Note: This opinion piece speaks frequently of art and entertainment; it’s important to note that I’m referencing each in regards to the performing arts, specifically dance and theatre, as those fields are what I know. Perhaps the content relates to visual art, music and writing, but I’m not familiar enough with the worlds of those genres to comfortably discuss.
I often worry that the reason I make art isn’t important enough, the art itself isn’t important enough. Yes, this is completely ridiculous and self-defeating, but as someone who enjoys not just making but observing and participating in the art of others I’m very aware of the distinction of what’s purpose-driven and what is just pretty. As an individual who choreographs, designs and directs for the purposes of both making art and making a paycheck, often taking on gigs that aren’t as meaningful as the work I’m driven to create, I’m hyper-aware of a subconscious pull to ground my work in purpose (i.e. even if I’m working on a basic musical with kids there is still an immense take away from the experience for the participants), and am very aware of the boundaries of and gap between art and entertainment. I think it is an honor and a privilege to be able to be an artist for several reasons - reasons that would triple the length of this blog entry - and therefore believe there’s a responsibility to use one’s artist status to communicate, share, improve the community.
The debate on and space between art and entertainment will likely exist forever, and while my own internal discussion continues infinitely, my art-self-awareness was heightened when I started grad school a few months ago and by much of my recent reading. To clarify, I think both art and entertainment serve a purpose in society. I questioned this opinion over the last few months while learning about the incredibly talented artists also in my MFA program, many addressing the issues running rampant in current society and making important social change through their work. I deeply questioned this opinion in the last few weeks when an essay I read described work made for aesthetic and pleasure as projecting an image of “a better order”, consequently taking the pressure off society to change. This is a bold charge and quite honestly true of entertainment, but I think that’s why entertainment exists - as a foil to art.
Art is participatory, thought-provoking, a statement, however subtle or brash it is presented. It is an exploration, an experience, carefully crafted by the artist who needed to create it. We attend art to think and to be challenged; art is about the content being presented, whereas entertainment focuses on the presentation. Entertainment is an escape in its tendency to provide easy enjoyment, and shock and awe. I go to musicals to be impressed by their lavish design and their unrealistic but wholly enjoyable tendency to break out into song and dance, to the ballet to see athletes exhibit their technical prowess. I enjoy myself at such events, but I’m never overly moved or challenged as the content itself, outside of glamorous trimmings and brilliant individual performances, is often too familiar and simplified. One perk: entertainment does have the potential to be a gateway to art. I know several individuals that started attending dance performances by way of the ballet and other spectacle-heavy types of dance (think So You Think You Can Dance-esque), that slowly but surely have started taking chances and venturing deeper into art territory. Perhaps these two aren’t simply stand alone foils, but the two extremes on a possible-to-traverse scale.
All that being said, I think the balance of consumption of art and entertainment is far from ideal. If the average individual made as regular an effort to see impactful performances, projects and movements as they did the latest blockbuster, the millionth tour of Wicked, the annual Nutcracker, I can only imagine how different society would be. I think most opt for entertainment because we are afraid of being challenged. We are conditioned with the notion that the degree of understanding equals success, most students go through school getting numbered grades, the highest ranking student getting a special title at graduation, and there are many other similar situations through one’s life. I can imagine such a conditioned society has a hard time in a setting where they’re being provoked to think at an often abstract stimulus, without ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
As I approach the end of this blog post I am revisiting my first sentence: I often worry that the reason I make art isn’t important enough, the art itself isn’t important enough. (A quick justification - what artist doesn’t spend some of their time questioning the validity of their work?) While I deviated from this initial thought, what I’ve learned from the examination of art and entertainment is that my art is important because it takes place in space and time, at a moment that was once the present moment. What I’ve learned about my own work by reading, thinking and applying is that I consistently create work on the human experience, social interaction and behavior. This isn’t a catch-all; it, too, is important to examine commentary, narrative and abstract glimpses from the world we live in. A recent work about artificiality, performance and interaction, a duet enacting a complicated relationship between females and a secret, a piece exploring trust in a system and overthrowing authoritative power - all of these come from my world and ask an audience to see and perhaps formulate an opinion upon these presented situations. The art, mine and that of others, is important because I cared enough to present something I needed to say in the best way I could possibly find to say it. Similarly, perhaps entertainment is important due to society’s need to escape… and one step further, perhaps my need to explore my world and present it as an artist and my simultaneous need to be an audience member (not just for art, but for entertainment) are what are butting heads and causing this conflict-ridden internal discussion.