Is Art Entertainment? Yes, Maybe

I don’t think so. But the argument for it is interesting and not without some truth.

If the author, Curtis Johnson who is a student of video games, contends that there shouldn’t be any distinction (see below), politics would argue otherwise. The arts, linked to education, sees a lot of government funding at stake here.

Anyway, that got me to thinking about the purpose, or usefulness of art, politics aside. I have always held dear the idea that art should be function-less, at least produced without any such in mind.

But then what about Aboriginal art? It is the oldest continuous form of art we know in existence – perhaps 40,000 years. Not only does it depict animals and spirits, it also guides tribe members to places of food or water and warns of danger. And it tells of the origin of the human being. It even tells moral tales used as unwritten laws for the group, which had no written language. Most of all, it can be incredibly beautiful in form, color and composition, often carved on rocks or written in sand. So is this art entertainment? It is, in the sense that it feeds the peoples’ well-being by providing sustenance, and guidance for a cooperative society. Perhaps this is the origin of fine art?

The evolution of this art has taken a drastic leap into the modern world about 30 years ago when the members were given acrylic and canvas by commercial galleries who then sold the art. Is it still art? Is it still authentic?

Probably not. Not when it became production on commercial demand, with canvas and paint supplied. When only the form of the art, not the original spirit that produced it remains, it is not fine art in the strictest sense of the word. They can however still be very beautiful and the sales provide the tribes with a better life. Here the line really blurs. This blurring is wonderfully explored in Johnson’s piece, Art vs. Entertainment, arguing that all art, Mona Lisa or not, including video games is entertainment.

The truth is, art has always been linked to entertainment – try finding the arts section in the New York Times online. And who would argue that theatre, film, concerts and opera are entertainment?

Fine art, on the other hand has always had to struggle with that notion. Ask the artists Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, or Clifford Still. I imagine they’d be outraged. For them, art was almost a religious experience, a revelation of some sort of common human truth.

Lynn Zelavansky, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, in her recent e-message on why art is important, has this to say (my emphasis):

…but art is important to our pleasure-driven, entertainment-focused society precisely because at its best it isn’t entertainment. Artists are expected to think unconventionally, so understanding their work takes time and effort. The payoff can be great. When visual form and intellectual and emotional content are working synergistically, the Whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

So what is the relationship between fine art on the one hand and art as entertainment on the other? At best, it’s a continuum with each at one end of the pole with all gradations in between.

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