"Art is hard to comprehend because it requires an alert mind for association between what is happening in the experience of the artwork and the meaning that is to be found in the artwork from all the extra-artistic resources that are available to an audience, while entertainment is easier to comprehend because all the hard work of understanding the inside game is ruled out as irrelevant."
Renee Fleming was singing a second act aria during her well reviewed performance as Manon. A member of the Metropolitan Opera audience yelled "Spectacular!" after the first chorus; there was a brief murmur in the rest of the audience. The same man interjected another "Spectacular!" after the next chorus; the murmur in the audience was intense and unfavorable. Why criticize the man? After all, the stars pause after their arias to receive applause, and thereby break the notion that the audience is overhearing a story rather than present for the performance of a story. The singers also take bows after every act and the intermissions at the Met go on and on, breaking whatever mood might be sustained over a shorter intermission. What the man had done was break the conventions for suspending the performance, that's all, but in theatre, we abide by the conventions, for otherwise we would not know what we were up to.
Opera is a performance in that we have come to hear the singers do their stuff, whatever their material, and to take pleasure from their skill and only secondarily take pleasure from what is signified by the use of their skills, which is the experience and appreciation of the conventionalized sentiments that accompany the plot and the music. Music critics, by and large, accept the hackneyed or contrived plots or the melodramatic emotions so as to concentrate on the spectacle of the singing and the setting, mentioning the acting as an afterthought--this singer also something of an actress. Otherwise, it would not be possible to see these old warhorses--really, chestnuts--over and over again.
Puccini’s music for "Manon" is sentimental and so that instructs us, per convention, that the audience is supposed to feel sentimental, even if that does not make too much sense in terms of the plot. We know the plot is about lovers who are ill-starred because she is too much in love with money and he too much in love with her, and so it has to end in at least one death which, in this case, is her own because she is the fallen woman even though he had been willing for a while to endure the living death of becoming a priest, which is the way the life of a nunnery had been described when it was she who might have had to submit to this fate. And so a Victorian glaze of tragic love is put on an Eighteenth century morality tale of a young man who falls for a bad woman who is so clearly bad that he has to be terribly naive and a natural born victim to have any dealings with her at all. The novel on which the opera is based is about love as a pathology, and so a precursor of Voltaire, who tweaks the idea of love and much else in "Candide".
There is, however, no need to consider the plot of the opera very deeply, what with its arbitrary developments and incongruous emotions. The opera is "Pretty Woman" set to music. Nonetheless, the opera is artful because there are moments when one is unselfconsciously engaged in its pathos because of its music and the artfulness of the actors in limning passion. That doesn't mean that some opera goers don't take the plots seriously. James Levine once said his job was always interesting because he had to deal with the depiction of the full range of human emotions. Well, maybe, if you think that melodrama, where emotions are overly extended and overly expressed, is what most of life is really like. It is as if even ordinary people were never heroic when, in fact, most people do a good job of keeping their major troubles to themselves.
A better way to understand opera is not to focus on the whole plot but on the moments that come alive in the music. Opera plots pause so that the singers can savor the moment of loss or expectation that has just passed or is about to occur, the music happening when time stands still, and so providing a comment on the plot rather than part of the plot. Everything stops so the singers can perform. No other way to do it on a stage has become conventionalized, even though the movies are able to allow the story to move on by using music, including songs that comment on the action, as background. The operatic convention is that there will be a lot of stops and starts, which is a lot to take, whatever are the rewards of the form.
The opera is therefore a form of performance where the plot is the object of commentary, and so opera, as a form, accomplishes what Shakespeare had to work at mighty hard to accomplish with Hamlet's soliloquies: commentary on a play while the play is going on, allowing the play to be examined as a play as well as a representation of reality. Shakespeare invents Post-Modernism, which is no surprise, while opera constructs itself so that one goes in and out of it, sometimes noting it as art, which is a representation of truth, and sometimes as entertainment, as a performance which is an end in itself, like a circus (Cirque de Soleil doesn't really have plots; it just has allusions to plot devices. The costuming and the other devices of drama it borrows are ends in themselves. Watch us! We can create a mood! It is therefore entertainment rather than art.)
Sometimes, as in Manon, opera is almost exclusively entertainment, in that what is appreciated is its artfulness, the performance itself appreciated for the fact that the singing is full bodied and that there are conventionalized emotions that have been evoked, rather than because it strikes you, for a moment, as true to life or truer than life. In other words, opera isn't a very high class art. In general, art does not require a suspension of disbelief. What art does is fleetingly thrust belief upon you, while entertainment, for its part, allows you to continue in your disbelief or to remember in tranquility the moments when it so artfully got you to forget that a character was really not real.
Some operas are more thoroughly artful and so to be considered art (or "high art", so as to distinguish them from being merely entertaining artifice). Mozart and Strauss come to mind and so do some others, at times, as when Verdi transgresses Victorian convention by making Rigoletto a drama about the poison of revenge rather than a drama about the need for revenge. And I continue to find the entombment at the end of Aida scary, the only transcendent moment in an opera totally unhistorical about Egypt, simply a setting for one more story about a love that will not do which is set in the frame of a nationalist struggle. Not every moment has to be artistic, though, for a work to be worthwhile. Even Homer lapsed.
Art, to cite the classic paradox, reminds people of truths they did not know. Entertainment, for its part, reminds people of truths they do know. The latter truths may seem smug and conventional, though they need not be, as when people are reminded by "La Traviata" that it is safe to love a harlot since she will die of consumption, and then one can return to the bourgeois life. That is what makes the opera so pleasing, even as it indulges its viewer in an escape into a forbidden love. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Flower Drum Song", clearly designed for a popular audience, can be thought more artistic than "La Traviata", if the significance of the message is the measure. It reminds its audience that love triumphs over all differences, including differing generations of immigration, which is a comforting message, even if it can be read as a code for racial miscegenation, which is certainly what Rodgers and Hammerstein meant, and which its original audience might find unsettling. If the message is the measure, then entertainment becomes art when it is disquieting rather than comforting, when people take the artists in "La Boheme" seriously, as if a writer would throw his manuscripts into the stove merely to keep warm. That is to make a joke of artistic pretensions, which it probably was in Puccini's time, but where it can be read today as either a joke, in which case the production is very light hearted, or as a significant moment where poverty has made the artist a nihilist, in which case the production is very serious, treating the opera as art.
Clearly, then, the message is not the measure, nor is whether the audience is there to be enlightened or entertained. Was the apocryphal tired businessman who saw "Death of A Salesman" and said that New England was always a tough territory responding to the play as entertainment or art? He was reducing it to a representation of what he knew, which is art, and was enjoying that representation, which makes it entertainment. The thing to look at, rather, is whether the image or idea is hung there suspended to be looked at self consciously, in which case it is entertainment, or with engagement, in which case it is art. (Brecht, of course, was out to break through that distinction.) Opera performances, as the response to Renee Fleming indicates, is so enshrouded in its conventions that it is there to be taken as entertainment, no matter how profound its emotions or its messages may be (and, in the case of "Manon", are not).
Let's rework this distinction between art and entertainment another time. Art is hard to comprehend because it requires an alert mind for association between what is happening in the experience of the artwork and the meaning that is to be found in the artwork from all the extra-artistic resources that are available to an audience, while entertainment is easier to comprehend because all the hard work of understanding the inside game is ruled out as irrelevant. Sports are enjoyed even if spectators do not understand the x's and o's of football, or the alternatives in playing contract bridge, or how to refine a racing car engine so it performs better. Whatever extra-performance references are to be used to make sense of an entertainment, to provide it with a moral, are readily available because they are not readily challenged. You only have to know a very potted history of McCarthyism to understand "The Crucible", and that is why it is appropriate fare for high school drama productions. You only have to know that killers are supposed to be caught to know that Woody Allen's "Match Point" breaks the convention, aside from whatever else it might have to say. To challenge the working assumptions of what is no more than an entertainment is to miss the point, to see the meaning of the entertainment as something more than a hook to allow the person to enjoy the performance rather than a meaning that is to be hard-earned. That the meaning of an entertainment is a cliche makes it easier for the entertainment to be entertaining. And this is so even if the experience of an entertainment, paradoxically, can store in the memory sensations and images far stronger than those most untrained audiences will find in works of art. Graduates of American high schools remember "To Kill A Mockingbird" as the way to understand the Jim Crow South: an honest judicial system trying to shame the South out of its prejudices. Entertainments are allowed to be fantasies.
So entertainment is popular because it limits what it requires of its audience, while art is for the few because it has no limits on what it might require of its audience. The painting and the serious novel stand in mute judgment of the moral and intellectual limits of its audience, and so intimidate. That same process, if allowed to proceed, will scares off the customers for an entertainment, and so the entertainment makes sure that its meanings are to be read simply, within the frame of its audience's usual way of creating meaning, rather than read complicatedly, so as to test its audience's way of creating meaning. Show people know the difference between creating art and entertainment, and so do the rest of us when we pick up books or go to the theatre.
The distinction between art and entertainment is often used for pejorative purposes, art profound while entertainment is merely an amusement. It is worth elaborating the differences between the experiences between the two so as to see how the distinction between symbol, description and sentiment can be used to clarify the relation of art and entertainment, and so to further appreciate that the mechanisms of culture are independent of the content of culture, just as those self same mechanisms also account for the dynamics of consciousness.
Popular culture, for the most part, is identified with entertainment, while elite culture, for the most part, is identified with art. So art includes paintings and other things shown in museums; it also includes poems written for and read by very few; and also Rockefeller Center, which is used by many who may not think of it as art. Entertainment includes most movies produced in Hollywood; television programs; circuses. This distinction between art and entertainment holds even though critics may perform their function of re-evaluation by turning entertainment into art, as when they say that D. W. Griffith's "Intolerance" or Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners" is art, and art can turn into entertainment, as when the art of poetry is turned into the entertainment of rap. It is also the case that some contemporary artists of the novel, such as Roth and Updike, are also reasonably popular, but that has always been the case with the novel. Art and entertainment are two categories for the classification of culture that play off against one another, inviting questions of inaccurate or changing placement. That happens with any set of categories. Is the platypus a mammal? Is a bird the descendant of reptiles?
The point here has been that entertainment is not merely watered down art or indistinguishable from art, except in the mind of the analyst, even if people, at a loss for a better explanation, will use art and entertainment as terms for a more intense or diminished version of the other. Rather, the case is that art and entertainment establish two very different relations to their audiences. People look for different things when they attend performances they regard as art and performances they regard as entertainment.
A work of art is a representation or an expression of something other than itself, which can be understood as its meaning, even if only some meanings are morals or about the way life really is. Rather, music can evoke emotions; art can evoke the play of light on figures; poetry can produce incantatory repetitions that make of a poem a ritual and therefore a sacred rendering of whatever happens to be its subject matter. The work of art is hefty, dense, and complex. Art resonates with what it is out to mirror so that it performs the metaphysical trick of refreshing its audience's appreciation of what it reminds its audience to remember. Yes, that is the way a storm comes up; yes, that is what love feels like; yes, I too have a sense that life is lousy.
A work of art can also entertain, not only because its reminders can be of pleasing things, and because it is pleasing to recall things already, in some sense, known, but mainly because its audience can appreciate the efforts that have gone into the creation of the representation or evocation. A furtive glance in a movie is enough to suggest character or motive; watching the play of colors in Abstract Expressionist paintings can be more exciting than the experience of good wall paper if the viewer is not put off by the question of what makes this art. A novel or a play can be enjoyed for how well used are devices of surprise to move along the action without burdening the plot with implausibility. Indeed, there are whole genres of literature known merely as entertainments, to borrow Graham Greene's designation, because the fun of the work is how it plays upon the conventions of the genre in which it is engaged. The reader likes to figure out whodunit even if the puzzle is forgotten as soon as the last page is read.
Entertainment is made up of jugglers, Elvis Presley, soap operas, television dramas, cartoon movies, and the like, even if pop critics might want to talk about the authentic, young Elvis, or the symbolism of the Terminator movies, while fans want to say that they like hip-hop for its beat rather than its message. Art is made up of jazz and symphonies; carefully constructed novels and finely tuned poetry; and work which has been historicized so it seems important because of what it reveals about its age: nineteenth century operas that were the popular culture of their time; Longfellow poems that have to be recovered as art because they are so caught up in the apparatus of textbooks that they had come to seem like pop ditties posing as art.
One of the ways art works is to allow itself to be noticed as artful without being so crude as to announce that fact. The depths of Macbeth's shortsightedness only gradually becomes known to the audience, though it is prefigured at the beginning of the play when he misreads the three witches and does not recognize or cannot understand the implications of his own desire to be thane. One of the ways entertainment works is to allow an audience to enjoy the pleasure of, for example, the high stepping synchrony of the Rockettes by accompanying their children to a performance, just as they re-experience the wonder of the zoo by bringing their little ones there.
Audiences have many ways to contextualize an entertainment so that they might surreptitiously enjoy it. Audience members see a performance as an instance of American culture and so make themselves observers of the rest of the audience, spies within the audience, rather than proper members of the audience. It is thereby possible to enjoy performances of, let us say, children's theatre or the circus and still feel condescending to people who think of that performance as real art. That way of distancing oneself from the entertainment works unless the enjoyment is so flooded by contempt as to be no longer pleasurable. That happened to the distinguished cultural critic, Theodor Adorno, who was condescending to those who thought Disney's "Fantasia" was art because both the music and the art were simplified versions of their high culture sources. He was so concerned with putting every form of art in its place in a stratification system of art that was closely related to the stratification of the social classes that he could not appreciate the movie for its value as entertainment.
Thinking of art and entertainment as in ironic relation to one another makes these two categories transcendent in that they are forms of thinking about performances that grow out of an existential condition (rather than the existential condition): one can attend to either meanings or to technique, or alternately to one and then the other. There is no way around that. Meaning and technique are not just higher and lower values of the same variable. They each have a substantive meaning. Meaning is a reference from one thing, the signifier, to that which it signifies. The activity of reference is abstract, possibly symbolic, and so the sort of thing that happens in education, religion, political debate, personal reflection. Technique, on the other thing, is a procedure: a set of activities that accomplishes an end. Baking a cake so that it has a good flavor or negotiating a union contract so that the workers are happy enough that they won't strike, or writing a report well enough that people can grasp the information presented in it and the point the report wants to make, are all matters of technique. That means that the definitions of entertainment and art are dyadic, one about activity, the other about an activity that is something other than an activity: the making of meaning.
Art is simpler than entertainment. It engages the emotions that are invoked for their significance and not for the ingenuity with which the emotions were invoked. The emotions are taken at their face value and tied into the fictional or real world contexts from which meanings can be inferred. What does it mean to be sad or fearful? Is Hamlet right to be angry? Why don't we share his anger? It may be necessary to plumb the mechanics of the play to figure that out. How has Shakespeare distanced his audience from Hamlet from the beginning so that we are always suspicious of what he announces as his cause? But that is to use the mechanics and the structure of the play to help in figuring out a meaning for the play rather than to figure out how it works on us. An audience may ponder whether the play within a play is a joke or a major ironic disjunction in structure without knowing how it is that Shakespeare manages to engage us in the play within "Hamlet" just long enough so that we care about its characters before being brought out of it so suddenly that there is a moment when the characters in "Hamlet" are only characters in a play. The craftsmanship is so good that it is not the subject of our pleasure, while the craftsmanship of entertainments is good enough for us to appreciate what the entertainment accomplishes right there before us.
The difficulty of understanding the relation of art to entertainment arises because the materials for each are so similar. A novel entrances, gives the feel for facts, and so on, gets you moving with the story. Entertainments also try to please. Great artists are also masters of entertainment. Melville tells a hell of a story; Shakespeare exaggerates characters so that they are also stage villains and stage heroes as well as complex individuals. Julie Taymor's production of "The Magic Flute" captures the mystical timelessness of the piece as well as (aided by some good editing of the text) its dramatic cohesion. You have to use the skills of entertainment to make art, though that, I have argued, does not make them the same thing.
This article is reprinted from westendejournal.com