By Any Other Name

In response to Masha, Art and Entertainment, and Mr. Pond, the way up is down

This blogalectic began with Masha and I disagreeing over terminology. And while my goal last week was toward clarification and synthesis, I suspect I only continued arguing about terms, and therefore proved more frustrating than helpful to my good blogalectic partners.

To be honest, I think a lot of society's problems and arguments are semantic. Everyone has their own set of words they're sensitized to, based on beliefs and experience and which bumper sticker slogans they've based their life philosophy upon, and therefore you have mystified conservatives who don't feel hatred even toward their worst enemies, and mystified sacramental Christians who don't consider their religion "works-based", and mystified secularists who don't consider their passions evil, and on and on and on. It's not that these words don't have meaning; they do. It's just that one side attaches a great deal of meaning to the words, which the other side finds irrelevant.

So, Masha and Mr. Pond and I are trying to come to terms over art and entertainment. Mr. Pond's post was wonderfully brainy, focusing on the reality of beauty. I encourage everyone to read it. Maybe a couple of times—I had to, to get some of the complex concepts. But Masha asked me questions, and to keep this from becoming a 2,000-word post, I'll focus on responding to her today.

Her thoughts and questions gave me some understanding of where she's coming from. Exempli gratia:
I like distinctions, they give clarity, and they give an opportunity for excellence that one large grouping cannot allow - a children's abridged production of the Tempest can be very entertaining, but it can't help but fail when compared artistically to a well-prepared, nuanced, professional production. That doesn't make it a bad production, in it's own sphere, it could be excellent, but only if we don't force it to compare itself to something its not."
You know what? I don't have a problem with any of that. In all my protestations, I have never once intended to suggest that Mrs. Hawk's fifth-grade class performance of Romeo and Juliet, in which the Nurse says forcefully "I'd bet fourteen of my teeth, even though I only have four..." ought to be compared with a professional company's subtle and polished rendition using the original language.

I'd honestly never considered such an idea to be a possible implication of my arguments. See, I don't divide created product into art and non-art. I classify it by level, according to what its goal was and how well it succeeded. Ergo, I don't generally compare Little Women with For Whom the Bell Tolls. The two books had different goals, and both succeeded remarkably well for what they aimed at. But as I'm not shy of calling both novels, I'm not shy of calling both art.

...which statement takes me right back to the beginning of the very circle I'm trying to escape. Masha generally uses the term Art to refer to what I would call classic works or canonical great art. She is more comfortable with the term entertainment for creative works outside that category, whereas I take that term almost as belittling, as if books that changed my life should be classified with cheap-joke sitcoms. We might not be able to do anything about that semantic variance, or the fact that the different terms are important to us. That might even be all right. But let me answer Masha's questions, and see if it helps us toward common understanding.
I would like to know why a distinction between art assumes passivity on the part of the audience...
It's the word entertainment, actually, as separate from art. The word conjures, for me, images of lying sprawled on the couch, too exhausted to do anything but watch The Wedding Story or Brady Bunch reruns. That's about as passive as I get. But I responded to Little Women with everything in me, despite its simple prose and wandering narrative. It taught me a lot about how to be a sister, a daughter, a wife, and (hopefully someday) a mother. There's nothing wrong with a little entertainment, but that's not what Little Women was to me.
why it seems to place importance on the outward instead of the substance (I would have thought the opposite).
I suspect here that we're defining outward and substance differently. When I say outward, I mean the prose, the surface beauty that makes Hemingway an objectively better writer than Alcott. When I say substance, I'm referring to the vision coming through the text, the outlook on life and death and what it means to be human. Substantially, I put Alcott higher than Hemingway. Alcott infuses faith and hope and charity into her work, letting them walk with the reader through every curve of life and up to the deathbed. Hemingway was a brilliant man who lived a tragic life; he brushes up against Alcott's virtues only by accident, if at all.
I would like to know what it is about acclaimed works that make you feel they are offering very little.
Just to clarify: the mere fact of acclamation isn't a deciding factor. It's when acclamation seems to lean on destructive ideas and popular politics that I get frustrated (which goes on just as much in young adult fiction as it does in the stuff taught in college classes, by the way.) Critical acclaim simply seems oddly irrelevant to what I find moving, encouraging, pleasant, or otherwise beneficial.
And I would like to encourage you to delve into the despairing works, which so often offer more than they seem to. I remember reading and rejecting some books that seemed to strip me down, only to realize that it is only by "dying down to the roots" that I can regrow again in strength and certainty.
This is an exceptionally kind recommendation, and I feel the truth of it. But it does bring up one key point that I think might help bring about understanding: I've experienced depression. The real thing, the soul-sucking, physically painful sadness that you can get put on pills for (I escaped that by a very fine hair); the kind that makes you seriously question whether life is worth living. And while I will pick up some very dark works on occasion, I'm cautious, because I don't encourage that monster in my mind. Not ever. This, more than anything, may be my answer to Masha's questions. The only art that speaks beauty into my darkness is the art that leads me toward light.

I respect Masha greatly, and a few terminological differences won't trouble me. After all, I already know we have solid and sure common ground beneath us as artists, believers and friends. I just have no other name for works like Alcott's but art.


  1. There's a lot here, and a lot to ponder here, but for the moment I can't do much better than link to this post.

  2. Mr. Pond is right there is so much here. A lot I want to respond to and a lot to absorb. It's very personal, and I love personal responses though they are so very hard to respond to well. I feel like if we take each of these individual issues one by one, we'll have a few weeks of discussion right here. Which I would love to do, because otherwise I might give too-short a response to what deserves more consideration.

    Luckily I'm online ALL WEEK! Thanks to family vacation time in a summer "cabin" that is more than double the size of my actual home and full of the amenities of modern life.

    But I will say that I can completely respect the decision to stay away from the despairing books, and even those that - by examining despair, create in the reader a passionate desire for joy (like Camus' The Stranger). We all know our own weaknesses and histories, and I'm glad you know yourself well enough to avoid the things that will damage your own joy!


  3. Mr. Pond, that post is brilliant and perfect.

    Masha, thanks. Maybe we can focus on a few of these issues one at a time. Feel free to email me if you have a schedule in mind!

    Also, enjoy your vacation! Sounds like fun. :D

  4. Fun, for sure, and just a little overwhelming. I'm used to a lot more solitude and a lot fewer distractions. I'm taking a weekend and holing up at home when this is done. But I am enjoying it right now.

    I'll think about the topics and e-mail you my idea of a schedule! :)


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