Cognitive Dissonance; or Art versus Entertainment

by August Schulenburg

One of the moments I love in Dog Act is when Vera, pretending (or is she?) to be the deity Wendy, explains to her new Scavenger followers why the Vaudevillian has a protected status in the world of the play:

“You are treading on the hem of a great mystery. I will say this, my children, listen thou well. The vaudevillian is the repository of all that was and all that may be. She is the key. She is translator of our souls. More than this, more than all, listen thou, dear scavengers: she is that rare and precious pearl lying in this dark, drear, perilous sea: she is entertainment.”

Note that Vera/Wendy climaxes with “entertainment”, not “art.” Yet in the usual ranks of righteousness, Art is seen blazing pure at the right hand of the deity, while Entertainment perniciously capers on more pandering planes below.

Wading into dangerously semantic estuaries, I think there is a useful event horizon to find between Art and Entertainment; a boundary that is fluid and dependent on context but real and important all the same.

This boundary emerges from the idea of cognitive dissonance, a theory discussed in depth in this excellent podcast interview with Carol Tavris, author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. I believe this idea of cognitive dissonance is at the center of the difference between art and entertainment.

The short version is that once the our brain believes something to be true, it has a profoundly difficult time in changing that belief. In fact, it actively curates experience to protect a pre-existing belief from any evidence that contradicts it, leading to the saying, “Believing is seeing.”

As Tavris says, “Once we have a belief, we see the information that will confirm that belief, and we stop seeing what we don’t want to see, don’t expect to see, have no wish to see; that’s the blind spot in how we perceive what other people say and do, (and) how we evaluate our own behavior.” Our brain does this automatically, and it takes a great deal of mindfulness to even notice that it’s happening.

This mindfulness, this deliberate courting of doubt and uncertainty, of trial and error, is best embodied in the scientific method; but as Tavris explains, the scientific method runs directly counter to the momentum of the brain, which prefers to simplify the complexity of experience through perceiving only that which reinforces pre-existing patterns of belief, even if those patterns are harmful.

I believe that the difference between art and entertainment is simply the amount of cognitive dissonance we are required to engage in by the work. When a play reinforces pre-existing patterns of thought, that comfortable feeling is called entertainment; but when we are forced to hold new, potentially uncomfortable truths in our minds – truths that may require us to change what we believe – that friction is called art.

With this definition, the boundary between art and entertainment is fluid and depends on social context. As accepted norms differ from culture to culture, a play may very well be entertainment in one culture and art in another. A production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be entertainment but it can also be art, depending on how much cognitive dissonance the production decides to illuminate within that deceptively pleasing play.

It may be that what we recognize as genius is simply the manifestation of a cognitive dissonance that persists across time and culture. Certain works of art never lose the searching edge that destabilizes what we think we know, and creates within us the possibility for change.

In our mission, we talk about transformational theatre, and Isaiah recently wrote a powerful post of how that manifests itself in our staging choices. Our work explores how to harness that searching edge of cognitive dissonance, as dizzyingly uncomfortable as it can sometimes be.

I believe this frame also underscores the importance for funding the arts. It’s natural that entertainment would be profitable: we love being told that our beliefs are right and just and we should keep on keeping on. But we need to be challenged, to court doubt and uncertainty, to look at belief as a process and not a destination, to value curiosity as deeply as faith. We need the searching edge of art to continue to evolve as social, moral creatures.

But, hey, that’s just what I think right now. I’m not holding onto any idea too tightly. We never step in the same river twice. Doubt is my faith, so bring the change.

2 Comments on "Cognitive Dissonance; or Art versus Entertainment"

  1. Randy Burgess · October 11, 2011 at 2:03 pm · Reply

    Hi Gus, Like the spirit of your post, don’t begin to agree with the specifics. I’ve read the book you reference & a lot more besides on the topic; cog dissonance is only the beginning; also check out “attribution theory,” folk theory of psychology, relational frame theory, etc. I think the problem with trying to map these theories onto literature/stage/etc. is that the purposes/contexts are way too different. More interesting to me is something like Wayne Bloom’s dated but still provocative work, “The Company We Keep,” which speaks out the moral worlds created by fictions of various sorts & speaks to the tension you have noted between comfy messages & non-comfy messages. But non-comfy does not necessarily mean “jarring to our previous assumptions” etc. As an example, I have loved “Guests of the Nation” and “The Dead” from the first time I read them. Neither has a comfy message – esp. “Guests of the Nation” – but I can’t say that either dislodged prior points of view on my part. I do however love your own willingness to provoke sharp discussion … please keep it up.

  2. Randy Burgess · October 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm · Reply

    P.S. I should have added, the idea you express that entertainment conforms to rather than challenges our pre-existing moral notions (thus is comfy) almost seems to explain entertainment – but does not succeed at all in explaining art; thus for me fails as an explanatory notion overall. That is what I meant by citing those two stories. I think we need to look elsewhere for “art.” Also, when the boundary blurs as it so often does, cog diss. does not explain the blurring either. Etc., etc. OK, I’ll stop.

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