chapter  2
12 Pages

The aesthetic system of entertainment

ByAlan McKee

Or to put the question more formally, what is the aesthetic system of entertainment? What are the criteria against which entertainment products are judged in order to decide if they function well – as entertainment? Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has just started its Bachelor of Enter-

tainment Industries – the first degree in any Australian University which is devoted to helping students understand entertainment as an element of culture and teaching them how to produce it (see chapter by Collis, McKee and Hamley in this book). An important part of developing this degree has been undertaking basic conceptual work to understand the nature of entertainment. Surprisingly, given that entertainment is the most important form of culture for the majority of citizens in Western countries, Universities have traditionally been weak at understanding it. For most of their histories their focus in the realm of culture has been on the Arts. It is true that since the 1980s there has been an increasing emphasis on ‘popular culture’ in University curricula (see, for example, Waites, Bennett and Martin 1982). But popular culture isn’t the same thing as entertainment. It is a catch-all category, defined as the ‘lack’ of high culture. Everything from entertainment to working practices to tattoos to cooking has been brought under the title of popular culture. While it has served an invaluable purpose in creating a space in Universities for studying everything that isn’t Art, it is limited as an analytical category. It is not clear that pornography and Christian rituals, for example – to take two elements of culture that have been included in the category of popular culture – have enough in common to make it a useful way to approach their study. By contrast entertainment is an extremely useful analytical category. It is coherent and has explanatory power. And yet the academic tradition of writing on the aesthetic system of entertainment is

sparse. The term is used in the work of the Frankfurt school, where ‘entertainment’ is denounced. Horkheimer and Adorno, for example, claim of ‘all the … products of the entertainment industry’ that ‘sustained thought is out of the question’, and that ‘no scope is left for the imagination’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, 127), this explaining the ‘stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, 126). This tradition, which has retained a position in the academy up to

What is good entertainment?