers for new critical journals take notes on the quality of the piece to aid them with a lengthy write-up.

In response to McKee's view that it is binarised what shall be art and what shall be entertainment, I think that it is about the personal reading of the text. After all, it is the choice of the audience whether they analyse a text or not. It is a personal reaction to the text which determines whether you are elevated to a 'higher spiritual level' or whether your eyes glaze over and you forget where you are for the following ninety minutes. If you analyse an all-guns-blazing action film, it becomes art. If you walk around an art gallery and don't read any deeper than the surface, it becomes entertainment. Who knows which cultural relics of our time will reach unimaginable critical acclaim in 2300 AD?