The Difference Between Art and Entertainment


Artists and entertainers both love gaining money and popularity as a result of their work. The difference is an artist will make no choices in his work with an eye to achieving those objectives. An entertainer has those objectives color all of his creative decisions. An artist happily accepts the audience’s admiration, if he can get it, but when given the choice between popularity and authenticity an artist will choose authenticity every time. An entertainer wants to manipulate the audience into thinking it loves him so that he can be rich and successful. Art is a life’s work. Entertainment is a job. Entertainment is close kin to marketing and politics. Art is close kin to education. Art is much harder to achieve than entertainment. Entertainment is about what “works.” Art is about what’s true.

It is important to be aware of whether your project is an art or entertainment project.

Entertainers look for audiences and strategize as to how to expand those audiences to ever greater numbers. Artists are found by their audiences. Artists are popular when their personal vision matches the zeitgeist of a particular moment. Entertainers are popular when they have insight into the zeitgeist of a particular moment and exploit it for their own gain.

Entertainers place messages in their work that are calculated to reflect the values of a majority or significantly-sized minority of a particular demographic group (or groups). This has become a very data-driven affair. Cecily Strong was removed as an anchor of the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update desk because she didn’t test well with focus groups. When I was an actor at Second City in the 1980’s, a time when that theater was very much a mom-and-pop operation, two graduates of the Wharton School of Business chatted with me after a show. They were interested in the entertainment business and told me they wanted to research the “optimum laugh.” Their vision of comedy was a very sophisticated mathematical formula designed to get a profitable result. By the way, I am not bemoaning this or calling it evil. It is what it is. Entertainment sells a product of distraction and pleasurable feeling. It is okay as a restful escape after a hard day of work or a soothing break from loneliness. It is only dangerous when it gets confused with reality and truth—which happens often unfortunately. In too big doses, at the wrong places and times, with vulnerable people, it can become toxic waste on the stream of consciousness. Art has nothing to do with all of this. It is like science. It’s entire aim is to accurately define reality. The accurate teachings of art can help guide persons and communities in their practical decision making, just as scientific discovery does.

Artists struggle to speak their personal truth which they have earned through their personal experience. Since artists tell the truth, they naturally confront the audience without conscious intention. Art throws people off balance because it tells people things that they don’t know. Entertainment is about kissing ass to sell images, products and lifestyles. Entertainment tells people what they want to believe so that the entertainer can make money. Entertainment can be done responsibly. It can appeal to what is best in what an audience already knows. Second City recently banned gun play from its scenes after school shootings. That is ethical business.

Everything in entertainment is derivative of art. Since art is an expression of universal truths told from individual perspectives it naturally leads to new and innovative forms and styles of expression. Entertainers see the emotional and existential impact on audiences of the new styles and steal them to achieve their own business objectives. For this reason, the best training for young entertainers is training in an art. If they can create a work of art, they can easily meet any challenge that show business puts before them.

In entertainment authority lies with who is most famous and makes the most money. In art authority lies with the truth. Entertainers seek personal success. Artists seek first personal achievement and then the highest possible consciousness of truth for the artists and their audiences.

Entertainment celebrates and congratulates. Art transforms.

Great entertainers have extraordinary business acumen. Great artists have extraordinary moral integrity in their work.

An entertainer can be a wonderful human being and an artist can be a jerk. Many artists put so much energy into their work that they can’t find the energy to extend their insights into their lives. Many entertainers collect and/or appreciate art and apply its teachings to their lives. (The artist is never the teacher. His art teaches and he learns along with his audience. An artist can ignore his own lesson as well as his audience can.)

A person can be an artist and an entertainer. Richard Pryor’s stand-up was art and most of his film work was entertainment. Art and entertainment are closely related and separated most by their intentions. The accompanying photo is from a work of art about entertainment—Laurence Olivier in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. Olivier often gave art and entertainment in the same performance.

On an art to entertainment continuum, Miles Davis playing with his back to the audience would be purely on the art side and Jay Leno mocking whoever was being humiliated in the news on a particular day—fairly or not—in his monologue would be purely on the entertainment side.

Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

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