The Difference Between Art and Entertainment

Art, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Which is a nice way of saying it's whatever you want it to be. But I don't believe that.

Art Institute in Chicago
Photo credit: Mark Heard (Creative Commons)

Although I don't have an objective perspective (nobody does), and mine is but one opinion, I believe there is such a thing as good and bad art.

Maybe that's asking too much, for us to label art “good” or “bad,” or maybe that feels too restrictive. That's fine, I suppose; I don't want to impose my artistic standards on someone else, nor would I appreciate having it the other way around.

But what is not okay is calling something “art” when it's not — when it is, in fact, something else.

Art versus entertainment

My friend Stephen pointed out recently, quoting Makoto Fujimura I think, that the difference between art and entertainment is subtle, but important:

Entertainment gives you a predictable pleasure… Art leads to transformation.

If that's true, then we may have a problem, because what a lot of people call “art” isn't changing us. At best, it's entertaining us, dulling our senses and inebriating us to the realities of the world. Which is not the point.

Art is supposed to transform:

  • It surprises.
  • It wounds.
  • It changes.

Entertainment makes us feel good. It doesn't surprise us; it meets our expectations. And that's why we like entertainment: it coddles us.

But the problem with entertainment is it leaves us unchanged. And we so desperately need to be changed, whether we realize it or not.

Art, on the other hand, transforms us. How? It wounds us — breaks our hearts, causes us to cry, and reveals our own inadequacies.

Art forces us to make a choice. It does exactly what we don't expect, and that's how it changes us. So the question, dear artist, is:

Are you creating predictable work that doesn't surprise, that doesn't wound, that doesn't change anything?

What, then, are you creating? It may be propaganda. It may be advertising. It may even be entertainment. But it's probably not art.

What do you think? Share in the comments.