A thought has been gnawing at me for quite some time, and it is this: We spend an overabundance of our money on those who entertain us–movie and tv stars, athletes, singers and the like. In America, we spend around $490 billion dollars a year on entertainment. Take the following numbers into consideration:
Internet access: $81.5 billion Music (concerts, cds, mp3): $19.8 billion Movies (theater, dvd, downloads): $30.9 billion Sports: $25.4 billion Television (subscriptions): $92.9 billion We pay our A-list celebraties $20+ million per movie Last year, Taylor Swift made $57 million and Rihanna made $53 million The top T.V. actors make $700,000 to $1.2 million dollars per episode Kevin Durant earns $86 million over five years for playing basketball while Tom Brady earns $18 million a year for throwing a football
While these people certainly are talented, hard working, creative, unique individuals, does their particular work warrant the outrageous amounts of money we lavish upon them? More importantly, why do we spend so much money on those who entertain us? What does this say about us that we want to be entertained at any and all costs? Again, I certainly am not making a value judgement on the arts or any of the people who make their living this way. What concerns me is that, as a culture, we seek escape from reality at any price.
This reminds me of the Romans panem et circenses (bread-and-circus) efforts, whereby the Roman officials would pass out free wheat at gladiatorial games to the peasants in order to keep the public distracted from the lack of civic virtue and total disregard for the common good present in the vicious imperial ideology of Pax Romana. Unlike Athens (where entertainment served a specific educational purpose in the form of cathartic tragedies), the entertainment of Rome was designed to keep the masses silent, numbed and indifferent to the vices, oppression, and injustice inherent in Roman culture.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, writing about the imperial need for numbed distraction, says that, “the cultural situation in the United States, satiated by consumer goods and propelled by electronic technology, is one of narcoticized insensibility to human reality. It is easy to see ourselves in an economics of affluence in which we are so well of that pain is not noticed and we can eat our way around it.”
This, then, is why I believe we spend so much on those who entertain us: we don’t want to face the reality of our existence.
In Jean-Paul Sarte’s book Nausea, the main character becomes so tangibly aware of his own existence that it makes him physically nauseous. My hunch is that we too would become ill (and perhaps rightly so) if we were really forced to see the suffering, oppression and barrenness in our own backyard. Like Jesus, I think we would weep for our city if we saw the hurting, grief and overwhelming sense of despair seeping out of every corner of our society. Instead, we pay good money to sit in a darkened theater or flip on another senseless tv show or lose ourselves in alternative realities in video games or surround ourselves with hundreds of cyber “friends” who fill our need to be loved with superficial associations that offer shallow, trite consolation…anything but open our eyes to see what reality truly looks like.
The weight of the human condition is a tremendous burden. As Sartre says, “We are condemned to be free”; that is, we are given this great gift of free will and moral agency in order to bring light to dark places, yet we flee from this at every turn by throwing money at anyone capable of making us forget, just for a little while, the deep responsibility we bear to ourselves and our fellow man. What, I wonder, would our society look like if we stepped out of the darkness and faced reality? What would our response be if we stepped behind the veil, turned off the noise, and listened to the cries of our heart and the humanity of our neighbors? What if, rather than seeking so hard to escape from reality, we turned to face it, in all its sound and fury, in order to engage it to make all things new?
What we long for (intimacy, connection, value, dignity, trust, healing, reconciliation) gets lost in another thirty minute tv episode so banal it must include its own laughtrack. In a healthy world, our entertainers would still be a vital part of a vibrant, creative, flourishing culture, but we would not need them to keep us from engaging in shaping a more meaningful story with our lives or from being architects of repair in the world.