Happy Endings and Reality: The Purpose of Art

What is the difference between art and entertainment?

The other day, one of my high school students closed our segment on Flannery O’Connor with the protest, “These aren’t very happy stories.” Everyone in the class laughed, of course, because she’s right: never does an O’Connor tale leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling in your belly. Indeed, if you pick up a story like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” expecting warm commiseration about the lack of good men out there – and vindication for the fact that you’re spending the evening alone – you’re most likely to throw the story down at its finish, and jump up to make a cup of warm cocoa and find a brainless romantic comedy to chase away the images of murder that just flashed through your imagination.

The reader within me agreed with my student, but the side of me that is a teacher interrupted the sympathetic laughter to explain anew the value of O’Connor’s style and contribution.  Had we forgotten her beautiful descriptions? The realistic portrayal of the interior struggle for freedom? Need I bring up the depressing auroras surrounding the works of her literary contemporaries?

Nevertheless, long after our discussion came to a close, these two emotions remained strong: a sense of camaraderie with the girl who first voiced her objection and a frustration that for many of us, our first impulse as we seek to build a criterion for judging any work of art is to consider whether or not it has given us a sense of comfortable well-being. Have we lost the realization of what art is? Or has its purpose actually changed?

What Makes Art

Few would dispute that art is meant to be a representation of reality. The true question is: of what reality? Aristotle writes that poetry (poesis, which encompasses all literary forms) springs up from the desire for imitation, which is implanted in us as children. The pleasure derived from the poetry then comes with the recognition of what is imitated or the appreciation of the art’s presentation. Aristotle’s definitions do not specify, however, whether the artist should then focus on his object or the execution of his work. The importance of this question serves as the focus of Henry James’ study in his short story, “The Real Thing,” in which an artist realizes that not anyone can serve as a model for his illustrations. Sketching his subjects, the Monarchs, does indeed provide an imitation of reality – but the result is poor art. If the essence of art is truly the “question of execution, the direction of strokes, and the mystery of values,” as the author’s friend Hawley puts it, then his models are sorely lacking in inspiration. To these artists, reality is their imagination applied to actual objects.

As the focus in art has shifted from the actual object to the impression of it seared into the mind of the artist, art has, in a way, become less objective. The question then arises whether one’s appreciation of art might also be guilty of straying into the realm of subjectivism. If this is indeed the case, then basing our judgment of a piece of art on our emotions as we consider it would be justifiable.

I would argue, contrarily, that the value of art is not merely subjective. T. S. Eliot takes up this question in relation to poetry when he links the enjoyment of a poem to the reader’s understanding of the verses.  He maintains that a poem must be understood for the “right reasons – one might say it is getting from a poem what it is capable of giving: to enjoy a poem under a misunderstanding of what it is, is to enjoy what is merely a projection of our mind.” In other words, a poem – and I believe we can rightly expand this principle to apply to any piece of art – possesses an essence that does not depend upon the receiving ear.

Arts and Media

I think I may rightly suggest now that a divide has grown between what is art and what is a projection of our minds in the area we acknowledge as arts and media. Art must still be, according to its definition, an imitation of nature and present through either the skill of its maker or the truth of its object something of beauty that arrests the eye or the ear that receives it. On the other hand, our attachment to our own projections has created a new form, the “art” of entertainment, which is directed solely to the passive acceptance of its audience.  Its success relies not upon the critical skills and perception of its viewers, but upon its ability to elicit from them some emotional drama of their own making.

This is not to say that there is no value to the heart-warming sensations that follow a moving picture or the awe that grows when one gazes upon an inspiring painting. Even Aristotle recognized the importance of “pity and fear effecting a proper purgation of the emotions” as an essential part to the imitation of life discovered within a Tragedy. The difference is that, because entertainment is removed from the purpose of art, it allows room for inferiority to develop without censure. Its elements are not for analysis, nor its execution for judgment; its worth is determined by the fickle mood of its audience. Whereas the superiority of a work of art arises from the refined use of  plot and character in a piece of literature, or the skillful mixture of color and lines in a painting, in order to reflect something true in nature and thereby implant a recognition of beauty within the viewer, the superiority of a work of entertainment is derived from what the audience gives it according to the feelings they possessed before viewing it, the emotional associations they make during their reception of it, and their overall state upon leaving it regardless of the work’s elements.

“Just Enjoy It!”

Throughout recent years, many friends have groaned in protest as I’ve attempted to dissect the plot and characters of a film, adjuring me to “just enjoy it!” To them, let me clarify that it is not my wish here to demean pieces meant for entertainment. My intention is rather to draw to light the distinction between entertainment and art, lest their differences become more and more muddled until we cannot distinguish anymore what comprises art. It would have been sad indeed if the Roman crowds had decided their bread and circus were “art” enough for the satisfaction it brought them and given up the literature and sculpture we now admire.  Let us rather recognize the warning in James’ subtle barb, when his character Hawley scoffs, “those Cheapside [editing and publishing] people are the biggest asses of all…It’s not for SUCH animals you work.” To escape the temptation to content ourselves with “cheap” art and so prove to be “asses,” we must continue to hold high standards for our artistic achievements and save the question of “does it make me feel good” as a criterion to appraise entertainment only. In this way, we can unabashedly enjoy the latest flick or pop fiction without conflating beauty with warm fuzzies.

Rachel Ronnow, a graduate of Ave Maria University, loves to write during her afternoon coffee break (a.k.a. nap-time) when her duties as a mother and teacher abate temporarily. She currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and darling baby girl. This article was originally published on April 23, 2012.

4 Comments

  • Bryan Wandel
    April 23, 2012

    Bryan Wandel

    Your thoughts remind me of some of the debate over “The Tree of Life” last summer, where some reviewers hardly knew what to do with Terrence Malick’s broadstrokes portrayals, and a surprising number of moviegoers simply walked out.

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