Not Amused

For a skeptical, cynical critic, few activities are mindless. And rest, being something I don't come by honestly, it requires diligence on my part to take vacations from thinking. Perhaps this is why I'm so drawn to stupid humor and physical comedy. Studies continue to pour in regarding the health benefits of laughter, and I've found that in those brief (but frequent) moments, my mind is silent.

Which makes sense as a friend of mine recently reminded me that the word "amuse" literally means "to not think" (a- = not/against, muse = think). This ought to bring new meaning to the phrase "mindless entertainment" and the therapeutic value it can have. We need entertainment. Just like our bodies need rest every night, our minds need entertainment every day to recharge from the daily grind.

I don't think most us need much convincing on this. Entertainment is championed in our society today. And for many, it's become the gold standard against which all activities are to be measured. Now there are obvious red flags to be raised here as many psychologists have done already. But there's one that hasn't been raised often enough: entertainment has ruined our understanding of art.

I've written before about what I think makes good art--the attribute of transcendence. But the characteristic that distinguishes art from other things is representation. Art is about symbolism and housing ideas in images. These images can be cast in anything from word to melody to clay. But ultimately, the goal is not unlike inception.

photo credit: ChrisGoldNY via photopin cc
Take amateur photography. Any bonehead with a DSLR can Instagram a picture of a sunset, apply a soft focus filter, and call it art. Good photographers, on the other hand, wait to capture moments that elicit more than just a blurry photo.

Perhaps they see the light of the sun setting behind an old barn representing the decline of agriculture in America. Or the pink hues of a sunrise dancing on ocean waves like figure skaters shearing the ice in the wake of a perfectly executed triple salchow. So if the piece of art in question doesn't elicit an idea, then maybe it's not really art. Similarly, if the viewer can't see beyond the oil on canvas, then maybe they don't really understand art.

Engaging art is not a passive or mindless exercise. In one sense, we might say that art is the opposite of entertainment because it requires thought and the reception of an idea. Now this doesn't mean that entertainment can't be artistic or art be entertaining. It just means that at their core, they serve entirely different purposes. And the moment we conflate the two, the moment we judge art by entertainment's standards, we abandon the critical process to the whims of popular fancy.

The winners of American Idol aren't chosen by critics; they're chosen by fans. And there's nothing entertaining about a culture that experiences life by clicking "like."