The agony of choice
Since Duchamp opened what we now call “conceptual art” with the submission of his now infamous “Well” to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, the art world has spent nearly a century asking the completely insane and faux-profound question examine: what is art? If a urinal can be a brilliant sculpture, what distinguishes a Rembrandt from some objects that seem to be thrown around a gallery at random – assuming there is a catalog article that contextualizes the fraud?
Unfortunately, the sophomoric approach has enjoyed over a century of dedicated partisanship. Empty art criticism has become the norm, relying on empty philosophy to justify palpably bad art. And the result, as Spencer Klavan recently wrote, is a banana pinned to a wall, or, as one might add, any number of “conceptual works of art” that seem to be about linking bad art with bad “theory” . in the hope that one deficiency will make up for the other (while in fact each one just emphasizes and draws attention to the other).
Klavan would like to get us out of our childish rut and return to questions of form and beauty, order and harmony. We agree on this. In his attempt to find his way back, however, he inadvertently returned to the questions that underlie the entire postmodern art project. He may do it for the right reasons, but it’s a dead end nonetheless.
In short, Klavan wants us to ask ourselves why we are so quick to reject the idea that video games can be art. At first this may sound like just another detour into the Duchamp swamp. But his reasons are clear and I sympathize with them: According to Klavan, video games are “a creative form with rules and restrictions. This enables both community and meaning. “
Let’s go through the more obvious answers first. If video games can be art, why not chess? And if chess, why not checkers? Can MMA be considered an art? And if so, why not Olympic lifting? These are games, after all, and some of them have an undeniable aesthetic component.
We quickly run into the problem of the usefulness of basic distinctions. Games are games and not art. Playing chess on a beautifully made board is still playing a game. Nor will it indicate relative levels of aesthetic merit or development. I happen to find boxing beautiful, and while this is not an everyday view, changing that perception would still not move boxing from the realm of sports to the realm of the arts. At best we say these things are “like an art”.
Similarly, while comparing a novelist to a chess master to highlight his deep understanding of character trajectories or strategic thinking (the if-then movement of actual human action), the metaphor remains limited and only points us to a handful of certain points of comparison.
Distinctions are made for a reason. And while certain aspects of each division can be shared with other, discrete divisions, this is hardly an argument in favor of breaking down obvious distinctions. In addition, such distinctions have evolved for a reason. You could find a game very “artistic”. But again, we should be careful how far we take this claim.
Now we need to examine the intentions. At the center of Klavan’s argument is the idea that video games “are a creative form with rules and restrictions. This enables both community and meaning. “Notice how closely the evaluative, essentially moral, consequence is connected to the purely descriptive. This seems to presuppose an art theory in which moral purpose is more important than aesthetic value. Rather than attempting to reconcile both moral and aesthetic concerns, this implicit theory seems to merely order them (without saying so explicitly) so that the crucial concept is morality and only a blending of aesthetic merit is required.
In other words, Klavan clearly has a goal that shows that he has worked backwards from his ideal conclusion rather than forward from a reasonable argument. It’s not so much a good argument that video games are really an art form. It is more that Klavan likes what would result from this state if it were true.
Conservatives want to re-instantiate “community and meaning”. So video games can be argued to further their essentially political and moral goals (of course, the opposite could be made just as convincing, depending on which games one chooses). As Klavan puts it, “Despite the seeming hopelessness of the age, the gaming mentality inspires consistent effort and action in real life.”
Even if this could be proven, there is no logical connection between it and the idea that video games are really art. Klavan should stick to his moral reasoning about video games without linking them to an entirely separate claim about what constitutes art. The possible use of an inference does not make it legitimate.
Viktor Shklovsky famously said: “There is art to regain the feeling of life. It exists to make things feel, to make the stone rock. “Art enables us to see something, or to see something more clearly, by making it seem strange at first. But to do this, art has to present us with a finished product – not an open experience. Klavan’s argument is roughly the same as that of the postmodernists on the Duchamp, Derrida, and Stanley Fish train.
Art differs from games mainly in that art is presented to us in a finished form. The artist designs his work. The New Critics and the Russian Formalists argued that the artwork cannot be changed because there is some logic or internal entity that would be destroyed if this quatrain was removed or this character tinkered with.
Art and literature are not political. The moment we try to put them at the service of a cause, we suffocate everything that is precious in them.
The artist gives us something to think about. We meditate on Raskolnikov’s motives and layers of self-delusion because his story is established. It cannot suddenly go in another direction. On the other hand, when we play with virtual avatars that need leeway to choose different paths, we also realize that contemplation is no longer practical.
Let’s call this a general rule: the more leeway a work of art gives its characters, the less room its audience has to wander in productive contemplation. When Raskolnikov sometimes refrains from killing the old pawnbroker, there is practically nothing to consider, except for a young man playing with fashionable philosophical ideas in his rented room.
The consequence would be: the more final the portrayal of the characters, the fuller and more rewarding our consideration. We can circle a sculpture in the museum and look at it from different angles. This enables continued contemplation. Likewise, we can reread a favorite poem and expect it to stay the same. Our understanding deepens because we can come back to it. It’s hard to see how this would affect video games.
In fact, part of what makes a lot of postmodern fiction so boring is that its characters don’t make the kind of decisions that the great writers of the past focus on. Instead, the authors adopt various arduous poses and rattle off incoherent allusions or “play” with a multitude of open scenarios, as can be found in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. When they try to give us more to think about, they give us far less.
On the other hand, the exact and complete representation of a situation has a salutary effect, since clarity contributes to action. You can’t act if you can’t see. Understanding a situation means being able to work through it. Acting without understanding is a kind of blindness – like Lear in his madness.
When conservatives make the kind of argument Klavan made, they are essentially telling themselves what they want to hear rather than soberly assessing a situation. That is why I prefer the often brutal realism of Houellebecq to the comforting but no longer legitimate tone of self-confident “conservative” writers. Art and literature are not political. The moment we try to put them at the service of a cause, we suffocate everything that is precious in them.
It has become tempting as the contemporary left has effectively corrupted culture and made art all but impossible to understand the conservative defenses of culture in such a way that culture serves or should serve conservative ends in any way. But that was not how the great art and literature that conservatives admire came about. Dostoevsky was a Christian, but he did not write didactic treatises on morality and appropriate behavior. His novels were not instruction manuals for polite young men handed out at the YMCA barbecue. Therefore Nietzsche could say that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had something to learn.
There is a similar lesson here for conservatives. While some video games may indeed add community and meaning, and while some video games may also “use color, light, sound, and language to convey what it is like to live a human life,” we must refrain from doing so seemingly making profound but ultimately empty substitutions that got us into this mess in the first place. A urinal is not a sculpture and a video game is not a work of art.