The difference between art and entertainment is a subtle but significant one.
I was talking to a friend who is a pastor recently, and he was telling me about the ins and outs of writing sermons. It might be a little surprising to know that pastors get writers block, too. Actually, it was a little bit encouraging. He was thinking about the ways he tries to break through it when it comes.
He said that many times when he can’t find a nugget around which to build a sermon, he’ll turn to art. He’s been inspired by paintings especially, but he’s also dipped into poetry, plays, and music. When he does so, he’s not as much searching for a topic as he’s trying to just get into a creative frame of mind. “Creativity inspires creativity,” he said. I wish I’d said that. He told me the story of a Manet
painting he once saw in a museum that made him look at a familiar biblical scene in a fresh way.
It was an approach to the idea I really hadn’t considered too much before, but it’s true. Taking in a great work of art is not only regenerative to the soul, but it’s also good for our own creativity.
It made me think back to my music playing days in Austin when a musical act would come through town and give a concert and sometimes afterward, I’d race back home to my apartment and start playing. Not to learn the songs I’d heard as much as just to be creating something myself.
There’s a mysterious interchange when someone seeking or wanting or needing to be creative comes into contact with a great work of art. The basic word for such interaction is inspiration, of course. But sometimes I think we take that word too lightly and overlook what a momentous thing inspiration is. Inspiration is the interaction between a real existing energy that we encounter and a potential energy that we have within us.
It goes to the very heart of what separates art from amusement. And, indeed, what separates a museum from an amusement park. When in my history classes I talk about amusement parks in America that come along during the rise of popular culture, my students are always sort of taken aback when I point out to them that the words “museum” and “amusement“ have the same root, but a strikingly opposite attitude toward it. A “muse” is a source of inspiration. You go to the museum where you find a temple of the muses—You go and you’re inspired, like my pastor friend. You go to an a-musement park (the prefix “a-” in front of a word means “not” or “without”) for a negation of inspiration. To be without it. To be distracted.
The great power of art is that it can inspire. The dark fact about amusement is that it is intended not to inspire. Art can be entertaining, yes, but what makes it art is that it can be so much more.