LITTLE BROWN MUSHROOM BLOG

Should artists be entertainers?

Posted in Flotsam by LBM on November 7, 2011

Last Friday I gave a lecture in Syracuse about my desire for narrative in photobooks. The reason behind this desire, I explained, was a feeling of saturation in the era of Google Images, Flickr and so on. But I neglected the more fundamental reason: stories are entertaining.

I like to say that there are three levels of artmaking.

1) Entertainment: This, for me, is essential. If the work doesn’t pull me in, I’ll go elsewhere. And doing this and this alone is one hell of a challenge.

2) Education: After being entertained, maybe I can learn something too. While watching The Social Network, maybe I’ll learn something about Facebook or frat boys. But before this learning takes place, I want to be entertained.

3) Change: After being educated and entertained, once in a while a story changes your life. But as an artist, this isn’t something you can shoot for. Otherwise you’d just write self-help books and advice columns.

The day after my lecture, I went to hear John Gossage speak. As some of you might know, John and I recently worked on a project in New Zealand together (more on The Auckland Project soon). I learned so much from John and consider him one of my great teachers. So I was taken aback when he said this in the lecture (I’m paraphrasing):

“Entertainers try to please their audience – artists do what they do and the audience comes to them. I don’t think about my audience whatsoever.”

Suddenly I felt like a cheap carnival hawker. Not only do I consider the audience for my work, I confess that I aim to entertain. Is this pathetic? I guess it depends on the definition of entertainment. In his essay The Pleasure Principal, Michael Chabon investigates this definition and aims to expand it:

I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” I could go down to the cafe at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler about the power of literature off a mug. But in the end — here’s my point — it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles. Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.

Here’s the thing, I find John Gossage’s work entertaining. I get great pleasure from The Pond. The narrative that propels that book carries me in a way that ‘entertaining’ photographers like David LaChapelle never can. Nonetheless, there is no disputing the fact that Gossage doesn’t aim to entertain. Are artists better off forgetting about their audience?

What do you think? Should artists be entertainers?

58 Responses

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  1. LBM said, on November 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I found this exchange between John Gossage and Lewis Baltz to be relevant to the discussion (full interview here)

    Baltz: I think cinema was the greatest art of the twentieth century.

    Gossage: Absolutely. It offers all the narrative possibilities of the novel, it offers visuals, and it offers things that neither of them offer. Plus it’s damn entertaining: people sit there in the dark and watch it in groups.

    Baltz: It’s like opera two hundred years ago, it has everything. It’s high art that’s enormously popular. No other art medium in my lifetime can make that claim. All the art we like ends up being very much an affair for specialists, although it doesn’t necessarily want or try to be. I wouldn’t say it’s elitist because that implies you’re trying to exclude people and actually we all constantly try to bring people in, but it usually doesn’t work.

    • Pedro Três Nomes said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      I agree in a way with megan charland. the point is not to entertain, but to do what you think you should do. Of course, many artist may even feel great causing controversy, but if you stop doing something just because it’s not entertainer (to others), then almost every “atomic art bombs” wouldn’t exist.

      You are lucky you have a great feedback about your work (which i admire very very much), but that dosn’t always happen, and some genious, who nowadays “entretain” many people, where boring people in their time. And that didn’t made their work any worse.I recommend here the portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who lived in the early 20th century. He was misundestood (now one of the greatest of all time), and in many books he talks about the experience of being lonely. “The Book of Disquiet”, or the many poetry he wrote under other names (the book of disquiet is signed by ernardo Soares has several references, which i think everybody here would enjoy reading

  2. robert che vola said, on November 7, 2011 at 10:59 am

    A pure artist should not be an entertainer. But artists as well need to eat, to have a place to sleep and so on. At the end they need to receive a commercial value for their art. And if the art entertains it will be easier to get appreciation, therefore a commercial value . Now, this is not nice but the reality of the world where we live which is not perfect.
    robert

  3. Claire Atkinson (@ClaireAtkinson8) said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:08 am

    i had a discussion like this with a friend last week regarding musicians as artists/entertainers. we saw a video of a very awkward tv interview with pj harvey. my friend, who prefers to listen to the glee soundtrack, said ‘it is like she doesn’t know how to speak to people. she should be better at this stuff, she chose this career and knew what she was getting herself into’. i argued that because she is an artist, rather than a glossy concept born to EMI, this stuff may not come naturally to her. artists focus on their work and tolerate the publicity shit that comes with it. i don’t think most artists are equipped with the same skills as natural born ‘entertainers’ – they seem like different things to me. though naturally there will be no audience if there is no ‘entertainment factor’. i guess it is just making what you like, promoting it and letting your people come to you.

  4. dakola said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

    perhaps there are different forms: entertainment that deals with issues and entertainment just for fun or distraction; and perhaps there are different kinds of artists: the ones who like to entertain and the ones who are entertained themselves by making art….

  5. Todd Pitman said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I think most artists are trying to entertain at least themselves.

    It’s a great question. I’m going to be thinking about this all day.

  6. bill purvis said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:46 am

    The essence is communication.

    • bill purvis said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      That is something you do Alec in the process of promoting art at LBM. LBM provides art & entertainment in its packaging and does so very well.

  7. John Gossage said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    What I said is what I believe about intention and the practice of trying to make things real and honest.
    The results may very well be entertaining, and I often hope it is. But if I try for it I always get confused on who is speaking

    JG

  8. Megan Charland said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    I attended both your lecture on Friday night and that of John Gossage Saturday night and also picked up on the very different views you both seemed to have in regards to the audience. Personally I do not think of my audience, like Gossage, I believe that I can make my work and my audience will appear. I photograph because I am compelled to do so. I am not trying to tell a story, I am not trying to entertain. I am simply making and a sequence emerges. Now as for my audience, they may be entertained by my photographs, but that does not make me an entertainer.

    • LBM said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm

      Great to hear from someone that went to both lectures. Thanks Megan.

      • Megan Charland said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:25 pm

        This conversation is really interesting. I have been checking in all day and it seems most people agree that artists should not be entertainers, no? I’m still thinking about your comment Friday night about how you want to see more of a narrative in photobooks and I don’t have a response quite yet. Damn, these last few days have made me question everything about myself as an artist and, as a current graduate student I really needed that. Thanks for the thought provoking questions!

  9. keithdotson said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Most of the great artists of history knew (know) this well — Picasso? Yes. Dali? Yes. Ai Weiwei? Yes. It doesn’t mean the art is less impactful.

  10. Phil Brown said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    ‘Entertain’ might not be quite the right word for describing artistic motivation, just because it can suggest a frivolity and triteness that artists would generally avoid. ‘Engage’ is better and in that case, as Todd Pitman says above, the artist’s first motivation must be to engage, entertain, or amuse themselves. And then, if they’re lucky enough to have unearthed a source of inspiration, their work will educate and change them.

    If the work is able to do that for the artist, and presuming they can surmount the not inconsiderable primary task of finding an audience, then it’s likely to resonate with others. But successful art cannot be motivated by an audience-before-artist approach. Therein lies the world of stock photography, to give a pertinent example.

  11. Denise Ward said, on November 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    I took your three elements – entertainment, education, change – and put them as a sequence, rather than a list. Entertainment as the element that captures attention, education as what happens to your audience once you have captured their attention, and change as the outcome of having been entertained and ultimately educated. Both the audience and the artist change, I think. Because art is experienced (by whatever sense), this could almost be seen to shadow the Kolb experiential learning cycle.

    I adapted your thoughts to a discussion around social media strategies and college students. Not to compare social media to art but I liked the trio and it seemed to work. Concept convergence is a rare luxury – I grabbed it. Thanks.

    • LBM said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks Denise. I’m think the idea is applicable to social media. Now off to Wikipedia to read up on Kolb…

  12. Tom said, on November 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I’m not sure I like the “entertainment” moniker. “Entertainment” suggests to me you are just in it to make a buck. Whatever sells a book is fine with you. I think art is supposed to evoke some emotion — but that emotion doesn’t have to be popular. Sometimes art makes people angry. Sometimes it offends. Sometimes it tells a story that people don’t easily comprehend.

    I can’t help but think of all the artists who never achieved commercial success in their lifetime (Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock come to mind). Were they entertainers? No one really appreciated their brand of “entertainment” at the time they produced it. Yet subsequent generations have found their work to be very meaningful (not to mention valuable). And what about that clown Thomas Kinkade? His paintings of cute, soulless cottages fetch a lot of money — but is that really art? That’s the kind of work I think about when I think about an artist as an “entertainer.”

    Whatever gives you motivation is fine. If envisioning yourself as an entertainer keeps you going, then you certainly don’t need anyone’s approval. But I think art is really more about what you have to say than what the audience wants to see/read/hear.

  13. Alex said, on November 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    if you can’t entertain yourself, then you won’t be able to entertain anyone else.

  14. Martin said, on November 7, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    They should be whatever they want to be. Isn’t that what makes an artist an artist?

  15. st84photo said, on November 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Maybe the question should be, if you consider your audience, how far would you change what you want to do in order to please your audience?

    Alec, I get the impression that while you acknowledge that you think about your audience, you wouldn’t put work out there that you didn’t resonate strongly with you. The work has to have that integrity and sincerity to it.

    There are some entertainers who seem to be so intensely focussed on pleasing an audience that this overrides their own passions and taste. That’s when it stops being art for me.

    If art entertains, then that’s great. But if something is made solely to entertain, then we have to ask questions about the person doing it, particularly so if they are compromising their own principles, beliefs, or personality to do it.

    Same probably goes for the desire to be profound. If that’s the starting point for a piece of work, it will likely fail. The starting point has to be with something that resonates on a personal level. Beyond that, you never really know until it’s out there.

    • LBM said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      I like the idea that trying too hard to entertain is equivalent to trying too hard to be profound. (Though nothing wrong with aspiring to do both).

      • st84photo said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm

        Thanks, yeah, I guess I just want that progression – if I could make a deal with some devil to be entertaining or be profound, I wouldn’t be interested. Same goes for making good photographs, making good work. I want to earn it, to go through that developmental process, rather than just have it granted in some easy way. So I can’t start with those things as my guiding principles; I have to start with something that moves me, and try to tease that out into something as best I can.

        If it ends up being entertaining or profound, that’s great and I do think of audiences and how they interpret what I put out there (even in something as casual as a blog comment…it’s all communication, and I owe a little respect to my potential audience in undertaking it). But, at the end of the day, if it doesn’t read like something I’d say, I probably shouldn’t be saying it at all.

  16. BobM said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    If you start thinking ‘This will work because it entertains’ you’re more capitalist than artist.

  17. Simen said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Art need not entertain, but it should engage its audience, whoever that happens to be. Certainly, when I make photographs, I think about how to present them in a way that will engage an audience. But I only think about that after I have a good idea of what it is I want to express. There’s nothing wrong with being entertaining, but I tend to think art that was created because the artist wanted to entertain, rather than because they had something to express, just isn’t very good. At least on a personal level, I’ve never been able to create anything good when I decided to make something good. Only when I have something to say can I start thinking about how to say it well. But then again, more than a few great works of literature (and, I’m sure, visual arts as well) have been written because the author was broke and needed something that would sell.

  18. Davin Ellicson said, on November 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I always liked how Koudelka said that he makes pictures for himself and does not feel the need necessarily to publish them for an audience. He is happy just that the images exist.

  19. Matteo said, on November 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    I think photography, good photography, is more like a poetry. Is difficult to say if a poetry can entertain. Is not like cinema or novel. Something beetween painting and writing?
    I don’t know sorry!

    • LBM said, on November 7, 2011 at 7:33 pm

      Unfortunately I agree with you Matteo. Photography’s literary cousin is poetry. Poetry is way less entertaining that novels. So I suppose photography is doomed to be way less entertaining than movies (see Baltz and Gossage quote cited above).

      • Megan Charland said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:30 pm

        For me, this goes back to the audience. Alec, you might find novels more entertaining than poetry – but I could find poetry more entertaining than novels. I think part of the problem is trying to throw photography under an umbrella.

      • Davin Ellicson said, on November 8, 2011 at 12:25 am

        Is photography really poetry? Tod Papageorge certainly makes the claim in his book “Core Curriculum”. . .

      • Middleman said, on November 17, 2011 at 8:47 am

        Don’t think you can pigeon-hole photography to having more in common with peotry..a certain genre of photography maybe, but not photography generally. Personally, I see cinema as a combination of photography, poetry, the story and music..but each element can be entertaining in itself too…just maybe not so downright mezmerising

  20. charlotte said, on November 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    To my mind, if “entertainment” may be filling a moment of stillness with happiness (certainly answering to a need for brain’s rest), facing art work I expect more movement, that I would call, at least, “excitement”.
    And actually, I happen to picture entertainment and excitement as opposites.

  21. Joe Ferraro said, on November 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    We create. Therefore we intend to share. Whether with others, or even just with ourselves. I believe ultimately our work is revised and edited for an audience, thus the creative process is cognizant of this variable. But, what is entertainment? It is not static, it is not flat – at least the kind that grabs you. Successful entertainment is usually kinetic, an exchange of creative energy from creator to viewer. If the viewer derives conclusions, spawns new ideas or is provided a moment of distraction, then they are entertained.

    Entertainment, like beauty or happiness, is concluded differently by all. An artist is typically conscious of their role as an entertainer, of sorts. To reject the notion that one creates without the purpose of entertainment, I believe, is a distraction. A redirect. I believe some artists do try to transcend the conventional, and the word entertainment is too representative of other mediums that communicate creatively, such as music, dance, theater and their closely related commercial applications. But, like other creative arts, visual arts are just much communicatory mediums whose display and discussion provide a creative escape. Therefore, entertain.

    I like this discussion. This was good. Made me think a little differently about how and why I create. Thanks Alec.

    -Joe

  22. jckingca said, on November 8, 2011 at 4:22 am

    Good topic and lots of good points and perspectives here. Alec, I think you may have muddied the water just a little at the beginning of this post. You were speaking of the effect of art on an audience and I think John’s comment was directed more toward the intent of the artist.

    I know that you said “I like to say that there are three levels of artmaking” but your examples seemed to be about three levels of engagement with art as an viewer. I think that artist intent and audience effect can be distinctions with some important differences.

    Many have commented here that artists should try first to engage (or entertain or amuse) themselves which seems to support the notion of intent that John spoke of. The psychologists might relate this intent to an internal locus of control. I think that photographers who are at least aspiring to engage themselves first have a better chance of extending their creative life expectancy.

    But our intentions are never clear cut. And intention can shift at different stages of artistic production. The minute we share completed work with others we are intending to engage an audience. Whether the audience is large or small, public or private, our intent is to engage others in work that we created. And Alec, I think this is where your three levels of artmaking ring true.

    I do agree that photography and poetry can be analogous in some ways. Jack Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s “The Americans” says it best: “Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”

    • LBM said, on November 8, 2011 at 10:09 am

      Good points. Some of this is clearly semantics and it does appear I’ve engaged in some water muddying.

  23. catharine said, on November 8, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Their is nothing wrong with either way of making art, our motivations and goals are part of what makes the work produced unique. So don’t sweat it Mr. Soth!

  24. catharine said, on November 8, 2011 at 8:36 am

    My apologies, I meant “There” not “Their”.

  25. Werner J. Karl said, on November 8, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Alec, a very interesting and equally complex question. Yes, how do you define entertainment? What motivates people to create something? There are probably as many individual reasons as there are individuals. I’d rule out purely commercial reasons, if you choose to work in e.g. photography. There are way more efficient ways of making money. In most cases creation starts off as a personal, egoistic expression. You, yourself, gain something by doing it, whatever it is. It makes you happier. You could simply leave it at this stage. As a hobby, no less, no more. But it makes you happy, it becomes central to your life, an obsession, maybe even a job? As social beings, we like to share, like someone else to appreciate our work (paid or unpaid). We are looking for an audience, being part of a ‘pack’ so to speak. So, does the audience find you, or do you find the audience? The answer is gray, somewhere in the middle. Once again, a very complex, dynamic process, until you hit a natural resonance. You like what you do, people like what you do. Great. Everybody is happy, everybody wins. If you can make a living doing what you love, even better. There’s nothing negative, nothing wrong, ‘entertaining’ your audience as long as you stay true to yourself, as long as it is not purely driven by finance, as long as you are not chasing after the audience, have still room to develop. But like most people who started out with a passion for something, this wouldn’t work anyway. Not in the long run. You’d get ill. Art needs a he-art.

  26. Chad States said, on November 8, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I frame this conversation differently. I think you are going to get kick back just because of the connotations of the word “entertainment”.

    I think of it in terms of beauty (instead of entertainment) and relate art to people. For example, I will cross a room to look at a beautiful person and this can hold my attention for a bit but if that person doesn’t give me anything but beauty, if they aren’t funny, smart, thoughtful then I am bored, I need more to sustain me. Though sometimes I can stare at a beautiful person for a long time and be completely enthralled.

    I am interested in art that exists in the same way and beauty/entertainment is just another tool for the artist to use to seduce the viewer.

    • LBM said, on November 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm

      Fantastic comment Chad. Fortunately you are handsome so I’m paying extra attention.

  27. Zisis Kardianos said, on November 8, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    There is art, in general, and there is “true art”. The later has nothing to do with entertainment which by default is appealing more to our superficial needs.
    True art is, on some level, rather useless and certainly doesn’t aim to entertain, educate or change. To console, maybe yes.
    True art is a manifestation of the spirituality of the senses and as such doesn’t fit comfortably inside the limits of our everyday world.
    Alec, I have difficulty to accept your simplification to identify only three levels of artmaking which none of them refers to the expressive urge of the artist and the drive for excitement of the audience. However, I believe that true artists don’t have their audience on their mind.
    To make art is like sending a message in a bottle with unknown recipient.

  28. Chad Muthard said, on November 8, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Hey Alec,

    While I agree with you that an artist should entertain, the trouble with that is it also makes you into an actor of sorts; and as Cassavetes and Flaubert accurately pointed out actors tend to forget when they are playing their role. I’m sure you don’t need a young man like me to tell you that, but perhaps it’s a notion to reflect on as you catch your own in windows at night. Heh heh…

    Best,
    Chad M.

  29. Michael Ast said, on November 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Consistency = entertainment. I think entertainment is only natural with any artist who is consistent in their vision. Gossage is a perfect example. When I first witnessed his work (The Pond) in a college library I was entirely sold by the end of the book . . . the images are not in the usual sense, entertaining photographs. However, by the end of the book, it is clear that the author has a confident and assured faith in their vision. What has followed from Gossage has been the utmost consistency. The man has entirely skewed my everyday view of reality. It is blessing to know someone sees reality in such a unique way. Even when he throws us a curve ball (eg: 32 Inch Ruler . . . Gossage goes color!!!) the surprise is going to be entertaining because he has earned our attention through his consistency. Just as Baudelaire and Rembrandt have done to their viewers the ages. Despite their dark and brooding nature, we cannot help but be entertained by their solid oeuvre, due to their unerring vision. Soth sold as all by the time Niagara came out . . . unerring vision and courage. And then he publishes Broken Manual!!! What an entertaining epic! Consistency, courage, visceral engagement, and if I might say, entertaining because the author challenged himself with a few images, which were a slight departure from an unerring vision, and the topper . . . . to go at it with words . . . which is consistent with the letters and written word fragments of past projects. So, for today at least, I’m answering this question you have set forth with the answer of “Consistency”. Entertainment is a direct result of it.

    Michael

  30. Michael Ast said, on November 9, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Non-typo version:

    Consistency = entertainment. I think entertainment is only natural with any artist who is consistent in their vision. Gossage is a perfect example. When I first witnessed his work (The Pond) in a college library I was entirely sold by the end of the book . . . the images are not in the usual sense, entertaining photographs. However, by the end of the book, it is clear that the author has a confident and assured faith in his vision. What has followed from Gossage has been the utmost consistency. The man has entirely skewed my everyday view of reality. It is blessed entertainment to know someone sees reality in such a unique way. Even when he throws us a curve ball (eg: 32 Inch Ruler . . . Gossage goes color!!!) the surprise is going to be entertaining because he has earned our attention through his consistency. Just as Baudelaire and Rembrandt have done to their viewers through the ages. Despite their dark and brooding nature, we cannot help but be entertained by their solid oeuvre, due to their unerring vision. Soth sold us all by the time Niagara came out . . . unerring vision and courage. And then he publishes Broken Manual!!! What an entertaining epic! Consistency, courage, visceral engagement, and if I might say, entertaining because the author challenged himself with a few images, which were a slight departure from an unerring vision, and the topper . . . . to go at it with – Words! . . . which has consistenty with the letters and written word fragments of past projects. So, for today at least, I’m answering this question you have set forth with the answer of “Consistency”. Entertainment is a direct result of it.

  31. Ben Jackson said, on November 9, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Alec,
    I am a graduate student at Syracuse and was in that lecture you gave and attended most of SPE and have been discussing much of the buzz that has risen from your lecture, Gossage’s and the Online Photo Thinking Panel. There are too many “great” images out there, but this does not make me believe that we should push towards narrative(not that I have a problem with it and do actively explore that myself) or that it is the only means by which to move forward in photography. This past weekend has made me come to a different thought. Maybe the real problem is the criteria by which we determine what a great image is. Now you could regard that as a purely subjective matter, but I don’t think it is that simple. We need to reconsider what makes an image great. Whether that be via content, formal aspects, conceptual, or (hopefully) something completely inconceivable, much in the way nobody in 1654 saw Jackson Pollock coming…

  32. Tony Huang said, on November 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Alec,

    It is Tony from Toronto. I hope it has been a good year for you since the last Flash Forward! This years FF was yesterday, sadly Jeff and I were not able to entourage anyone into the VIP party.

    In your post, Chabon ties a broad definition entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable. But “everything” encompasses not only euphoric responses induced by the a work of art, but also awe-inspiring, depressive, shocking, enlightening, etc. I think this notion of entertainment is so broad, that Chabon’s sensational statement “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.” is rather moot.

    I think that your issue with entertainment is analogous to the suspicion of beauty, that it could be pressing the right button, exploiting our primal tendencies and social conditioning. As in the case of beauty, audience questions the intentions behind entertainment. Does its use justify the result? Is it a guilty pleasure? Your 1,2,3, points separates entertainment from the higher states of appreciation (of your work). To me this suggests your notion of entertainment does not encompass “everything”, instead it represents something more like fried carbs: taste great, little nutritional value, and with bad health effects. Nevertheless, you try to justify its place in art.

    Should artists be entertainers (in the more narrow sense)? I see another bog in this question over the meaning of artist. But to approach the question generally as it is, artists working with different media and subject matters might have different responses. A good number of poets may say no, but film makers may see entertainment as a device for engagement or even purveyor of meaning. Alec, being a poetic photographer who is experimenting with storytelling, I can the potential struggles from methods of representation to what is that target audience (Baltz’s specialists or the broader mass like a film audience?).

    I have no problem with the opinion that art should be difficult and intended for the specialists, but it would be silly to constraint the use entertaining elements. Cryptic and theoretical art forms risk losing their broader engagement and even relevance over time. Low nutrition entertainment is just a tool, a mean to engage and deliver meaning. The artist should understand that it works better in some situations than others under existing constraints, but otherwise the artists should be free to experiment with it and leave the judgment to others.

    Are we better off to forget about the audience? My intuition says no. One may ultimately choose to have an exclusive audience, but cannot forget it entirely. Art is fundamentally about expression. The audience is a reminder to the artist that he is not engaged in a self-indulging absurd act, but in a process that is as expressive and communicative as it is creative.

  33. Billy said, on November 10, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Entertainment, education, and change often occur when I engage with (good) art, but not necessarily in that order. I mean….some art is hard. Sometimes for me it’s work, education, change, and then entertainment. The first time I read the cetology bits in in Moby Dick I had to fight yawns. The next day, after I had pondered it, something clicked. I wrestled with that chapter again, and I was educated, and maybe even changed. Now when I read the book every few years I enjoy those passages. So I would say, for me at least, there are many aspects to enjoying art, but not all of them are always present and they don’t always happen in a specific order.

    I also don’t think “true artists” have to feel one way or the other about their audience. I do not even know if there are artists in this sense, or just art. I think most artists have a desire to please on some level, and ultimately “entertainment” should be some part of art, but if an artist’s intent is to make money or entertain or enrage or educate or insult his creation will speak for him, and maybe it will speak differently than he intends.

  34. Thilo said, on November 11, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Of course any art should entertain or satisfy. At first the artist!

  35. Matt Crowther said, on November 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    I tend to think a lot of the issues people have with this question do arise from, as you say, the fact that your response depends on your definition of entertainment, and of art. Many people use these terms as value judgments, declaring that things they don’t like aren’t art, but things they do like are, or are “mere” entertainment. For me, it’s important to drop the notion that being art somehow makes something better, that the term carries any connotation of value. There is good art, and bad art. And of course, some element of entertainment, is a part of good art for me. Especially entertainment in the wide sense of the Chabon quote, where it’s more a sign of engagement than escapism.

  36. David Simonton said, on November 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Perhaps this is too personal a question to ask, Alec, but, in light of your statement, “Not only do I consider the audience for my work, I confess that I aim to entertain,” I am compelled to ask: Was this the case BF—Before Fame? When you where making the (extraordinary, ground-breaking) work for Sleeping by the Mississippi, for example; experiencing, as you say in that book, the “joy” of “wide-eyed wandering”; were you as conscious of an audience then as you are now? I get the feeling—from this and from some of the interviews you have given—that F can be a (very) mixed blessing…

    • LBM said, on November 12, 2011 at 6:14 pm

      David, I was concerned about entertainment long before I had significant recognition. In 1998 or so I had a show (at pARTs Gallery in Minneapolis) that included b/w portrait typologies (Sheep, Pilots on the Phone, Peregrine Falcons, Choir Singers, Men at a Sleep Research Laboratory). These pictures were all linked to each other with footnotes. But few viewers were drawn in enough to bother looking for the notes. The difficulty of the work pushed people away. While the work had merit, I wanted to do more to connect with the audience. I wanted an accessible armature in which to hang different kinds of pictures. This armature eventually became the Mississippi River. This decision was a direct result of taking the audience, however small, into consideration.

      I’m attracted to the romantic notion of artists working only for themselves. But if I’m honest, that has never been the case for me. I’m not content to play musique concrète in my basement. I want a stage and a rhythm section and I want the audience to dance.

  37. David Simonton said, on November 12, 2011 at 10:08 am

    To follow up on yesterday’s comment: Andre Kertesz said about his photography, “It’s for me. I do it only for myself.” I think as artists we ARE obligated to “entertain,” but only (or primarily) in this sense of the word: To give attention or consideration to (an idea, suggestion, or feeling).

    But really, whatever you’re doing is certainly working for you, and if it ain’t broke…

    • LBM said, on November 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm

      I don’t think artists are obligated to do anything. My point is that artists shouldn’t be ashamed of entertainment. Today I went to the new SCAD museum in Savannah where there is an exhibition of Liza Lou’s new work. It is all a smart and sophisticated commentary on Minimalism. But in the courtyard the museum has one of Lou’s older sculptures: Trailer. It is totally captivating. Funny and fantastic. I would hate to think that Lou or anyone else would be ashamed of its accessibility.

  38. Mark said, on November 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Separating pleasure from entertainment or vice versa is one of those word games we’re constantly tied up in. Like… patriot act, liberal economics, freedom, etc. We know what they really mean, but the same words can mean very different things.

    It’s a tough one, because entertainment seems to come to you while oftentimes one needs to come to the art. This is off-putting to a lot of people perhaps, but this is that gossage territory where the artist needs to see himself not as some detached alien to the culture but a participant whose views and thoughts will be recognized by his brothers and sisters. The pleasure of connecting in this way is more than just entertainment.

    Infinite Jest is one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read, but it also has kept me up at night. It seems to know too much, but it’s not dictating to me or having me coast along – in fact, it sort of violently refuses you that comfort (you’re coasting along and then BAM, you’re on the page and vunerable wherever you sit). Not because of what’s written specifically (no single quote or passage), but because it keeps you present. I feel that way about great photobooks, too. When a photographer uses this thing we think we know so well and just pops off the page with understanding you can’t explain. The pleasure and pain of it can be called entertaining, but it’s probably more than that.

  39. Stéphane said, on November 15, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I tend to agree and in the same time i think at Guy Debord and his ” society of the spectacle”.
    Sorry not to develop but my English is too bad.
    Stéphane from the suburb of Paris

  40. mcgovern57 said, on November 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    This is a very funny discussion. I tried a few times to be an entertainer, but failed miserably. The only good editorial photography I did was for the Village Voice and that was because they’d publish my weird pictures (back in the 80s and 90s). I got it in my head that since they liked my pictures, others would too. I was wrong.
    My last book was about kids who want to be pro wrestlers. I convinced the publisher that someone would buy it, but again I was wrong.
    I have the luxury of only taking pictures for myself and I’m always amazed when someone buys a print or one of my books. But I would still like to think my pictures can be entertaining, but I have a feeling that I’m still wrong.
    Makes me think of Baldessari’s ‘Wrong’.
    Thomas McGovern from San Bernardino, CA

  41. Ron Jude said, on August 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    “Originality is dangerous. If you want to increase the sum of what is possible for human beings to say, to know, to understand and therefore in the end, to be, you actually have to go to the edge and push outwards… This is the kind of art whose right to exist we must not only defend but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.” —Salman Rushdie, in an address at Cooper Union, May 6, 2012

    Embarrassingly enough, I saw this quote yesterday in an in-flight magazine while flying home to upstate New York from the Pacific Northwest. I also saw a blurb from you in a travel piece about the Twin Cities in the same magazine. The two collided in my multiple time-zone-addled brain and I thought about this post you made last November on the subject of art vs entertainment.

    I tend to fall on the *Gossage side of this debate in terms of how I approach and develop my projects. The few times I’ve tried to second-guess my audience (all three or four of them), I’ve ended up making my most uninspired, unimaginative work. I tend to make my best work when I think of everything as an experiment. It’s impossible to experiment when you already know the outcome.

    To a large degree, I think this is a question of intent and working process and not one of final product. In terms of intent, artists always want to find an audience, but they want to find that audience on their own terms, and they would rather fail than pander. Entertainers give the audience something pre-defined, something the audience already knew they wanted. Entertainers consider audience validation a part of the success or failure of the work. Artists, on the other hand, want to give the audience something they didn’t know they wanted, something they might not know they want for another twenty years. Artists are patient, and they’re just as interested in redefining things for themselves as they are in being lauded for their efforts.

    Ultimately, however, I don’t think art that aims to challenge and art that aims to entertain are mutually exclusive. (The best examples of this can be found in music and cinema.) If a revolutionary, challenging work is entertaining as hell, that aspect of its function certainly doesn’t disqualify it from being “art.” I’m thinking specifically here of a piece like “Day is Done” by Mike Kelley, which simultaneously punched me in the gut and the brain. I’m also thinking of the early music of Will Oldham, and the experience I had when I saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” when I was twenty years old. These examples, I think, represent the ideal. It’s art in the sense that the makers risked failure to redefine things for their audience, and it’s entertainment in the sense that they also knew how to take the audience for a joyride.

    *I should qualify my allegiance to Mr. Gossage’s thinking with the fact that I’ve known him since I was an impressionable young graduate student. He has a very convincing, Svengali way about him.

    Sorry about the tardy response. I have to think on things a while.

    – Ron Jude

  42. Michael Jackson said, on August 4, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I think that art gives the viewer whatever they take from it. It seems more of a reaction to the art rather than a specific desire from the artist to do this or that. Different people react in such different ways it is pretty tricky to entertain everyone, so I would say that the most important factor is that the artist is honest and true to themselves and not to break in the wind – maybe just bend a little.


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