Monday, February 15, 2010

Art vs Entertainment

Anyone who knows me knows I love the cinema. The stage, I think, is the ultimate medium for acting, and the book the ultimate medium for storytelling, but when done right, film is the perfect marriage of those two. I was reading a review the other day of a film I'd never seen before. The film sounds brilliant, and I moved it square to the top of my Netflix queue, but it's not the film itself that's important. Near the end of the review, the reviewer said something along the lines of, "Entertainment presents an ideal with some sort of message. Art just shows you stuff, no strings attached". I wish I could remember who it was or where I read it so I could give them due credit, but alas, the names escape me at the moment.

To go back to that misquote for a second, that isn't to say art is just sticking a camera in front of a tree and showing you two and a half hours of the tree's life. Entertainment is something like A Fistful of Dollars. A masterful, genius piece of work, but at the end of the day it still draws some sort of line between good and evil and the good still comes out on top, even if the good isn't exactly righteous. It's nice to think things work out like that. Often times things do. But life is harsh. Art reflects this. Art is like my personal favorite film -- The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film follows some entertainment bylines for a while, but by the end, it's done with trying to spin anything. It's simply reflecting the harsh reality of the situation, and the last line of the film sums it up perfectly: "Madness".

But now I'm wondering, can we apply these labels to literature? In a way we already do. Classics like Wuthering Heights or War and Peace are deemed masterpieces, triumphs of art. Fun romps like Live and Let Die are labeled pulp. Obviously film and literature are different beasts and regardless of which one we're trying to label, the above definitions don't fit all things perfectly. But it's got me thinking now. Can we use the above for literature? Art reflects reality, no spin, no message, no ideal or moral, just a nice big canvas of grey. Entertainment likes to turn into a panda bear. Or do the definitions of art and entertainment when it comes to literature have to be something different?

In a way I would think they do. Like I said, film and literature are very different beasts. For one thing, I think all novels would be entertainment if we went by the above. I have never read a novel which didn't have some degree of spin. Even memoirs and autobiographies usually have a little bit of something tucked away somewhere. Maybe it's impossible for a book to be art. Maybe, at the end of the day, literature needs some sort of message. It doesn't necessarily have to be allegorical -- it's not as if we're all writing 1984 -- but even I'm guilty of injecting the ideal. My story ain't pretty, and it's not like the heroes go riding off into the sunset or anything, but at the end of the day the good guys still win on some level. I'm willing to wager anything anyone out there is writing is the same. Even masterworks like War and Peace, which ain't exactly happy, ends with some degree of goodness.

But how else could we define art and entertainment? We could say art carries a "heavy" message; something of importance, of value. Entertainment is just that, entertainment. By that token, 1984 is art and The Murder on the Links is entertainment.

At the end of the day, I don't think either definition, or any others I can cook up, are right. At the end of the day, I don't think literature is ever art. I don't think it's ever entertainment either. Pulp or masterpiece, it's all just a piece of the author.

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