Historically, entertainment was a vehicle for a meaningful activity, like a ritual or ceremony. In more recent times, it has become associated with amusement or diversion, consistent with the French notion of divertissement.
Entertainment once hummed along creating the background noise of our lives. Nowadays, it has come to the foreground. We live in “sensurround”, surrounded by billions of bits of information – audio, visual, graphic, factual, fictional – all distributed on algorithmically generated social media formats, played on gadgets of ever-decreasing size laid over traditional platforms like radio, television and cinema.
This transformation has been driven by a rapacious monetisation of human activity: entertainment makes money. But the process has had the effect of emptying human activity of much of its non-financial meaning. In the fields of sport, the arts and politics we are seeing the physical absence of community, human expression without genuine emotion and the ascendancy of fake news over truth.
Take cricket, for example. I used to like watching cricket. But now I can’t follow it at all. God knows how the players keep up. Fairfax journalist Greg Baum recently wrote an article pitching the idea of how the game is now played to an imaginary up-and-coming Australian cricketer. It was surreal. Pink balls, less-pink balls, white balls, red balls. Follow the bouncing balls across a smorgsabord of formats. Big Bash. Twenty-Twenty. One-Dayers. Test matches.
Cricket is suffering a crisis of identity because it has forgotten that its greatest attraction is the game itself. A batsman offensively or defensively negotiates the efforts of a bowler of various inclinations – spin, off and leg – and speeds – fast, medium and slow. It’s a very simple contest of strength, skill and hand-to-eye coordination.
But over the last decade, all manner of gimmickry and novelty has been rolled out to exploit income streams across multiple platforms. Cricket is no longer a game, to be enjoyed live, but a mediated entertainment played in near-empty arenas around the world. The crack of leather on willow barely resonates in the absence of a real community.
Nor is cricket the only sport to lose itself.
Australia’s national football game, AFL, declared 2015 the Year of The Fan in an effort to tackle falling crowd numbers and flailing interest. The previous administration had tried almost everything to increase profit margins – from the insinuation of gambling into the nooks and crannies of the spectator experience to an obsession with changing the rules of the game and tinkering with the fixture to make it more “fan-friendly”.
That administration clearly had one eye on the wealth creation-culture of NFL, American football, which for the uninitiated, appears to be a game invented as a pretext for the advertising-sponsorship complex that underwrites the American corporate sector. It’s only in a highlights package that a spectator can read the dramaturgy of NFL. Its operating system – the playbook – is utterly obscured by the entertainment paraphernalia attached to it.
In sport, the elements that provide meaning are the actual game, the way it is performed and the relationships and interactions with spectators and the broader community. Sport shares this performative dynamic with the arts.
In 2010, when the Dutch arts sector was decimated by funding cuts of almost 20%, some critics in Western Europe were unsurprised. They claimed that a drift away from art towards instrumentalisation and the rubric of entertainment made such decisions consequential. The argument runs that as the arts gives ground to the imperatives of entertainment you end up with fast-food culture. McCulture. The drive to be “relevant”, “economically sustainable”, “viable”, “agile” and “innovative” leads to mutton dressing up as lamb.
The absolute buy-in of the arts to the market risks the obliteration of meaning from art. Artworks are “cultural products”, “cultural commodities” presented in “blockbusters” and “spectaculars”. The art is in the wrapping, the hype, the arousal factor. Content is peripheral. There is only icing, no cake.
A culture that sees Art as elitist and Entertainment as populist fuels this attitude. But it eviscerates the very real points of difference the arts have – celebrating the human spirit’s capacity to transform the everyday into a profound shared meaning, to transcend adversity, to imagine and create new futures – along with our soul.
It’s enough to feel good. It’s even better if you feel nothing. Art, like the game, is reduced to spectacle.
However, it is in the political arena where the consequences of entertainment are most dangerous. As the progressive commentariat attempts to disinter itself after the election of Donald Trump, there is a savage irony in its incapacity to understand the broader context in which its “politics” plays out.
Trump’s victory has as much to do with his populist appeal in a political context as it does with his understanding of the American presidential campaign as “an entertainment”. Since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy Debate, the presidential campaign has slowly transmogrified from the key to the country’s democratic process to a quadrennial long-form entertainment.
By the time the reality TV show US Election 2016 was launched, the difference between the democratic process and “the entertainment” had become indivisible for many in the US electorate. The democratic process was the entertainment.
The meaning of an American presidential campaign is no longer about choosing the best candidate but the creation of a narrative that voters can buy into – in Trump’s case, an heroic outsider who overcomes overwhelming odds.
A successful product and producer of the entertainment industry – a reality TV star no less – was always going to be able to convince the US electorate to “vote off” an actual politician.
It was an all too subtle distinction for the creators of the campaign “show” – the mainstream American political-media complex. They lost control of the narrative and spawned a new long-form entertainment in which American Democracy entertains the very real possibility of casting itself as the “perpetrator-and-victim” in its own snuff movie.
Now, that’s entertainment.
No longer a smoke-and-mirrors spectacle enjoyed on a grand scale, entertainment is now indivisible from our daily life. It’s a way of living. More than that it is a way of seeing the world. The question is: is this the world we want to see?