Friday, August 05, 2005

From the big dumb question department

In a conversation about Forrest Gump with my sister-in-law last weekend, I said something like "I don't like being entertained." I'm sure this statement is a bit ridiculous, but I think I stand by the impulse behind it.

What is entertainment anyway? I remember reading in Atom Egoyan's introduction to the screenplay for Exotica something about his avoiding entertainment in his films (something I don't think he does entirely successfully). I guess in light of a comparison between Exotica and Forrest Gump one could suggest that entertainment involves escapism whereas art involves engagement. Is entertainment then something like fun as opposed to joy or pleasure?

And here's the big question (you saw this coming): Is there a place for entertainment in poetry?

P.S. I think it's time I read me some Adorno.

45 Comments:

Blogger Brenda Schmidt said...

Ah, what a wonderful question!

12:51 PM  
Blogger Brenda Schmidt said...

Oops. Sorry about that. My excited outburst contributes in no way to the conversation.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hey, excited outbursts are always welcome and appreciated.

And I think outbursts can contribute to conversation.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Hamon said...

If we begin to see poetry as entertainment do we lose the ability to be engaged by/with it?

12:16 AM  
Blogger dfb said...

i think it has to do with what your willing to call entertainment. i get much joy and entertainment out of my own poems- but i doubt that many others will. i do like being entertained and art can be entertaining –it just shouldn’t be the sole purpose, it should be (maybe) just a by product of the experience. this is where i get into trouble with the other kids on the playground- i often find their efforts merely entertaining the “i got a computer program that generates entertaining poems” ain’t going to entertainment me – not when we have hollywood and it’s most entertaining live action machine – your little jot of text just ends up being “me too me too” and that entertaining poem product called lame

love
dfb

9:43 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

dfb: How do you distinguish between being entertained and, say, pleasure? I tend to think that the feeling that arises as a byproduct of thoughtful engagement that challenges received understandings (I don’t know, I still like Rilke’s “you must change your life”) is pleasure, whereas dazzlement that confirms and supports the status quo or that avoids any engagement with the world is being entertained. I’d place the feeling that comes through reading your poems as pleasure.

Of course it’s possible to read a Hollywood action movie against the grain to derive pleasure, but most movies don’t solicit this kind of reading.

I also suspect there’s something pretty naïve in the distinction I’ve drawn. (I'd love to have my naivete pointed out.)

Tracy: I suspect we would. And I think, as your question implies, much of the distinction between entertainment and pleasure comes through the mode of reception.

9:15 AM  
Blogger dfb said...

mark i think i’m working on a pretty naive level myself. i’m often pleased (pleasure) from a surprised and i’m sometimes surprised at what my work (writing) takes me to. i laugh at my own work (and sometimes that happens when i’m doing a reading and i wonder how that looks but its fucking funny to me). the twist and turns of language seem to be more than enough for me.

what i was talking about before was more the case when a writer will make a effort to drawn in readers with something that just every one will get all in the effort of explaining a point. that’s entertainment. the handing it over on a plate is entertainment. the “that poem you read was so funny you should write more just like it”. entertainment me.

and this can be with those all so tiresome traditional type poems you know like the travel log poem where the writer travels and writes about a place where the tourists don’t go. Or the work poem or the stupid political poem



i’m thinking that the issue is so private and i find anyone who attempts to inform me that “this is entertainment” is doomed. i will find entertainment do not worry about it, your job is just to write something that i haven’t thought (or read) before.



as for my Hollywood comment i was talking to the whole Hollywood industry i find the media coverage of the stars so entertaining and i often don’t know what constellation these people are on - they have this wonderful machine that is live and running all the time - you don't need to see the movies - just watch the stars burn and bitch


love
dfb

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

here we are now, entertain us ...

I don't know ... there's a risk of this turning into a kind of "if I like it, it creates pleasure and engagement; if I don't like it, it's just entertainment."

I think Shakespeare is, among other things, entertaining. I question whether entertainment and engagement have to be mutually exclusive. It depends how you define the words, of course, but I'm concerned that a value-driven definition (as yours seems to be) is really just another way of saying, "what is like is good."

And on the other hand, there are people who seem to engage, in ways that are apparently deeply felt, with things that I personally find remarkably silly.

I don't want to get into pure relativism either; I just want to be on guard against self-congratulation, which is easy to slip into.

-- maggie

1:08 PM  
Blogger dfb said...

i think that while Shakespeare is entertaining – Shakespeare is something else or rather lots of other stuff – i’m talking about the one trick pony poems, a good example to me is that old Brian Joseph Davis “ Ally Sheedy” (sorry to bring this sucker up again – but…) but i’m afraid that if your not willing to say what you want and what you don’t want, you get all sorts of bullshit being poetry – including just this, i‘m listening to the radio and someone just described peter jennings as “poetic”.

again i'm going to say

"i will find entertainment do not worry about it"

i know what i like ……

love

dfb

2:13 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Yeah, you're right, Maggie, Shakespeare can be pretty entertaining. And I suspect that engagement and entertainment aren't necessarily exclusive categories. And I like what you say re: value-driven definition. I hate Forrest Gump for its manipulativeness, so maybe it's best that I avoid starting a thought process with it. My motivation is, now that I think about it, likely to find or construct some form of validation for my opinion.

So I'll back up a bit. What is entertainment? What's the relationship between art and entertainment?

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno, isn't entertainment there to entertain you -- period? It might achieve this by engaging you in some way, or it might hit you over the head with a box of chocolates. Doesn't matter so long as it gets the job done. Art doesn't have a job description. It might entertain you, might not. That may be one of its functions, but rarely its sole function, even when the artist is primarily aiming to provoke a response (b/c likely she's trying to do this in an original way). Is that too obvious an answer?

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've changed my mind about that "so long as it gets the job done" bit. It's really about intent, isn't it? And obviously both entertainment and art can fail to meet their objectives. And don't forget the value of good-bad entertainment (the sweet n' sour chicken balls of entertainment...).

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Is that too obvious an answer?"

Actually I think it's a perfectly good answer (whoever you are), but I am now worrying over the question of what entertainment is exactly & what makes something entertaining or not. Why do I consider some art entertaining and other art not entertaining, if both hold my attention (which is all that the word means etymologically)? I've been trying to think about it in terms of brain chemistry, that being a current obsession, but not sure I'm getting anywhere.

Well, I am just tying myself up in definitional knots again as I tend to do.

-- maggie

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's really about intent, isn't it?"

Here's another thought -- I'm pretty sure that a lot of the people involved in making Forrest Gump did NOT believe that their sole or perhaps even primary intent was to entertain. The really horrible cultural products tend to be those -- like Forrest Gump, or my own bete noire The Lovely Bones -- which are actually trying to Say Something. Certainly I perceive the Something that they are saying to be manipulative and dishonest, but the creators don't, I'm pretty sure.

Things that have a more pure intent simply to entertain can be much more tolerable -- and much more likely to land in that good-bad category, or at least so Orwell would say. Or to be just plain good in their own less ambitious way.

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

forgot to sign my last comment. that was me mentioning orwell. (it's always me mentioning orwell).

-- maggie

6:13 PM  
Blogger dfb said...

maggie - is it ok to like entertainment based on the "i know what i like" school but but art in that same way

cuz that sound just not right

and i love it when people quota orwell- so if you can quota orwell in the answer again that might make it art to me - but maybe i have low art/high entertainment scale (or vice versa)

love
dfb

6:29 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"I dunno, isn't entertainment there to entertain you -- period?"

I guess I was more curious about what "the act or process of being entertained" is. Sorry for the vague wording. Yeah, "the process of being entertained," what's happening or being done to us (I suspect). Maybe also: how does entertainment (now in your sense) function in our culture? How does art function?

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey dfb ...

just went and reread Orwell's essay on "good bad books" -- "a whole series of writers ... whom it is quite impossible to call 'good' by any strictly literary standards, but who ... seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste" -- and discovered that in the final sentence he wagers that Uncle Tom's Cabin will outlast "the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore."

While history has yet to deliver its final verdict, he seems to have been about half right on that one.

This is of course a digression from the discussion, but you did ask me to quote Orwell, and I am always obliging.

-- maggie

7:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"It's really about intent, isn't it?"

I wonder if a work's status as art or entertainment can change over time. I suspect so.

7:02 PM  
Blogger dfb said...

sorry what i meant to say back there was "is it ok to like entertainment based on the "i know what i like" school but NOT art in that same way"

cuz that still sounds just not right. i was distracted - we are feeding the kid solids for the first time

love

dfb

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the audience always foremost in the minds of the people making big-budget pictures? To me, whatever its other ambitions, the quality of the work, etc., that's what makes it entertainment.

This reminds me of a discussion I've had with Mark and others about a Jonathan Franzen article in which he compares two approaches to novels. I can't remember now (just as I couldn't remember then) what Franzen's terms were -- prescriptive vs. contractual? In the former (contractual, I think), the writer is aware of his readership at some level. Doesn't mean he panders to them, but he is always conscious of them. (I prefer the term 'storytelling'; can't tell a story without a listener, right?) In the latter, the writer creates the work and it finds its audience or it doesn't. That's prescriptive (again, don't quote me on this). In other words, whether or not it entertains, is appreciated or loved (in its time or later), the artist's main concern is the work itself. And however beautiful, original, or 'artful' the storyteller's work, his main concern is his audience. Maybe not pleasing them, but certainly reaching them. I think this is what brings me back to the idea of the intent.

Having said all that, I'm not sure I believe that contractual writing or storytelling are examples of pure entertainment. For example, by Franzen's definition, most children's writers are storytellers and the idea of contractual writing is perhaps what separates young adult literature from adult literature that happens to be accessible to young adults. As I've said to Mark, if you aren't writing to your readership's comprehension level, then you aren't really writing FOR them, are you? But I'd want to punch out anyone who suggested children's literature can't be art. - Hadley

8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But I'd want to punch out anyone who suggested children's literature can't be art."

I'd like to see that, Hadley.:)

Lisa xo

9:05 PM  
Anonymous anon said...

here's a few thoughts:

it was pointed out that art and entertainment can, of course, "fail" but, it should be said, by extension, art and entertainment can then, both, exceed expectations. [Insert your own examples here.] That's always pleasant, I think. (Sorry for the dopey optimism.)

I think you're correct, Mark, in pointing out the importance of Time, which as it moves along helps to correct, temper, or at least shed light on the various culturual prejudices of any given period. That is to say, Ben Jonson's entertainments (eg. the masques) written for the King's court in the early 17th century are now regarded as "art" -- sometimes failures, or partial success, but failures or partial successes in "Art" nonetheless. Or, many of the late 19th century novelists who published major works via the journal "serial" (in late 19th century culture, a form of popular entertainment). We now view such works as "art." That's Time. "Time," then, it seems, repeatedly proves that there's no such thing as a distinction between art and entertainment, and the feelings created by either/or upon any given readership/viewership are not, in fact, inherent to or the product of the works themselves, but rather just as much products of context. (One might suggest the major difference between _Forrest Gump_ and _Exotica_ is that one might be viewed at the local Paramount Theater and the other in an "Art House.") External forces work to make false distinctions between art and entertainment when there is, in either case, something to be gained, or at least perceived to be gained (and i'm not just talking economics here) by making such distinctions.

I hope that makes enough or some sense...

9:31 PM  
Blogger dfb said...

hi – just wondering why all this discussion is about everything but poetry – is it because we are unsure or unable to discuss entertainment and art in poetry – cuz I’m not sure it’s the same as movies and novels. but i much like the Orwell idea that “they are not inhibited by good taste”


love
dfb

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

poetry is entertaining but not like the news is entertaining or a hollywood flick. nothing entertains as much as great poetry, or, for that matter, great prose, but its kick comes from the swing you put into it. art takes effort, in both its making and in its apprehension. if the reader, or viewer, doesnt ask questions and takes a passive or make me feel something again approach then this is another type of entertainment. it is without investment.

kemeny babineau

9:34 AM  
Anonymous anon said...

I think people hesitate to discuss entertainment in relation to poetry because it is assumed that poetry--as a cultural signifier--is predisposed to be "art" first, and for such people to discuss poetry as anything else, especially entertainment, would be to remove any imagined "special quality" it is believed to hold by many. But, if what I suggested in my earlier post is true, that no genre is predisposed to "Art," that the differentiation between art and entertainment is a false one -- one founded, generated, and disseminated by those who benefit from such a differentiation [insert poet names her] -- then this holds for poetry too. It is neither art nor entertainment; it is poetry (or, film; or, fiction).

ps. though I've argued art and entertainment as categories, I would say there's an interesting flip side to Mark's initial wonderful question, if anyone's interested. He asked, "is there room for entertainment in poetry?" The flip of which is: "is there any room for poetry in entertainment?"

9:34 AM  
Blogger dfb said...

"is there room for entertainment in poetry?" The flip of which is: "is there any room for poetry in entertainment?"

as our culture tells me EVERYTHING IS POETIC BUT POETRY - case in point - yesterday - peter jennings is poetic.


love
dfb

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good one. that would appear to be the trick; how to advance our word art in an era of pyrotechnics. eunioa does this- the entertainment of that is irresistable. seems to grab you by the language sensor. its like the listener cant help but be engaged. is this what poetry's future will insist on -a circus of words?

kemeny babineau

10:04 AM  
Blogger dfb said...

poetry i think will be what poetry has always been. notes handed forward. poetry is written for the future.
poems survive because a relatively small handful of people care about it at any given time. we fight and we argue and sometime we have nice conversations like this one. but poetry is “news that stays news”.

Now eunioa as a circus of words as entertainment- could be a very valid point

love
dfb

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Tracy said...

"eunioa as a circus of words as entertainment- could be a very valid point"

The circus may begin as objective but what is inside each ring is subjective to the audience. What is art to some is crap to others, and what is entertainment to some is crap to others. Current culture dictates, to a certain extent, what we define as art or entertainment. I think Mark is onto something with the *time* aspect, the way it changes the perspective of culture, but I'm not sure it changes something that is entertaining to something of art?

11:41 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

"'Time,' then, it seems, repeatedly proves that there's no such thing as a distinction between art and entertainment, and the feelings created by either/or upon any given readership/viewership are not, in fact, inherent to or the product of the works themselves, but rather just as much products of context."

Anon (ha ha): I'm mostly with you on this (and thanks for the examples!), but I think you're making a bit of an overstatement. Presumably there'd be no work without context, so to say that there's no distinction between art and entertainment because such distinctions are contextually relative is taking things a bit far. We use the two terms in our particular context, and I think we use them differently. I think you're dead on about the problem of either/or though.


"But I'd want to punch out anyone who suggested children's literature can't be art. - Hadley"

Hey, Hadley. How's it going?

I was just thinking about the regard-for-audience hypothesis. How about humour? I wouldn't want to exclude it from art either, but I think it pretty much depends on a regard for the audience. I'm also tempted to say that a writer has to make the mental switch between author and audience functions to come up with anything in any way meaningful.

I guess I have to read that Franzen essay now.

"as our culture tells me EVERYTHING IS POETIC BUT POETRY - case in point - yesterday - peter jennings is poetic."

What pisses me off even more is discussion of "the poetic" (usually on the level of content or style) with respect to poetry. As in, "Oh, that's so poetic," as if "the poetic" carries value. People actually say this stuff.

Re: "a circus of words"

This is good, because I like Eunoia and I can definitely see its appeal as entertainment, so I'm forced to admit I don't dislike all entertaining things. My impulse is to make claims for it on the level of art (which I think I can pretty easily). So what is entertainment (in both senses)? What is art? Why am I so quick to appeal to one of these terms and not the other?

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically either. This is one area where I feel I have strong (inherited?) impulses without a lot of articulate thought behind them. (I suspect, by the way, that the difference between art and entertainment could be framed politically, but I haven’t worked out how, hence my interest in reading Adorno.)

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, although I am still worrying away at the question of what "entertainment" actually means, I think Eunoia is probably a good example of something that is both art and entertainment (though I am increasingly coming to suspect that my personal definition of entertainment has a huge amount to do with performance, because I am not sure that I'd consider reading Eunoia from the page to be "entertaining", whereas hearing Christian read from it certainly is -- and actually on consideration, this is true of a great deal of poetry).

I don't, myself, have a problem with the word entertainment or the idea of things being entertaining, but then I grew up in a theatre family, and that probably makes a difference. Among other things it makes me aware that entertainment can be a great deal of work, and as much sweat and blood can go into being entertaining as into being artistic; actually probably more.

Mark, I have a suspicion, based on this discussion, that entertainment is associated in your mind with some kind of bad faith, some kind of dishonesty. Which surely does exist in a lot of entertainment, but probably in a lot of art, too.

I wonder if Franzen's dichotomy (which I think is another false one) stems from some sense that paying attention to your audience is necessarily a form of dishonesty.

-- maggie

12:55 PM  
Anonymous anon said...

Hey Mark, I mispoke when saying that "feelings" resultant from any given text (poetry; film; fiction) are the product of context; what I meant to say, or a more properly thought out version, on my part, of what I intended would be 'that "the values" we associate with "feelings" resultant from any given text (poetry; film; fiction) are as much the product of context rather than said text.' (To be clear, I don't mean "values" as in morals, but "values" as in systems of exchange).

Thanks for your original proposition -- very thought provoking. This has been a very interesting comments section.

ps. btw an interesting case study, I think (though, not poetry, sorry), in the 20th century for your question is Graham Greene, who in fact made a point of differentiating between his "novels" and what he referred to as "entertainments" (which include two of his most artful works: _Our Man in Havana_ and _The Third Man_). In fact, one might consider his greatest success, _The Comedians_ as a sort of combo of the two, at least as her understood the two categories.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous anon said...

sorry: "at least as he understood the two categories."

1:10 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"Mark, I have a suspicion, based on this discussion, that entertainment is associated in your mind with some kind of bad faith, some kind of dishonesty. Which surely does exist in a lot of entertainment, but probably in a lot of art, too."

Could well be. But I think I place the bad faith on the level of our culture as opposed that of the individual. But again, I admit there's a lot of knee-jerk in this.

I find Eunoia both entertaining and pleasurable on the page, but I don't know what these words mean (and I'm a pretty page-oriented guy).

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, Graham Greene, why did I not think of him!

Two further interesting notes on Greene -- his first three novels were intended as "art" and were (as he freely admitted) quite poor, and are now almost entirely unread. Then, under urgent financial pressure, he produced -- intending it purely as a potboiler -- Stamboul Train, which was his first really powerful book (and also a financial success, luckily for him).

It's also worth noting, maybe, that later in his career he dropped the "novels" vs "entertainments" distinction -- not only The Comedians but most of the later novels -- The Quiet American, The Honorary Consul, The Human Factor -- mix the two categories freely. (In fact, the earlier novels mix the two categories quite a bit too, and when Greene abandoned the distinction he also stopped dividing the earlier books into two lists).

There's certainly a case to be made that the "entertainments" have proven to be more lasting as art than the "novels".

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoops, forgot to sign my comment again. that's me up there going on at excessive length about Greene, whom I love beyond all reason.

-- maggie

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I find Eunoia both entertaining and pleasurable on the page, but I don't know what these words mean"

yeah, me either. I keep working on figuring out what I mean by "entertaining" but I'm not getting it yet.

-- maggie yet again

1:30 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Two annoying little edits: Hadley, I think I meant author and reader roles, not functions.

And anon, I think your "either/or" just jumped out at me while I was writing my response, hence the twisting.

7:24 PM  
Anonymous lynn said...

does entertainment make you think? art does. i think time is included in both, as is degree. you may think a little during a form that's entertaining only and for a little while afterward, but isn't that what entertainment is-- a momentary pleasure without much to think about, without consequence for the future, not something that can effect change. contrarily, art provokes thinking, that can effect change in an individual's life, or the life of a group to effect cultural and political change, or at least start the wheels rolling.
i feel i'm stating the obvious here, and you've all thought of this long before the discussion started.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Lynn said...

i feel really uncomfortable with what i just posted. it sounds far too modernist, as though we can have faith in art to save the day. so to temper my near totalizing remarks, let's just say that art can have possibilities for participatory thinking, and entertainment can gather communities of people sharing some common ground. heck, maybe Forest Gump is cathartic (or something) for people with prejudices (or fears) of those with diminished intellectual capacities.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hey, Maggie, as someone who tends to search for definitions, I'm starting to think that they're beside the point. Better to compare how and when we use the terms "art" and "entertainment" and to consider the structures involved?

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Better to compare how and when we use the terms "art" and "entertainment" and to consider the structures involved?"

probably yeah. But the search for definitions has its value, I think, in bringing to light the various assumptions and preconceptions each of us brings to particular freighted words. Of course this is closely related to comparing how we use terms.

-- maggie

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm, should have posted to above to the new topic maybe. but it was easier to do it here.

-- maggie again

1:30 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

P.S. Lynn, I think those are good stabs.

7:41 PM  

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