…but is it art?

What distinguishes art from entertainment?

 That question is loaded with a great many pre-suppositions. The most obvious of these is that there exist two categories – or, at the very least, two extremes of a spectrum – that may be labelled as one or the other. And this in turn supposes that art cannot entertain; or, if we look at the two categories as ends of a spectrum rather than as a distinct dichotomy, that the further we go towards art, the less it is capable of entertaining.

The question supposes also that entertainment cannot be art; or that, once again, the further we travel from art, the closer we come to pure entertainment.

All of which is nonsense, of course. And for these and for various other reasons (amongst which the most prominent, perhaps, is the lack of precise definitions), we try to avoid acknowledging as best we can this distinction between art and entertainment. But it keeps rearing its ugly head all the same. For, no matter how frequently we deny that this distinction exists, we all know that we would approach The Brothers Karamazov in a somewhat different frame of mind and with somewhat different expectations than we would Murder on the Orient Express.

The distinction is, however, denied or derided by a variety of people, and often for very different reasons. It comes under attack from those whom I may call the “Resenters” – those many who resent certain works being elevated above certain others by that mysterious label “art”. They demand that those of us who speak of “art” define the term precisely, confident that that which cannot be precisely defined cannot possibly exist. They insist that anything that is not of utilitarian vale is entertainment, and can never be anything other than that; and to speak of a distinction that confers a special status to certain works is merely precious. Indeed, the Resenters claim, it is worse than precious: revelling in the happy chance of the word “art” rhyming with “fart”, they claim that postulating a hierarchy of merit based upon the inadequately defined term “art” is but a form of self-aggrandisement, and a most reprehensible and snobbish affectation.  

Opposed to the Resenters is another group whom we may loosely term the “Reithians”. The Reithian position is not merely that the Best and the Most Elevated should be freely available to everyone, but that everyone should be educated and encouraged to gain an understanding of these things, and to appreciate them. And while Reithians obviously value art, many of them often feel that insisting on distinctions is to create barriers where they need not exist. Of course, they will privately admit, barriers do exist: one can hardly speak of the Best and the Most Elevated without implicitly distinguishing them from that which is not the Best or not the Most Elevated; but nonetheless, many feel, such distinctions need not be mentioned in polite society.

The Reithian position has taken quite a battering in recent decades. That great product of Reithian principles, the BBC, has all but abandoned Reithianism, and public libraries throughout the land have sold off large numbers of the Best and the Most Elevated to fill the shelves instead with Tesco-lite ephemera. But a great deal of the bashing has come not, as may have been expected, from the Resenters, but from the very groves of academia, which have produced much opaquely worded theory to the effect that all writings, whether on the packet of a breakfast cereal or dignified by the livery of a Penguin Classic, are essentially texts to be interpreted; and that no text can be privileged above any other on the basis of intrinsic merit, as there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. (Although why one should not think to make it so, I have never quite figured out.) The Resenters have seized upon what they understand of all this to restate their views with an even greater force, and with language somewhat less opaque than that employed by the theoreticians. And while many have felt that the Resenters are but reacting to a misunderstanding of a difficult and easily misunderstood theory, the theoreticians themselves appear to have taken no steps to distance themselves from this alleged misunderstanding. And, as they say in common parlance, it makes you wonder.

Let us not doubt the existence of Resenters. Some years ago, the BBC held a poll they called the “Big Readers”, in which we, Joe Public, were invited to nominate our favourite novel. The poll, I remember, was launched with an article in the Radio Times telling us that it was intended to be an indication of what books we really like, rather than those critics thought we should. Who are these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains, the critics, I wonder? I had at the time a terrible feeling – and I have it still – that the author was referring to people like myself who are foolish enough to hold literary quality in high regard. How disappointed this author must have been that the final poll results featured in very prominent positions such classics of literature as Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment and War and Peace. Even Joyce’s Ulysses, that by-word for unreadability, made the Top 100.

But of course, no-one actually enjoys reading Ulysses. They only claim to do so in order to impress. Those who claim to enjoy Ulysses are really a bunch of self-regarding, pretentious wankers who, if they were honest with themselves, would much rather be reading a Dan Brown.

Such views are not isolated views by any means: I find them quite commonly expressed, usually by those who would take great personal offence were I to make even the most reasoned critical comment about the books they happen to enjoy.

Some time ago, the website of the Guardian – that bastion of high culture – gave space to a columnist who praised the skills of Dan Brown, and lambasted as snobs those who criticise Brown’s writing. This same columnist, in an earlier article on the same Guardian website, had informed us that Shakespeare was “overrated”, his evidence being that, despite his having postgraduate qualifications in English literature, he personally did not “get” Shakespeare, and hence, Shakespeare could not be very good. Somehow, I find, such an argument – if “argument” is indeed the word I am grasping for here – pre-empts the possibility of rational discourse.

No – Resenters most certainly do exist, and they exist not in single spies but in battalions. And they aren’t by any means a harmless lot: there is evidence enough of the effect of Resenters in the current state of our public libraries, of television broadcasting, and of school syllabuses; and in the state of our brave new world in which the pursuit of culture is becoming increasingly relegated to the sidelines as something that is bad form even to talk about openly – as something one does only within one’s private sphere, as if it were a shameful secret.

But despite the apparent insistence of both Reithians and of some Resenters that there is no real distinction between “art” and “entertainment”, the arguments of both groups, paradoxically, indicate otherwise: for, as Reithians know full well, how can one guide people to the Best and the Most Elevated if nothing is better or more elevated than anything else? And the very fact that Resenters approve of Dan Brown and disapprove of William Shakespeare implies that even they recognise some sort of distinction between Messrs. Brown and Shakespeare.

But all this leaves open the question of what it is that distinguishes art from entertainment. There is no straight-forward answer to this for the simple reason that no two major works of art are alike: each has its own particular qualities, and therefore, defies definitions that, by their very nature, generalise. However, every major work of art, I think, possesses a quality that is often referred to as “depth”. The word “depth” is obviously used in this context as a metaphor: it indicates that much of the substance of the work – possibly the greater part of it – lies under the surface, beyond what may be seen at first glance. I cannot think of a single major work of art for which this is not true. This means, of course, that a work of art that possesses depth can reveal new riches with each new re-acquaintance; but the corollary of this is that one cannot hope to have an adequate understanding of such a work merely at first glance.

Crude as it is, this may, I think, serve as a working definition of “art”: a work of art is that which does not reveal all its riches at first glance. The nature of the riches that it reveals only after repeated viewings and only after concentrated thought varies from work to work, and cannot be measured in objective terms; and it is at this point that an element of subjectivity inevitably enters into the proceedings. But to seize on this element of subjectivity and claim that it is all “just a matter of opinion” is merely lazy thinking. It is not just a matter of opinion: it is, on the contrary, a matter of judgement, and that’s a different matter entirely. And like our bodily muscles, the more frequently and the more rigorously we exercise our judgement, the better its condition.

None of this is to denigrate the importance of entertainment. I find myself wincing when the adjective “just” is applied to entertainment, as if the production of that which entertains is a trivial matter to which standards of excellence need not apply. On the contrary, entertainment requires the highest standards of craftsmanship. We may forgive less than perfect craftsmanship in a great work of art such as, say, Moby-Dick, because Moby-Dick communicates a depth of vision that renders nugatory any shortcoming of craftsmanship; but such shortcomings would sink a straightforward adventure story that lacks compensatory depth. The best works of entertainment are works of consummate craftsmanship.

Neither is it true that only works with depth are capable of affecting us deeply. Often, for reasons that I find entirely inscrutable, works that we know contain little or no depth have the most powerful effect upon us. Everyone has their own examples of this sort of thing: for me, it’s overwhelmingly the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have no doubt whatever that Mansfield Park, say, has far greater depth than the Sherlock Holmes stories, and yet it’s these Sherlock Holmes stories that, for reasons I am at a loss to explain, mean more to me than all the undoubted depth of Jane Austen.

Indeed, at this point my crude definition of what may be considered art tends to break down badly, for there most certainly exist works that do not possess depth, but which, for all that, make so powerful an impression upon the imagination, and in which the level of craftsmanship is so accomplished, that the whole question of whether or not it is art becomes silly and pointless. The distinction between “art” and “entertainment” may well exist, but it is by no means clear-cut.

It may also be claimed, I think, that all art is a form of entertainment. After all, anything we do that is not of utilitarian value we do because we enjoy doing it. If I did not enjoy reading Tolstoy, I wouldn’t read Tolstoy: I certainly don’t read Tolstoy to give myself a bad time. (And, contrary to what Resenters may imagine, neither do I read Tolstoy in order to impress: in a society that does not much value erudition, making the immense effort required to take in a difficult book merely in order to impress does strike me as a lot of pain for very little gain.) So if I enjoy reading Tolstoy, then it is because, at some level at least, it entertains me. Ergo, it is entertainment. I don’t know that I want to take issue with this logic, but I do feel it worth emphasising that there are different types of entertainment. Anna Karenina and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are both dear to me, and, in their very different ways, they both entertain: but one cannot approach them with similar expectations; and neither can they be judged by similar criteria. Some distinction must be made.

This is where both the Resenters and the Reithians go very badly wrong – the former by claiming that there is no real difference, and the latter (at least, some of the latter) by pretending there isn’t. There is a distinction, I feel, and it must be made: we cannot apply those critical standards used to judge works lacking depth to a work in which the vast proportion of its substance lies below the surface: the standards by which we judge Murder on the Orient Express cannot be used to judge The Brothers Karamazov (or, indeed vice versa). To judge a work of depth merely by glancing at the surface is bound to lead to criticisms that are glib and superficial. One needn’t look very far around the internet to find examples of that.

In the meantime, we have the depressing situation of a library with two wings containing rather different kinds of books. Very few venture into that library at all, but of those who do, the vast majority tend to stay in the wing that contains – to use the terminology of that Radio Times columnist – books that we really like, while rarely if ever venturing into that wing containing books that those villainous critics insist we should. Reithians desperately try to get more people into the other wing, sometimes promising them that the books there are not so dissimilar to what they are already used to: some do come, but judge what they find there by the standards of what they are used to, and often find themselves unimpressed. The Resenters, meanwhile, want that other wing demolished.

I might as well admit it: I grew up in an era when the BBC still followed broadly Reithian values, when the Best and the Most Elevated were still part of the mainstream, and a developing mind could absorb at least some of it by osmosis. But holding on to Reithian values these days is a bit like being a Scotland supporter in football (which I also am): you know that you’re inevitably going to be on the losing side, but you are too emotionally attached to switch your allegiance. But all the same, you wonder what you can possibly do to encourage a wider love of those very great works of literature that you know have so enriched your own life.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on August 29, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Do you need such a narrow definition of art in order to make your point? What is wrong with saying that all products of human creativity are art, but that you think that some things are better or more important than others.
    I don’t think that there is anything particularly recent about “de gustibus non est disputandum” however post structuralist or post modernist it gets dressed up in.
    What worries me more about such a view is its implicit denial that we can have a shared culture within which we can explore matters of importance. However noble the motives in reacting against a supposed dead white male hegemony, this view has only served to impoverish those who seek to be empowered, and to diminish public discourse.


  2. “Do you need such a narrow definition of art in order to make your point? What is wrong with saying that all products of human creativity are art, but that you think that some things are better or more important than others.”

    Indeed. Thinking up adequate definitions for things one can recognise but can’t easily explain is a bit of a mug’s game. However – I’m afraid there is a “however” – there is quite clearly a distinction between “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Murder on the Orient Express”. I am not claiming that one is necessarily “better” than the other: given that they weren’t created to serve the same purpose, one can’t measure them both on the same scale. But that is the very point I am trying to get at. We read these two novels for very different reasons, and with very different expectations. So what *is* this difference? I am not very happy with the definitions I have so far come up with. I know there *is* a difference, but can’t pinpoint it.

    I agree with your final sentence fully. Public discourse has been severely diminished by the various onslaughts on what, for want of a better term, we may describe as “high culture”, and, as you quite rightly say, it “has only served to impoverish those who seek to be empowered”.


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