6. Form-Discovery

Untitled (1984)

Discipline Problem

High Entertainment shouldn’t be taken as only working changes on entertainment. The destabilizing forces unleashed by digitization also challenge the habits of mind of artists.

The model of art in which contemporary artists have, for a long time now, been trained — as a system for organizing imaginative output, by now so widely accepted as to be beyond question and, thus, academicized — goes something like this. First, the artist creates a given work. Let’s call it Work A. In time, Work A is followed by a Work B which in some respect pursues the implications of or otherwise responds to Work A. Work C then follows up on the implications of Work B, and so on into the future. The progression, which is designed to identify, make legible, and develop a body of meaning over time, might be written as A > (A)B> (A)(B)C…. By means of this progression the artist works up their fascinations into a sustained lather. That sustained lather is their art.

It’s a perfectly good model. High Entertainment has no quarrel with it. Yet the model that’s active in High Entertainment happens not to hew to it. In High Entertainment, the independent imagination has no obligation to pursue the implications of any given work in a next and subsequent work — or, for that matter, ever. High Entertainment isn’t “working on” anything — anything, that is, other than delivering pleasure to an audience. It does not proceed according to a scientistic or investigatory model. In High Entertainment there is no imaginary problem, and thus no imaginary solution to it.

Sustaining the lather requires discipline. In fact art is discipline; it’s the saying No to almost everything in order to more emphatically say Yes to a very few things. High Entertainment doesn’t participate in that tradition. High Entertainment doesn’t require the maker to do the same thing twice, or to find and develop any link at all between Work A, Work B, and Work C. High Entertainment doesn’t finally reside in a fascination with form, and so has no responsibility to form. It is (in this sense at least) wildly, disturbingly undisciplined and brazenly ahistoricist. (Caveat emptor: Any reader who feels that High Entertainment is the right approach for them should be forewarned that the rejection of artistic discipline, perhaps more than any other quality of H.E., will be looked on with maximum disfavor by the art context. If it’s an art career you’re seeking, it might be wise, therefore, to consider creating your High Entertainment under a pseudonym.)

High Entertainment has, then, a discipline problem. So far as I’ve observed, though, just as much bad or unnecessary or tired work as good has resulted from the habit of privileging artistic discipline. Which observation suggests to me, and may suggest to you too, that an independent imagination has just as good a chance of making good work by abandoning altogether the discipline celebrated by the art system.

Viva Experimentalism

Art is comparatively unbound by conventions of method and of result. Artists are forever experimenting with what art is. So much so, in fact, that art, in our time, has become identified — to a fault, some could say — with the idea of form-discovery.

High Entertainment applies the principle of form-discovery to the creation of entertainment. Every last one of the conventions and tropes of mainstream entertainment product — genre, plot, story arc, character, acting, the “star,” length, format, the relation between editorial and advertising, everything — may be pried open and subjected to experiments. These experiments might dissolve them. While there’s no rule against using the conventions of entertainment (sometimes they’re entertaining!), they can also be disregarded completely, as if they’d never existed, so long as the new form discovered is entertaining. With regard to method, structure, and content, the independent imagination can do anything he or she chooses, so long as the experiment a) does not rely on a specialized language (since that would be art) and b) it activates in the audience that mysterious twaa-aa-aang of delight.

Us or Everybody?

Any mainstream product, in order to be a mainstream product, must satisfy one condition. It must be accessible, to as many people as may care to access it. The weight of that single criterion is enough to restrict the extent to which any mainstream entertainment product may retreat into or be based upon any specialized language. Mainstream formats, which seek to be understood, accepted — in a word, consumed — by as many people as possible, utilize specific languages (“A TV sitcom is as specific a form as an abstract painting.”) without resorting to specialized languages.

Specialized languages are divisive. They divide the audience into those who know that language and its codes, and those who do not. Since the dawn of the modern era, art has relied extensively on the acquisition of specialized language. You either know the history of art, and consequently why that blue mark placed just so on that wall is significant and meaningful, or you do not. Theoretically, anyone who is interested to can learn the specialized language of art. But it must be learned. Art in our time has posited itself as a form of research. That’s yielded many interesting things, to be sure, but a research model isn’t the only way to discover experiences that human beings will value.

High Entertainment eschews the use of a specialized language. The audience needs no specialized language to understand what it is experiencing. High Entertainment revels in the challenge of being understandable to everyone.

Meaning Is Just Fine, In Its Place

By abandoning the artistic model of discipline (in its way a courageous act, incidentally), High Entertainment de-activates an important tool of meaning-making. But does sacrificing art’s singular capacity to frame and sustain unique existential narratives subsequently reduce High Entertainment to a condition of outright “meaninglessness” as well? When “meaning” is not directly the point or the focus of a thing, is that thing then “meaningless”?

Young or developing artists, who are in the thick of the anxious business of carving their lives into time and space, are especially sensitive to the presence of meaning. They require and demand it. Once you’ve done some of that existential self-definition work, though, meaning has a funny way of becoming less important — or at least less insistent and central. Life, which is rather bigger than meaning, teaches that meaning has its limits, that it isn’t the be-all and end-all, that meaning is just fine, in its place.

Imaginative work that is less emphatic about meaning is not, then, necessarily wrong, inappropriate, or bad. Of course it’s too early to ascertain the exact relation of High Entertainment to the production of meaning, or how it may go about that task differently; a new category of imaginative work that doesn’t behave according to the rules of either art or conventional entertainment product must be allowed to live and breathe in order to establish why we ought to value it. I don’t know how High Entertainment will configure meaning. I do know, though, that if we have to be able to identify meaning in order for something to be meaningful, as a species we’re in deep trouble, imagination-wise.

The Sphinx (1994)

Adulthood Revived?

A large percentage of the adults who work within the entertainment industry toil at inventing products that can be consumed by people younger than 18.

May I say what I really mean here? Thank you.

Our popular culture is principally dedicated to finding ways to take money from children. Easy to fool, children are the most vulnerable demographic in all of consumerland.

Correspondingly, as a person ages they’ll find fewer popular entertainment products that are designed to recognize and celebrate such subtleties as the adult mind is capable of apprehending.

It’s possible that High Entertainment, which is more than open to being in the subtleties business, may be more the cup of tea of mature sensibilities.

Opacity and Transparencysphinx-detail-for-he-book

The entertainment culture promulgates opacity. The entertainment industry does not want you to know “how it’s done.” It does not want to reveal its secrets. It prefers that you have no other role than that of consumer. It is, and wants to be, opaque. It is aligned with and invested in the forces of illusion. The digital revolution, which has placed mainstream media formats into the hands of the masses, therefore stands as a direct threat to some very lucrative traditions.

Art in the modern era has been a vastly more transparent enterprise. Art in the modern era has consistently been willing to reveal and to put on display, as part of the show, much of the system that presents it, and, by so doing, to stimulate and direct its own evolution. This “transparency principle” is derived from a surprising source: P.T. Barnum. Barnum, the greatest showman of the nineteenth century, understood that the audience is just as entertained by knowing how a trick is done — its conceptual dimension, in other words — as by the trick itself. This insight, aggressively and inventively applied over the course of his long career, establishes P.T. Barnum as America’s first conceptual artist. In view of this claim it makes sense that the art world, not the entertainment industry, should have made the most active use of Barnum’s discovery.

High Entertainment, intent on adapting certain of art’s ambitions to the mainstream formats of media, is free to make greater use of transparency than does conventional entertainment product. It’s not required to do so but, because it is made and distributed by independent imaginations who have no obligation to the mass entertainment state, nothing prevents it from doing so. As did master showman Barnum, the High Entertainer acknowledges that truth-telling, engaged in the course of displaying the system, can itself be entertaining. The entertainment context — show biz — continues to work hard to maintain and protect the lucrative opacity of its conventions, of course. But the opacity that characterizes conventional entertainment product may be dissolved in High Entertainment. This need not involve a deconstruction per se but rather the conception and enactment of new, less suffocatingly dishonest positions.

<i>TV Curtain</i> (1987)

Freedom From System

High Entertainment is neither art nor conventional entertainment. Because the digital revolution has enabled independent imaginations to choose and control their own communication platforms (DVD or download), a class of concept-oriented, image-based subtleties that had previously been assigned to the art context, the art system, the art world, now may reach the public by other means. To a High Entertainer the art system is superfluous. Add to this the fact that today’s technology-wielding independent imagination may work in the media favored by the mainstream culture without any obligation to produce in the manner sponsored by the media state, and it becomes clear that a stunning degree of freedom from system has just landed in the lap of the modern person.

Just now, at the beginning of this new era, that kind of freedom is a weak muscle — real, but so absolute and novel that one hardly knows (High Entertainment? What the hell is that?) where to begin. But it will become stronger with exercise.

Politics

“A lackey of the corporate state,” “an opiate drugging the masses” — these are among the accusations regularly leveled at entertainment. From a certain perspective all the unflattering characterizations are accurate; popular entertainment in the age of mass media has indeed become a tool wielded by the powerful with at least the aim (the success varies) of distracting the masses from applying their energies to mounting any concentrated and sustained challenge to the status quo. It will not be news to you that those who own and operate the media state aspire — conspire, too — to control and influence the public mind, partly by feeding us certain kinds of information constantly, and partly by denying us alternatives to that diet. Any conscious adult has to find this an insulting and scary situation.

Come the revolution. Meanwhile, the empire of the corporate remains with us. We accommodate it not only because we’ve convinced ourselves we must (talk about effective propagandizing!) but also because aspects of it work to our advantage. Who wants to manufacture their own toothpaste? You? Moreover, and looking past the practical, certain attributes of the business civilization’s communication wing — a.k.a. the media state — have been known to flat-out delight. The Beatles, to draw an example from the hat. The Beatles made life lustrous for just about everybody. And if we accept that The Beatles have worked to the general advantage of human beings, then don’t we also have to recognize that, objectively considered, any society (it happens to be our own) that’s consistently able to come up with Beatles- or near-Beatles-level phenomena (as ours is) must also be getting something, some very basic need of the citizenry, consistently right? I think we do. And if that’s the case, if the pleasures that our popular culture intermittently deliver are signs that this society is getting something right, then there must be more to entertainment, lackey of the corporate state that it is, than only its damnable opiating function. Entertainment may have become a tool designed to confuse and distract the masses but surely it isn’t only that. (A vibration basic to human experience, entertainment, let’s not forget, predates just about anything you could name. Corporate empires and their dispiriting shenanigans are, actually, quite late to the game in question.)

Politically speaking, shame doesn’t automatically inhere to entertainment, then. Which assertion, I’m aware, conflicts with a notion of progressivism favored in recent decades by intellectuals and the artistic avant garde. Post-war artists and writers have consistently been among those lobbing sophisticated critiques at the media state. Here I hasten to say that we have benefited from their efforts, unquestionably. Even if the attacks they’ve mounted haven’t succeeded either in reducing the will of the media state one iota or thwarting the exercise of its power, they have taught many of us how to identify propaganda in its subtlest forms and maintain a healthy distance from its effects. They’ve liberated many of us from the state’s control — surely their aim in the first place, at least in part. From the perspective afforded us by the digital revolution, however, it’s hard not to feel that their vigor of their opposition must have been fueled, somewhat, by a frustration at having been denied access to the powerful, seductive, bedazzling communication technologies of our time. (Artists and writers are in the communication business as well, after all.) When something has a grip on you but you’re not allowed near it, fascination can twist into resentment.

But if it’s really progress you’re looking to bring about, there’s more than one way to flay that feline. Happily, the High Entertainer — born further along in the evolution of technology, more media-empowered — needn’t define progressivism in the same frustrated, oppositional terms of his or her artistic forebears. The media state underwritten by business civilization may be with us from here on out but the digital revolution has modernized and, in the course of modernizing, altered the independent imagination’s relation to state power. New opportunities make for new politics; the fact that you and I can now communicate in and distribute mainstream formats without any obligation to the existing media system means we neither have to sign up with nor do battle against that system’s corporate overseers. The independent imagination is now less beholden to any ideology. If we don’t need to enlist in the opacities, distractions, and lies that characterize corporate media to proceed with our work, neither is criticality of corporate media the thinking person’s only respectable alternative. Media-enabled, the High Entertainer needn’t — actually, can’t — divide the situation so neatly as us and them, insider and outsider.

In this sense, the digital revolution has cleared a space for innocence to take hold, a new beginning, a fresh start. The High Entertainer has been given an opportunity to work from that historical rarity, the clean slate. What might mass entertainment freed from corporate ownership look and sound like, actually? When you don’t have to serve power in order to communicate in the means previously controlled by the corporate state, how exactly will you use your independence? How safe will you play it? How imaginative will you be? Free of the strictures of system, what form does communication take? The independent imagination’s relation to power becomes, clearly, something to be defined anew….

Informed by these factors, the cultural niche I’ve been calling High Entertainment is in a position to sponsor a transfusion of ethics into the entertainment we consume. Less obligated to rely on the bullshit of show biz, it is free to talk about the world in another way. Whether reality will fulfill the promise of theory is open to question. Many of us would welcome a new, ethically-charged, more honest sort of entertainment. Let’s be careful here, though. Let’s not hope for too much. This isn’t a crusade, it’s an opportunity. High Entertainment may deliver on it only by introducing a better — here translated as more entertaining — class of lies. But even that will be an improvement.

Talent (1986)

Post-Art

Why do I argue for a High Entertainment? To counter the brain drain, and because history has arranged for this cultural moment to come into existence; what I’ve been describing really is taking place. So far as embracing full-on the opportunity this moment represents, though, this I do for reasons of my own.

When I began as an artist, twenty years ago, making artworks and exhibiting them in galleries and, in time, museums, art was to me a wonderful way of exploring both the world and what a person could be in the world. Through art I applied myself to the world and discovered my sensibility.

That sensibility (it turned out) had from the start big dollops of entertainment culture in it (obvious from the title of my first solo exhibition — The David Robbins Show.) Too big, perhaps: the art context, as steeped as I was in it, was always an uncomfortable fit. Regardless, I soldiered on, during my years in the role of “artist” I making some interesting things and, I think, some interesting discoveries too, for myself and hopefully for others.

All the time, though, my sensibility pointed toward and yearned for an imaginative Elsewhere. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowness of art as a formulation of the imagination. This will sound preposterous to many people, I’m aware, given that art offers and represents extraordinary behavioral freedoms, but in “making art” I found an ultimately enslaving formulation. How so? In art, you can do, yes, anything you want so long as you’re willing to have it end up as art. That isn’t real imaginative freedom, in my view. Inquisitiveness of mind will carry you past art, and apparently I love inquisitiveness of mind more than I love art. In the final analysis I prefer not to be a slave to any proposition that isn’t of my own creation — even to propositions, such as art, that have resulted in a lot of wonderful things. (I don’t expect to convince any artists of my argument, of course. Art in the modern era is a faith-based exercise, a surrogate church: you believe in it or you don’t. Ultimately, I found, I’m simply not a believer. Anyone who is a believer will not understand my discomfort, but that will have to be their problem. Indeed, when it comes to faith, that’s always the catch: there’s no room for doubt.)

Unwilling to be who art — and the art system — asked me to be, I let my imagination gradually evolve away from its earlier emphasis on deriving adventure from intensive explorations of the visual and material realm. Eventually, my personal trajectory intersected with the digital revolution, which, god bless it, provided a way out of identifying my production as “art” without also having to give up the abilities and sensibility I’d developed through being an artist.

This cultural moment holds special promise, then, for anyone like me who, rather than introducing things — materials, subject matter, concepts — into the art context (a strategy that seems to me to have been the work of modernism, and a habit of imagination left over from modernism), prefers the challenge of pushing certain ambitions for the culture and certain attitudes heretofore associated with the art context in the direction of the mainstream. My ambition isn’t to get video art shown on a television program or channel. My ambition isn’t to write into my screenplay a character who’s an artist. My ambition is to make “television shows” or “movies” for popular consumption — and, equally, to find out what those will look and sound like. I may succeed or I may fail at this “High Entertainment” business but, whatever the outcome, as a challenge it now strikes me as more interesting than making more Art — and more appropriate too, given my sensibility. Fortunately, the mainstream culture has evolved to a point where it’s on the cusp of accommodating entertainment made by people whose thinking has been shaped in the art context; that gap too has narrowed.

High Entertainment is for me, then, a post-art condition of mind; I worked through my art fascination and arrived at something that’s clearly informed by art training and art thinking but doesn’t play by art’s rules. What I make from here on out may yet be interpreted as art — it’s still personal, invented communication, after all — but if so that interpretation will be supplied by the audience, not by its maker.

For some of you, an idea such as High Entertainment will represent the right path. You get it. (The kids, with their cameras and their microphones, get it, I can tell you.) You may not be ready yet to accommodate or pursue its promise, you may have to work through your fascination with art and its possibilities before you can become comfortable with the state of mind and the kind of production that High Entertainment represents, but in your gut you recognize home in what I’ve been describing.

That’s great. Be forewarned, however, that your acceptance of a role vis a vis entertainment may require you to admit something about yourself that you may prefer not to hear. You may discover that, as it turns out, you do not have an artist’s commitment to form, an artist’s identification with media or material, an artist’s obsessions or an artist’s discipline. Everyone isn’t meant to be an artist. And if you aren’t? What are you to do with your perfectly good ideas? Suppress them because they’re not art? Nonsense! Get to work! Understand your difference and articulate its place in the scheme of things.

From the number of galleries and museums dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art, and the quality of work that’s shown in them, art looks to be in pretty good shape. At least there seems no shortage of people adept at fashioning refined, ambitious, well-made, challenging art objects. The intense competition is eliciting strong work. Art’s in good hands. What’s not in great shape is the entertainment culture. And that’s the other reason to embrace the promise of High Entertainment: the condition entertainment’s in.

Glance at the Sunday TV section of any newspaper in any American city: for every Seinfeld, every Six Feet Under, every Sopranos there are twenty degrading, puerile sitcoms, ten grim police dramas featuring twisted killers tracked by wise-cracking crime units, and a dozen crassly Darwinian reality programs. It’s difficult to believe that adults could stand to imagine, write, and shoot the sorry line-up weekly offered. “But TV, with so many channels, must fill so much airtime,” you argue. “Inevitably some of it has to disappoint.” According to that argument mainstream movies, responsible for only two hours of your time, ought to really be delivering the goods, yet your ten-dollar ticket practically guarantees two hours of witless dialogue, teeth-grinding sentimentality, gadgetry, and gore. That complaints about the entertainment business are longstanding doesn’t diminish their relevancy. Let’s cut to the chase: In seeking to reduce risk and, by so doing, guarantee the lavish lifestyles of the people who run it, a once-inventive industry has drifted into a cynical attitude toward its audience that does life no favor. Because it has enjoyed a lock on the mainstream culture for as long as anyone alive can remember, the entertainment industry’s assumptions about what constitutes “entertainment” have gone unchallenged for too long. Those assumptions have been free to rot, and rotting they, at long last, surely are. We’ve all learned to be ironic about the tragic phosphorescence emanating from popular culture. Thanks to the digital revolution we no longer have to be.

The zone now forming between fine art and popular art can be explored in many ways. If this discussion of a High Entertainment has emphasized recorded media at the expense of object production, it’s due to the fact that the power struggle is playing out in recorded media, not objects. Certainly, though, the concept of High Entertainment — i.e, works and artifacts that retain’s fine art’s complex ambitions for the culture while eschewing the specialized language of fine art in favor of mass accessibility — can be manifested in games, toys, fashion, public sculpture, books, hoaxes — indeed in any product that has contact with the public.

Accommodating the notion that one could, in the image business, offer a sophisticated and ambitious sort of production, in nature independent from the existing art and entertainment systems, requires mental discipline. Even if you like the idea of a High Entertainment, in order for it to exist you have first to believe that it can. Some of you will resist this. Without even knowing it, you may be someone who operates on the assumption that all categories of imaginative endeavor have already been identified, and that the best we can do is fit our sensibilities to these known categories. (The ostensibly wild and wooly art world — of all places! — is full of people who hold this view.) But that’s like declaring that all scientific discoveries have already been made. Entire, subtly differentiated categories of imaginative endeavor are still to be invented. High Entertainment, a term that, at the very least, denotes categories confounded, might be among them.

The idea that all categories of imaginative endeavor haven’t already been created and identified is an essential one, but it lives only as a result of belief in it. (Here’s my church.) It takes time to get comfortable with the idea that a High Entertainment might exist. It takes time to get comfortable with not categorizing something as “art” just because it’s more satisfying than run-of-the-mill entertainment. For a new category to take hold, you must let it take hold. This requires mental discipline — the discipline to say no to tradition, the discipline to hold the door open to allow an unknown future to enter the room, the picture, your life, and to take shape. High Entertainment is, just for starters, a mental exercise in structuring the new.

Milwaukee
2007