Thank you M/M Toastmasters, and good afternoon, fellow Toastmasters and guests,
My speech today is title “Are you not entertained?”
As a poet and the husband of a singer and music teacher, I live in a family where art is important. Within our extended family, we have painters and cartoonists in addition to doctors, lawyers and judges. The standard for art in our family is high. Its importance to society and education is a given. But one area has always troubled me: how much of it should be entertainment? What is the role of entertainment, and is entertainment bad? My position in graduate school was that the poet or the artist was both prophet and entertainer, that we had two hats to wear and had to take both seriously. It is a position that I still believe, but one that many I know have argued against. Entertainment panders. Entertainment is frivolous. Good art can’t be either. I believe this position to be flawed and dangerously so.
One definition of entertainment is “the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment.” Here is where we find the idea of pandering and frivolous, but it isn’t so. Good art and good entertainment must be relevant and layered. Serious entertainment must be serious. The late short story writer, Raymond Carver, is a wonderful example. Like Hemingway, he used simple language to deliver powerful and poignant stories. Many of his stories dealt with difficult and terrifying subjects, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and death, but often within the most tense, the most violent moments he would weave a laugh-out-loud moment, that would not only ease the tension but also rehook the audience. This isn’t just talent, but a nurtured skill. A good storyteller is a good entertainer. A good storyteller is never boring, as my wife constantly reminds me at the dinner table.
Good art is never boring. Boring, we forget, is the kiss of death. Granted, many of us have had novels, movies, and other assignments during our schooling that we felt was boring at the time. But, if revisited later in life, many of those works resonant and excite. A truly boring picture or novel or movie does not illuminate. It somnambulates. Even if the message is profound, no one recommends it and often no one gets it as it meanders through the world. A boring piece of art isn’t engaging and as a result is irrelevant. Art is a universal experience. It must mean something to many people, not just the artist. One trap of the creator is to make something that he or she wants to see, read, or watch. George Lucas is a great example. While some of his work has great appeal, his taste is not infallible. The 1977 Star Wars film was entertaining, but not pandering and made its own relevancy. The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, was boring and irrelevant to the original and by extension to the rest of us. For the record, I’m in the camp that believes that Episode VII was a wonderful and entertaining film.
Entertainment, true entertainment, cannot be irrelevant or boring. It can be escapist, but it cannot escape the serious. That has been part of the science fiction genre from the pulp days. What is the alternative to entertainment? It’s the garish, the pretentious, which is shallow and forgettable. For a different example, the musical South Pacific, tackled, quite controversially, racism in some rather frank terms for its era. More recently restored versions of the musical are even franker. But it was entertaining and has survived for decades with new life. Art, whether visual, musical, literary, or whatever, can, through entertainment, reach bigger audiences with a serious message. On the other hand, “art” that is confusing and opaque is open to criticism. If I were giving them the benefit of the doubt, the controversial projects by conceptual poets Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith fall into this category. By making abstract and structureless works, they opened themselves to criticism that they are either racist or careless artists. I won’t comment on what I think of their actual intentions, but regardless they make my point. Entertainment requires structure and thought. Entertainment is a powerful tool for the artist and his or her message.
To sum up, good art should strive to be entertaining and relevant, not to be pandering or frivolous. Good art is neither boring nor garish, in other words, not pretentious. Art can enlighten and uplift, but will only do so if people are willing to engage with it. While being ignored for being pretentious and being ignored because you’re making art comes down to the same thing—you’re being ignored. Creating something that is good entertainment gives you a better chance at second life. No one ever discovers a lost boring novel or movie.