07/26/2010 12:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Art Versus Entertainment: The Gap is Essential

The encounter between artist and audience is far more ambiguous and problematic in the art world than in the entertainment industry in spite of about a half century of critical and art world exertions, for wholly varying motives, to minimize or eradicate that distinction. But drawing on the idioms of popular culture or the products of mass production for creative source material or inspiration is not the same as participating in it. The rise of the audience that regularly visits art exhibitions and the expansion of the art market itself is not the same thing, in either scale or kind, as the audience for television and movies. And just because the occasional Julian Schnabel or Dennis Hopper is able to move with relative success between the two worlds does not mean that the distinction between entertainment and art has ceased to have meaning. The membrane has always been extremely permeable, and hooray for that. But the intent and ethos of each are clear and distinct taken as a whole.

Simply put, when aesthetic purpose precedes exposure and sales, art plays the upper hand. When reversed, it's about entertainment. All the high priced creative talent in the world invested in a product formulated to perform in the marketplace does not add up to a lone artist maintaining the integrity of a single well conceived idea. For great entertainment I have no argument with $300 million spent on "Avatar." But it doesn't come close to the aesthetic depth and focus of Marina Abramovic's "The Artist is Present." The point is not the amount of money or labor that is invested, it's the nature of the engagement by both artist and audience.

I've often said in casual conversation that entertainment is for the folks who, when they get home from work, need to lie down and get their minds off of things. Art is for the folks who, at the end of the day, want to get their eyes and mind more fully engaged and stimulated. Almost the reverse is also a defining distinction. For a quick jolt of adrenaline, you can't beat Six Flags or a well made action flick. By contrast, good art demands that you slow down and be patient.

Since the time of Duchamp artists have been fond of calling upon their viewers to participate in completing their work. The greater the degree of genuine investment by both artist and viewer of heart and mind, the purer the aesthetic experience for both. So the distinction exists on a continuum with no absolutes, but is a rough equation of the fundamental intent or desire to achieve art by both artist and audience. What is absolute is that choosing art rather than entertainment is really about preferring substance to artifice.