Art and Entertainment: Exclusively and Mutually Inexclusive

I’ve found a couple papers now talking about the inseparability (or rather the ease of affinity) between the two. One is a presentation given by Ursula Le Guin called “The Stone Ax and the Muskoxen”, the other is a recent post on Select Parks entitled “Entertainment vs. Art” by Curtis Johnson (Incidentally, Loren Eiseley wrote another great essay, this time on science and art, called “The Illusion of the Two Cultures”). Definitions of art, entertainment, and games are inexact at best and generally vague. We have a good idea of what they are, but when you get down to it, you can’t quite place a solid definition on any of the terms. Which is a problem because they are essential to designing and talking about games as well as…well, practically everything else related to culture.

First off, it’s quite shallow and foolish to say that all art is entertainment or that no art is also entertainment. Even Roger Ebert would be hard-pressed to say that Buster Keaton’s The General is not entertainment as well as art (and thus his statements about how games are somehow not art are derived from arguments regarding participant completion of the work rather than ‘mere’ entertainment). I would also be loath to follow any statement that would suggest the likes of Schindler’s List and Idi i smotri may be defined so simply as ‘entertainment’. Art can be lighthearted, or it can be deadly serious and cathartic, void of ‘fun’, something the Greeks knew hundreds of years ago. I’ve been using the term ‘compelling’, an umbrella that can consist of ‘fun’ as well as other reasons for engaging in a task (quite literally, ‘fun’ in this instance really is a four-letter word). Either art and entertainment may be one and the same in a given instance – but by no means not ALL instances – or humans are all inherently as barbaric as the Romans who found gladiatorial sport to be entertainment.

In this regard, Ursula Le Guin, though discussing science fiction and not games (though SF and fantasy are significant genres of games, oddly composing at least 50% of the entire medium at this point), more firmly states that art and entertainment are not inseparable (would people find the art of Homer or Leonardo Da Vinci so interesting today if they weren’t so darn entertaining?). Further, her main point is that we not think of SF simply as ‘entertainment’ but that SF authors should go about creating their work as art, with masterpiece in mind rather than mindless drivel. The same holds true for videogames as well.

So the perceived barrier between art and entertainment is something that some would say is a result of our Puritan culture, as Le Guin suggests, a system that mistrusts any kind of pleasure. This is the same popular belief that suggests games are frivolous and barren of meaning. And then there is Johann Huizinga who suggests that play is inherent to human culture and is the key inspiration of creativity in the world. If so, play can be deadly serious, and if not all art must be entertainment and not all entertainment is art, then why should we expect games to be any different? We are limited only by our underlying cultural beliefs that find frivolity and suspect in concepts like ‘entertainment,’ ‘play,’ and ‘fun’ and thus do not seek to look toward new horizons.

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8 Responses to “Art and Entertainment: Exclusively and Mutually Inexclusive”

  1. mkmori Says:

    Just stumbling through, but here’s another perspective on this topic, (mostly patched together from incomplete readings in Kant, Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin): Art ordinarily resists Marxist/socioeconomic valuation, insofar as it has no “use value” and cannot be consumed. Art may yield aesthetic pleasure, (“pleasure without interest”), but no matter how it is abused by patrons, merchants, or collectors for their fetishistic/socioeconomic ends, it always demands aesthetic judgment, and these extra uses do not consume the aesthetic value of the article in question. Uses which would eventually consume a piece of art–like a career as paperweight or doorstop–are inevitably evaluative actions in and of themselves, or simply accidental. In the end, art is practically indestructible. Like the broken, bleached statues of the Ancient World, art persists objectively in our transitory world of needs and wants and natural functions.

    Meanwhile, tho’ we tend to make vague distinctions between “necessities” and “luxuries”, (all relative to state of the art/standard of living), the stuff of entertainment is perfectly “useful”, exists in finite, expendable quantities, and therefore has a definite economic value. Even obsessive fans, by delving into minutia and trivia, tacitly acknowledge an object’s entertainment value is exhausted through repetitive consumption.

    This isn’t entirely new, but the entertainment industry has discovered that heretofore persistent works of art can also be “used up” by recycling and “reimagining” with superior technology, (a conspicuous trend in the movie industry). It may be argued that the newer work enters into a dialog with the older work, but it isn’t common for the newer work to be in any position to converse with the older work on its own terms. Instead, the newer work is often said to “pay homage”, either by idolizing or caricaturing the original. “Special” and “enhanced” editions may have an even more subtle and insidious effect, by replacing previous versions outright as a superior product and better value.

    Everyone know most any object possesses at least some entertainment value. In art, one of the big questions is whether an object may be primarily valued for intrinsic, aesthetic qualities, or for its applicability to some end, (such as propaganda or entertainment). The question of video games as art is complicated by the rate at which the industry recycles mechanics and imagery, but there is at least some evidence for the persistence of game code as objets d’art, (if not entirely divorced from entertainment/sentimental value). Furthermore, the player’s participation in completing a storyline is probably immaterial, (and the gamer takes a much less active role in most games than the reader does in a good book). The basest, most unreflective artwork is full of “meaning” as such, and no one can seriously argue that a lot of thought and artistry hasn’t gone into the production of video games.

    What remains is the question of the criteria by which video games should be evaluated as art. Aesthetic judgment in its totality is beyond the scope of this blog comment, but I just want to respond to the concept of art in the Curtis Johnson essay, and use of Le Guin’s comments about our “Puritan culture”. The New Critics of the 1930’s proposed a doctrine called “The Affective Fallacy”, which discounts the magnitude of affect or sensation, (cf. catharsis), as a valid measure of the significance of (specifically, literary) art. Kant expressed this also in his attempt to define aesthetic judgment as based on pleasure without interest or desire, and without extrinsic concept or purpose, universal and inevitable. This is perhaps where art and entertainment part ways most clearly, and not a point in which any video games I know have really excelled….

    FWIW!

  2. rockytastic Says:

    I’m not sure that I would find the separation between art and entertainment to be related to Puritan culture. The separation seems somewhat universal, in that most cultures appear to recognize a difference between “serious art” and frivolous entertainment (though that doesn’t make it justified).

    I think the difference is a matter of perceptions. A major part of how humans perceive the world is dependent on what we considered important and what is everything else. Art is recognized as important, as having meaning, and entertainment is stuck with “everything else.” But then we start looking at sitcoms and cartoons and recognizing meaning, appreciating genius and eventually artistry. Then we see art and realize how often it mimics “entertainment” to take or hold our attention, and the more we look, the harder it is to tell which is which.

    I think the separate words are fine as shorthand, to express whether or not you take something seriously, but dangerous because they are so inexact and ill-defined. In the context of any educated discussion, it must be recognized that there is no separation between art and entertainment.

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