Art, identity, and criticism: A miscellany


There's been a subtle confluence of things in my mind recently, so I might as well tighten up the loose connections and write about them. And if it's disjointed, well, so it goes.

First, I'm reading through Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, a deeply interesting book with a few intriguing flaws. One of them is his section on modern art, whose crisis he attributes to the modernist-postmodernist (hereafter, MoPoMo) denial of human nature. Specifically, he cites research to suggest that humans have an innate, if rudimentary, aesthetic sense, that MoPoMo art explicitly rejects and that's why most people hate it:
Postmodernists were even more dismissive. Beauty, they said, consists of arbitrary standards dictated by an elite.
Having watched more than a few episodes of Art21, I can tentatively confirm that a lot of postmodern artists are self-important hacks, but then again I think all artistic movements feel like a herd of self-important hacks from the inside. Earlier in the chapter Pinker even stipulates that "good" art is often found in the past because there's simply more of the past to look in.

My art history is definitely amateurish, but I get the sense that modernism isn't a style so much as an era of art, with many attendant styles and philosophies. In some ways art is like mathematics, in that their histories seem to skew closer to "great man" than "trends and forces"—certainly social conditions must be just so for a given artist or art form to flourish, but once a "great artist" emerges, people tend to glom on and copy. You see this in literature and music, too: bands often copy the style of their popular predecessors or contemporaries, and writers freely pilfer devices or structures. Hell, I'm actively doing that on this blog, in subtle ways. (Try to guess how!)

In any event, I suspect that Pinker may be biased from his position in East Coast academia, where bizarre and silly things happen seven times before breakfast every day. Or maybe I'm just a rube.


Speaking of herds of self-important hacks: game journalism. #jokes

Consumers of video games and geek culture may have heard recent news about a truly tremendous typhoon of feces that blew about the "gaming community" recently. As I write this post it's still going on. It need not be synopsized here, other than this: part of the fallout seems to be the assertion that "gamer" is no longer a valid identity. Well, it's long past time for that particular conclusion, though I'd say it's not so much death as dilution.

"Video game" is a medium, not a style, not a genre. To say "Yeah, I'm a gamer" certainly conjures some stereotypical imagery, but parsed literally it's about as information-rich as "Yeah, I'm a reader." Because "book" is a medium, not a style, not a genre. "Motion picture" is a medium, not a style, not a genre.

One could draw a crude analogy: in medieval Europe, "reader" was a relatively information-dense identity, since most readers were also Catholic and either rich or monastic. As such they shared a lot of common culture. (And just so happened to impress their whims upon the rest of the non-reading population—this is sort of where the analogy breaks down.) But once the printing press was invented, books became cheaper and easier to make, and indie devs (well, authors) started popping up all over the place. Of course, one of the first prominent groups were anti-Church or anti-King agitators, and naturally that rustled the jimmies of the extant group of "readers." (But no, Gone Home is absolutely nothing like the 95 Theses. Let's not go that far.) In any event, fast-forward a few centuries and "reader" means nothing else but that you read "books." (With a slight bias towards "I read books more frequently than the average person in my sphere of reference.")


The other problem is a lack of solid criticism for games. At least literature had a long, long history of criticism and aesthetics before the printing press gave that medium to the masses. And we're still sort of working out the kinks: see this post about the aesthetics of science fiction novels.

But do we have a solid aesthetics of first-person shooters? Puzzle platformers? Adventure games? Real-time strategy? No, we're still stuck in what a "game" should do or be, with a few interesting forays into the deeper norms. (Check out this Gamasutra post, comparing video game graphics to classical art and deeper human aesthetics. Now that's confluence.)

We need a Reformation in gaming, or a Great Awakening (maybe a Great Disappointment) or some other superficial religious-history metaphor. It's past time for the wider populace to understand that different genres of gaming do different things. We simply don't expect science fiction novels (properly understood as adhering to the genre of sci-fi, not just appropriating the form and trappings) to do the same work as 50 Shades of Gray (properly understood as adhering to the genre of erotica, &c. &c.), and if a novel tries to do both, it will probably be confused and bad. We already know that games that mix up too many tropes and trappings from different gaming-genres often have an identity crisis (e.g. first-person or 3-d platforming sucks, as a general rule). Maybe we should also ask which messages are best served by (or embodied in) what genres.

So what I'm trying to say is, it's all terribly confusing. But if someone wants to start working on a critical theory of action role-playing games or whatever, send me a rough draft.

The trouble with revolutionary movements, in three quotes

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
Somehow I don't think the first two stop being true even after (mis)applying the third. And one wonders why various revolutionary movements seem to spin their wheels and fall apart so often throughout history.