Art vs Entertainment
I feel the time has come to weigh in on a misconception I often hear repeated around the proverbial artistic water cooler. This is of course regarding the purpose of the artist or performer in modern society.
Let me start by saying - The main goal of the artist or performer is not to entertain. This is a misunderstanding borne of ignorance. The end objective of an artist or performer is not to simply help an audience escape its reality. This is, in fact, the opposite of the artist's role.
The role of the artist is to help elucidate or bring their audience closer to reality. To hold up the mirror to society and to encourage deeper introspection on this waking life. It is in short to wake people up.
Why We Entertain
The misconception is one that is borne of a gradual and repeated dilution of the various art forms themselves to reach the biggest audiences. This along with the introduction of advertising into the medium has spurred on the erroneous notion that an artist's job is to entertain us first and last. But this is not the case.
Entertainment is itself a tool, not the goal. It is a means to an end. It is but one of the ways in which we go about trying to achieve our jobs most effectively. This is not to say entertainment isn't important. It is. It's very important. But its role is to help reach the most people in the most effective way. When telling stories and creating art the aim is to reach the most amount of people in the most effective, impactful and lasting way, so that it leads to the most change.
For if we don't entertain the audience they will become bored, no matter how valid the point, parable or argument. The same is true however if we entertain many people but fail to provide depth, perspective or substance. It may reach many people, but to what end? This is not an easy task, but like many things it is deceptively simple.
The Purpose of Art
The aim is clear, to affect the most positive change possible. But the balancing between substance and style is one that is up to each individual artist and work itself. Each work is different and its capacity for affecting change will vary too. Not every idea is created equal and not every idea needs to be as intellectually pregnant as a Charlie Kaufman film (whose work I personally adore). But each needs to strike a balance between entertainment and depth so that it can fulfill its unique potential.
As you can see, this formula leaves room for all the sorts of genres we've come to love and appreciate. But it also helps us to understand why some quite obviously rise above the pack. Films like 'Mean Girls', 'The Godfather', 'Get Out' and 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' could hardly be considered even close to the same genre, style or execution as each other, yet each magnificently strikes a balance between their ability to entertain and keep one engaged and exploring deeper questions that need to be asked.
In pursuing and creating entertainment for its own sake, we actually pervert the very medium itself and turn it from a tool for positive change to one of vast moral erosion. It transforms from an agent of clarity, reality, well-being and spiritual enrichment into an agent of delusion, escapism and the very cause of our existential suffering.
To say the aim of art is to entertain, is like saying the aim of a good chef is present a beautiful looking meal that tastes bland and provides no actual sustenance. The aesthetics might be important to get people to taste the food in the first place, even to help them remember the meal for future. But the substance itself must be there if the person is to have grasped the true nature of their profession.
Taking Back Responsibility
As artists we must entertain. But we must also do much much more. If we don't fight for the importance of substance in the stories we seek to tell, no one will. Then eventually we'll only have ourselves to blame when we inevitably do get to the higher sought echelons of our professions and find ourselves saying "Is this all there is?"
Though it’s true we will inevitably have to do many jobs of questionable substance throughout our careers, it’s important not to lose sense of what actually gives our jobs meaning.
Remember, you are an artist. Your job is to wake people up. Fun-house mirrors may be entertaining in a novel way, but their distortions bring us no closer to understanding the world and our role in it. Make sure to that mirror you hold up to nature can actually reveal something of value.