Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 3, 2012
A substitute drama teacher once told me about an experience he had seeing a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. As the play progressed, his laughter apparently annoyed a couple of older women behind him – who had not even chuckled once. Finally one of the women leaned forward and hissed at him. “Young man, would you mind not laughing? We are trying to appreciate the play.”
He answered, “Ma’am, if you aren’t laughing, you are not appreciating the play.”
I sometimes worry that people – like the old ladies in the story – react to art in a particular way because they are supposed to, as told by the gatekeepers of the medium, unable to penetrate the layers of criticism and commentary to really get to the core of the experience – the communication of the artist to his audience. We’ve built up this huge *thing* surrounding art, filled with mystique and expert opinion (and, frankly, snobbishness) and history that we fail to realize the simplicity at the heart. We fail to appreciate it for what it is, rather than what it is supposed to be.
I also sometimes wonder if the “greats” of art were truly, objectively great, or if we’ve just set them up as cultural gods that are unattainably perfect simply because nobody can be Shakespeare except, well, Shakespeare, and he’s been gone for hundreds of years. If somebody truly of Shakespeare’s stature and skill were alive today, he’d likely be some lead writer in the writer’s pool for a TV series being dictated the beats by a manager. Don’t think so? I don’t know if this was too far from how he operated back in 1592. He was blasted and (more frequently) ignored by critics in his day. I like to imagine that the common conversation in London might go, “Well, Shakespeare certainly writes a popular play that appeals to the groundlings and can be enjoyed as casual entertainment by the upper class, but he certainly does not create art.”
Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic genius was only beginning to be recognized by the time he died, and his fame grew in the early 20th century. Now, his skill undoubtedly grew over his troubled lifetime, but it seems to me that a lot of the view of what makes “art” (or great capital-A Art) is simply dictated by some gatekeepers who brand themselves as experts. But getting that recognition – just like getting recognition for anything else – takes a combination of skill, hard work, time, marketing (on somebody’s part), and just pure luck. Probably all in more-or-less equal measure. And in the capital-A Art world, it usually takes being dead, too.
I finally had the opportunity to visit the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay Museum in Paris the last summer, and see some of the original greats (including Van Gogh). And… okay, I ain’t gonna lie. I was pretty surprised at how moved I was by many of the pieces. Not necessarily the ones I expected (though Van Gogh’s originals in the Dorsay Museum were among them). I was impressed by the Mona Lisa, but it was far from the most impressive piece (to me) there. It was an absolutely amazing experience, and I don’t think it some sort of self-induced endorphin rush caused because I subconsciously thought I was supposed to be moved. Really, some of the most moving pieces there for me were some statues and busts from the Roman Empire. It really drove home the fact that these were real people, people who I might meet on the street today, save for the minor fact that they haven’t been around for two thousand years.
The thing that was driven home to me was that art is about communication. Communication of ideas. Reflections of the real world, or visions of other worlds, from other people’s perspective. Paintings may be purely representational – shooting for what we now think of photographic quality – or not, but regardless the artist uses a mastery of skill to present symbolic shorthand to communicate to our brains. Up close and magnified, a beautiful portrait may appear as little more than splashes of color (Van Gogh slathered the oils on pretty thick), but at appropriate distance our brain makes the cognitive leap and sees not only the represented images, but meaning. The viewer or audience is invited to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
It’s this last part that makes art, like any other form of communication, a two-way process. One might even say that it makes all art… interactive. A skilled artist – of any medium – is both craftsman and communicator. But the person on the other side receives it in their own way, and makes their own interpretation based on their own life experiences, tastes, values, and even their own familiarity with the medium.
I look at the painting above (Starry Night Over the Rhone), and I see a lot that is not literally in the painting. I even hear noises – the sound of the water lapping at the river bank, perhaps the echo of laughter carried over the water from one of the many lit buildings, perhaps the boat scraping up against the mud of the bank as the waves push at it. I put myself into the scene, and it is the talent of the artist that invites me to do this. I get a feeling of time and place. I’m transported.
Is it really so different from this?
Or, for that matter, this?
As I suspect the kind of presumption that allows one to become a gatekeeper for the Art world likewise precludes one from becoming an expert in the video games world, I doubt we can expect a definitive answer on this in our lifetimes. Or, really, ever… because I think there’s way too much subjectivity (and job-protection / justification) taking place to allow it.
Comparing a painting you pick up at a local art festival to the Mona Lisa isn’t really gonna fly. Again – the gatekeepers have deemed the latter perfect, so nothing can exceed or even equal it by definition. But it doesn’t mean that a local artist’s efforts isn’t art. Or that the person creating magazine ads for Campbell’s Soup isn’t an artist. It’s comparing apples to oranges. And comparing the Mona Lisa to Dwarf Fortress? That’d be comparing apples to lawn chairs. Sophie Houlden, over the weekend, wrote an amusing parody of some of these arguments.
An ivory tower erected around certain established art forms, and while it’s fun to argue the points, it’s going to take a generation or two of such arguing before gatekeepers might allow it to accommodate a new medium. Just the way it is. But that’s largely an academic matter. In the meantime, how much does it matter? Do we have artists whose self-worth is dictated by whether or not what they do is deemed “worthy” by certain critics? Perhaps. All I can say is that I don’t know when I’m ever going to have the chance to visit the Louvre again, and take in those brilliant masterpieces. But I’m going to be playing brilliant masterpieces of game development for the rest of my life. And as much of a jaded veteran of the gaming scene as I am, I do still know how to appreciate them.
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