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.