Writing Right with Dmitri: Art v Entertainment

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Art v Entertainment

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The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: 'Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!'

I'm not going to tell you what novel that's the last paragraph of. You probably already know. If you don't, have fun finding out. I'm also not going to tell you that novel's not entertaining, or that it isn't art. It's a classic in its own genre, after all. And yes, I read it enough times as a kid to have that paragraph indelibly etched in my memory. I read it that many times, even though, as a child raised far, far away from any seacoast, I found all the nautical terminology baffling. Let alone the ridiculous dialects.

But I thought I'd natter on for a bit about what I privately think of as the intersectionality of entertainment and art. And that book is a good place to start. It starts with giving people what they want.

Entertainment: the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment.

Many, many times, we as writers or artists set out to entertain. This is a wholesome and valid undertaking. We might be telling a story to a child, or an anecdote to a group of friends. We might have the task of introducing a speaker, and want to break the ice. From the school play to a piece in the h2g2 Post to a weekly television show, it's all about providing amusement and enjoyment.

These entertainments need to have a known structure. Audiences need to feel comfortable with the setup, on safe ground with the background. They need to be able to understand the action because it follows unspoken rules which are familiar to them. If you subvert those rules – and you may, within limits – it must be in such a way that the audience is able to 'catch on' and appreciate.

Entertainments need a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning should draw interest. The middle should sustain, and hopefully heighten, that interest level. The end should be satisfying to the audience. What satisfies an audience varies a lot, depending on the age, class, gender, and religious persuasion of the group, and where they find themselves in the space/time continuum. That's why most people have trouble understanding the point of Greek tragedy. It helps to be an ancient Athenian.

Now, if you do all that in a way that pleases the group, you will be an entertainer. Your kids will think you're a great storyteller. Your friends will invite you to parties. You'll make a good living as a scriptwriter. This is an accomplishment. It has nothing at all to do with whether you've just made art.

The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain – since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation – every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

An explanation: I belong to that generation that uses a lot of obscure shorthand. We tend to label phenomena based on the first example we learned of it. I use the word 'grok' even though I am not a Robert Heinlein fan, because he introduced a useful concept. Reading, or rather hearing, Douglas Adams' explanation of the extrapolation of the whole from a holistic part got stuck in my mind. So I refer to this pars pro toto example as 'a piece of fairy cake'. This is very useful, since I am far more likely to run into people who are familiar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy than I am fluent Latin readers. This analogy works very well, even if, like me, you have no idea what 'fairy cake' is.

What makes entertainment into art, kids, is that art is a piece of fairy cake.

You can entertain while saying nothing at all. You can entertain while saying, 'Hey, we're here, we're having a good time, what more do you want?' You can entertain while poisoning minds with propaganda. People do it all the time. You can entertain while committing murder: remember the arena. Entertainment is a value-free exercise. At least it is until you give it value.

Art, on the other hand, starts with entertainment. But it has no agenda. It isn't trying to convince, convict, persuade, buy, sell, or swing votes. It's not propaganda. Its aim is not to feed appetites. Art stays true to what it's doing. For that reason, art has the capacity to open our minds to wider truths. Art, in short, is a piece of fairy cake you can use to extrapolate all kinds of universal knowledge.

Art is the skill of discovery rather than the business of teaching or telling or preaching or any other kind of message-delivery. Art is humble, not a know-all. Art lives, breathes, and learns. Art is not responsible for how offended you are by its revelations. You don't get to vote on truth the way you vote on popularity.

Is art always entertaining? It depends on what entertains you. It's certainly not always comfortable. Truth can make us all squirm. Can entertainment be art? Oh, certainly. I think I learned a lot about human behaviour from that pirate story, because whatever Stevenson was, he was an artist.

Can entertainment be art? Definitely. There's nothing wrong with a good, honest, fun story, or play, or song. To go beyond that requires a quality not always found in writers (including songwriters): humility. Robbie's right to go on about humility. Humans need more of it. You can't get art until you get out of the way of your work. If you can't get out of the way, you don't have fairy cake. You have a piece of your personality. The only thing people are going to extrapolate from that is a picture of you: not a flattering one, either. I won't name any names, but there's quite a lot of that on the best-seller shelves.

Do you aspire to art? Only you know the answer to that.

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