Art vs. Entertainment, II

One thing which the previous discussion immediately demonstrates is that any framework of difference between music as art & music as entertainment is muddled at least until the modern era. Leaving to one side the issue of music as rite, we must continue to inquire regarding the distinction between art & entertainment today. There are many relevant questions: Is there really a distinction? What is the cause of such a distinction, or perception of distinction? Is such an actual or perceived distinction healthy? Is it inevitable, etc.? If we trace such a distinction to the modern era, then we must ask, if only as a matter of correlation, whether it has served to undermine the relevance of music. If the bewildering contemporary classical landscape is a result of the rise of music as entertainment, and if we desire some sort of unification, how do we break down paradigmatic differences? These appear to be critical questions with regard to operating as a composer today.

First of all, it is sobering to note that these issues arise only from an aesthetic perspective. As far as the entertainment paradigm is concerned, a multiplicity of styles with no relation or development presents no dilemma. Moreover, the relevance of music is completely subsumed in the question of whether some particular audience finds it diverting. This "flat" approach to evaluation yields no need to make distinctions, and indeed resists them. Again, it is far too easy to define an aesthetic orientation in opposition to those ideas, and even tempting to assert that the splintering of classical style today is not only driven by the dominance of popular music, but is self-consciously sculpted with an eye toward that opposition. I wrote of "taking control of our thoughts," and such self-consciousness is the key to both control & opposition. While popular mega-stars are stereotypically known for their personal vanity, they are not known for a keen sense of themselves as historical actors. The artist, by declaring himself to be an artist, is immediately stepping into the realm of explicit self-consciousness during the act of creation. One might even circumscribe the distinction between music as art & music as entertainment by that act. Moreover, art has taken on a rhetoric of expression, a creator's orientation. Entertainment defines itself by the listener, i.e. whether one is entertained.

From a practical perspective, this particular divergence has direct consequences for listener involvement. Entertainment promotes passive processes, and the essential idea that stimuli should wash over one. In contrast, art at its most self-conscious demands listener attention and listener investment; as creator-oriented, it asks one to adopt the creator's perspective. The consequence for mental acuity in these two environments is immediately obvious, and is an explicit reason for breaking from a flat paradigm. Evaluation, and pondering context, sharpens the mind. Of course, such mental stimulation is not without possible negative consequences itself, including the conflation of history & meaning. Moreover, it runs the risk of doing exactly what popular culture seeks to do, i.e. saturate the mind with stimulation. In either case, there is a fundamental danger from misdirection, and in the case of art, sometimes torturous deconstruction to combat it. Popular entertainment is not torturous (in this sense), but it is certainly not free of simulation. Indeed, it frequently embraces the phoniest, most misdirected acts possible. It revels in celebrity per se, and churns out copycat productions. It is, on the face of it, often completely and utterly false. Art is doing battle with that falseness, but direct battle, too often akin to the infamous pig in the mud.

In the context of the present bifurcation, what art cannot do is be unselfconscious. It is about establishing a context for act, even if it seeks to carve out space for a raw act within some bubble. When it comes to relevance — or even vibrance — we can easily ask ourselves: Where is the pure act? We would like to seek it in the popular realm, and historically that is where composers have sought it. Returning to the Franco-Flemish era, the close intermingling of sacred & secular, polyphony & popular created not only a reservoir of ideas for art, but a grounded existence. Art, defined hastily here as more complicated technical music, arose organically from a substratum of entertainment. In the postmodern era that organic component is likewise sought via quotation, but it becomes that much more self-conscious. Indeed, it becomes impossible to side-step a distinction which was once fluid. Undoubtedly, there are still pure acts, but they become increasingly difficult to transplant. There is a growing perception that art, and especially postmodernism, is parasitic with regard to such acts. Of course, it is parasitic in a different way than the entertainment mega-corporations, which certainly know economic exploitation well. Both are seeking something they can use. There is also the issue of passivity, especially as classical music enthusiasts become couch potatoes. While the mental involvement may be different, popular music enthusiasts are often more physically involved with their music. That sort of involvement is crucial to a pure act. Art may have become too dainty for itself on this point.

In reference to the opening questions, the previous discussion suggests that an art/entertainment bifurcation is both unhealthy and inevitable, hardly a happy conclusion. What it does not do is provide an underlying foundation in cause. Is there even such a thing as causality? Distinguishing correlation & causality is never easy, especially as regards history. One thing which can be asserted with some confidence, however, is that when it comes to paradigms and other such fanciful matters, perception is reality. There is a real distinction between art & entertainment, one which both sides perpetuate. The "cause" may be found in the basic desire to distinguish, and as noted last time, it is a basic desire which is being projected backward through history. We can find some positive outcomes to hostility, and indeed as a basic human trait, it cannot really be proscribed, but from an aesthetic perspective, can we function while being cut off (by our own acts of opposition) from the unselfconscious utterances of ordinary people? Being blind to such distinctions might require some creative forgetting, and even more importantly, refusal to be defined in opposition. So let me subvert that duality now, something which medieval music already does. One can immediately note that popular music has its better examples and its more sophisticated listeners. Art certainly has its poseurs, and indeed one cannot shake the feeling that the present distinction is an imposition itself.

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Todd M. McComb