Thin Line Between Arts and Entertainment

Westmont Horizon, December 11, 2000

Some time ago I was asked to write for the Horizon on the difference between art and entertainment. This is often expressed as a question: How guilty (or innocent) should I feel about [seeing a movie, downloading a song, appreciating an image] that attracts me, but isn't [edifying, cultured, Christian]?

My answer steps back from these "little" questions to look at the underlying issues and make clear what's being talked about. A dictionary is a good place for an indication of how the key words are being used: Webster's defines art in terms of what is beautiful, or aesthetically appealing, or extraordinarily significant. Art signifies -- I'll say it incarnates -- beauty. In art, things come near to us that we can never define -- truth, goodness, transcendence -- but that we know make us truly alive.

Webster's describes entertainment in terms of amusement. Entertainment diverts our attention. It passes the time agreeably. It's the backdrop for a successful NCTO.

On the surface, these terms seem very different. Then why do they come together so often? Why is there a cable channel called A&E? Why did we read about "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Charlie's Angels" on the same page in the "entertainment" section of a recent Horizon (10/31)?

Well, look again at the definition of art. It includes an appeal to the "aesthetically appealing." That sounds suspiciously like entertainment! Isn't "Charlie's Angels" aesthetically appealing, at least to newly pubescent males? So is it art?

Likewise, after the first definition of entertaining comes another: To consider in one's mind. I had forgotten all about this definition until one day in class when I asked a student to entertain an idea. It hit me then: Once upon a time, "entertainment" had a more distinguished meaning. It comes from a Latin word that means "to hold." It once meant something engaging, something significant and intellectually compelling rather like art.

So depending on which sense you have in mind, you could condemn a piece of "art" for being "entertaining" (being superficially attractive but intellectually empty); or you could praise it for the same reason (being significant and engaging).

Naturally, in our society the cheaper meaning of both terms is winning market share over the more substantial one. So we get an "entertainer" who calls himself "The Artist," but whose work (at least since the album "1999") is neither extraordinarily significant nor intellectually engaging. (Nor is it all that aesthetically appealing or amusing.) Our culture has defined both art and entertainment down to the level of amusement; or more accurately, people who weren't content merely amusing us have wrapped themselves in more profound language, and we've let them get away with it. From prestigious pasts, we've diluted both terms so thoroughly that we call Nine Inch Nails a group of artists, and Disneyland entertainment.

I don't mean to sound like a grouch. Hey, I like Prince, or whatever his name is this year. I even own a couple of the albums that follow "Purple Rain." I'm not claiming that they aren't art. But they certainly aren't art or entertainment in the best senses of those words. And as someone who tries to be careful with words -- they're priceless gifts from God -- I'm not going to let other people inflate away some of the most powerful words we have without putting up a fight.

I've already said that art is a kind of incarnation, a way that something unknowable makes itself knowable. Entertainment is when the knowable makes itself known, when it impresses itself upon us with a power that leaves us changed. The deepest senses of these words put us in theological territory -- on holy ground.

A work of art is like an icon -- a pictorial window of Jesus or the saints or God's other works, through which God and we pass over to each other in love. Icons give what Orthodox Christians call "uncreated light" -- the light of the world that became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. They don't just shed that light, but communicate it. This means their light enlightens those who see, making a change in us that is something like salvation. (Now in 1984, Steve Jobs engaged in a little Orwellian phrase-turning of his own, and made "icon" into a term for the little pixellated graphics on your computer desktop. Apple capitalized on the word's mystical heritage so well that the Macintosh gained a religious aura it still possesses among its disciples. The little trashcan on your desktop is an icon in the same sense that Prince is an Artist.)

To use language a little more comfortable for Protestants, art isn't just inspired; it is also illuminating. It engages. It makes us entertain it. We say the same things about the biblical words through which God comes near, in order to draw us even nearer. "Real" art is a kind of word or window to the life-giving mystery of who and why and what we are. To succeed, it must be entertained; it must be received and have an effect.

I'm not asking you all to erase your MP3's or stop going to mediocre movies. But this article will have succeeded if you see, even for a moment, that art and entertainment are a lot more than the ones who want to pass as artists and entertainers would have us believe. It's a long way from "Charlie's Angels" to the face of Jesus, from the Magic Kingdom to the Kingdom of Heaven. Don't miss out because you were watching Howard Stern!