Distinction between "art" and "entertainment"

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One of the big distinctions in general is between "art" and "entertainment". High-level entertainment is just as good as art - but the former depends on a sudden shock of recognition. The effect that it gives comes in discrete "jumps" and is not continuous. Consequently there can be no question of "style" - the only important thing is the sheer originality and level of the effect each time. An example of this is the satire and strong parody of Terry Pratchett, or the more elementary (but very skilful) humor in XKCD or the early "Dilbert" cartoon strips. The effect is purely combinatory - it depends on finding the right combination of ideas - but unlike in the case of music or "art" cinema, the specific flavor of it is not important, and we don't care about how the details might continuously vary. (Examples of high-level entertainment, rather than art: Moliere, Pratchett, Wilde, Wodehouse, Goldsmith, Sheridan, the best of Karl Kraus, the best of Mencken, some Woody Allen films [not that I've seen any of these].)

"Art" can be defined (i.e., distinguished from what is not art) in terms of a simple part-whole relation. One extreme is when every kind of continuous variation in any part of something (e.g., a painting) is such that it noticeably changes the effect that arises from the whole object. But even with the other extreme (e.g. large-scale novels), there are components within with with the preceding property, in which the parts and whole are so connected together.

But notice: almost every straightforward analogy about this between the different forms of art (e.g., how the color does not matter in architecture, and so the "color" should not matter in "X") is a false analogy, for a very simple reason: it all depends on the particular subject matter. And that depends, in turn, on how the human memory works. One very clear illustration of this: in terms of the area around the eyes, humans can recognize someone's face to a very minute degree. Everyone (of a given racial group) looks approximately the same around the eyes, and yet the minute differences constitute how you recognize one person rather than another. But the human mind is not trained to do the same thing with other objects, or even other parts of the human body - a minute or continuous change in any "part" is not noticed. So the part-whole relation depends on the subject matter (whether it is visual art, or music, or even sculpture as opposed to visual art). IOW: painting depends to a great degree on color exactly because the subject matter is a portrait, or landscape, or an object of a certain sort that humans are already familiar with.

Note that the classification (like all good classifications) is not strict: we have that David Lynch spans both "art" and "entertainment". But the most interesting part of Lynch is the entertainment - that is, the level of effect rather than flavor of effect. Lynch films are explicitly metaphorical. Here is a parody of a Lynch film, they are actually pretty easy to make (you just apply the same techniques over and over):

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/embed/pRFJNpAff_A


Another example of "entertainment" (of the good variety) is the class of purely reflective novels, and by this I mostly mean Stanislaw Lem - his books (e.g., His Master's Voice , A Perfect Vacuum ) contain original ideas about probability theory and information theory, even. Mostly (and yet not entirely) inferior to this are purely speculative novels, like those written by Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and others. There are no counterparts to Stanislaw Lem in film - Kubrick is merely speculative, not "reflective". Apart from Lem, another major contributor to "reflective storytelling" would be Umberto Eco , more well-known in Europe than the North America.

In contrast, for novels in the "art" category we have: psychologically complicated literature (Tolstoy, Nabokov, Hesse, Mann, Flaubert, and even A. S. Byatt), rich and concrete characterization of characters (Gore Vidal's historical novels, The Once and Future King by T. H. White), and the kind of expansive storytelling that becomes so expansive that it literally creates a "language" out of motifs from a more primitive part of our past (Tolkien [overrated, but whatever], Jack Vance ( Lyonesse , Dying Earth , and just about anything), The Earthsea Cycle (despite the very unfortunate fourth book), Gormenghast, Terry Pratchett (the one who spans both art and entertainment)).

There are counterparts this - of sorts - in film. But film is a different medium altogether. In film there are:

* What I call "pure cinema", which moves at a leisurely pace and soaks in a very strong atmosphere. Silent Cinema was like this, and so are The Godfather , anything by Jeunet ( Amelie , Delicatessen , City of Lost Children ) Tim Burton films ( Sleepy Hollow , Batman ), Dark City ).

* The combination of action, expansive storytelling and a very good score. Part of the success of The Matrix (1999) was the very good orchestral score. Another film that succeeded because of the musical score was X2 (2003), again with an orchestral score. (Try to play these films in silent mode - they lose their entire effect, while the same is not true of pure cinema.) Also: Oliver Stone's Wall Street is in this class; it is actually an "action" film, in terms of the pacing.

* The worthless kind of film: very simple story arcs. At best, these are children's tales that retain a kind of simplicity - their counterpart would be Hans Christian Anderson, the very annoying novel Heidi , or comic books. (Every "Star Wars" film except ESB falls into this category.) At worst, this is sentimental, formulaic bait-and-switch about how "tragic" something was. (The scheme is very easy to construct - just gradually build something up, and then have it taken away at some "climax".) What the latter depends on is a simple combination of events, or succession of events, that renders something "tragic" (even if... this is purely a matter of appearances, and not in terms of concrete consequences, of which there are none ). This category is far too loathsome for me to give examples.

* There are films that achieve an effect by use of specific devices - but in a brilliant way, and by finding the right combination of ideas. We have mentioned David Lynch above, but then there is the category of satire (which is a subcategory of entertainment). Oliver Stone's film, Natural Born Killers , is excellent, provided that one actually understand that it is satire. (In fact, I grew up watching the DVD of this film (released in 2000) nonstop, and wish there were more like it. In the newer, 2-disc director's cut there is a "Courtroom" deleted scene which is worth the price alone.)


Oh yes - another point is that worst kinds of art are either too simple, or are "hybrid" art forms.

Comic books, dance, musical theater, etc., are all examples of "hybrid art forms". There may be something to the text of a comic book, but in that case it would stand alone as a play. There might be something to the art of a comic book, but on second thought there actually can't be (in fact, children's picture books are a better outlet for this). In musical theater, the music (if it is competent) stands alone. This is the case with opera. Now, "acting" in musical theater can be potentially interesting, although it is surrealistic - that is, you don't "fix" certain parts of your facial expression and vary the details (which is what Daniel Day-Lewis does, the key to his success in "expression" of rage etc.), but you fix how your entire action is almost suspended and repeated in pulses ( two examples in video.) Now: there may be a single person who somehow combines the merits of both acting and singing - but in fact there never was such a person. The singer should be appraised for... singing, while the actors are just actors, and the composer of music a composer. Consequently "theater" remains less than the sum of its parts.

Chia Chu

How do you know about "some" if you haven't seen any of them?

But I must agree with your main thesis. Art is about this whole-part thing. Chairman Mao too insisted that easily observable parts must all fit together within the invisible framework of whole. Only then will art serve its revolutionary purpose of making people sad.