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David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'

On the occasion of his eighth book, High Entertainment, published by Reliable Copy, a Bangalore-based, artist-led publishing house, artist and writer David Robbins answers questions lobbed by Milwaukee filmmaker Andrew Swant. The two discuss Robbins’s concept of High Entertainment, a synthesis developed in writings and artworks across three decades.

David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'

AS: High Entertainment is the first book in Reliable Copy’s Wiggle Room series.
Reliable Copy borrowed the name from me. I’d maintained a Wiggle Room website for a while. We have slightly different uses for the term but share a concept of wiggle room as necessary in over-determined cultural conditions, which is certainly what we have now, with the rise of the professional contemporary artist, a role utterly compromised by capital. Wiggle room can be a physical venue or it can be a strategy for action that plays out in any number of ways. Here, it’s a series of books, small in size, big in concept. The Wiggle Room books remind me of Semiotexte’s Foreign Agents series, from the 1980s.

What is high entertainment?
It’s a hybrid form of communication that combines the experimental ethos of art with the accessibility of entertainment. The best of both worlds, in my view. I coined the term. The High Entertainment book frames and preserves some of the thinking that got me there.

David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'

How did you arrive at it?
By working with my imprinting. As someone born mid-century I was imprinted with entertainment culture — TV, movies, pop music, comic books… all the stuff that crystalized post-war America, and through which American culture communicated its Americanness globally. After I became an artist I discovered that, although I was able to talk the talk, art was just a veneer on my entertainment imprinting. I felt more like an entertainer than an artist, yet I was an artist. How to deal with that contradiction?

For modern people neither context, art or entertainment is wholly satisfying in itself. While I may be interested in entertainment, people who get everything they need from popular culture are beyond my comprehension. To hear grown adults talking passionately about, say, Star Wars — completely baffling! I want access to the upper reaches of my mind, and Star Wars doesn’t get me there. Art can. But I’m also acutely aware of art’s limitations. Contemporary art relies on learning a specialized language, which excludes a lot of people.

No single context has a lock on delivering the goods. A TV show delivers something that a painting can’t, and vice versa. We want access to both. Ours is, thankfully, a society that resists ranking pleasures. The pleasure that one person takes from champagne and the pleasure that another takes from beer can’t be compared or ranked. We’re no longer comfortable with saying “art above, entertainment below,” which had been the European tradition. I’m not European. I have a different cultural imprinting.

So I had to take a good hard look at both contexts. What did I really like about art, and what did I like about entertainment? The irreducibly great thing about art, it seems to me, is its experimental ethos, which is rooted in the principle of form-discovery. Form-discovery is the idea that you discover the form in the process of making the work; the audience encounters the discovered form. A brilliant, fantastic idea, and one that helps to make the modern era modern. So I wanted to retain that principle while rejecting the over-reliance on specialized language. Entertainment’s virtue, by contrast, is its accessibility. It’s not that there isn’t a specialized language at work in entertainment too, but it’s present in the broader culture; most of us make contact with pop grammars — movies, TV, pop music and so on — during our formative years. Everybody learns it, and learns it young.

What if we combined the two? Take the experimental, form-discovery attributes of art and blend them with the accessibility of entertainment. Synthesize the two in a new balance. That’s my idea of high entertainment. Historically, entertainment forms have been more expensive to produce, which has worked against experimentation. Most TV sitcoms are alike because it’s too expensive to discover another way of doing it. One of the reasons people are drawn to art, and the art context, is the greater sense of adventure it provides. But now, thanks to the digital revolution, which puts cameras and microphones in everyone’s hands and efficiently distributes the results, you can experiment in the pop grammars while imposing the exactitude of control we ask of art. I’ve come to think of myself as a one-man entertainment production company!

David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'

ABOVE: Detail from “Talent,” 1986, a suite of eighteen headshot photographs of contemporary artists.

Does high entertainment have a particular look or style?
No. It’s an attitude toward communication and audience. And a self-conception. I’ve always been more interested in the artist than in art. The role of the artist has been my material from the first. How can we stretch it? What is the artist’s role today, when art is a branch of the entertainment-industrial complex?

So are all artists supposed to go into show biz now?
They’re enrolled in it from their first exhibition! Business civilization positions art as entertainment — intellectual showbiz, material-culture showbiz, entertainment for another audience and another wallet than popular culture’s.

Historically, artists have engaged entertainment, as subject matter, critically or mockingly. We’re not in that era anymore. We’ve got different tools. Today entertainment, as subject, as vehicle, as pleasurable transaction, can be explored directly by independent-minded people who are beholden to neither art’s value system nor the entertainment industry’s. We’ve never had this kind of production-and-distribution technology at our disposal. Now that we have the opportunity, let’s see what we can invent.

What if the artist stops denying art’s function as a kind of entertainment? How does the admission alter the artist’s cultural location? We have much to learn about entertainment. What is entertainment? What is it for? It’s “to entertain,” of course, but what goes on in that transaction? And how might we stretch and shape it? Entertainment research is the order of the day!

Are you an “artist” or a one-man entertainment production company? The idea of high entertainment proposes a completely different model of the artist than is pervasive today. But that’s a good thing. The art context is today thoroughly compromised by capitalism. Thankfully, we have options to operating ironically and in Broodthaers’s “bad faith.”

David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'

Our era has so many serious problems. Do you ever feel irresponsible promoting entertainment?
Of course. Do I strike you as a simpleton? But artists embody complex coordinates. Crises don’t obviate the exploration of all other sides of life. They never have. The first world war rages and Malevich paints squares!
David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'
David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'
David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'
David Robbins talks to Andrew Swant about 'High Entertainment'

High Entertainment

High Entertainment

Reliable Copy
Pbk, 4.75 x 7 in. / 120 pgs / 19 b&w.

$20.00  free shipping