1. Introduction

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High Entertainment

In our time the vast, congested world of image-makers is organized around two poles. Around one pole gathers the sort that pursues Refinement, while around the competing pole cluster creative minds that have adopted Accessibility as their mantra. Most usually, the refinement-oriented image-maker, aspiring to offer complex and ambitious communication product, has, after surveying the cultural terrain, identified the art world as the realm best suited for the exercise of their talents and the pursuit of those aspirations. They apply themselves to making art — paintings, sculpture, and the like. Given the difficulty of engaging the production economies of the mainstream popular culture, not to mention the lowish aspirations for humankind often conveyed in the wares offered by the aggressively Accessible mass culture, anyone’s decision to enlist in the smaller and more specialized realm of art is understandable. Yet a decision of that nature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Repeated decade after decade by thousands of first-rate creative minds it accretes, and forms a pattern. And in the shadow of that pattern substantial questions mushroom.

What, one wonders, have been the consequences to the whole culture of a flow of first-rate intellectual and creative ability away from the mainstream, decade after decade? Is it not conceivable that the flow of ability and aspiration, opting always for the same course, cutting a channel ever deeper, has actually worked to perpetuate the divide between the art culture and the accessible, popular, “entertainment” culture (the very divide, of course, that made the refinement-seeking mind feel it had no realistic alternative but to enlist in the art world!)? Furthermore, doesn’t this continual, dependable, predictable flow of first-rate intellectual and creative ability into the specialized realm of art effectively guarantee both the marginality of the art culture and the generally low aspirations — sex and money, sex and money, sex and money — of the (now global) mass culture? Aren’t both cultures weaker for that division? And doesn’t the wholeness of culture — society, if you will — suffer for it?

There is, I’m saying, a sort of brain drain at work in the contemporary culture, enacting a pattern so long established we don’t even question it let alone imagine that it might be corrected. This brain drain configures our culture at deep structural levels. It underwrites a tired theater wherein a comparatively small art world looks down on the mainstream culture while, for its part, the popular, mainstream culture, self-charged with entertaining The People and thus feeling somehow “obliged” to find repellent not only the elitist economy of fine art but the very principle of exclusionism that a culture of refinement feeds on, represents, trades in, and promotes, walls itself off from the formal, material, thematic, and attitudinal questing that defines the fine artist in the modern era. In truth, the rules of this theater are held in place more by the players’ vanity — in the case of art, the need to feel oneself superior and special, and the need for an association with exclusivity; in the case of the mass-culture, the illusion that one is speaking for The People, and “giving people what they want” — than by any condition intrinsic to either the media or the venues through which the refined and the mass cultures communicate with their respective audiences. Unchecked and unchallenged, the tired theater has settled in for a long run. Surmising that their sensibilities and interests will never be accommodated by the baldly mercenary machinery of the entertainment culture, refinement-seeking minds flock en masse to the art world, while minds geared to the valid and not unvirtuous goal of seeking to communicate in forms that are understandable to the largest possible audience sponsor, in the name of that audience, a suspicion of intellect and a fear of experiment. With each sticking to their own kind, who can be surprised that professionalized ghettos of thought and sensibility have been the result? A few individuals prosper, the ghettos thrive as ghettos — and the wider culture continues to be less than it might.

But — good news! — a counterforce has been unleashed, one with the potential to inject plenty of brightening fizz into this stale arrangement. Advances in technology once again are restructuring the culture. This time around it’s the digital revolution that’s disturbing entrenched social patterns right and left. Independent imaginations have been enabled to work directly, efficiently, and economically in the forms and formats of the mainstream media culture. The kids are pointing cameras and microphones at things and creating their own entertainment — movies, pop music, and TV-culture-influenced videos. They’re burning these onto DVDs and CDs, uploading them, downloading them… — which means they’re able not only to create in mass-media formats but, crucially, distribute them as well. This marks a new stage as, previously, corporations had had a stranglehold on the technology needed to communicate via the language of the mainstream media culture they’d been instrumental in establishing. In transforming this long institutionalized imbalance of technology, the digital revolution has handed this society the tools, and the opportunity, to reverse the persistent brain drain as well.

Exactly what it’ll mean to have an entire generation of independent imaginations pointing cameras and microphones at things and creating their own movies, pop music, and TVesque video without obligation toward or concern for the apparatus of the media state — and keep in mind this will be the first generation to do so, not the last — isn’t clear yet. Already, though, this freshly-minted phenomenon, coined only yesterday morning, is destabilizing both the context of art and the context of mainstream media technologies — the anti-intellectual “entertainment culture” — by indicating a realizable middle-ground between the two.

“High Entertainment,” I’ve taken to calling one sector of the emergent middle-ground. Drawing upon the better aspects of both worlds, High Entertainment will combine entertainment’s accessibility with art’s experimentalism and bent toward form-discovery. Here I hasten to emphasize that High Entertainment really is entertainment. It isn’t art, insofar as it doesn’t share visual art’s fixation on the complex issues surrounding representation, visual art’s obsession with articulated interplay between form and content, visual art’s propensity for criticality, or visual art’s narrow historicity. Anyone who expects to read High Entertainment according to the rules and codes maintained by the visual art system, as manifested either in its professional or academic wing, can expect to be disappointed. High Entertainment “fails” as art because it’s not trying to be art. High Entertainment is entertainment, and wants to be, but it is entertainment that shares something of art’s ambitions for the culture — of art’s ambitions for you.

High Entertainment is where some of art — or rather, some artists — will be going.

Writing about that destination is, at this stage, mostly a predictive operation, but it isn’t entirely or only that. I base my thinking in part on my own evolution, and on identifying the different, quite real thought- and sensibility-waves I’ve felt as a result of making the kind of work this essay means to delineate. Something of the character of the coming High Entertainment can be known. The essay that follows may be predictive but it isn’t science fiction.

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One DVD Burner, One Vote

While the idea that an artist might, say, make a painting one month and a movie or TV show the next has been around since Andy Warhol, that production model had rarely been explored after he’d invented it. To do so was, for a very long time, “too Warholian;” real artists, looking to make their own mark on art history, will always seek a personal model of production. Today, though, producing in both traditional “fine” and contemporary media forms is easily and efficiently executed — one no longer need go to all the trouble of being Andy Warhol in order to use the production model he’d pioneered — and consequently it’s becoming much more widespread. (That Warhol had become the boy or the girl next door was, incidentally, the news brought by the film American Beauty.)

The new recording and computing technologies are so good, and the results they produce so closely resemble the real thing (I refer not to Warhol’s production but to the top-notch audiovisuals that media-corporation-owned technology offer an audience) that the quality gap between the kind of media work made by an independent imagination and that generated by the likes of CBS, Warner, and MCA — a gap until recently positively grotesque — has become negligible. The close of that quality gap means that an independent imagination who opts to think in terms of film or video (whether for all or only part of their output) is now that much closer to having his or her work absorbed by the gigantic systems of the mainstream culture. Thus an independent imagination is no longer restricted to thinking in terms of gallery or museum but may now consider communicating via DVD distribution, website, theatrical release, even (gasp!) broadcast.

Are the distribution and evaluation systems of the mainstream culture prepared for this? They are not — not by a long shot. Do they welcome it? They do not. But it’ll happen anyway. As imaginations that have been trained in other traditions (including some conversant with the culture of refinement) increasingly produce in mainstream formats, gradually the existing distribution systems will feel the pressure. (The systems that have long been in place for distributing and evaluating pop culture are already starting to groan from change, and the new era I’m describing has just begun!) If today 12,000 (to choose a number) independent imaginations are producing in formats absorbable by the mass culture, before long 120,000 will produce in this way, and then 1,200,000…. The existing systems will have to accommodate it. Eventually they’ll see the commercial advantage of doing so. It’s only a matter of time. And even then the independent imagination will still have real, practicable alternatives to the corporate production and distribution system.

To this phenomenon (which, as I’ve indicated, is only just beginning) a swarm of questions attach. For what sort of movies and “TV” does someone trained in, say, the vocabularies and history of fine art make, exactly? How will they be different from, and how the same as, the movies and TV that are produced by the official entertainment culture? Is the independent imagination in question just “making art with digital technologies,” or have they perhaps some obligation to respect the integrity of forms and formats that, designed for the mainstream, have their own history? (A TV sitcom is just as specific a form as an abstract painting, after all.) What, in other words, is the relation to the mainstream of an artist able to work in mainstream forms and formats? Need that artist’s mainstream production — a movie, a “TV show” — be integrated with their “fine art” production, in the manner of a modern artist like Warhol? And what if that independent imagination chooses to work exclusively in mainstream media formats, and distribute their work independently? If they aren’t bound either by the production rules of the entertainment industry or the rules of presentational logic maintained by the art system, what is that independent imagination’s cultural location? Are they an “artist” or an “entertainer”?

For some of you, questions such as these are waiting just around the corner.

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What Is Entertainment, Anyway?

On the periodic table of culture, entertainment is assigned a lighter atomic weight than art. Entertainment’s structure, however, is as specific in its own way as art’s.

Set aside the question of media for the time being — when it comes to communication, some medium is assumed to be involved — and focus on the consistent underlying structure of the entertainment transaction. Entertainment’s structure is binary. There is 1) a maker (the “entertainer”) and 2) an audience. It is an aggressively audience-centered model — which is to say people-centered. The entertainer is free to do “anything” to entertain an audience. Delivering pleasure to an audience is always the goal but the method of accomplishing this is wide open. Additionally, proof of a given method’s effectiveness is instantly available: something either “entertains” or it doesn’t.

This minimal, binary structure of entertainment may be attributable to the fact that, usually, entertainment is defined by the actions of a performer; to be entertained, an audience really needs nothing more than a proficient, entertainment-minded human standing in front of it. Although its presence isn’t required, a human performer is the basic integer of entertainment. Audience members will relate to that human performer with a directness that something made of, say, wood, paint or bronze does not permit.

Entertainment has a certain directness in its genes, then. Art, by contrast, is inherently indirect. In art, there’s 1) a maker (the “artist), who bounces a creative signal off 2) an imaginary abstraction, (termed, broadly, “art”) to reach 3) the audience. Art’s structure thus has three parts, with the satellite off which the signal is bounced going by a number of aliases — “art” being one, “history,” “meaning,” and “discourse” others. While the audience still receives the signal, it does so indirectly, and secondarily. The satellite, Art, always receives the signal first.

“Something ‘entertains’ or it doesn’t….” — entertainment’s binary structure seems to be simpler, yet it masks a complex, ancient transaction. What, after all,does it mean to be “entertained”? What do we feel, really, when we feel “entertained”? What are the qualities of this sensation? How is it induced in human beings? The fact that each of us has experienced “failed” or “bad” entertainment — i.e. entertainment that didn’t entertain — clearly indicates that it’s a specific sort of enterprise, and a specific sort of experience.

If there are many ways to entertain, many methods, many means, a constancy nevertheless courses through them all. The constancy may be described as a sort of vibration. Entertainment is a vibration created in humans by humans for the sake of pleasure and delight. Question: need a vibration be justified? Let’s go further: Is it possible , even, to justify a vibration? Music may be a useful analogy, here. Consider the pleasing electric guitar note. What justification is required of that note beyond the pleasure it is bringing you? Absolutely none. The entertainment vibration is similarly beyond, or before, justification.

Entertainment is to be accepted, then, as a large, significant, and mysterious human event, the exact nature of which can never be identified. Therefore to be able to do it and do it well should be — and is — sufficient.To delight others is enough. Such additional validation as elevation to the condition of Art bestows isn’t required.

High Entertainment proceeds, then, from a belief that to entertain well needs no additional justification. High Entertainment pursues, and then aligns itself with, the entertainment vibration.