I have to take this in stages. Because it’s a slippery thing, art. There are no hard rules, no concise checklists to verify that something’s art or it isn’t. Which leads some people to think that value judgments are utter pretension. But that’s not so either.

My real interest is not in “What is art?” My real question is, “What is great art?” But to get to that point the first question must be dealt with. What separates art from entertainment?

[This entry will be repetitive for those of you following such arguments on other blogs, and for that I apologize. But I want to get it out here, so people at least know what page I’m on.]

First, let me state that I love entertainment. I watch a lot of TV, sometimes too much. I watch Alias like it’s going out of style (and perhaps it is; living in Hungary I don’t know), as well as 24 and each James Bond film that appears (though I can’t say I love even half of those). These things are, I think we’d all agree, entertainment.

It’s been stated many times elsewhere: Art is entertainment, but entertainment is not necessarily art.

I would amend that slightly. Art is entertainment, and entertainment is art, but it’s not necessarily good art. (Let’s ignore things like sporting events and Jackass for now.)

Bad art is everywhere. To me, Damien Hurst is bad art that I don’t enjoy. Alias is bad art that I do enjoy. They’re bad for different reasons, but neither’s particularly good.

Bad art is distracting without being provocative. It tells us things we already know, and know consciously. It never threatens us; it makes us feel safe. Which is one thing we like, the way we won’t turn down a cloud of cotton candy. It tastes nice, but in the end it’s just sugar. We can’t live off of it.

The issue of knowledge is important. Art that reinforces what’s already fully accepted by the mainstream of our society is either bad art or propaganda (which is just a particular kind of bad art). Sometimes the distinction is confusing, because bad art can be masked in wonderful prose, great acting or cinematography (see Leni Riefenstahl). But we have to see beyond this and ask what it’s revealing to us.

In crime fiction, the obvious message is, “Murder is bad.” But that’s a self-evident truth. If a story tells us, “Murder is good,” then it’s clashing with what we already believe. And while this is not an absolute criterion, if the story tells us convincingly that murder is good, then that story just might be good art.

I say this is not absolute, because simply convincing us that murder is good is not enough—an essay could do that—but it’s a start. Why is murder good? And how does that reasoning take into account the delusion we’ve all been living under, that murder is bad? And how does the writer go about convincing us? With an original story? With believable characters and dialogue? With an individual writing style? And finally: Does the story convince us emotionally? Because one great attribute of art is its ability to touch our emotions and, through them, make believers of us.

Now, good art doesn’t have to convince us that what we once believed is wrong. It can even tell us things we already knew—but things we didn’t know consciously. Things we could never quite put into words.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Mirror, does that for me. The first time I watched it, by the end of the film I was confused. What the hell had just happened? The second time I watched it, I cried—at that moment, I couldn’t even explain why I was crying. The third time, I was just beginning to be able to put my tears into words; even now, I tear up at the end. While Russians have a particular, often political, reaction to his work, mine was entirely personal. I wept because the final scene seemed to show me, in a completely original and unexpected way, that life is vast and painful and beautiful, not something to be squandered.

Now, I place Mirror in the realm of great art. But that’s just me. It’s certainly good art, I have no doubt, because it told me what I should already know, but it told it to me without ever lecturing. It depended entirely on story and image, and through those things it communicated with a power that no essay could have carried. In an essay, it would have been cliche. In good art, it’s transformative.

Power is what it’s about. Good and great art have the power to transform in some way. My suspicion is that transformation is one of the central hallmarks of great art. That doesn’t mean making a Democrat vote Republican. It means transforming how you look at existence, how you look at your life.

Put that way, I hope you can see that this is deadly serious business. Which is why I’m spending time writing out thoughts on it. Ken Bruen says he writes in order to survive. It staves off the lure of suicide. You can see it in his writing, which certainly meets the measure of good art.

I don’t think I’d die if I couldn’t write books anymore, but I might if I no longer had an outlet for communicating in narrative. Luckily, the act of writing requires no publisher and no market. But it’s clearly nice to have those as well.

(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)