Benoit Lelieve is one of the people who keeps me from getting old. While he’s young enough to be my son—okay, my nephew, maybe—his blog Dead End Follies routinely provides fodder that keeps me looking at things in a fresh light and exposes me to others I might otherwise have missed. While his tastes and interest are not always my own (see the age difference comment above), his writing on more universal issues, filtered through our dissimilar backgrounds, is always thought-provoking. This isn’t the first time he’s stimulated a response that required more thought and space than could fit into a comment, and it will not be the last.
A few weeks ago he wrote about the difficulty of understanding art. (Pause inserted while you read his piece, which would be worth reading even if it weren’t helpful for understanding what I wrote below.) As with all such discussions, the crux of the matter is defining what art is, as it’s impossible to understand anything if one can’t define it. Therein lies the rub. Art is like beauty (and, not coincidentally, often has “beauty” somewhere in many of its definitions) in that it is in the eye of the beholder. What is art to me may not be art to you, and the guy down street agrees with neither of us, though he’s a cretin, so fuck him.
Does intent matter? Maybe. Probably not. J.S. Bach didn’t intend for his cantatas to become timeless works of art. He just needed music for Sunday’s service. On the flip side are countless writers, singers, songwriters, actors, sculptors, painters, on and on with pretentions of creating art. Their definition of art is sometimes whatever they create and, oh my god, is this a “my shit doesn’t stink” crew to have to deal with. So, no, intent doesn’t matter a whole lot.
Another question that comes up—often raised by snobs—is whether art is more “noble” than entertainment. Even if that’s true—a point on which I am not sure—there’s also no bright line there. Doesn’t art need to entertain its audience on some level? Since its medium (listening, viewing, reading) is not required for life—and by “required” I mean like food and water and air—can’t we say there must be some reason for people other than the creator to partake, and that reason is to be entertained? Devotees of Gabriel Garcia Marquez are likely not entertained by his writing in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s fans are by the Boss’s work, but each has qualities in their creations that engage others, and we can think of that engagement as entertainment as easily as anything else.
Now, there is entertainment and there is entertainment. “Mere” entertainment doesn’t challenge the audience. (See Benoit’s comments about the TV show Numb3rs. See? I told you to read his piece.) If one engages with a book or movie or piece of music but is not compelled to think about it afterward as more than a good time, it succeeds as entertainment, but it is not art. Art is when the experience gets one to thinking about more than what was on the surface. I enjoy Ray Donovan, but when each episode is over any discussion focuses on what happened, what went well, and what they might have done better. Compare that to The Wire or Deadwood or NYPD Blue, where The Beloved Spouse and I talk about all of the above and how it affected us. What it made us think about we hadn’t thought of before, and what it made us re-evaluate.
I argue that no one can fully “understand” art. It’s too dependent on one’s previous experience and background. I have friends whose opinions I trust and respect, whose work I enjoy and value, who get moist about the virtues of X-Men or Batman, or any of a number of members of the DC or Marvel universes; I think they’re fucking comic books. That doesn’t make me wrong, nor them. It doesn’t even mean either of us is mistaken. It just shows there’s more each of us may still have to learn, and having more to learn—and a desire to continue to learn it—is always a good thing.
Maybe that’s all we need to understand about art. It’s what makes us want to keep growing.