It feels like an either/or choice for many artists, including myself. Do we choose to create something that will be marketable, useful, widely accepted, and easily profitable, or do we choose to create something personally and passionately meaningful and hope someone else understands enough to buy it or appreciate it?
As an artist who is currently not making any money off her artistic pursuits, be it writing, music, or web design, I know I don’t have much perspective on the financial part of making art. But I do experience the tug and twist of the decision every time I pick up the pen or sit down to the keyboard (musical or computer): do I make something entertaining, or do I make something meaningful? Do I make something universally relatable and instantly likable (and possibly trite), or do I make something relevant to me, filled with loads of “new” meaning, and wait for others to pull the meaning out of it?
Art for Entertainment = Art for Everyone, But Art for Money
This might not seem like much of a decision. Of course you make marketable stuff. Of course you’d choose to create something that millions of people can get into and understand. That’s how people like us (artists, I mean) make any money, after all. If you want to succeed as an artist, you have to make things that lots of people enjoy and get meaning out of, not just an elite few who are critics in their own right. Plus, you can still couch grains of personal meaning in your work as an entertainment artist, and no one has to be the wiser–and you might get more genuine response. It just has to sell first.
Art for Meaning = Art for Artists…Sadly, Often Literally
And yet there’s the flip side, those of us artists who choose to create art that is personally meaningful first, without concern for how it will “sell.” I can count myself among these–I don’t want to be reduced to doing “things that will sell” just because of money. For me, doing art purely for entertainment seems to cheapen the act of artistic creation; it’s no longer about the work itself or the artist behind it, but about the dollar signs spewing forth from it. Yet, if artists do works that are less universally relatable and often regarded as strange or un-artistic, then what happens to the works? They are disregarded, and forgotten except by other artists.
Is There a Middle Ground? Or Do We Need Both?
To be honest, I don’t know if there’s a middle ground between art for entertainment and art for meaning. I do know, however, that both types must exist.
Yes, I just said that. Both pure entertainment and pure meaning must exist in the artistic world. The old classics in literature are wonderful creations, chock-full of meaning and beauty, for example, but sometimes you just want a Twilight book or a Danielle Steel novel, something you don’t have to pull teeth to understand, but that you can just EXPERIENCE.
Just like our bodies are designed to take in foods of wide varieties, our minds, too, are designed to take in arts of all kinds. Lady GaGa may not ever be considered a “serious” musician (what does that mean, anyway?), but her music has spoken to people all over the globe, because it’s got a good beat, an easy-to-catch meaning, and you can dance to it. Is her work any less meaningful to people’s lives for being dance-y? Does everyone always have to be in the “super-heavy-serious-music” category if they want to be considered “real” musicians?
Another example: Twilight has gotten a bad rap for its fluffy plot consistency, much like meringue on top of a pie–and I won’t deny that it is more for entertainment than for meaning. But it was also a book series that I experienced and didn’t feel the need to academically dissect like a typical piece of literature for my English major courses. THAT was welcome relief to my overtired mind. I was able to relax and let the story dissolve into my brain, like milk chocolate melting on my tongue.
I like to think about art the same way I think about food. A plate of super-healthy steamed vegetables would be good for us and would nourish us…they’re great. (Well, for people who like vegetables… LOL!) But I don’t want vegetables to eat all the time–sometimes, I wake up and just WANT a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or a big slather of Nutella spread and strawberry jelly on bread.
Same thing with art: while it might be healthier for our brains to take in all the old classics and spend our days in heavy-duty collegiate criticism of the works we’re studying, we don’t necessarily WANT to. Some days, we’re tired (“mental mush,” as my boyfriend puts it), and we want something that’s warm, comforting, and easy to mentally digest. When we’re feeling better, we’ll go back to the harder-to-digest but wonderfully-nourishing art, because you can get sick of sweet and non-nutritious after some time. (Trust me, after almost a month of having to eat soft foods like pudding and ice cream, I am getting starved for protein and salty snacks. I’ve never craved Fritos so much in my life. XD)
Basically: Lady GaGa produces the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of music, while J.S. Bach produces the hot plate of steamed vegetables with tons of fiber and vitamins. The wonderful thing about us artists is that we can produce both types of art–the art that invigorates (“serious” art), and the art that comforts (“entertaining” art). Lady GaGa could just as easily produce an unfathomably deep and “serious-music” kind of song (and probably still make it have a good beat); in several of the short stories I read in college, Jane Austen proved that she could parody the popular storylines of 18th-century novels in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek way, and make her writing more for entertainment as well as meaning.
Perhaps the Debate Need Not Even Exist
So, the time-tarnished debate of “art for entertainment” versus “art for meaning” may be a fruitless fight, after all. People may clamor on both sides, saying “I hate having to dissect and pull apart art to get at the meaning–give me something easy to take in!”, or “I hate art that doesn’t mean anything and is just for money–give me something deeper, something serious!” But both types, in my opinion, must exist, because we have a need for them. And any artist who creates is helping in their own small way. Even my rich and heavy songs, like a huge bowl of fettuccine alfredo pasta, have a place in the art buffet.
Balance is the key in creating and using art–we use art for relaxing and for awakening our minds. Neither side is somehow “better” than the other, because they are for different purposes. My art process relaxes me and invigorates others; I take in art that invigorates me sometimes, and other times I choose entertainment. For me, it seems all art is to the good, for whatever purposes the listener, reader, or viewer can use it.