The Ethical Dimensions of Art and Entertainment
French painter, Edgar Degas, once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. This perspective offers great insight into the potential that art has to spread ideas, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. In fact, author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy believed “….so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling- that is the activity of art…Art is a human activity”. To Tolstoy, art did not simply exist just for the benefit of the artist; rather, art exists to make a large audience experience the emotions of the artist.
I would argue this idea that art is ideally supposed to influence mass groups of people to feel a certain way is extremely dangerous to free thought. Although it sounds great in theory, realistically it could uphold conformity to a certain degree. Some would argue that this is ironic because true art is about breaking from the mainstream and be able to express your true self and feelings. However, not all art has this quality. Even more so, if people are not able to interpret complex and meaningful pieces, then the meaning loses its value and people will turn to art forms that they are able to understand. Instead of appreciating the many facets that deep art offers, people shy away from mediums that seem foreign; this creates the environment for what is called ‘popular art’.
Often times, popular art gets a bad reputation because it is usually thought of as lacking true substance and somewhat dull as compared to art that makes people stop and think about the meaning behind a piece. In some cases, this is true, yet I do not think all popular art lacks real meaning, I think it is another way to represent and define mainstream cultural values during certain periods in time. How can one argue that the words ‘We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much’ are void of any true depth, expression, and commentary about the social period we live in? In the moment, popular art might seem too simple since it upholds the common opinion, yet as time passes I think popular gains novelty as it will be replaced by newer representations of trends through this art form.
Arguably, popular art, especially as a form of entertainment, can pose a few issues. First, it can limit the free flow of ideas into the public sphere because if people are unable to feel the emotion of the artist in the ‘elite art’ then they are going to turn to the popular art since they can interpret its meaning quite easily without much thinking involved. As more people turn to popular art to fulfill their interpreting needs think of how many potential thoughts are lost from ignoring the complicated and abstract art. Further, if popular art follows the current trend accepted by the greatest amount of people the message that the art sends is not revolutionary or well-thought out. Instead, it is most likely follows the wants of the consumers without adding any real value, which has deep implications for entertainment content and how it is produced.
For example, if a media company has a choice between producing a historic movie about the evolution of Italian art and how it connects to modern day ideas or producing a reality TV show about the lives of a few girls in college, which will the company choose to produce? Without a doubt, they would select the reality TV show because not only is it cheaper, but the networks will think it will garner more ratings and profits through upholding certain stereotypes.
If we continue to sacrifice meaningful art for what is thought of as most profitable art, then this type of entertainment does damage the public’s ability to acquire quality content. If the media company applied Communitarianism which emphasis the need for thinking about individual actions and it impacts the larger community, they would realize how unethical it really is to continue to produce content that is sensationalized and perpetuates a common perception about a group of people. Individually, it may seem like the media companies that produce reality TV for entertainment are not doing much harm. What is the issue of creating content for people to watch after a stressful day?
I would argue ethical issues rise in two situations. First, that the individual media companies quickly add up until the majority of the TV content, for example, is based on content that media companies believe consumers want. According to the “uses and gratification” theory, consumers will utilize certain media to satisfy specific needs. The media companies attempt to satisfy the consumers needs through producing low quality content that upholds the status-quo and make a profit. Applying Communitarianism, the companies would realize that their individual actions impact the community in a negative way through the setting of superficial standards that people then take as truth. Second, that with certain art forms, such as advertising, agencies create content around previously formed assumptions. This is extremely unethical because it facilitates greater discrimination and misrepresentation against the group of targeted people.
To prevent our art and entertainment from becoming merely simple extensions of what everyone is doing or thinking, we need to hold the producers of the content to higher standards. I think it is amazing when entertainment can deviate from what the popular viewpoint is. Many people think that being beautiful is what women are supposed to achieve without considering the issues that it causes many people. Men also feel the pressure from various art forms to have a certain build or act a certain way. Women and men who struggle with the media presenting “art” content that focuses solely on beauty standards or masculinity can relate to the Queen when she sings ‘pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst, perfection is a disease of a nation, pretty hurts, pretty hurts’.
Note that art is not contained to just paintings or drawings; instead, art can take many forms such as music, dancing, poems, and even media. Tolstoy was correct in realizing that art is full of emotion; this belief still resonates today with lyrics that are laced with feelings, which transmit onto the audience. You cannot help but feel good about yourself when you hear the words ’Cause you’re amazin’ just the way you are’. It is the same idea that art is extremely powerful and can influence how you feel, think, and behave. Like any other powerful entity, with great power comes even greater responsibility and arguably this is where the influence of art has to be created with high standards.
If art becomes subject to upholding negative stereotypes about certain groups of people (gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, people with various socioeconomic backgrounds) and if this art has this power that we are speaking of, the the question becomes, what impact will it have on the viewpoints of society? If people look at art and take it as expressing truth then should art be an objective representation rather than subjective expression?
I would argue that the ethical choice will be found somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Applying Aristotle’s Golden Means, which states that the ethical choice is the mean between the two extremes, helps me realize how art should be treated. One extreme is believing that art and truth are separate categories in that art should not have to have an element of truth in it. I think this poses great issues especially when thinking about how a powerful piece of art either (1) make something turn into a societal stereotype or (2) uphold a negative stereotype. The other extreme is believing that art and truth are interchangeable, which I do not believe is the case either. If art was solely about presenting the facts, then it would be another branch of journalism, but art is not just about being objective. Instead, art is about upholding truth, but also a degree of subjectivity.
It is all too easy to think of entertainment and media in a negative light. From parents thinking TV is a waste of brainpower to the media itself perpetuating stereotypes that could not be further from the truth, it is obvious that the standards of producing art, whether it is a movie or music, is becoming concentrated on what the public ‘wants’ to consumer instead of using art as a learning tool to present new ideas. However, I do not believe that all hope is lost because mediums, such as TV and music, do provide a way for people to not only learn, but also connect and feel. At least when I hear ‘na-na-na, diva is a female version of a hustla, of a hustla, of a, of a , hustla’ on the radio, I automatically feel the confidence of Beyonce pour into my room. Some may argue and say, yes, you you feel more confident, but the quality of that art is extremely low. In response, I would add that according to certain standards it may be thought of as senseless, however I would say that it perpetuates a new way for women to boldly think of themselves.
To finish with Tolstoy’s thought that art is not so much about what you see, but what you can make others see in a shared experience is spot on. To ensure that what is ‘seen’ furthers society and resists upholding stereotypes is vital. As consumers of media, we have to demand quality art that still represents the culture of our time, it is ultimately up to us to ‘run the world’.