Saturday, October 15, 2005

But is it art?

Over on JA Konrath's blog a debate has started about what constitutes art. Before we begin, yes, I enjoy Joe's work and I admire the sheer effort he has put into promoting himself and his novel. This is not an attack on Joe but it is an attempt to show why I think he's wrong on one very important point.

To put things in a brief context, Joe's tenuous position is that succesful art=sales. That is the only true measure of an artist is whether he is popular with the general public.

To me this ranks among the stupid, naieve statements of the year. Joe's also tenuous statement that as many people enjoyed Bio Dome as did Fargo* is also very naieve. I know of one person (and possibly Joe) who enjoyed that film. Whereas a good percentage of people who have seen Fargo have enjoyed the hell out of it.

So the question is, what are the criteria for art? In the comments of Joe's section I have already stated that a good part of succesful art is not simply immediate sales but longevity. Once again business minded Joe has taken this on one level: sales. But this is not true. Succesful art endures because over time it is enjoyed and interpreted in a thousand ways. People come back to succesful art time and again, each person giving and taking something from their intepretation of it.

But wait, Joe will say here, that's all fine, but what about entertainment? Surely that's what the people want. And I'd say that he's right. But that's not a definition of art. That's a definition of entertainment and distraction which good art will do *at the same time* as making you think, making you question your life a little and saying something a little deeper about the universe than "man, that was cool!"

For the record, I enjoyed Joe's book Bloody Mary. It was a damn fine and intelligent piece of entertainment. It hits a lot of demographics. I got something (pure enjoyment) out of it. My mum and her office got something (pure enjoyment) out of it. Beccy enjoyed the hell out of it. But its not art by my definition and by the definition of a good many people.

Joe seems to think there's nothing with trying to please all of the people all of the time. "It is a lot harder to reach a million people than a hundred". Actually that's untrue. You can reach a million people by making them feel comfortable. Joe's writing is comfortable. His violence is gruesome but its gruesome in a homogenised way. There is nothing in Bloody Mary that made me squirm in the same way that Simon Kernick's torture with a drill-bit made me squirm in The Murder Exchange. Or that certain segments of Bruen's Hackman Blues made me want to close the book to escape the world for just a little bit. He doesn't make me see the world with new eyes like James Lee Burke or think about how close I am to my shadow self, that person who I dislike and pity so much (Like Ray Banks does in The Big Blind). JLB, Bruen and Banks are definitely artists and their work will endure because they call on universal themes and ideas that will ensure their work endures. Not only that but they are *also* amazing entertainers. Joe is like Jerry Bruckheimer: an entertainer who teases the audience but never pulls them out of their comfort zones or alienates them in any way. There's nothing wrong with that. But who among us would call Bruckheimer an artist?

I argue that if we homogenise art and entertainment by trying to please all the people, then we lose something vital to artistic endeavours. We lose debate and we lose unique insights into the world that may otherwise have passed us by.

And to those who start calling on some mysterious "literary elite" who hold back all genre work, you need to get a grip on reality. Genre work more than ever is being taken seriously. Crime fiction is becoming the leading light in literary work (How many reviewers now are using tired phrases along the lines of, "Not only a great crime thriller but a work of literary genius"?). The literary elite often feels like the secret branch of the Government who cover up UFO's - they have been invented purely to lend credence to an argument that doesn't hold much water. The literary elite are there to make genre writers feel better about being "ignored" by the universities etc.

If art is all about sales then as a society we're screwed. We've lost our souls. It also means that anyone with good PR and a high visbility campaign can become an artist. After all, the masses buy what they can see and sometimes art is obscured by the flashier, louder campaigns given to those who would try to sell us pure entertainment.

Of course, I want good sales, as does every artist (Am I an artist? I don't know. I hope so, but I'll be happy just to be an entertainer). No one will deny that it is great to be appreiated for what you do while you are still alive. And I don't believe that art is neccasarily superior to entertainment. Entertainment has its place. I love switching off my brain and being distracted. But I think that a position like Joe's is naieve and horrendously damaging to the future of not only entertainment but art.

So in conclusion what's my formula for art? Entertainment+Longevity+debate(+optional sales)=art.

Sales+entertainment+longevityt= good entertainment.

Paunful footage of Pauly Shore and a Baldwin brother mugging like a pair of morons= Bio Dome.

Au revoir


*Joe, you wanna talk numbers, you wanna talk about what the people are watching? On IMDB, 4810 people voted on whether Bio-Dome was any good and it ended up with an average of four stars. Fargo however gets 71,002 votes and an average of 8 votes. This proves that while, maybe, the same amount of people watched the two films, that more people care about Fargo to comment on it and a bigger percentage of those people enjoyed the hell out of the movie.


Gary Smith said...

I can't help but feel that you're letting your disdain for 'Biodome' dictate this post somewhat.. While the good people at IMDB may not have enjoyed 'Biodome' I certainly don't think the film's target audience was the people that visit that site. In fact I would say that the people that paid their money to see it knew exactly what kind of film they would get and enjoyed it a lot on that level.

I get frustrated with historians sometimes who get so caught up in historical elitism that they explore needlessly obscure subjects and seem to view mainstream popularity as diluting their art. Personally if I had 500,000 readers rather than 5,000 I would view that as a success.

Of course it doesn't mean that my work would be any better than if 5,000 people were reading it, but I would be happy...

Russel said...

Actually I make two jokes about Bio Dome. It has nothing to do with this post. I wear it on my sleeve; I plain don't like the film. Not stopping others from enjoying it, but all the same...

You make my point for me in the third paragraph but you come to the wrong conclusions in the second. If you had the choice of 50,000 readers and a compromised view of Lincoln's America or 5,000 readers and an accurate view which would you choose?

I am not saying that entertainment is bad, simply or that it cannot be art in any sense. I am saying that we cannot count the quality of art in numbers. There are too many other factors (publicity, PR, public taste of the time etc) that enter into it to do that. And I think Joe's view is far too simplistic and naive and a prime example of a reverse-eliitism that is every bit as bad its counterpart.

Gary Smith said...

What would I choose, royalty cheques or historical authenticity.... tough choice : )

Graham said...

I think one reason this whole art vs. entertainment thing comes up is because there's a perception that artists are 'better' in some way than entertainers.

Personally, I strongly disagree with this. We're comparing Cary Grant and Lawrence Olivier here. Why can't we appreciate both?

I'm not embarrassed to say that I am NOT aiming for art when I write a story. If some deep meaning manages to creep in (such as 'a good person doing bad things == a bad person') it should never come at the expense of whatever enjoyment is there.

Kevin Wignall said...

Graham, I don't think Russel was ever pitting art against entertainment - the two go together more often than not - he was questioning whether sales equals art.
Hello Russel, frankly, I don't know why you or Steve Hockensmith would bother trying to talk sense to Joe Konrath.
I've locked horns with him before and have come to the conclusion that all his arguments are undermined by a desperate need for self-justification.
In truth, none of the definitions given can be used to identify art. Many bestsellers are unreadable within a decade. Some stand the test of time. Some books that sold poorly go on to become classics. And of course, some great works of art are lost - as Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" almost was. Surely what matters most is your intent, and I think that's probably why Konrath is so keen to push his confused manifesto, because he once imagined himself an artist and has slowly conceded every part of that dream bar the sales. He mentions Mozart, but deep down, he knows he's, at best, a latter-day Salieri. I'm just guessing here... but I can think of no other reason for his brash posturing.

Graham said...

Kevin: wasn't implying that Russell was pitting art vs. entertainment, but it seems to be an assumption that underlies many arguments of this type (i.e. literary vs. genre).

I find much self-defined "art" and "literature" from the second half of the 20th century to be self-consciously artsy, which (to me) makes it insufferably pretentious.

BTW this is the most interesting comment thread I've seen in a while.

Kevin Wignall said...

I agree on a lot of what's laughably called literary fiction. I think it was Hemingway (who has himself fallen out of fashion in recent years) who said that you write for yourself and one other. I think a lot of literary authors (and some genre ones - David Peace? GB84?!?) have either forgotten the other altogether or assume that the idea is to impress them rather than to move them.

Jennifer Jordan said...

I read David Peace and enjoyed the first three. Then, with the fourth, I assumed he'd had a brake down, was unable to use English in anything other than a spastic reflexive manner and put the book down. Insanity and art are intertwined but one should be able to read a book.

Chopin's 'The Awakening' was a revelation when I first read it. The life she led as a result of producing her work amazes me.

Bio Dome is a travesty. All movie with Pauly Shore are a travesty.

What is art is subjective as my clever brother said somewhere.

What sells is a shot in the dark many try to replicate - but knows what lurks in the heart of the shallow consumer? Oh, yeah. Joe knows.

Mikey P said...

Well, firstly, I'd have to say I liked Bio-dome - but, you knew that already. ;)

But I have to agree, art cannot be measured by numbers. Sales are a moderate representation of how many others may be enjoying your creation - but they don't signify art.

Graham said...

Another corollary to this argument occurred to me - to many people, if it makes money, it ain't art. Art is directed at the few who have the taste to appreciate it.

This strikes me as the highest form of crockery.

Russel said...

Hey, lots of responses!

Kevin, you're right when you say me and Steve were foolish. Joe's very set in his idea but its one I can't get behind at all. If art is about sales then to me that eventually means art is only about promotion and if anything's further from the truth of what art is, then its that theory. But we had a bit of fun, I think, until it became clearer no one was compromising. My idea of art is fluid and open to suggestion, but I know that suggestion is just wrong.

Graham: I'm not saying art is better than entertainment exactly. I *am* saying it has a better chance of lasting down the ages but that's only true of good art. I fully admit that some so-called "art" and "literature" is a load of crap. But I cannot accept the reverse-snobbism arguments either (that "popular" is better than "art") for very similar reasons.

The question of what is art isn't one I claim to have exact answers to. I think we can often see it when it becomes aparent to us and I think that sometimes what appears to be mere entertainment can also be art (But NOT Bio Dome). Hence, even if you're not neccasarily aiming for it your stories may yet be art.

But Kevin's right - I'm not really trying to pit the two against each other; I would say that sometimes there is a separation but that it doesn't make one superior to the other. But more than anything I just want to say that sales do not equal art. Never have done. Never will do. They also do not always equal good entertainment, either. I also think art deserves to make money. If it is good art.

You know, we had a few David Peace books come in - - now I don't think I'll bother...

And Jen, if all movies with Pauly Shore are travesties, does that mean if we unplugged Pauly Shore from Bio Dome it would no longer be a tragedy?

Mike - - that's a very measured response from you! Except for the Bio Dome thing... And, no, Spy Hard isn't art either...

Ray said...

No, no, no, you should read David Peace. Just not GB84, which I was looking forward to for so long as it was about a subject close to my heart. And which then became utterly unreadable.

Graham said...

One question for everybody: is art different from entertainment just in quality, or in kind? Is there some fundamental difference that means book A is "art", even if it sucks, where book B is entertainment, even if it's great?

Or can we know? I would guess that Russell's we-won't-know-for-100-years test is probably as good as any.

Mikey P said...

Ahahahaha... sorry, where was I?
Russel - - You're right - maybe I'm just mellowing out in my old age.
As for Spy Hard - funny film, but that's as far as it goes.

Russel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.