From the Whistler

The Artist and the Entertainer

In a classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin declares a painting to be “high” art, a comic strip “low” art, and a paint­ing of a comic strip “sophisticated irony,” again “high” art. Hob­bes’ droll reply: “Suppose I draw a cartoon of a painting of a comic strip?”  

What Bill Watterson is lampooning here is not so much art per se, but the rigid distinction in Western culture between the artist and the entertainer. Entertainers (magicians, jug­glers, comedians, cartoonists, pop singers, film stars, mystery writers) are there to perform: to amuse, amaze, engage, and enthrall an audience. They give the people what they want, and the people pay. Artists (painters, composers, poets, literary novelists, stage actors) couldn’t care less about the audience. They reach deep within to bring forth a beauty and truth never before seen, and the world anoints them as all but divine—if it notices at all.

The reality on the ground is, of course, a bit murkier. Many a serious artist finds, to their dismay, that their master­piece is a revelation only unto themselves. And some enter­tainers excel at their craft to such an extent that it can only be described as art—Houdini’s magic, Peter Sellers’ comic tim­ing, Agatha Christie’s cozy English murders, the music of the Beatles, the line art fantasy worlds of Watterson, Schulz and Larson. The artist/entertainer dichotomy is further obscured by matters of finance. Entertainers are typically paid by their audience, and so for an artist to seek an audience at all is to “sell out.” Yet without an audience, the best art is hollow, little more than therapy for its creator; and it is quite natural for an artist to become attuned to the tastes of the time. Does art make money only when it is dumbed down enough to appeal to the masses? You’d have to be a snob, or a simpleton, to believe it.

Entertainers don’t generally think in calculated terms of bringing commercial goods to a market; if they do, they typi­cally won’t be successful. A jolt of whimsy, inspiration, or per­sonality, a certain original style, is needed in entertaining just as in art. The difference, perhaps, is only one of boundaries. Our feature article in this issue, on pop lyrics, illustrates how beauty and truth can be forged even in the small confines of a three-minute song. There may indeed be a line between the artist and the entertainer—but we should never be afraid of crossing it.

- Joel Van Valin