Art vs. Entertainment

I haven’t posted anything for awhile now…life has been busy. I’m still struggling to balance my schedule, work hard for my local church, love people, be honest with God and the folks I come into contact with about as much as possible, and struggle with issues I should be struggling with; that and dedicating myself to growing in what has become a beautiful relationship with Bethany that is better than I ever could have imagined. And that takes investment too!

Anyways, some events over the last week and half or so have come together to create some interesting thoughts in my head that hold the potential to transform some things for me, so I thought I’d write them out.

Things started a week ago when I listened to the Ryan Sharp interview from The Nick and Josh podcast, and they got into an interesting conversation about the difference between art and entertainment. I’ll quote Ryan’s thoughts in full on this subject…I tried to transcribe perfectly, but I know I didn’t;

I think that art can lose quite a bit of its value when it gets universalized. Most great art is great art because it exists within a certain context, so there’s real meaning around the symbols that shaped the ideas. Very seldom is it artists just painting what they see; it usually comes from a series of conversations or inspirations they’ve had from a certain community.

Sometimes with art, whether it be a film or music or fine arts, when they go mainstream, they lose something…for example, say I’m going to watch an independent art film like Paradise Nowif I’m watching it as an art piece, I could say, “Wow, they’re really flipping some things on their heads about terrorism, maybe I’ll appreciate the cinematography as well or something. But if I view it as entertainment, (I might think) “Eh, it really didn’t hold my attention…if they would’ve written it so it would’ve been more exciting, then I would’ve enjoyed it more. So there’s a different relationship between entertainment and art. Too often, art is domesticated and placed under this entertainment umbrella, and when it is under that umbrella, people are able to distance themselves from it; they don’t have to work through some of the issues that it’s showing because it might just be too uncomfortable in the beginning and say, “Eh, yeah, I don’t like what’s going on here. It’s not really my thing.

Basically, Ryan is addressing a culture-wide phenomenon in our country where nearly everything we do is judged by the criteria of how “entertaining” it is; and our spending habits reflect that reality. In this situation, marketers and movie producers and musicians aren’t stupid, they give us what we’re paying for, which is quite often “art” that is short on substance and long on persistent action and explosions and color and movement to keep us engaged and entertained. Some counter-cultural persons continue to give us movies and music, etc that is meant to draw us into the larger questios of life, but these are few and far between. We are enculturated from a young age to buy into the entertainment reality.

Just as a simple example, I’ll use the movie Over the Hedge as support for this suggestion.

Over the Hedge was, by most accounts, a light, fun animated movie that follows the story of a group of forest animals who wake up from a winter-long hibernation to find themselves in a small patch of undeveloped land in the midst of a suburban subdivision that popped up overnight. Since their land to roam and gather food in is gone, the movie follows their hilarious adventures to try to find food from the suburban homes to fill up their log for their hibernation. The action keeps moving, certain characters keep the laughter going, and the animals end up banding together to have success. That’s the entertainment value of Over the Hedge.

The art value of Over the Hedge came with often subtle critiques of individualism, suburban life and the whole mindset of suburban sprawl, SUV’s, etc. Some deeper themes running throughout the movie include the value of family, the trouble of blind trust, the consequences of stealing, and the shallowness of much of our society’s life. In one section, though, the point is slammed home very explicitly when RJ the raccoon introduces the other animals to suburban life;

One character asks, “What is that?” as they pass an SUV. RJ responds, “THAT is an SUV. Humans ride around in it because they’re slowly losing their ability to walk.” “Jeepers, it’s big,” another says, “how many humans fit in there?” And RJ remarks back, “Usually? One.”

“They eat to live…these guys live to eat. Let me show you what I’m talking about. The human mouth is called a piehole. The human being is called a couch potato. That (pointing to the telephone) is the device to summon food. That (the delivery man ringing the doorbell) is one of the many voices of food. That (the door) is the portal for the passing of the food. That (the delivery man’s scooter) is one of the many transportation vehicles for food. Humans bring the food, take the food, ship the food, they drive the food, they wear the food! That (match) gets the food hot, that (cooler) gets the food cold, that (the table with a family praying) is the altar where they worship food, that (alka seltzer) is what they eat when they’ve eaten too much food, that (treadmill) gets rid of the guilt so they can eat MORE food! Food, food, food, food, FOOD!!!!! So you think they have enough? Well, they don’t! For humans, enough is NEVER enough!”

And the real kicker is in the song Ben Folds sings as the credits roll which is an adaptation of his earlier song “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” Check out the lyrics; biting!

But you know what the sad thing is? A vast majority of folks came out of the theater, gave the movie a one-word judgment; either “good” or “bad” (according to its entertainment value, of course), and went back to their lives that often included the very things the movie producers were critiquing without a shred of their conscience being affected. Why? Because they’ve been trained to exist on the surface level of the desire to be entertained and were oblivious to the deeper issues the movie placed before them.

And I know by using “them” language here it seems I am trying to exclude myself from being among that group. I am not. I write about this phenomenon because I am still deeply enmeshed in it, and have only recently become aware of how pervasive it really is in our society. It so thoroughly saturates our society that everything, and I mean everything is shifting to reflect this commitment to surface entertainment.

Governments love this, because a populace that is perpetually entertained no longer holds its leaders accountable for their actions and policies; they no longer have time nor the desire to do so. I mean, why would someone dive into the complexity of policy making and long-term decisions (an area of frustration that requires depth of conversation and vision) when you can watch the newest Die Hard movie or stare at a female celebrity’s body and sense that all is right in the universe? In fact governments can encourage this entertainment industry, especially when the movies provide simple categories of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong so that when the government labels someone as evil, the people channel some Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood and eradicate the evil infestation. Honestly, once one has killed several million evil villains on Halo or Medal of Honor, what’s a few thousand Iraqis killed for God and country?

And I dare say (some of my friends will sigh at this point that I’ve gone here) Satan loves this move to entertainment as well. Even those who make the move to be involved in church come expecting to be entertained, and so instead of an institution that has the guts and courage to challenge the status quo, the church becomes another provider of religious goods and services for the entertainment of the individual.

One quickly finds if you are in the leadership of a church in our society if your message/presentation is more or less entertaining than the act down the road by how long folks stay at your church. If they leave relatively quickly, it might be because you’re unhealthy and unfaithful, but more likely it’s because you’re not ministering to their felt needs quite the way they’d like, and so because their “feeling” is central to their understanding of what is “right,” they leave for the spot down the road or, even worse, they’re so crushed by the drive to be entertained that they stay paralyzed in their LA-Z-Boy in front of their 62″ plasma with 3,000 channels with a Bose surround sound system, remote in hand, and with one click of the thumb can delude themselves to think all is right in the universe; or, at the very least even if they recognize the world is F-ed up, they have neither the time nor the energy to be involved in the complexity of saving it, so they settle for the pseudo-world in front of them.

There was a book written near the beginning of the twentieth-century that prophetically saw this coming called “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Read it. Then pick up “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neal Postman and read it. Then check out “The Saturated Self” by Kenneth Gergen and see if these suggestions about the nature of our society aren’t dead on.

Then you’ll find yourself where I am. Knowing the system exists, that I am compelled to battle the urge to be entertained as the goal of life, yet only sporadically engaging the fight. To be sure, it is frustrating to be able to see how deeply my life has been enmeshed in the desire to be entertained, whether we’re speaking of movie after movie or song after song or book after book that keep me moving enough in my life to avoid my own hungering for something more and disquieting thoughts about how I’m living a false life vicariously through celebrities and characters in books. I am finding that the more aware I am of this impulse and the more I subject it to Christ in favor of real life, the more free I am. I can watch movies and hear them making an argument about the nature of reality and human existence much more now; I can read a book that challenges me (like Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” right now) and take some time to think about what he’s saying rather than hop to another one because I want to hear something “new” and “exciting”; I am recognizing the importance of consistency in direction in life that provides a deep satisfaction (sometimes in spite of circumstances) instead of hopping from thrill to thrill to “feel good” about myself. This is recognizing the beauty and challenge of art rather than the drive to be entertained.

This awareness impacts so much, and I’ll have some more thoughts on this soon, as well as another glimpse at a movie much deeper in meaning than Over the Hedge that reveals a little further my perspective on the entertainment vs. art divide.

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2 thoughts on “Art vs. Entertainment

  1. Nathan, I was right with you until you started implying there’s some government tendency to keep us entertained and thoughtless. Once you digressed into a discussion of the church and society at large, I lost interest completely, but as regards to your comments on ‘Art vs. Entertainment,’ I’ll say this:

    The film industry has always largely been a business, something that has absolutely nothing to do with government influence and everything to do with making boatloads of cash. In fact, movie producers have battled the American government at every turn, from the NEA to the Hays Code, to make movies as entertaining (and profitable) as possible. The government, when it rarely does try to influence films, has typically made a misguided effort to reduce gratuitous entertainment in film, unfortunately through mostly censorship. It is extremely satisfying, and therefore extremely seductive, to believe that the public demands and has come to expect constant entertainment because it’s been “trained” or because “the government” wants us weak and docile.

    But I’m sorry, Nathan, the truth is both more complex and more troubling: our society by and large seeks instant gratification over more nourishing and difficult pleasures because we’ve made convenience a higher priority than self-improvement and self-evaluation (one of the reasons why so many seem to latch onto the convenience of the idea that “the government” and society have “trained” us to be lazy). It starts with the individual, not with some national conspiracy. We live in a world where rapidly advancing technology and considerable social shifts have made our world both harder to comprehend and less strenuous to survive. It’s difficult not to be lazy, but the laziness is of our own making. If we’re “trained,” it’s because we each train ourselves.

    And I’ll tell you a secret about the Government: we elect government officials from among the people. Politicians are in power because we put them there, and the problem is not that they control us–as in some Orwellian, oversimplifying vision of society–but that they generally do everything they can to appease our fickle demands, which means they’re serving popular opinion rather than their own convictions. The idea that the government is some supernatural entity distinct from society rather than an organic part of society is as morbidly wishful as it is unfounded. In the end, we have to take responsibility for our own intellectual laziness.

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