Video games and art

in design, musings

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine shared a link to this article about video games and art. It’s long, but worth a read, if it’s something you care about. Or even if it’s not; I’m more comfortable talking about art from a sociological than a philosophical perspective, and I’m not much invested in the question of whether or not video games qualify. But I am interested in media theory and the aforementioned sociological implications of things like art and video games - and this is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in some time.

I thought a lot about the kinds of aesthetic experiences I look for from different kinds of media, and whether or not they’re “art.” Moriarty spends a fair amount of time kind of talking around his definition of art, until he finally pulls out the Schopenhauer. I honestly have no idea whether or not I agree with that definition, it’s so far from the way I approach my life and my cultural consumption that I just kind of squint and shrug. It does remind me of Buddhism though, which makes me wonder whether Moriarty would agree that Buddhist meditation is art. Is anything that gets you closer to giving up desire and imposing your will on the world a kind of art, or is there maybe some other unspoken component to the definition here?

But I’m actually a lot more interested in the definition of art implied by his definition of kitsch - since Moriarty is clear that kitsch is not sublime art, anything that kitsch is, art must not be. And as I agree completely with just about everything Moriarty says about kitsch (I would just add some comments about kitsch’s role in things like shared meaning-making and social signifiers - the lines between high and low art, and the very idea of high art as something that’s “good for you” are fraught with class implications), I find it a lot more productive than contemplating philosophy about the essential nature of human existence in the universe.

so, point by point:

1) “Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.”

Fine art then, must be either not highly emotionally charged - and it seems unlikely that either Ebert or Moriarty would agree that dull art is good art - or its emotions must not be “stock” emotions. The feelings are complicated, and particular, rather than necessarily universal. Small digression re: “universal:” plenty of people declare that great literature touches on universal human concerns, but I’ve found just as many people use declarations like that to exclude literature written by people not like them as not “universal enough” for true greatness. It’s easy to call a work “universal” if it reflects back at you the world you see every day rather than presenting a view of the world you’ve never experienced. That doesn’t mean it will actually speak to the experiences of everyone who might read it. I want better words for what the “universal” sentiment is trying to express about great art.

At any rate, this first characteristic of kitsch suggests that art necessarily involves some level of emotional judgment on the part of the consumer. It should not be immediately obvious to the intended audience how they ought to feel about various objects and themes in the work.

2) “The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.”

There are no tricks, metaphors, or symbolism. “There’s never any doubt about what it is you’re looking at. It’s a leprechaun, and only a leprechaun. It’s Santa Claus, and only Santa Claus.” So, objects depicted in art may not always be what they seem - they might be used as stand-ins for some other object or idea that the artist wants to comment on. It takes careful study, and a certain level of familiarity with the range of ideas the artist is drawing on, to find other possible meanings for a piece of art.

3) “(and most important) Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.”

This is the most important aspect for me, too. With most of the books I read (I spend a lot more time consuming novels than I do most visual art or movies, so this is my basic frame of reference for questions of artistic virtue), I know going into it what I’m going to get out of it. The pieces I expect line up in the ways I expect, with the outcomes I expect. Not in all details, that would be too boring to be enjoyable, but the outlines are familiar. It’s entertainment, to pass the time or to help me relax. But then sometimes I want something different from a book than to be comforted or made happy. So then I read something else - Nabokov, or Garcia Marquez, or Helen De Witt’s The Last Samurai (no connection to the movie. also, read it!). Or one of Ursula Le Guin’s “great” novels, like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed.

When I read one of these books, I want several things. Primarily, I want to be changed. I want to come out of the reading experience seeing something differently, thinking about it differently, feeling about it differently. While I read, I want to be able to stop and feel the contours of my mind shifting. The other thing I want is a kind of richness, and layering of meaning, that means if I come back to the book later, that I will see it differently. The shifting happens all over again, because of the other changes that have happened to me since the last time I read it.

And I can’t really think of any video games that have given me those kinds of experiences. I am what you might call a “casual gamer,” but I live with the other kind and have certainly seen quite a few video games being played. I guess playing lots of first-person shooters might change me, but not in a way I’d particularly like. The closest I’ve ever come to this artistic experience from a game is don’t shoot the puppy. Playing it was a surprisingly intense emotional experience for me, that became almost meditative. The fact that don’t shoot the puppy is fundamentally about inaction does suggest a certain support for Moriarity’s argument, but it’s just one data point.

I did play Braid, one of the games frequently put forward as a candidate for art, and while playing it definitely stretched my brain, it stretched it the same way solving a difficult programming problem does, not the way, say, Borges does. Somehow I don’t think Moriarty’s definition is what Donald Knuth means by art.

TL;DR: Here’s a song about art