Intellectual Art, Popular Media, and Getting Away from Aesthetic Subjectivity
In the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic, writer Taylor Clark has an excellent profile of videogame developer Jonathan Blow. He’s misanthropic, severely thoughtful, and somewhat abrasive. But he’s also a brilliant creator and a near perfect example of what Clark thinks the medium needs more of: developers willing to make smart videogames.
Because for Clark the medium is currently an “artistic backwater” that produces only a few truly artful videogames in a sea teeming with “dumb” ones.
Many think that Clark is wrong and that Blow is overhyped. I disagree for several reasons. While a lot of gaming commentators see the “videogames as art” discussion as tired and fruitless, I think it’s timely and imperative. So I thought I might put it in the context of the ongoing League debate over artistic relativism.
The following positions were developed in previous posts and I will here attempt to (imperfectly) summarize them.
Sam Wilkinson defines the snob,
“These people assume that their own preferences are somehow literally superior, as opposed to simply being different. It is possible to run into these people regardless of the thing in question: snobs about cigarettes, snobs about beers, snobs about art, snobs about movies, snobs about food, snobs about clothing.”
Sam argues that claiming A is better than B is a matter of preference, because its based not upon factual truths about A or B, but upon facts about the person(s) making the judgment.
According to Sam, “…all artistic production has no intrinsic, inherent value beyond an individual’s consideration of it.”
“When somebody says that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, they’re almost certainly reflecting their belief that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time as a result of the way in which it lined up with their own needs and wants of a movie. However, they are no more right than the person who says Adam Sandler’s latest is the peak of cinematic achievement, even if a thousand critics and a thousand scholars line up in opposition. That person prefers the one to the other. It is as simple as that.”
We might produce elaborate frameworks that point toward one or another pieces of art being better, but because these frameworks themselves are based on descriptive, valueless facts about our preferences, they hold no water. I sense Sam is nibbling around the edges of the naturalistic fallacy here.
Finally, in his own words,
“I am not arguing against the ordering of works of art within given critical schemes, but rather, the acknowledgement that those critical schemes are the creations of human beings almost certainly driven by their biases, their preferences, their pleasures, and their pains.”
Tod Kelly lays out the three issues with art relativism as he seems them,
“1. Those who claim that art is only a matter of taste – or that consumer-based measurements are the best metric of art – are usually confusing “art appreciation” with “liking” something.
2. In the big Venn diagram of life, there is very little overlap of those that preach relativism in a form of art and those that have seriously studied that form of art.
3. There is however a surprisingly large – and perhaps ironic – overlap between those that are so confident that all art is relative, and those that rail against moral, religious, political, or any other kind of relativism.”
He then makes a case for artistic merit through virtuosity,
“I don’t particularly care for Ulysses. (I’ve always been a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man guy.) I did enjoy John Grisham’s The Firm a lot; seriously, I found it a real page turner. But those two books are not equal in artistic merit. I don’t need to “like” Ulysses to appreciate the level of genius it took to craft its seemingly endless pages. Similarly, I can understand that Grisham lacks that genius of a literary master and still really enjoy The Firm.”
He goes on to explain that the commercial and popular success of the latter versus the former has largely to do with accessibility. Art like The Firm is contemporary and has few barriers to interpretation, unlike Ulysses, which requires a lot of literary interpretation and secondary literature for its message(s) to be brought to the surface.
However, for Tod, this doesn’t mean a hierarchy of art is possible. The “symbiosis of objectivity and subjectivity” obscures too much for any single ordering to be very widely accepted.
The objectivity is their though, and it comes in through how hard it is to do something. Even if the rest is subjective, this component of virtuosity allows works of art to potentially be judged against one another at least on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Cupp thinks that “truth is not one, but many,” and that, “what we call truth is something both disclosed and created by signification, by the expression of meaning through language, art, music, etc.”
This grasp of many truths establishes a foundation upon which, according to Cupp, he can provide incomplete and circumstantial judgments. However, when these many truths conflict, there is a problem. Specifically because our perceptions differ “due to our respective tastes, affinities, abilities to experience and appreciate the art.”
But also because,
“Each [work of art] has its own meaning, of course, but also its own direction, its own laws and rules and regulations. Each has its own language, its own vocabulary, and its own truth, beauty, and goodness. Each is doing its own thing, apart from all others and even apart from the intentions of the artist and the approaches of those who experience it. The differences here are not absolute, but nor are they insignificant.”
The result is that “it’s possible to compare two works of art, but only by abstraction and with a loss of perception,” precluding Cupp from ever making a final, definitive judgment.
I think art can be good and bad, worse and better, low and high. Not necessarily aesthetically though. Sam’s central point is undeniable. You can’t tell someone they don’t prefer what they prefer (assuming they are in their right mind). However, to the degree that a piece of art is aesthetically pleasing to someone, to the degree that it sensually excites them and they draw pleasure from it, asking whether or not that itself is a good thing seems fair.
In other words, a person might find child pornography aesthetically arresting, but that doesn’t mean we would necessarily encourage, respect, or even tolerate that preference. And to the extent that an individual’s preference is not only considered taboo, but criminal and morally repugnant as well, we seem perfectly fine and willing to render a verdict on the matter. This is Tod’s 3rd bullet point.
But Sam doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, and might accuse me of shoving arbitrary preferences in through the back door. And it might be on this point that the question turns. However, I’ll table the need to ground morality at for this post and simply note that if you don’t buy into moral realism, the idea that we can judge one set of behaviors against another, you probably won’t buy into artistic realism either.
I do though, and while I wouldn’t constrain the criteria for good art by leaving it to the dictates of platitudinous moralizing, I do look to art’s critical and philosophic function as its primary one. And given developments in the “art world” during the past century, it’s hard not to. After all, how do you make sense of the various movements and schools without looking to their philosophically-based critical frameworks?
Recent art appears to be less an aesthetically informed object in itself and instead a comment on or reaction to, something else (including conceptions of what it itself should be). Its function is largely rhetorical with the form, the how of it, being collapsed into the content, or what of it, so that you need to have a working knowledge of formal elements even to be able to understand what the piece of art might be getting at.
In a way it’s like blogging. If you aren’t familiar with some of the standard conventions and courtesies, or with the ongoing discussion into which you’re being dropped, it’s likely you won’t have a good grasp of what the other person is really saying. Except that art, like philosophy or any other specialization of knowledge, is jargon filled and operating in a peculiar sort of market.
Which brings us to Sam’s problem with ranking art. Deeply commercial art forms like film and videogames need to appeal to most people. As a result they need to be accessible, which often means cutting through the intellectualized discourse and simplifying the message. Instead, they need to be driven by pleasure rather than a complex message, question, or commentary. What’s left for the most part then really is a matter of preference. Do you prefer Braveheart or Gladiator? They are certainly different movies, but both star leading men, both are set in the distant past, and both won Best Picture. The themes of both movies are largely the same as well: dealing with loss, subverting the political order, crucifixion.
The same thing happens with videogames. Is Fallout 3 better than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? It really just comes down to whether you prefer guns or swords, nukes or magic, dystopic wastelands or medieval fantasy. Even comparing largely disparate games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Final Fantasy XIII-2 comes down mainly to genre preferences. Do you prefer multiplayer FPSs or single-player JRPGs? That’s because neither is really saying anything that deep or provocative. Both can be very fun, but it depends on who’s playing which.
Now of course this doesn’t stop people from trying to outmaneuver one another. Many JRPG players claim to have better taste than Battlefield players, who in turn claim to be more sophisticated than Call of Duty players. But all of this is a tribalism-driven shell game. The market for these products is driven by people, specifically their subjective experiences with the videogames that are created, so it shouldn’t be any wonder that the world of videogames, and I think film to a large degree (as well as other popular forms of media), is permeated by a sense of artistic relativism.
However, that’s mainly because of the nature of art as entertainment. Art as representation or imitation was ripe for judging. Art as manifesto or internal critique equally so. But art as pleasure, not so much. Which leaves me only with these two thoughts (which I’m sure I’m not the first to have).
If art is to be a meaningful category for describing human creation, simply calling anything that elicits an aesthetic reaction or a pleasurable response art isn’t enough. Which is another way of saying that most popular art is quite useless as art, even if it’s amazingly good as entertainment.
The other thought is that videogame criticism is probably so poor in part because its object provides very little that can be meaningfully critiqued from a non-technical or commercial perspective. I don’t think I’m the only one who would like to see that change.