Art vs. Entertainment, III

If the historical divergence of art & entertainment is at best confusing, and if constructing that opposition is inherently unhealthy, then we must ask very sincerely: How can we eliminate such a distinction? In an intellectual landscape dominated by history & technology, is it even possible to undo something? Moreover, as the minority, are we left to choose between being stubborn to perpetuate an unhealthy distinction, or conceding defeat and embracing something we do not want? Have all artistic manifestos become completely irrelevant? Of course, one might say, such things have always been irrelevant. Now we can ask, do they mean anything to anyone? Perhaps we should simply swallow our pride and say that music as art is a form of entertainment. Let the larger industry have the larger footprint; after all, it does.

However, we do have our pride: We like to believe that knowing things is better than not knowing them, that being able to do something is better than not being able to do it, etc. Let me pick a very pointed example: It is obvious that many popular entertainers struggle to sing in tune — at all — and would be totally incapable of knowing if their instruments were in tune. Luckily for them, electronic keyboards are impossible to mis-tune. So, fine, this is a petty idea, right? They perform the way they want to perform, and it is only my skewed sense of "what music is" which leads me to believe that they should be able to accomplish simple musico-technical tasks. On the other hand, it is not as though I am wedded to one particular style of music (or tuning); I know and enjoy many, even being open to experiment. It is also a stretch to claim that these people with no musical ability are defining music. Actually, many are "handled" — they have promoters and songwriters and other people to worry about the musical component. Indeed, even as a minority interest growing more invisible by the moment, we like to believe that art music projects an influence onto popular entertainment.

Who are really the leaches? That is a central bone of contention. Now that music for entertainment drives the economic system, there is a strong backlash toward art music as financially parasitic. Record companies no longer feel a need to subsidize classical music, which they once did out of a sense of pride. Many recording projects require outside financial support now, often ultimately from tax money, a fact which many Americans increasingly resent. Moreover, the extent to which popular entertainers use the concepts & technical solutions of art music only decreases. Rather, the part which they use has long since been perfected. Art's influence on entertainment has been reduced to the occasional fad, no different from some other garden variety phenomenon. Entertainment leaves religion feeling similarly slighted, even if there is entertainment with religious themes. Both art & religion have had to battle "image problems" in the world of entertainment, having to do with control, because the last thing entertainment wants is to feel controlled.

Classical composers have confronted this challenge very explicitly, producing a myriad of contemporary styles, many of which specifically eschew control. There remains an element of doubt, though: Is being "a composer" about control? Is carving a niche ultimately about vanity? Well, entertainment certainly cannot throw stones when it comes to vanity! Where do these questions lead? Precisely toward the sort of participatory creation which music as rite was supposed to indicate. Art is a fallacy to the extent that it is not participatory. The concept of rite broadens the definition of participation. To some extent, rite-in-music today has been reduced to the composer himself, in which the act of expression serves to cleanse. Such an aspect is always lurking in the nature of expression. In fact, it is perhaps most clearly exemplified by stand-and-shout popular music, where the act itself is far more important than anything about the (musical) content. The audience finds it easier to identify with these people, to participate in their rite, than it does composers.

We are often taught not to identify with composers, as part of the whole Great Man view of history. They are so far above us, the feeling goes, that we can only admire. Of course, entertainment is not at all averse to idolatry either. It revels in it, but mainly with regard to the living, rather than the dead. Onetime stars might be held in no regard later in life, part of the divergence between the concepts of the present held by art & entertainment. So there are important commonalities, since after all, these activities are performed by humans. Discussing "rite" and participation, obviously emphasizes a distinction, rather than eliminates it. So perhaps that is the wrong direction. On the other hand, why is it that prototypical "entertainment" has become so non-participatory? Do people not enjoy doing something? Making music for oneself, artistic or not, seems to be a fun activity. What does it lack in the public consciousness? That question is easier to answer: Celebrity.

This so-called art/entertainment divergence is partly about the changing nature of celebrity, but the basic drive to exalt seems to be a constant. Perhaps one can wonder: Is there a point at which there is simply so much celebrity pushed at everyone all the time that people stop caring? We will learn the answer to that question, and what will entertainment be then? Already, television is full of "reality" shows; if the lives of ordinary people are interesting, why even consult television? Moreover, as fewer jobs are physically intensive, leisure time has less reason to be about being inactive — quite the reverse. Many athletic activities are currently trendy, and not just for observing. Why not music? Of course, what we really do not know is whether these changes are only cyclic fads, or part of a larger trend. If people want to believe that everything is as good as everything else, then it makes some sense (at least to me) that they would like to do things for themselves. The "cult of celebrity" is completely at odds with that idea, however. Perhaps the trend is really to eliminate the middle: Everyone and everything are equal, except a few people who are super-special. And for added fairness, these people are chosen at random (or nearly so)!

If people do want to participate in their own entertainment, though, there is a straightforward path to get them participating in their own art. The present divergence apparently arose with the invention of leisure, and it has been intensifying with the increase in leisure. Once leisure is omnipresent, perhaps such a distinction will simply disappear.

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Todd M. McComb