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‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by drayfish

bioshock screen grab

IMAGE: Bioshock (Irrational Games)

A few weeks ago I was checking in on one of my favourite interwebby gatherings (here) to recharge myself with the spirited and welcoming discussion of the fine folks who call it home.  Them’s good people.

In the midst of one of many conversations about the expressive potential of the videogame medium, one of the contributors referenced a blog, in which the writer, known as J. Shea, dismissed the validity of videogames as art.  Now, of course, there is nothing new there – indeed, at this point that is a tediously familiar drum for naysayers to beat – but I do feel rather compelled to speak to the second half of Shea’s argument, in which, in his misguided attempt to rescue the term from the debasement of videogames, he offers one of the most depressing, and misjudged attempts to define Art that I have ever seen (‘Stories in Games: A Survey of Quality’, from Exploring Believability).

And so – and I mean this sincerely – if you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to the angry spittle of a very grumpy, very rambling man, shouting as if there were kids on his lawn, I encourage you to skip the post I am about to inflict upon you and continue on with your life.  I should also point out that while I am directing this response at Shea’s blog, it is not he himself that I am trying to attack (indeed, I have no idea who he is) – it is instead the mindset that he is espousing – an opinion of Art that I have heard elsewhere before, one that arrogantly disparages the capacity for certain mediums to even be considered Art, and posits that ‘worthy’ texts cannot, by necessity, be pleasurable…

You see, an hour before I was introduced to Shea’s blog post, I had been reading Jane Austen’s Emma and feeling happy.

I’m not teaching a class on it.  I’m not writing an article (well, I’m now about to use it as a petty cudgel, but you get my point…)  I was just enjoying the book.  Indeed, if I were to draw up a Venn diagram of that experience, it would be a perfect circle: Pleasure and artistic appreciation perfectly overlapping each other into an uninterrupted pie.

But then I read Shea’s piece – a piece that reasons (with some extremely narrow examples and some tiresomely reductive presumptions) that all videogames serve one specific purpose; and that logically this purpose does not fit into some his definition of what ‘Art’ is.

You know, true ‘Art’.  …Whatever that is supposed to mean.

It was at that point that I got sad.

I was discouraged firstly because (as all too frequently happens in commentaries like these) the parameters of what constitutes a ‘videogame’ had been so narrowed as to be utterly meaningless except in the unhelpfully specific battleground of this writer’s own head.  Here, the span of the ‘videogame’ medium – everything from handheld games diddled about with on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, to worldwide multiplayer behemoths that give rise to competitive sports, to immersive narrative epics that allow players to invest in and influence fictions across several years, to innovative downloadable games designed to engage their player in as-yet unexplored experiential dialogues between audience and text – had been arbitrarily reduced to Spec Ops: The Line, the first Bioshock, and Final Fantasy 8.

Somehow, all videogame narrative was thereby summarily reduced to nothing more than the pursuit of, and justification for, ‘cool stuff’.  All game narratives are slaves to their designs, Shea argues, and those designs are dictated by trying to load the experience with fun: explosive action, hilarious things to try, transitory playful indulgence…  Cool stuff.*  I mean, I’m sure I need not even bother to make this analogy, but that would be like reducing all poetry that has ever been written down to ‘the pursuit of rhyme’.  It’s a single element, of some verse.

…No, that’s fine.  Be sure to explode a single element out to make sweeping generalisations of the whole form.  That’ll be helpful.

But again, what I find most sad here is not that once more someone is ignorantly demanding that an argument still needs to be made for videogames to sit at the grown-ups table of Artistic potential**, it is that now it seems Art itself needs to be defended as being fun.  Because this piece not only unfairly maligns videogames as being unable to express anything of worth, it also reveals a wholly depressing (and frankly rather juvenile) misconception about what Art itself actually is.

Fundamentally, the blog posits that something fun, something designed to elicit pleasure in its audience, cannot therefore be Art.  Art, it argues, should instead be solely concerned with offering dry philosophical treatises, and compelling its audience to muse upon the deeper, important issues of life.  The example offered by the post is that Art must speak of human ‘isolation’ – a peculiarly specific, and tediously limiting dictate that is never helpfully elaborated upon.

But this notion, delivered in such an earnest, simplistic manner, is so patently ridiculous, and so at odds with the entire history of artistic creation and consumption, that I scarcely know where to begin.  (Literally, I’ve re-written the next paragraph several times now because I am dumbstruck by the absurdity of this concept…)

So if there is anyone out there who needs to be disabused of this notion, please take my word for it: Art is not some sombre, distanced, privileged means of expression intended to tower over its audience, dictating to them from afar what emotions and truths are appropriate to be explored, what experiences are worthy of exploration, nor that those experiences, by necessity, are not allowed to be fun.

At no point did Huxley, when he sat down to write Brave New World, say to himself, ‘Now, how do I make this book as tedious and unenjoyable as possible so that when students are forced to read it, they will know that it is “Art”, and not anything that they should bother to enjoy?‘  And (as my recent experience of reading Emma reminds me) when people gathered to read Jane Austen as a family by the fireside in years past, nobody was cursing their luck, lamenting, ‘Awww… damnit.  Now we have to learn something…’

Art talks with its audience.  It doesn’t condescend to them.  It’s not meant to frighten people away or stare down its nose.  It’s meant to invite its audience  in.  To start a conversation.  And that dialogue begins, frequently, in pleasure.  After all, you cannot delight, bewilder, or excite someone by making them feel unworthy of the attention (unless of course you are trying to make them feel small and unworthy – but not everyone is Ayn Rand).

What this blogger’s argument is essentially positing is that there is an absolute and necessary distinction between Art and fun.  In the Venn diagram of Pleasure and Worthy Artistic Expression, the two circles cannot overlap, because under such a severe definition indulgence becomes the kryptonite of insight.  By this logic, my reading of Emma is really only about me nodding along knowledgably as a young woman comes to know the truth of herself and her misapprehensions about life and love.  I’m certainly couldn’t be enjoying  it.  And Austen must have only written it to act as a turgidly instructive morality tale – definitely not to entertain.  Right?

So how, then, does Camus’ The Stranger – one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – not diminish itself because it injects a detached humour into an examination of human existentialism?  Because that’s fun, isn’t it?  How can there be fun in such a bleak, important narrative?  Surely Camus cannot have wanted to amuse his audience?  That really would be absurd…

What about Annie Hall?  A phenomenal piece of filmic Art – smart, snappy, with a statement to make about human experience and the metatextual potential of film  …Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy that is enjoyable as hell.  Does that not qualify?  Or Fight Club?  Whether you like the message or not, it is a text that speaks to human alienation and the loss of self in a progressively mass-marketed world – but again, it is one spectacularly fun film to watch…

annie hall screen

IMAGE: Annie Hall (United Artists)

Even in the examples that he chooses to (I think rather naively) offer, his argument doesn’t hold up.  His predictable mention of Hamlet?  …Yeah, because Shakespeare never wrote comedies, nor was acutely attuned to the commercial appeal of his work…  Please.  He was the most successful producer of his age.  He knowingly tailored every one of his plays to the dictates of his audience and their pleasure.  After all, there’s a reason that the stage is littered with corpses when Hamlet finally shuffles off his mortally coiled up bits: his audience loved it.  They – and we – loved them some gore, and watching the grand procrastinator go out in a blaze of furious, anarchic double-crosses and slaughter was an almighty ironic thrill.  One of the greatest disservices to Shakespeare’s legacy is this ignorant misconception that he was some cloistered poet genius, hermetically sealed away from his audience.  In complete contrast, the man was a masterful reader of his viewers – one who knew how to sculpt work that dually appealed to fans of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art (whatever those distinctions might mean on any given day), creating something transcendent in the merger.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses might appear (to those who haven’t read it) to be rather daunting – filled with austere allusions and literary reverence – but in actuality it’s hilarious, and (although I’m sure many won’t believe me) actually a great deal of fun.  Joyce peppered the work with a great deal of comedy and smut and farce.  Well before Leopold Bloom wigs out in a brothel, even before his masturbatory jaunt on a beach (set to the percussion of fireworks), he decides to use the bathroom.  After breakfast he retires to his outhouse, where he sits to evacuate himself (in fairly graphic description), and while doing so reads a published piece of fiction.  He finishes the work, considers whether he might one day write one himself, and then tears out a page of it to wipe himself clean.  Art, even for Joyce, was not some remote, esteemed relic; frequently it is made to serve humanity’s most base and immediate needs – just as it does for Bloom.

And that, frankly, is what every artist worth a damn is trying to do: Art has always been inextricably bound to entertainment; artists have always tried to delight as well as communicate deeper truths.  This didactic, professorial notion of artistic statements that Shea (and those who would subscribe to such a premise) is proffering does not actually exist beyond clichés of beret wearing, red wine sniftering, art house cafes fantasised to have existed in the beat generation.

People might yawn now at the stiff pageantry of an ancient fresco, but those sanguine images were profoundly moving to their original, intended audience – not because they made ‘declarations about what life is’, but because they communicated the unutterable sublime.  Should Monet be struck from the record as a failed artist because his imagery failed to speak to human isolation, as this article describes?  He crafted scenes of luminescent elegance and a hyper-real surfeit of colour within which viewers could lose themselves, utterly enchanted – but he never did say anything ‘valuable’ about social interaction, so I guess he sucks too.  Staring into one of Goya’s darker frames can be like making a smoothie out of Saw 1 through 4 and chugging it down for the brain freeze – because it too was designed to affect its audience with a fearful, unnerving thrill.

In fact, the attitude of this blogger exhibits everything that is wrong with the pretentiousness that sours people from engaging with literature and fine Art.  Art is not – and should never be – a chore.  Putting gaming and appreciating Art on two sides of a spectrum that cannot touch, driving a wedge to separate them in the Venn diagram of expression, is dishearteningly ignorant.  Just because something is joyful does not mean it cannot be achieving an artistic end; just as solely because something is delicious doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy.

Such smug divisiveness has no place in legitimate artistic discussion.  Picasso can legitimately be appreciated for using bold, striking colours; Mendelssohn can just be enjoyed as beautiful melodies; Beckett can just be some hilariously weird stuff on a stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Art as entertainment, and nothing wrong with seeing in the realms of entertainment the potential for great Art.***

If this blogger’s argument were simply that games don’t operate like novels, then fine.  No argument here.  In fact: well done on pointing out a basic compositional reality.  I would like to add to the redundant observation pile that it is likewise difficult to paint a sonata, or to rhyme a photograph…  But this commentator said ‘Art’ – and that is simply too wide and magisterial and necessarily inclusive a terminology that it makes such disparaging and choking restrictions hysterically inadequate.****

So the problem is not that games don’t qualify as Art.  Ultimately the issue is precisely what this writer says in his opening paragraphs (without comprehending the irony in his statement): people bring their own definitions of Art with them.  And sometimes (as this blogger does) those people unjustly and naively attempt to dictate to everyone else what those narrow parameters should be.

This blogger not only sets up a reductive, unjust and impossible standard that he arbitrarily declares videogames to have failed, he further goes on to reduce the whole definition of ‘Art’ to such narrow subjective terms, wholly defined by his own ignorance (perhaps it would be kinder to say naiveté), that the entire discussion dissolves into irrelevance.  One ends up arguing with his personal limitations rather than the issue at hand.  One may as well be playing ‘What am I thinking?’

And if he cannot be bothered to even entertain the idea that his understanding of either topic might need expanding, or that his proudly arbitrary dismissal is a dead end rather than the invitation to debate he mistakenly believes it to be, it seems an exercise in futility trying to disabuse him of the several misapprehensions he has embraced.

Personally, I think it’s sad if this writer cannot see the pleasures in Art, or if he views only frippery and indulgence in games, but both are his right.  I would hope that one day he could outgrow such antiquated notions – both in his approach to videogames (which are, frankly, a rather easy target when their history is still so brief, and continues to test the potentialities within the limitations of their form), but even more so in his approach to the possibilities of Art.

Ultimately, however, videogames are far wider and filled with more potential than he seems to be aware; and moreover, Art is not the comically rigid canon of austere anachronism that he has dreamed up.

So considering that he seems to be unable to show any comprehension (let alone definition) of either ‘videogames’ nor ‘Art’, I would think it wise for him to not get so presumptuous in dismissing the possibilities of either.  Indeed, the very fact that he even equated ‘Art’ with ‘Narrative’ in so simplistic a one-to one-ratio in the first place is probably indication enough that his argument at present, has little to add to this debate.  In that Venn diagram his comments don’t even cut a sliver out of the sprawling, multifaceted, incomprehensibly vast pie that is Art…

[EDIT: To his credit, J.Shea responded to this post, and our discussion continues in the comments section below…]

File:Claude Monet - Springtime - Walters 3711.jpg

IMAGE: Springtime by Claude Monet (1872)

* One might well direct his attention to the purposefully dour and laborious game Cart Life to cure him of that misconception.

** Note I said ‘potential’, not unalienable right.

*** Although the music of Bruce Springsteen will in any context, at any time, be considered Art.

**** Indeed, if one wanted to be intentionally petty to this blogger (and perhaps I do), one might even categorise some of the examples he provides of his favourite videogame catch-phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (so hip and surprising and revolutionary), with ‘dramatic irony’ in fiction (one of the oldest and most familiar forms of narrative self-reference in human history).

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