Should artists be entertainers?
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?