Art and Entertainment and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson
But is it art? Original photo by Thor Nielsen / NTNU, used under Creative Commons license. Additional art treatments by me.

Yesterday on Twitter, noted astrophysicist and Pluto killer Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote:

And, well. No. I responded:

This excited at least a few people, who were hoping that this meant that me and Tyson would now commence to fight. But sadly for those folks, there will be no fighting. One, despite his Pluto-murdering ways, I am an admirer of Tyson for his tireless championing of astronomy and astrophysics and science in general. Two, I think Tyson is simply falling prey to a common misconception about both art and entertainment, which is that the former is (mostly) exclusive of and (mostly) superior to the latter. In both cases, it’s not true.

To begin, “art” is not a rarified thing, or at least I don’t think it is. It is, simply, the product of the creative exercise. When you write a story or play a song or draw a picture or act on a stage, you are making “art.” Whether it is good art or bad art is another thing entirely — when I write, I can say I am (generally) creating good art, but when I draw, I am mostly creating bad art. But it’s still art, good, bad or indifferent. What makes it art is the act of creative production, not its quality.

Likewise “entertainment” is also not particularly rarified. It’s that which aims to amuse and engage people (or more widely, that which amuses and engages people, whether intentional or not). In a basic sense, if you are writing or composing or drawing or whatever with the intention or hope that other people will apprehend and appreciate what you are doing, that’s entertainment. And again, you can succeed or not succeed, depending on your skill and also the interest and taste of the audience. What makes it entertainment is the intention, not the quality.

It’s worth pointing out here that in the cases of both “art” and “entertainment” there are two, mostly unrelated components: The act of the creator, and the apprehension of the audience. I may create art, or aim to entertain, or both, but it’s generally up to others to decide if I’ve done a good job in either case. I have my own internal critic in both cases, who I think usually has a good bead on both. But ultimately the success of art depends on the individual, and their take on the created thing. We can further declare that someone has good or bad taste, or doesn’t know enough to appreciate art, or whatever, and those are arguments that can take us down a long and contentious road. But at the end of the day, apprehension of art is subjective, and you either accept that or don’t.

Tyson’s formulation of “art” — that it’s somehow effectively better or more challenging than mere “entertainment,” is not that unusual; it’s at the root of the old question “Well, I know I like it, but is it art?” For the person for whom is this is a serious sort of question, the answer of “Yes, it was art the moment the creator started producing it, and your liking it is valid in itself” possibly seems facile and a little vapid. Likewise, the devaluation of “mere” entertainment, as if something that succeeds in amusing and diverting you, and making you happy, cannot have the value of (or inherently has less value than) something that confronts you and aims to make you think.

Well, that seems a bit silly to me. Alt-right trolls aim to “challenge and disrupt my world view” with what passes for their cogitation; it doesn’t mean what they’re doing has an inherently higher artistic value than, say, an essay by Roxane Gay, whose worldview is rather more in alignment with mine. Fascist-aligned punk bands are not inherently more artistic than the Dead Kennedys, who have rather pointed things to say about Nazi punks.

(“But those are extreme examples!” Yes, they are. And? There were no qualification on Tyson’s initial statement; it’s not “Except in cases involving fascists and thugs…” And even if it were, we could still find more than enough examples to dismiss the hypothesis.)

Likewise, the one thing “art” has over “entertainment” is not quality, it’s intentionality. Art results from the creative drive of humans, and a purposeful act of creation. Entertainment can be, but does not have to be, intentionally created. I can be entertained by cats playing or by clouds rolling along in the sky, but neither the cats nor the clouds do what they do in the hopes of entertaining me. On Youtube, you can watch hours of logs burning in a fireplace or trains rolling through Scandinavia. It’s entertainment but I think not really art (unless you count pointing a camera at a fireplace to be art, which, meh).

“Entertainment” is not a lesser state of “art”; they are separate conditions with substantial but not perfect overlap. Much if not most of what we think as entertainment starts off as art; most art we eventually see is intended to have an audience (i.e., is “entertainment”). The subjective entertainment value of something may not be the same as the subjective “artistic” value of the thing. I can recognize art has been finely crafted and speaks well to an audience, and also recognize that audience is not one with me in it (which is to say, not be well entertained by it). I can likewise recognize that something which amuses me vastly can be something I also find sloppy and junky and not something I’d recommend to other people — or alternately, speaks so particularly to me that I don’t expect others to have the same reaction to it.

Also, and importantly, we don’t have to excuse or rationalize or dismiss art that exists within our “world view” (and let me note that I could spend a whole other essay deconstructing that phrase) as “mere” entertainment. One, “entertainment” is not mere — the ability of anything to transport you out of your own worry cycle for even a few minutes is a pretty great thing. Two, that entertainment is (usually) art. And it’s art that is working for you, however it works. Enjoy it and celebrate it. This is why there should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” You shouldn’t feel guilt about enjoying art, whatever it is.

Now, what I think Tyson may have been trying to say, and if so is a thing I would agree with him on, is that one’s entertainment and/or artistic diet shouldn’t be only what you already know that you like — it’s worthwhile to make a stretch here and there and try things that you don’t know if you like, and on occasion to learn more about art (of whatever sort) so that when you approach new and unfamiliar art, you have tools to better understand and apprehend what you’ve got in front of you. Always be reaching for the new and always be learning — and as a result, what art speaks to you, and entertains you, will be a larger set than what’s come before. And sometimes you won’t like the art, and won’t be entertained, but that’s all right, too. You’ll know more about yourself through the process.

This is why, fundamentally, I don’t need to fight Tyson — I’m pretty sure he and I agree on the important things regarding art and entertainment. We’re just using different words (and definitions of words) to say it. Mind you, I think I’ve said it better here. But then, I’ve just used 1,250 words, and he used a tweet.

64 thoughts on “Art and Entertainment and Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. Quick note:

    Please stay on topic here; general kvetching about Tyson (which I suspect some folks will want to do) is not really on point. Let’s stick to art and entertainment and Tyson (and my!) discussion of it, please. That’s enough to work with, I suspect.

  2. I agree with you very much. Some of my favorite stuff these days is modern clown, in which a poignant and physically beautiful commentary on the human condition might be immediately followed by a fart joke or a pie in the face. Art? Indubitably! Entertainment? Hard to disagree.

    Also I have to say I forgive NDT on the whole Pluto thing. Pluto had it coming.

  3. I find watching other people having semantic arguments to be very entertaining, and your rebuttal is quite artistic. Also, Pluto is still up there, doing what it does, and it probably does not give a flying frack over what the monkey people on Earth call it.

  4. “world view” (and let me note that I could spend a whole other essay deconstructing that phrase)

    Please do, if you find yourself inspired!

    As for the rest of this, yes. In fact, your examples about fascist punk bands etc. make me me think of the claim made by a certain class of comedian (whether in the performance sense or just people you talk to in daily life sense), that their offensiveness is just “edgy” and the fault is yours for not appreciating it. They’re basically trying to hide behind the “I’m making art!” defense, and it isn’t as good of a shield as they seem to think.

  5. I retweeted Tyson’s comment without properly thinking about it. (Bad artist!) So I deleted my retweet, to do my part for the betterment of humanity (or at least not wanting to contribute to its unbetterment). I do think what Tyson was trying to do was to provide a shorthand answer to the cocktail party question: What’s the difference between art and entertainment? That’s not question that can be answered succinctly, but he gave it a shot. It’s not a bad shot, IMHO, but it does miss the mark.

  6. One, “entertainment” is not mere — the ability of anything to transport you out of your own worry cycle for even a few minutes is a pretty great thing.

    Thought that point was pretty well argued/settled by Sullivan’s Travels, almost 80 years ago…

  7. DRickard:

    Your answer to that is in your comment: It was 80 years ago and the number of people who have seen Sullivan’s Travels (Coen Brothers notwithstanding) is lower than might have been even a couple of decades ago.

  8. “Mind you, I think I’ve said it better here. But then, I’ve just used 1,250 words, and he used a tweet.”

    I think that’s the key point here. As much as I enjoy Twitter, it’s not made to provide real exploration of an idea.

    As far as art vs. entertainment goes, I tend to agree with you.

  9. The question of what does and does not qualify as art resulted in one of the only science fiction stories that has ever genuinely angered me. Gordon R. Dickson is one of my favorite authors, but he really pissed me off with “Black Charlie.” It took place on a planet whose natives were otter-like and not nearly as advanced as humans. The narrator was a human art expert who was approached by another human, a prospector who had befriended one of the aliens, Black Charlie. Charlie fancied himself an artist and had produced some very crude rock sculptures. He was very worried about whether they were truly art, so his human friend went to the expert to ask.

    And the SOB said no! He was given something that was deliberately created by an intelligent being with the sole intention of creating art, and he said it didn’t qualify! I haven’t read the story for at least twenty years but I’m getting mad again just thinking about it.

    I’ve never been 100% sure how to define art, but John’s bit about “the product of the creative exercise” works quite well. Whatever the definition is, it has to account for the fact that art is extremely easy to create. The world’s worst finger paintings are just as much art as the Mona Lisa. They’re not capital-A Art, by any means, but I’ve never cared much about Art. Just plain art is good enough for me.

  10. An interesting conversation. The Fireplace Channel actually predated YouTube here in Europe. Destroying a whole planet is a distinction Tyson shares only with Darth Vader as far as I know, and Tyson did it without a Death Star. And amen re Sullivan’s Travels, old though it is.

  11. I love what you said in this essay. I’m in grad school for arts management and am currently taking a class on arts and society where we spend a lot of time thinking about what makes something art . Your quote here: “Likewise, the one thing “art” has over “entertainment” is not quality, it’s intentionality. Art results from the creative drive of humans, and a purposeful act of creation. ” gets very close to John Dewey’s argument that art is art because when the artist creates it, he or she does so with the intention of it having an impact on the audience and giving the audience an experience. The cats don’t decide to pounce on each other’s tails because they think you might find it funny. A science fiction writer might add a sentence to a passage because it will make the reader laugh.

    There’s a long and fascinating history of thought about what we consider art going back to Aristotle and constantly revising itself even now in the 21st century.

  12. I’m a big subscriber to the theory that art can encompass a whole range of things, and that what we really need is to grade art not on a single scale but in 2-dimensional space. The Y axis can be “Does it say something IMPORTANT or push a boundary?” and the X axis can be “Did I have fun watching/reading/consuming it.” Something that’s “entertaining” would get a high rating along the X axis, something new and inventive would get high marks along the Y axis, but the point is, you’d have to look at a creative work on both scales in order to assess its value (or appeal) to you personally. Re-reading a book you’ve already read twice? Doesn’t really push boundaries (although I guess you could pick some things up the second time through), but obviously you liked it, so it gets high marks on the X axis. Going to a genre of movie you don’t usually watch because you have heard it’s an amazing piece of cinema and not to be missed? High marks on the Y axis, even if all it does is remind you why you usually avoid that genre. But loving that amazing piece of cinema so much that you go and see it twice? High marks on both the X AND Y axis. Each person gets to decide for themselves how they want to weight the are under the curve.

    I’ve found that many people seem to want the X and Y axis to correlate (Because I liked it, it is “good”, because it is “good” it should be culturally important, and also the reverse), but it really helps ME to think of them as orthogonal. A movie/book/whatever can be entertaining as hell and push boundaries, it can be entertaining as hell and NOT push boundaries, It can push boundaries but be a slog, or it can just plain suck. It’s always best when a work of art is both, but the constant drive to push things that are “entertaining” out of the sphere of “that which is art” is just… tiring. Art doesn’t need the purity police any more than geekdom does. We just need to apply the same logic to art as we do to food; cotton candy can be good, asparagus can be good, and they both still count as food even though their health and taste indices vary widely.

  13. A fight? People expected that? I mean, I know it’s the Internet and all, but…

    From my obviously general impression of you both, I’d have expected something more like a lively, informed discussion of the idea with a heavy dose of trying to out-geek each other… =)

  14. Thank you for this! (Side note: any Big Pain day I have in which I can genuinely say I’m feeling delighted is a pretty amazing thing; you’ve managed to help me accomplish that twice in a single day, so far, with two amazing posts. Really: thank you.)

    I noticed the tweet & response earlier in the sidebar on the blog, and kind of hoped you’d expand on it (yay, you!). This is a concept that’s always bothered me, and you’ve explored and deconstructed it beautifully. I really dislike the “high art” distinction that exists in some critical circles. It’s always struck me as absurd. This particular quote of Tyson’s (and I will echo you re: I really love the man and his work, and don’t even blame him for Pluto—he wasn’t exactly solely responsible for that, anyway—so there’s no intended dig at him as a thoughtful person here, nope) is, as noted, glib and short-sighted. I kind of hope he’ll take note of the examination, and in good scientist fashion, own his knee-jerk reaction and amend it. It would be an excellent example of the kind of thinker I’ve come to expect him to be.

    There’s a variant on this idea I’ve seen discussed before, and have had my own conversations about: that there is some sort of hierarchical distinction between “art” and “craft.” There’s an excellent discussion of this in the introduction to the beautiful collection book “The Art of Leo and Diane Dilion” in which the Dillons discuss the way in which their work is sometimes devalued as being “merely” illustration, somehow lesser than true “fine” art (presumably because it’s produced for a purpose rather than for “its own sake”). It’s pretty clear to anyone who has seen much of their art how ridiculous this idea is. (You can probably guess I’m a huge fan of them. Anyone who’s read a lot of children’s books and/or fantasy and science fiction has almost certainly encountered a lot of their artwork. I discovered them when I bought a book entirely based on their quite amazing cover art, without even knowing what it was about. Ended up loving the book, almost as much as the art!)

    And then there’s Alice Walker’s classic short story, “Everyday Use,” which introduced me more deeply to this concept many many years ago, and is still a wonderful exploration of how things created for a function will sometimes only become viewed as “art” when removed from that function. As someone who always felt a deep connection with artistry in function and design, this was revelatory, and not a little distressing. I think this distinction now being applied to “entertainment” is just a variant on that.

    Anyway, this a subject dear to my heart, and as always, you’ve explored it masterfully. Bravo. Art indeed. (And, as others have already noted, delightfully entertaining. Take that, bumper-sticker “wisdom”!)

  15. Not an artist, but it seems to me that Scalzi is using “art” in an inclusionary sense, whereas Tyson is saying “art” in an exclusionary one. Tyson’s definition seems to be a high-minded attempt to, effectively, point at something and say “that’s not really art”.

  16. I had an art history teacher in college who offered a definition of art that completely satisfied me.

    She used the example of a conch shell: when exuded by a conch, it’s not art. No decision-making process went into it, just biological destiny. The conch was simply existing, and the shell came into existence as a side effect. But if a sculptor carved an exact duplicate of the conch shell, then that would be a decision the sculptor had made. You could ask why they decided to do it – what it meant to them, or what it was for. The two conch shells might look identical, but only one of them would be art.

    Art, she said, is anything about which you can meaningfully ask the question “Why was this made?”

    As soon as she said it, it seemed so obviously correct to me that every discussion of the topic I’ve run across in the thirty years since has seemed pointless and silly.

  17. I really like what Evan said in their comment.

    And I agree with what Mr. Scalzi says as well.

    Thank you for this; I would far rather be thinking about this today than politics.

  18. Art, she said, is anything about which you can meaningfully ask the question “Why was this made?”

    That seems overly broad to me, unless there’s something significant buried in the word “meaningfully.” I can ask why my keyboard was made — there was a decision-making process involved — and sure, we can talk about the aesthetics of its design. But I wouldn’t say my keyboard is art.

    Insofar as I have a definition of what I consider to be “art,” it’s anything whose primary purpose is aesthetic or expressive rather than pragmatic. Note that this doesn’t exclude pragmatism; a meal can be art even if I shovel it into my face and get nutrition from it, and a poem can be art even if it serves an educational purpose, too. But if the utility aspect is secondary, then I would consider the thing to be art.

    (Yes, there’s a great deal of fuzziness in how we evaluate “primary purpose” vs. “secondary.” I’m okay with that.)

  19. It seems what you’re saying is that art-1 is about making it, and entertainment is about enjoying it. So when you write a book, that’s art-1, and when I read it, that’s entertainment. (Since you both use the word ‘art’ and use it differently, I’ll put art-1 when it’s the Scalzi definition and art-2 when it’s the Tyson definition).

    I think what Tyson was saying was more about two modes of enjoying art-1, the product of people’s creative output: the mode where you enjoy it and it reinforces your current world view where it’s entertainment, and the mode where you engage with it critically and it challenges your world view where it’s art-2. The better it is as art-2, the more you find it engages you critically. So in that sense, certainly the offensive comedians and the facist punks’ output is art-2 for you, probably bad art-2 as it does not really challenge your world view much, you reject it pretty easily. And it’s entertainment for those whose world-view it agrees with. (I think producers of that sort of art-1 are asserting it’s art-2 to defend it from those it offends but really they’re producing it as entertainment for fellow-travelers.)

    Some artists really set out to create their art-1 to be received as art-2 by most of their intended audience. Others set out to create their art-1 to be entertainment for people who have largely the same world view as they do. Some artists try to do both those things at the same time: to entertain and critically engage their audience at the same time. Some artists don’t do either of those things, and are inspired by other considerations.

  20. I thing you both make a good point, but largely because I have a different interpretation of what DeGrass Tyson said: I venture that what he meant is that you can use the term “art” to distinguish something from “mere” artful entertainment. Of course a skillful creator can both entertain and challenge, and indeed, being challenged is entertaining to many of us. As you note, it’s like gender: far more fluid than binary categories can express. Scientists like DeGrasse Tyson tend to prefer binaries, even for non-binary subjects, because examining extremes or limits or boundary cases provides such important insights in science. The problem comes when they forget the shades of grey that exist in non-binary phenomena. That is, the approach is most productive when you use it to bound a problem, and then continue from that point by examining what lies between the boundaries.

    You see the same problem arise when people try to distinguish between pornography and erotica: I’ve discussed the topic with people who draw no distinction, people who use the same entertainment/art distinction DeGrasse Tyson was getting at, and people who politicize the subject by distinguishing between consensual/egalitarian (art) and exploitative (porn). Even when we make an effort to choose the terms we’re going to argue over, it often comes down to “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it” (i.e., subjective opinion). But I’ve had many interesting and enlightening discussions that taught me about a range of perspectives once we agreed on our terms.

    The larger point (and to me, the more interesting one) is how different people define their boundaries between terms. When you want to discuss something, from the completely trivial to the profound and important, it’s really helpful to carefully define what you mean before you start arguing over who’s right or trying to persuade each other. Once you’ve agreed on what you’re taking about, you can make good progress. Or at least agree to disagree. Works in marriages too; it can be very disconcerting to discover you’re arguing about entirely different things that only superficially seemed to be the same thing.

  21. That seems overly broad to me, unless there’s something significant buried in the word “meaningfully.” I can ask why my keyboard was made — there was a decision-making process involved — and sure, we can talk about the aesthetics of its design. But I wouldn’t say my keyboard is art.

    But before it was a keyboard, someone had to draw a picture of it.

    Yes, it’s a very inclusive definition, but I like that about it. It both demystifies art and re-mystifies other kinds of creativity. I’m a software engineer, and I make purely aesthetic decisions all the time – how should I use white space, what should this variable be called, how verbosely should I comment, etc. I think it’s art. The kinds of thoughts I think when I do that aren’t wildly different from the ones I think when I work out a chord progression or compose a photograph – it’s all “hmm, yes, this way is better than that way”.

    (It might have captured my teacher’s meaning better if I’d rephrased the question as “why was this made in this particular way?” but she herself used the simpler phrasing.)

  22. I saw Dr. Tyson’s tweet only because you retweeted it.

    As much as I admire and respect Dr. Tyson’s scientific knowledge and appreciate his work to make more people science-literate, I probably would have ignored his commentary on art vs entertainment. Mostly because I don’t think his focus on hard-science explanations is useful when the subject is as hard to pin down as art is.

    And your post explains why his construction failed far better than I could.

    I would, however, quibble a bit with your turn toward intentionality as a key in explaining entertainment.

    I say that as a student and teacher of literature, as well as a writer. One of the nits I often pick with other literary students or instructors is their instinct to lean on the crutch of “What did the author intend by writing X?”

    The creator’s intentions for a particular piece may have no relationship to how the audience for that piece responds to it. I know you already pointed that out in your post, but that phrase “intention” is so fraught (thanks to the New Critics and subsequent schools of literary theorists), that I shudder every time I encounter it.

    I mention it in case any other refugees from the Ivory Tower wander by and start having fits or flashbacks. To my fellow post-academics, don’t panic! We can use a synonym for “intention” like “aim” or “purpose” if it’s less painful.

  23. MB beat me to it. My definition of art is “a work intended to engage with the aesthetic sense of its audience.”

  24. Much religious art seems to be a confirmation and maybe an exploration of a deeply held worldview. I’m not sure it is meant to challenge and disrupt. It might be to confirm. To provide solace. To celebrate.

    I Love NGT, but his formulation is weak and wrong on so many levels. It also is devoid of an education in the history of art. It is trying to be profound but is deeply uneducated. It is sophomoric in the extreme.

    We don’t get to define our own words in entirety. They don’t exist within a vacuum. Art is very definitely one of those words, and NGT shows here that he is unaware of a wider conversation.

    It is just off the cuff, spew on twitter…. but still this devalues a lot of people’s hard work in a very offhand way.

  25. Yes, it’s a very inclusive definition, but I like that about it.

    Whereas for me, it become inclusive of every single thing a human being has ever deliberately made, and at that point it’s too broad to be useful. Or rather, at that point it becomes a concept we already have a word for: “artifact,” in the sense that archaeologists use the term, i.e. a thing deliberately made. (Contrasted with “ecofact,” i.e. a thing naturally made.)

    To put it another way: if every single object on my desk is art because somebody made decisions in the course of creating it, what word do I use when I specifically want to discuss things made for aesthetic or expressive reasons?

  26. John I can’t read your entire Tome right now because I have a concussion but I have to say that I absolutely positively side with you on Pluto. Dwarf planet lives matter. I would normally hashtag that but because I have a concussion and I can’t type I can only speak I can’t do the hashtag but now I have to go stop the dog from chewing up the Earth.

  27. At the risk of being malletted for being off-topic, I’m going to say I’ve taken that train ride from Bergen to Oslo. Norway is breathtakingly beautiful. There are parts that are like a Yosemite Valley that goes on and on. It’s no wonder Slartibartfast won an award for it. It is a beautiful work of art. (There, brought it back around to the topic.)

  28. I don’t think deGrasse Tyson was trying to say it’s worthwhile to make a stretch here and there. His point was more fundamental, and I disagree with it.

    Ask the question from a different angle. If a creative work doesn’t challenge and disrupt your worldview, can it be art? I think deGrasse Tyson is saying no, it cannot be art.

    His viewpoint is similar to a lot of contemporary academic philosophy. The philosophy of transgression, breaking through bourgeois norms, tearing down the illusions of consumerism that are propped up by capitalism. Under that philosophy any creative work that fails to challenge the audience is just nostalgia, pandering, craven selling out. The more shocking, disturbing, and disruptive the challenge, the greater the artistic value.

  29. Heck, one can extend your argument into food as well. There is ‘Comfort Food’, ranging from ‘Eh, it’s edible’ to Bachelor (my old roommate’s cooked rice & peas & salad dressing)(or my cooked penne & chopped tomatoes & sliced onion and jalapeno & whole green pepper& cubed mild and sharp cheddar, then baked) to family (mine looks to my Malaysian Pork roast with Fried Rice and sauce). Then there is the ‘Rock Your World” stuff, which (in my case ranges from bitter-sweet truffles (3 ingredients) to a trifle dessert that only needs 4 items (I have another that is more involved in this category))
    My mother would have her own comments about what is Comfort Food and what is “Excite Us.” Heck, at least two of her dishes manages to be Comfort Food for family while being Exciting when presented for pot-luck group meals. One is a non-mayo potato salad (I cannot quite do it , so I use roasted potatoes and kielbasa), the other is a green bean recipe that has been part of family comfort meals since forever but vegetable hating in-laws consider absolutely delish.

  30. John, come on – allow this bit at least:

    But… let’s do woke and do a movie tie-in instead – you know, since Wakanda is a thing and y’all can stop pretending to be polite to the liars and all.

    The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions
    Kariamu Welsh-Asante — very beautiful writer. And her dance is amazing. Just go trawl for her videos!

    Or if you want to really twist your cultural preconceptions, try out a Maori Philosopher who digs Heidegger[1]: The Co-Existence of Self and Thing Through Ira Carl Mika, A Maori Phenomenology, Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology

    That’s for the real bearded dragons: ignore if you aren’t into real theory.

    If you want to be woke, ironic, and also sophisticated non-normal Twitter user, shall we try…

    Aesthetics of Sorrow: the wailing culture of Yemenite Jewish women Sarah Irving.

    Which if you cannot see a massive slap of irony where Arabic speaking Jewish women originating in Yemen have an entire aesthetic of pronouncing grief then you really should read your World News a bit more. 100% Real.

    That’s three non-white-non-USA/EU thinkers talking about Art.

    Trust me: they’re all a bit more profound than twitter trolls.

    [1]No, he’s not one of your White-Bread Tiki-Torch appropriators. Nor is he anti-Semitic. And he’d probably be very upset if you thought for a second his identity wasn’t authentically Maori / Islander. And he probably gets ‘Cultural Appropriation’ far more than 95% of American readers.

  31. Oh, and in case of Troooollls, here’s something to crack out:

    Critique of Judgement Kant.

    Warning: that’s a heavy download.

    Note: Yes, that’s legal. Yes, that’s also a 685+ page .pdf of the book. Yes, understanding it is probably useful to understand Western European Culture. No, you’re not a bad person for not reading it, but it does make a lot of other things make sense. No, none of the trolls have read it.

    We Have Though.

    Art = Sublime.

    *Drops between Author and Scientist with impressive wing slaps*

    Do you *know* what the SUBLIME is?

    Then you can trip out to the ‘Aesthetics of Weapons’ and how Bushes’ ‘Shock and Awe’ is actually a manifestation of this impulse – destruction & orgasm via the medium of TV, all carefully orchestrated and so forth[1]. Or not. But you ain’t doing nothing new my little pumpkins.

    *throws ganja into the air like Unicorn Dust and watches you discuss*

    [1] Dispatches

    [2] Actual more interesting discussion: Art being prevented due to Profit, but hey… none y’all ready for that little one, like Pluto.

  32. I tend to define “Art” in much the same way that the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography; i.e., I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

  33. Thank you for this post! I’ve seen lots of reactions to NDT’s tweet, but this is the one that gets to the heart of the matter for me. Art is just a creative expression of ideas. No more and no less. It’s not “good” or “bad,” it just is. Entertainment is just…something that entertains someone, whether it was designed to or not. Art can be entertaining, and something entertaining can be art, and the idea that they’re mutually exclusive is silly.

    Anyway, in addition to just agreeing with you, I want to add my own comment on NDT’s tweet, which is that not only does art NOT have to challenge or disrupt your world view to qualify as art, it doesn’t even have to do those things to qualify as Good Art or Great Art (however anyone wants to define those terms).

    Example: I suspect that most people today could listen to a composition by J.S. Bach and not be particularly challenged or disrupted by it. Given that Bach makes up something like 80-90% of the musical DNA of any given style of popular music, most of us grew up so thoroughly immersed in his influence that we’re all pretty comfortable with it. There’s a great deal you can learn about music by studying how Bach made it, but on the surface level it’s very much in line with the stuff most of us are already used to.

    And yet, Bach’s work is still art. It’s art because he used a creative medium to express himself. You can even call Bach’s work Great Art because he was really, really good at what he did, and was arguably (I SAID ARGUABLY) the single most important composer who ever lived. And those things are true even if his music doesn’t challenge or disrupt you in any way.

  34. If you scratch the surface, I’m not sure NDT’s tweet makes much sense. Who is the ‘your’ supposed to be? If it is the artist then the art must confirm to their world view. Otherwise the artist is just lying. At best it can push the boundaries, but an artist can’t produce something they disagree with and claim it is profound.
    If ‘your’ is the consumer of the art, then there will always be people with the same world view as the artist. Even if it is just the artist themselves, they must be able to consume their own art. And whether or not something qualifies as art shouldn’t depend on the consumer.

    I also think the fascists example is instructive. There are portions of my world view that are just objectively correct. It accomplishes nothing to challenge those portions of my world view.

  35. @johntshea it was Tarkin who blew up another planet, not Vader, as any fule kno. Vader was quite derogatory of the Death Star, in fact: “don’t be so proud of this technological terror you have created. The power of the Death Star is insignificant compared to the power of the Force.”.

    @John Scalzi while I agree that there are many things that we do label as “guilty pleasures” that we ought not to, is there not something to be said for redefining “guilty pleasures” into something like “the movies of Kevin Spacey / Roman Polanski / Harvey Weinstein”? Right now we treat “guilty pleasures” as things that we feel tick the box for “entertainment” without ticking the box for “artistic merit” — but it would be more useful to talk about whether we should give Spacey his royalties for buying “The Usual Suspects” on DVD…

  36. Scalzi: “, I think Tyson is simply falling prey to a common misconception about both art and entertainment, which is that the former is (mostly) exclusive of and (mostly) superior to the latter”

    He might think that, but he didnt actually tweet that.

    “Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art.”

    I didnt read that as “art good. Etertainment bad”.
    I read it as trying to distinguish the intentionality of the artist and give it a label so we can talk about it.

    Did the creator try to challenge people? Then its art. Did the creator try to give people what they want to hear? Then its entertainment.

    There is bad art. The racist film “birth of a nation” might be bad art. Or it could be good entertainment for a racist audience. Depending of the creators intentions. But i appreciate good entertainment too. Sometimes I just want to watch SpongeBob SquarePants and just laugh. Thats entertainment. Id say its good entertainment.

    Some creators only want to give their audience exactly what they want to hear. Some creators want to challenge peoples comfort zones. And I think “entertainer” versus “artist” tries to capture the distinction.

    Some creative types know they are strictly entertainers. But some entertainers will balk at that label and insist “I am an are-teeest!” But thats because they attached good/bad to artist/entertainer.

    Fundamentally, I think the definitions forwarded by NDT merely distinguish two types of creative works based on the intent of the creator. Which i think is a useful distinction. And the terms “entertainer” versus “artist” would probably be fine except some entertainers insist they are areteests.

    I do think the “all creators are artists, and all creations are art” response that some creators have is missing the point. Jerry Springer is not an artist. He is an entertainer.

    Do the terms run into problems? Certainly. But anything that tries to define the subjective has problems. Are the terms *useful*? Do they distinguish something that is real? Yes. Could we argue about who is in and out of the boundaries ax nauseum? Certainly.

    But the terms point to a useful distinction, a real distinction.

  37. Just to add to the mix check out Owen Hulatt’s piece at the online magazine “Aeon” entitled “Against Popular Culture” on Theodor Adorno’s fraught relationship with popular art. While one can be tempted to regard Teddy as a fragile little snowflake there is the useful point about “popular culture” being commodification gone too far. Then again, “wholeness” is where you find it.

  38. “the ability of anything to transport you out of your own worry cycle for even a few minutes is a pretty great thing.”

    Entertainment may, for a while, be a relief from worry but it can also function as an antidote to boredom. A certain type of sociopath may be entertained by the torture of animals for that reason.
    As with almost all things human, entertainment can have good and ill effects. At the heart of it lies, probably, the kind of restlessness that made humanity’s journey from tree to skyscraper possible. You could make the same claim for art*, which is one of the reasons I don’t bother much with separating the two. It’s a bit too much like looking at two angels dancing on a pin and arguing about the clothes they’re wearing.

    *and possibly also for religion, or organised sports

  39. “Art is either plagiarism or revolution” — Paul Gauguin

    “Art is made to disturb, science reassures.” – Georges Braque

    I think anyone who says the definition of ‘art’ is settled, and settled exactly the way they want it, should re-read their dictionaries. “Art” has many meanings. Some completely contradictory.

    Art is made to disturb, art is a revolution. Art challenges the viewer. And if it doesnt do that, it isnt art. Thats not a humpty dumpty, out of thin air, definition of art. Thats a historically grounded definition of art that some people have been using for millenia.

    Art is also anything any human ever created, ever. Art has a big tent definition as well.

    And those two exist simultaneously, like quantum particle, and we dont know which definition it is until the person utters the word -in a context- that gives the definition intended.

    NDT used a definition that is supported by dictionaries and by history. People can say they dont LIKE the definition he used, but they cant say he misused the term, and they cant say he humpty-dumptied a definition out of thin air.

  40. As an example of why he’s wrong – A Vermeer does not challenge anyone’s world view. But no one questions that is Art. with a capital.

    I think Tyson would have been better to say that he prefers art or entertainment that makes him think. Work that makes you consider ramifications after you stop viewing it. And honestly, even movies with no apparent goal except entertainment will do that. Watch Movies with Mikey. He thinks about it. He’ll make you think about it.

  41. My departed painter friend once said…..” Dear, I am not an artist because I sell my work. I am an artist because I get up every day and make art.”

    I like John’s emphasis on the impulse of creating, setting aside the division of social classifications of art and entertainment.
    While I am stunned, shocked, brought to tears or discomforted by the endurance of the performance art of Marina Abramovic ( The Artist is Present for example),despite the weight of hours of energy, thought and execution for the work, many people would reject the label Art for her work.

    I love it that elephants paint by the way. Art or entertainment? You have to ask the elephants I suppose.

  42. @PeterM But in “Black Charlie,” doesn’t the art expert realize he was wrong and that it *is* art? At first,he was looking for talent or abstraction, and judged it as something like “here’s a person-shaped piece of wood some kid found,” but later realized what Charlie was seeing/doing with it?

  43. I’m a little bummed at the attempts to rewrite the tweet into “what he really meant was” something less shallow. The notion that Art only serves to challenge is not only silly and incorrect*, it has more than a whiff of elitism; art I like is cool and edgy and the lone voice of reason, unlike the crowd-pleasing stuff you plebes enjoy.

    *after all, as has already been noted, the “contrary” art aligns with what the artist believes, as well as their admirers and fans.

  44. Dear John,

    I’ve seen this sort of conversation further muddled when people use two different — and equally popular — meanings for “art.” One speaks to intent and the other speaks to merit.

    Example: when I say, “I am an artist,” (which I do), that should be heard as, “I am someone who is trying to make art.” This is the word used in its intent-sense, and that sentence is merely a matter of fact, with no more import than that.

    For people who think that the word “art” implies merit, that statement is heard as pretentious, a claim about the quality of what I do. In this hypothetical disagreement, their reaction to my statement would be, “It’s aggrandizing — or inappropriate — for you to say you are an artist; that’s for other people to decide.” My rejoinder would be, “No, it’s not. I get to decide if I am an artist. You get to decide whether or not I am a GOOD artist.”

    We are both correct. We are using different meanings/connotations for the word.

    (Side note: I am not claiming this addresses any and all questions about what is art and who is an artist. I am pointing out one place where misunderstanding frequently occurs.)

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  45. I’d never heard your old question “Well, I know I like it, but is it art?”
    I’ve always heard, “Just because I/you/we DON’T like it doesn’t mean it’s NOT art.”

    Also, the commentariat has convinced me that there is no one good definition of art, and I was reassured by the comment suggesting that we have several fine definitions already, and it’s okay that these definitions may be incomplete and/or contradictory. English is that kind of language, and that’s one reason it’s good for word play.

  46. @Four Ds Yes, the expert eventually changes his mind, but it’s years later and he never tells Charlie. The story focused entirely on the expert and his supposed epiphany that an alien could produce art. My own focus was on the poor alien who had quite obviously produced art but had his pride and accomplishment completely demolished. Dickson treated the alien as nothing more than a plot device.

    And when the expert finally realized it really was art, he inserted it into a display of primitive human art, rather than letting everyone know that the supposedly uncultured aliens were capable of art and creation. It salved his own conscience but did nothing for Charlie or his people.

    I really can’t overstate how much that story pisses me off. Which is weird, because I can’t think of another Dickson story that I didn’t enjoy at least a little.

  47. Mythago: “it has more than a whiff of elitism”

    So? The alternative is that little Johnny’s first grader macaroni art is just as good, on every level, by every measure, as the Mona Lisa.

    “as has already been noted, the “contrary” art aligns with what the artist believes”

    Great. Now you’ve redefined the word so that Rosa Parks did not “challenge” by keeping her seat because she did not also challenge herself.

    How much of the dictioary and how much of human experience do we destroy just so that NDT cant use a definition we dont like?

  48. Peter: “And the SOB said no! He was given something that was deliberately created by an intelligent being with the sole intention of creating art, and he said it didn’t qualify! I haven’t read the story for at least twenty years but I’m getting mad again just thinking about it.”

    Curious, i found the story on the web and just finished reading it. I’m not sure if the narrator is to blame. He seemed to be a buyer of art for museums and knew what would be bought and what wouldnt. At the end of the story, he couldnt sell it to any big museum. No one would buy it.

    As for the rest of the story, there are at least two great injustices that go unaddressed. Humans were trapping and killing intelligent life for their fur. And the aliens reaction to black charlie at the end. So there is plenty to feel anger about. I think they kind of eclipse the narrators refusal to procure charlies work at the begining.

  49. Whoops forgot this:

    “but it’s years later and he never tells Charlie”

    He does. He goes to the planet, helps charlie who is injured and dying, tries to bandage his wounds, helps him move around, and charlie gives him a new piece which he swears to himself he will find a museum for.

    He doesnt “tell” charlie because they cant speak, but it was kind of established in the beginning that his taking the art would be interpreted as accepting it as worthy. Not taking it would be interpreted as rejecting his work as unworthy.

    In the later scene, charlie hands him a new piece and the narrator takes it, a sign of acceptance. So charlie understood the narators acceptance.

  50. As usual, you (all) have started a very interesting discussion. NDT’s definition is based on the reception of a piece of art/entertainment, and many of the definitions above refer to the artist/entertainer’s intentions. Seeing art as primarily a moral spur, as well as a sensory and/or intellectual thrill, I fall on the reception side, which is linked to but not completely dependent on the generator’s intentions. I’ve been entertained a great deal, luckily for me, but art is like the torso of Apollo in the Rilke poem: it says, “You must change your life”, and occasionally gives me some tips on how.

  51. Regarding the Tyson tweet: I’d say that entertainment may cause boredom, but only accidentally – whereas art is that which inherently risks being boring, among some proportion of those who see and/or hear it.

    As a player/practicer/devotee of Ravel’s piano works (happy 143rd birthday!), I’m acquainted with the sort of artistry that can be packed into a piece of instrumental music during months or years of composition, and nothing about it is relevant to (or affirming, or shaking-up) anyone’s worldview.

    Literaterose: It seems to me that, at least with respect to instrumental music, craft and art can indeed be separated – to the extent that craft consists of how enterprising you can be with the materials you’ve got. That was certainly the case in my counterpoint class: “Be enterprising!”

  52. gottacook noted “craft and art can indeed be separated”

    Definitely. To achieve one’s artistic goals, one must have both something to say* and the level of skill required to say it. I’d venture the hypothesis that the best art requires both at a high level.

    * In some cases, the communication goal is purely evocative: rather than trying to force the viewer/listener/reader to receive only a single message, the goal is to get them to feel something/anything. (Trivially, think Rhorshach blots as examples of the evocative side.) Both take talent, but very different talents, and you hear some really heated and politicized arguments over which approach is “better”. As always in art, “better” is purely subjective. I strongly prefer art that tells me what the artist is thinking so I can grok someone else’s view of the world; others prefer evocation over “authorial hegemony”. YMMV. It’s all good.


    Prof. Tova Gamliel wrote the book on The Aesthetics of Sorrow:, there was a copy error. Yes, all the other coda applies.

    She’s rather fun: old age, sorrow and art. “Old Age with a Gleam in the Eyes

    So tempted to post a tweet about Witch Hunts here…

  54. Does anyone know if Tyson prefers to be initialized as NDT or NGT?

    (Yes, I realize this is off-topic and Mallet-worthy, but this thread got me wonderin’.

  55. Host actually pruned some text for a really tasteful CIA joke where he was like totally doing the Jurassic Park Meme but then actual Mexican Agents said: “Please Don’t” because his support for Mexican Artists in SF Con had actually triggered all kinds of weird[1].

    No, really. If you look @ the pics, Mrs. Scalzi looks uncomfortable in one. That’s ’cause she spotted the large burly heavies deployed by [redacted] to grab them *and* wondered why that Woman just winked at her in totes the wrong way and had too sharp teeth.

    Then there was like a total metal behind the scenes battle scenes while Host wandered around the cruise ship all innocent. Chaos! Total Destruction! Nasty things done with butter knives! Literal Chaos on the Dance-Floor until he arrived.

    All in all, typical family holiday then.

    [1] CISEN has been tracking his efforts to promote SF writers *and* their national food *and* his efforts to buy up real estate closely.


    Does anyone know if Tyson prefers to be initialized as NDT or NGT?

    Doc. is probably fine.

  56. Quotes by people who think art isnt defined just by its creation, but also by its mission.

    “Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson

    “I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you’re an idiot.” -Steve Martin

    “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.” -Alice Walker

    “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth” -Pablo Picasso

    “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” -‘Anton Chekhov

    “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” -Aristotle

    “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” -G.K. Chesterton,

    “Art is to console those who are broken by life.” -Vincent van Gogh

    “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” -Khaled Hosseini

  57. This seems to suggest that you create Art with the intention of Entertaining, and if you succeed it is Entertainment, But not all art is trying to entertain, some aims to shock or provoke or educate or inform or…

  58. This is a discussion that I am interested in as an outside observer only, but as such always find interesting. It made me curious about your thoughts on another contrast people often make—between arts and crafts. While the “art” vs. “entertainment” has (for me, anyway) more echoes of class distinctions, “arts”vs. “crafts” has echoes of both class and gender . . Again I shall say distinctions to avoid being pejorative. Quilting, for example, or woodworking. Where would those fit in your analysis?

  59. addofio:

    “art” vs. “craft” for me is “meant for artistic expression” vs. “meant for utilitarian purpose.” There’s a lot of overlap, and many craftspeople are also artists (and vice versa). Certainly quilters and woodworkers can be artists.

  60. “In art, the less people understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales…. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term….I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times…”-Picasso

    Some people made “artist” into a participation award. If you make anything, no matter what it is, no matter how good it is, it is “art” and you are an “artist”. They set the bar in the basement but then hold the title in the great and ancient sense of the term.

    Wittenstein thought that “art” is undefinable. Plato held art as an imitation of, inferior to, a real thing. But now its a participation award. And god damn anyone who might try to raise the bar even a little bit.

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