Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TV, video games, art, artistry, craft and the answers to all your questions.

I have come down from the mountain with wisdom for you, my children. I am going to define "art," and then discuss how TV almost never is, video gaming isn't yet (possibly never may be), and why you don't need to worry about it. Unless, of course, your art requires you to worry about it. In that case, get your muse on. Ready for the definition? Here we go:

Art surprises through artistry.

There you go. You can thank me later. But first, in my timeworn manner, I will elaborate at great and (probably) unrequired length. Let's start with a definition of "artistry," which is much easier than "art." According to Merriam, artistry is, "the artistic quality of effect or workmanship" and/or "artistic ability." To rephrase, it is the results of a reasonably effective attempt at art, or the skills required to generate such. That is, you cannot create "art" without "artistry."

I would argue, though, that artistry does not guarantee art. We have all seen marvelously rendered oil paintings that clearly demonstrate "artistry" -- what I would also call, "craft skills" -- but which are less art than, well... craft. It takes a not inconsiderate amount of skill to create a lifelike representation of a bowl of fruit in oils, but the construction isn't necessarily art, is it?

On the other hand... there can be no art without some (I think) artistry. We can argue about the level required, of course. There is primitive art and modern art and non-representational art that many of my friends would call "bogus" or "crap art" (mostly code jockeys and other engineering types... sorry, but it's true). The idea that a stick of wood can be painted blue and hung at a 38-degree angle on a white wall and called "art" insults their sense of responsibility. The term "art" seems to imply gravity--cultural, intellectual, emotional, etc. A work of art with little or no (obvious) artistry is, to them, not art but, well... marketing.

There is certainly a range of artistry that can go from "not art" -- a "No Parking" sign requires some level of craft-- through "bad art" and up to "great art," and we can (and will, because it's fun) yap on and on about what makes one work bad, good, better or great. But the line between "not art" and "art" is, I think, defined by the word "surprise."

A great "No Parking" sign can impress through artistry. As can a wonderful recipe, the design of a piece of furniture or an elegant shoe. But impressive artistry is not art; it is craft.

When, however, an artist surprises us through the use of artistry... that is, I believe, art. It requires a grasp of craft not as a way to guide us towards a foregone conclusion, but to take us to a place that isn't necessarily logical or expected.

Let me be clear about my definition of "surprise" in this case, too. I don't mean "startle." A great horror film can use many elements of artistry to scare the bejesus out of us. The skills of the writer, cinematographer, director and actors can come together and make us jump and scream. But that is not surprising; it is startling and (maybe) frightening. The difference between startlement and surprise may be, in the case of horror books and films, the difference between artistry and art. It is not as hard to startle. You can startle someone by clapping behind them unexpectedly or putting a rat in their burrito. Fear, though, is harder. We'll get to that again in a minute.

When we read a great book or see a wonderful film or hear terrific music, part of what impresses us is, clearly, the craft. But if the work takes our minds to a new place -- with regard to the elements of that craft -- we have art. I love good poetry for just this reason. It uses the same old words we've had all along, and puts them together in a way that makes me think, "Yikes. That's a whole new way of seeing that concept."


I believe, for myself, that TV has finally had an artistic moment. That is, where the craft of television -- as distinct from film, music or theater -- has created something that truly surprises the viewer through the manipulation of purely (or at least mostly) television-specific craft. That show is "Mad Men."

There is a great deal to love about "Mad Men" in terms of craft. It is beautifully written and shot, and the acting is quite good at times. But the full impact of the show doesn't come from the appreciation of the craft of making TV: it comes from the viewer being surprised by and through the use of that craft. In words I used recently when talking about the show: "I didn't know TV could do that."

Have there been other great TV shows? Yes. Clearly. And many of them have been "art" in that they were "art broadcast on television." I'd argue that "All In the Family" was art... but it was, essentially, theater created for television. It was at its best, often, during simple, single-shot dialogue and character development moments. Which is an art that is carried over from film and theater.

Perhaps another way of describing what I mean is to say that successful art uses the language of its craft to say surprising things that couldn't be said in any other medium.

"Mad Men" could not be a movie. Yes, you could watch it on a big screen, and watch it in longer chunks. But then it would just be a TV show on a movie screen. Just like watching "Casablanca" on your TV isn't "the art of television," but "the art of film viewed on your TV."

I may do another post about why I think "Mad Men" is art, but, for now, I'll assume you agree with me.

This thought string was spurred, to some degree, by a recent "London Review of Books" article about video games titled, "Is it Art?" It's a good article. The author clearly isn't as steeped in the world of games as... well... many gamer-writers, because he says some stuff that belies a more simplistic view of what videogames are. Don't get me wrong: it's a great piece, especially for other non-gamers. But when he says "video games" he means A-List XBox, PS3 and Wii titles. Much of the work being done near the border of "games as art" is in tiny little games being created by individual programmers and small, indie publishing houses.

The author, John Lanchester, poses the question "is it art?" about video games, and points at some recent titles that might come close. Near the end, he posits that games might become art when they give their users creativity tools, or, "...through the beauty and detail of their imagined worlds, combined with the freedom they give the player to wander around in them." I disagree.

The first idea--giving users creativity tools--is clearly a craft or artistry consideration. It's cool to have a game/toy/thing that lets me create stuff. Maybe what I'll create may, someday, be art. But it won't be "game art." It will be "art that I created using game-y tools." Unless, of course, I create a game that is art.

Which would be... what? Well, by my definition, it would be a video game that surprises us through the use of purely game-specific craft. So, that second idea of Lanchester's--the beauty and detail of imagined worlds--will be (or is) "art within a game" rather than "game as art." Like seeing a beautiful painting on TV.

Can a video game, then, be art? "Ludus gratia ludi?" I'm not sure. I've been watching TV for about 40 years, but until two years ago, didn't believe any of it had risen to the level of art. It could take gaming that long to get to the point where the use of game craft surprises me in ways that would be impossible elsewhere. Not surprised by the level of the craft--the beautiful graphics, interesting mechanics, smooth UI--but by the result inside my wee haid. By what it makes me think.

I'm waiting.

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