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Can the arts be entertainment too?

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Will Gompertz | 11:48 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

On Tuesday night I went to see the Wizard of Oz, the wonderful (not bad actually) Wizard of Oz. Because, because, because... it was the press night.

Three characters from Wizard of Oz musical


Talent show-winner Danielle Hope put in a good turn as Dorothy (having recently finished an intensive three-month musical theatre course), as did the expensive looking sets. In fact they barely stopped turning, much to the amusement of Graham Norton who was sitting to my left.

And there was something rather surreal about seeing Dorothy moon-walking on the moving walkway - banging on about the yellow brick road - while Toto the (real) dog looked utterly perplexed as he was carried backwards by the mechanical floor.

It is very much "a show": a slickly crafted musical production designed to do the business for all parties. As was the National Theatre's recent hit Fela! (now moving on to Sadler's Wells) and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Matilda. And there's nothing wrong with that.

And yet the speaker list at RSA/Arts Council's recent State of the Arts conference would suggest that Andrew Lloyd Webber's show belongs to the world of entertainment and not the arts. No matter that there's an orchestra working away in the pit, or that it's a story laden with contemporary symbolism - greedy bankers, freak weather incidents, the dehumanising effects of industrialisation - or that it is likely to reach a broad audience. It is below the salt.

Conferences are dull - that's a fact. But they don't have to be the visionless effort that was the State of the Arts 2011 conference. The truth is it wasn't a conference about the state of the arts - there was no speaker representation from commercial theatre, pop music, publishing, fashion, architecture, writers, design, movies - it was an event for the subsidised arts community to spend the day together, enjoy a nice lunch and have a bit of a moan.

What a wasted opportunity. Is there nothing about reaching new audiences the subsidised sector could learn from the likes of impresarios such as Sonia Friedman and Cameron Mackintosh; or the threats and opportunities of new technology from Universal music or 1xtra; or about nurturing new talent and ideas from Random House or Burberry's Christopher Bailey.

The arts in the UK are the envy of the world. It's a vibrant, successful sector delivering for the public (and its purse), which has flourished through a close working relationship between the subsidised and commercial sectors. It is about time those organising the State of the Arts conference grasped that the sector's future lies in its ability to work together and inspire each other, and not by sub-dividing it into (worryingly smug )little cliques. Dorothy understood that.


  • Comment number 1.

    The arts have always taken themselves too seriously. I.m pretty sure that what they purport to "see" in a painting etc isn't really there, it only serves to increase the status of those who "see" something that others don't.

    When I was younger we studied Cider With Rosie in English Lit ( a novel by Laurie Lee). I was amazed when one day in a pub in Stroud, Glos, I found myself actually talking to Laurie Lee himself - I hadn't realised until then that he was still alive.

    He behaved as though I bored him by being the one millionth person to ask him about his book (although I got the impression he quite liked the attention really) - but, his irritation clearly showed when I asked him about the book from the viewpoint of what we had been told in Lit class... he stated very firmly "I just wrote a story, I didn't mean any of that. Everyone sees part of their own story, part of their own experiences and part of themselves in anything they see or do but that doesn't mean they are entitled to lumber everyone else with their own personal take on my story. Read it for yourself with your own mind and see if it strikes a chord - for some people it will just be a very ordinary story, for others it will stir something in them, same as any other story does. But the important thing that all these critics don't get is that a story means different things to different people.".

  • Comment number 2.

    The Arts world takes itself too seriously and has an appalling sense of automatic entitlement.

    Show us value if you want our money.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have to agree with #1. Back in High School, as a class exercise we had to take the first line of an existing poem and write the rest of it. Our poem began "By sunset we came to a hidden village".
    Since, as usual, I got saddled with a bunch who would rather drink battery acid than do any work, I ended up writing most of 'our' poem, which due to my influences at the time was a fairly cod-fantasy affair in which the members of the narrator's group were picked off one-by-one by a Grendel-esque beastie, which I literally banged off line-by-line.
    When the class then discussed the resulting poems, it was decided that my poem was about the perils of nuclear warfare. Even though I, the writer, flatly stated it wasn't.
    We over-interpret art of all sorts far too much, and as a result the world of 'high art' has become the domain of the con-artist and the smooth-talker, rather than of the inspirational and the beautiful.

  • Comment number 4.

    I don't think anyone has anything to learn from Cameron Macintosh or Sonia Freidman. However Cameron Mackintosh and Sonia Friedman may be able to cast some light on things.

  • Comment number 5.

    I work in a sector of the arts that, in my opinion, takes itself far too seriously. Should art be separated from entertainment? Absolutely not, because the ideals that art aspires too go for nothing if nobody is interested in the generally pretentious old rubbish that is increasingly being presented as 'Art' You like a painting, or you don't! You like an opera or you don't. What is a problem is the current belief that any one can be successful as an artist/dancer/actor/singer/musician if they can only win one of the dreadful talent shows that are torturing us weekly on television, it is this that is denigrating the 'arts' more than anything else!

  • Comment number 6.

    Really not making making much sense in my last comment! What I was trying to say was, yes the arts world does take itself too seriously. But beware cheap popularism over substance, true art can be accepted on many levels. It is up to the viewer or listener to decide what they make of a piece of 'art' The current fetish for defining something as art, or entertainment or just a load of old rubbish ,as is my normal response is up to the individual!

  • Comment number 7.

    There is a whole culture within this sector that believes that subsidised performance is "good" and commercial performance is "bad". Well, I work in entertainment and I strongly believe that we should remove all state subsidies and let the arts/entertainment sector stand firmly on its own two feet. We'd soon see a change of opinion, believe me.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm not sure if the arts take themselves too seriously or if the public is assuming they are due to underlying condescension that seems to state arts are for 'other' people but not 'common' people.

    For me, arts and culture is for everyone, regardless of background. Maybe the show did cross over a bit from 'art' to 'entertainment' but is that such a bad thing?

    We need to stop defining what art is (or culture for that matter - unless of course you're applying for funding...) and appreciate when people want to take part in it. Because right now, globally, museums/galleries/theatres/heritage venues are being culled to the bare bones and no one seems to be making any effort to change this.

    I work in a school (FE) where I've been told by the students that they have never attended a museums/galleries/heritage venues because 'it wasn't for them'. When I pressed on for them to define who they are for they explained it was for people who had degrees and 'liked that stuff'. We MUST change these views. We need to start taking the snobbery and elitistism out of this industry and we NEED to get the young generation involved.

    And we must stop splitting hairs over titles. Is is, after all, under the same umbrella: Arts & Culture.


  • Comment number 9.

    Sure, SOME art takes itself too seriously, but to suggest that art is an extension of entertainment defeats the point. Art isn't there to entertain. The real problem here is the dialog between 'high/low brow' arts, and the distinction made between them. There are some key differences. To suggest that Celan's 'Todesfuge' is simply entertainment is a travesty. The public (and commercial entertainment) are too easily dazzled by the immediate satisfaction that a manufactured 'art' can give. It's not a coincidence that many of these art works that are taken 'too seriously' are hung in galleries, or are worth considerable amounts of money. That being said, there is no reason why great art has to be taken seriously. There are numerous great art works which are really rather amusing!

  • Comment number 10.

    Yes subsidised art takes itself too seriously, looks at entertainment which is dismissed by art critics.

    Half Life 2 tells a story, of corruption, the human spirit and hope and it tells it well. The Bioshock series explores a world were genetic manipulation exists and asks questions about free will, good and evil. The Myst series of games, involves tales of loss, betrayal, perils of infinite power and redemption. Max Payne and Heavy Rain are both video game attempts at the Film Noir style, while Terry Pratchetts Discworld games involve a heavy amount of cultural satire. A lot of modern games have to have complex plots and try to push the boundaries of story telling and yet most art critics will tell you Video Games aren't art. I ask you, how can you have dozens of artists working every day for years and the end result not be art?

    I have wondered around the Tate Modern I never saw anything particularly thought provoking or even engaging. Yet some video games and films can cause me and my friends to discuss philosophy and theology for hours.

  • Comment number 11.

    There's seems to be a confusion of what art is and how it comes about. "Art" is not made by an artist. An artist simply does what ever it is in them to do which normally involves telling some sort of story through a particular medium. It is the audience who create "art" through interpretation so if anyone is taking "art" too seriously it's the audiences.

    And it genuinely disheartens me to see you compare 'The Wizard of Oz' to 'Matilda'. Yes 'Matilda' was a shamelessly entertaining show but it had depth and soul, it moved people on an emotional level (there wasn't a dry eye on the house by the end when I saw it). It was relateable and poignant at the same time as being entertaining. 'The Wizard of Oz' was entertaing too, yes and certainly technically competent. But it was also a daft, soulless, forgettable and (surprisingly, for a story that should be warming our hearts) cold production.

    We all universally want to be entertained, but does that mean we should be content to be entertained by mere spectacle? By glorified moving flats, pyrotechnics and fly towrs? Is it such a terrible thing to ask that our entertainment has a little bit of substance too? If that's taking "art" too seriously then I'm jolly well glad that I do!

  • Comment number 12.

    As the founder of a drama school, I agree with Laurie Lee; everyone sees their own story and experiences and isn't that the point? Art in all it's forms is there to teach, to inspire, to enjoy and what it means to one person isn't the same for the next. The most important part, for me is the connection it can make for people and between people - we sympathise, empathise and generally feel we're not alone! There is a huge part of the arts that most of us need in our lives (whether we know it or not)!

    It's really about finding the balance, yes there is money thrown at some 'arts' projects while there are other that get none and whilst I agree that the 'Talent show' era is being milked for all it's worth; not only is it good business it is getting people into theatres and at the end of the day a lot of it has to be about money. It may not be a good idea that funded organisations continually rely on money from else where and in some ways this can make them forget the main purpose of their existence ( I cannot say that for all) and it can bit a bit dangerous to continually rely on someone else.

    The arts have to find ways to earn money and have some business nous but it shouldn't stop them from creating worthwhile, meaningful pieces that tick the right emotional boxes - the only clear delineation's seem to be in the attitudes of the people behind them - it's usually easy to see those who are in it purely for the financial gain - the secret it to find the balance.

  • Comment number 13.

    I am sick to death of people complaining that art is too esoteric or that unless there is some sort of written explanation "how are we supposed to know what a particular art-work is about". Well, let me tell you, the art world doesn't owe you any explanation, and if you look at art expecting to be entertained you are missing the point.

    Art is about everything that The Wizard of Oz fails to deliver. And that's plenty. Art is supposed to be hard work and often miserable. Just listen to Shostakovich's 14th Symphony and tell me what's FUN about that? But is it art? You bet.

  • Comment number 14.

    If art is how enjoyable at some level what is it for? Is it just a job description for artists!

    Pleasure through angst and pain - is Le Grand-Guignol the only art? Art as suffering? I don't think so! Life would be bleak if art was only Sturm und Drang. (not saying that Goethe or Schiller aren't art) but really where is the fun in all that.

    I cannot subscribe to art and entertainment being mutually exclusive. It is just silly to pose the juxtaposition!


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