In our modern world, this elemental quality of storytelling is denied. We live today in a world in which everything has its place and function and nothing is left out of place. Storytelling is thus at a discount and like everything else in a world ruled by the laws of exchange value, literature is required to submit itself to the requirements of the market and must learn, like any other commodity, to adapt and serve needs that lie outside of itself and its concrete value. It is forced to stand not for itself but for an ideological cause of one sort or another, whether it be political, social or literary. It cannot exist for itself: like everything else it has to be justified. And for this very reason the power of storytelling is automatically devalued. Literature is reduced to the status of complimentary utilitarian functions: as a pastime to provide distraction and entertainment, or as a heightened activity that would claim to explore 'great truths' about the human condition.
It seems obvious, looking back, that the artists of Weimar Germany and Leninist Russia lived in a much more attenuated landscape of media than ours, and their reward was that they could still believe, in good faith and without bombast, that art could morally influence the world. Today, the idea has largely been dismissed, as it must in a mass media society where art's principal social role is to be investment capital, or, in the simplest way, bullion. We still have political art, but we have no effective political art. An artist must be famous to be heard, but as he acquires fame, so his work accumulates 'value' and becomes, ipso-facto, harmless. As far as today's politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power.
It is hard to think of any work of art of which one can say 'this saved the life of one Jew, one Vietnamese, one Cambodian'. Specific books, perhaps; but as far as one can tell, no paintings or sculptures. The difference between us and the artists of the 1920's is that they they thought such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was a certain naivete that made them think so. But it is certainly our loss that we cannot.
Yet entertainment--as I define it, pleasure and all--remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.