Tag Archives: art versus entertainment

Theatre: Entertainment or art? Can it be both and still be challenging and relevant?

zelda-fichandler

Zelda Fichandler (1924-2016)

by Howard Shalwitz

The loss of my friend and colleague Zelda Fichandler, the legendary founder of Arena Stage, has got me thinking about the role of theatre in our society.

Over the past decade, I had a few cherished opportunities to compare notes with Zelda about the founding of our respective theatres. As different as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth are, there’s one word that always came up for both of us: art. Here’s a quote from Bob Levey’s obituary of Zelda in the Washington Post:

“From the start, Mrs. Fichandler wanted… to reverse what she called, with characteristic dramatic flourish, ‘the contraction and imminent death of the art of the theater.”

And here’s a quote from Woolly Mammoth’s founding manifesto that I wrote with Roger Brady in 1978:

“Among all the art forms, theatre is the one which is least often taken seriously as a form of art… [and] it should be so taken. That is the long and short of what we propose.”

What do we mean when we proclaim that theatre is “art” rather than “entertainment?” We certainly don’t mean that theatre shouldn’t entertain, shouldn’t captivate audiences with diversion and delight and amazement. The survival of our theatres depends on this. The difference lies in what we ask our audiences to do when they’re in our theatres.

When we set out to entertain, we ask our audiences to sit back, relax, and enjoy themselves on terms they already understand. When we set out to make art, we ask our audiences to sit forward, to encounter something different, and to meet the artists halfway in figuring out how it works and what it means. Entertainment nestles us comfortably inside the lives we already lead. Art challenges us to stand outside our own experience and look at our lives and our world in new ways.

Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Every play, every production, has elements of both. But in our conversations, Zelda was concerned that theatres across America were tipping too far toward entertainment and away from art. Some of the reasons are obvious: competition for ticket sales, pressure from new forms of diversion, loss of arts education in our schools, shrinking government support.

However, Zelda saw a potentially deeper problem. A couple of years ago, she asked a question I’ll never forget: “What’s happened to the arrogance of the artist in our country?” She talked about path-breaking playwrights like Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, and August Wilson, who boldly expanded the stylistic framework and political range of our theatre, and European stage directors like Liviu Ciulei and Lucien Pintilie, whose experimental approaches completely changed the way we look at classic works.

The forward motion of theatre as an art form depends on playwrights, directors, designers, and actors with the arrogance, the chutzpah, to try things that are different. It also depends on audiences who have the confidence to meet them with openness, empathy, and a spirit of inquiry. When we wrestle with the play itself, then we’re led to wrestle with what the play is about, what it’s saying, why it matters. This is what gives the art form of theatre its relevance in relation to the pressing questions our society is facing.

Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. 

Is Art Failing Us in These Hard Times?

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Death of a Salesman'.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Death of a Salesman’.

The social responsibility of art

by A. O. Scott

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.

global-economyFor the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve been preoccupied — sometimes to the point of obsession, lost sleep, free-floating dread and active despair — by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality, the collapse of the middle class, Thomas Piketty, Janet Yellen and the gross domestic product in China, India and Brazil. Closer to home, I’m grateful for my luck and worried about my neighbors, anxious about my children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my country.

Strictly speaking, none of this has much to do with my designated area of professional expertise, which could reasonably be defined as writing about the stuff that people seek out to escape such worries and anxieties. Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.

But if art, ideally, floats free of the grim reality of work, need and sustenance, that reality is nonetheless its raw material and its context. Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts. What I’m grandly and abstractly calling “works of art” are more concretely and prosaically books, songs, movies, plays, television series, environmental installations, paintings, operas and anything else that falls into the bin of consumer goods marked “Culture.” These goods are bought and sold, whether as physical objects, ephemeral real-time experiences or digital artifacts. Their making requires labor, capital and a market for distribution. The money might come from foundations, Kickstarter campaigns or retail sales or advertising revenue. The commerce between artist and public is brokered by the traditional culture industry (publishing houses, television networks, record labels and movie studios) and also by disruptive upstarts like Amazon, Netflix, Google and iTunes. But the whole system, from top to bottom, from the Metropolitan Opera House to the busker in the subway station below it, is inescapably part of the capitalist economy.

media icons

And that economy, in turn, provides an endless stream of subject matter. Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

If I want to understand the dreams of the gentry and the nightmares of the poor in early-19th-century England, I turn to Jane Austen and William Blake. All the news you need about class divisions in Paris and London later in that century can be found in the pages of Balzac, Dickens and Zola. The history of European painting from the Renaissance to World War I is, in large measure, the history of power, wealth and social status. In the 20th century, film, theater and television tell the same story, as comedy, tragedy, thriller and farce. Class consciousness in Depression-era Hollywood ranged from tuxedoed and mink-coated swells in Manhattan penthouses to strikers on the picket line. Postwar Broadway was the kingdom of Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski, and as television became a fixture of middle-class homes, it chronicled the struggles and aspirations of families — the Kramdens, the Conners, the Jeffersons, the Simpsons — trying to achieve or maintain middle-class status.

blackish-key-art-fullAnd now? Should we be looking high or low? At sitcoms or science-fiction allegories or realist dramas? At a movie like “Snowpiercer,” which imagines a train speeding across a frozen, apocalyptic landscape as a microcosm of global inequality? At a television series like “Black-ish,” which illuminates the contradictions of upward mobility in a decidedly non-post-racial America? Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. In the past year and a half, I’ve written about how movies like “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain” and “Spring Breakers” reflect our ambivalence about wealth and materialism; about how Leonardo DiCaprio has become the movie-star embodiment of that ambivalence; about the gentrification of Brooklyn and the eclipse of middlebrow taste; about the contradictory status of creative labor and the state of the working class as depicted in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

But I want to go further. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes. So I decided to ask them.

This fall I sent out a plea, accompanied by a questionnaire. My intention was to conduct a bit of unscientific research, and also to advance a discussion about what art has done and should do at this moment of political impasse, racial tension and economic crisis, which at once resembles earlier such moments and has its own particular character. My questions were simple and far from new. The social responsibility of art has been a topic for debate since the ancients. But the answers that came back — from playwrights, filmmakers, rappers, poets and storytellers who have directly confronted these issues — testify to the complexity and the urgency of the issue. These thoughts — largely shared by email, and edited and condensed for space here — convey the sense of a conversation that is going on wherever audiences and creators grapple with the relationship between art and the world. It is my hope that what these artists have to say will provoke reactions from other artists and from readers, viewers and listeners.

Here is the panel discussion with artists on how they address social issues.

AO ScottA.O. Scott is a journalist and chief film critic for The New York Times. In addition to his film-reviewing duties, Mr. Scott often writes for the Times Magazine and the Book Review.

Art or Entertainment? Or Both?

Award-winning author and music educator Eric Booth (Julliard, Stanford, the Kennedy Center) shares his distinction between art and entertainment.  For Booth, entertainment confirms what we already know. It affirms our sense of the world. We laugh or cry or are thrilled by entertainment that mirrors back life as we know it and says to us, “Yes, this is the (absurd, crazy, funny, tragic) way life is.”  There is something pleasing and comforting and enjoyable and empowering in the confirmation  of entertainment.

Art asks us to enter worlds outside our experience. It expands our sense of the possible. Booth goes on to say that our culture bombards us with an avalanche of information and entertainment, making this act of thinking outside the known, the comfortable, the given, an act of courage for the artist and the person experiencing it.  And that is the role of art: to support and inspire that courageous leap of the imagination.

Is entertainment the enemy of art? Are they polar opposites? Can you have both?

What do you think?