The Mad Aardvark

Critical commentary on culture…

Archive for the ‘Art & Literature’ Category

Art and Video Games

Posted by madaardvark on July 26, 2010

It wasn’t long ago that Roger Ebert made the assertion that video games could never be categorized as art.  The statement had such a backlash that Ebert had to retract his initial claim and restate it thusly: “[N]o video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”  This, too, has come under fire, and Ebert modified his claim again: “[G]ames could not be high art.”  That is an assertion I can agree with.  However, the idea of what is “high” or “fine” art has a lot of stigmata attached to it: it is elitist, exclusive, pretentious, presumptuous, and conformist.  So say the people who do not study art.

Video games are like drugs.  They produce an inaccurate view of reality.  The more one immerses themselves into the world of video games, the less able to interact with the world around them the players become.  See my post “Theory of Mind in Literature” to understand how this works and why this is a problem.

Keep in mind that I have a rather low opinion of contemporary “art” when I make these claims.  I have seen more value in simpler expressions of things I would consider to be “common” art than in what gallery owners hold up as worthy to show.  The main problem with this is the difference between personal expression and artistic expression, and knowing that there is a difference between the two.  Also, the definition of art tends to be open for interpretation, as Ebert’s discussion on the subject points out.

Few people who study art, though – and I mean the people who study art and art history, not the people who only study the processes by which to produce artistic works – more often than not share similar perspectives.  (Another aside – study need not occur only in a classroom.  Go visit a gallery, read some books on your own, and try to understand something rather than viscerally react to it.)  Generally speaking, Kellee Santiago, who made a grand presentation arguing against Roger Ebert, is close to the mark when she says, “Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.”  Close.  This may include many things that are absolutely not art: advertisements, text books, mnemonic rhymes, and others.  Some people might find a bus schedule to be engaging.  As you can see, this definition is a bit broad and could use some narrowing down. I would add that the communication MUST be done through the artistic medium as opposed to some other, for the sake of communicating the idea as accurately as possible.

Here is an example.  To simply ask, “What kind of god would create evil and suffering in the world?” only states a question.  Should the person asked try to answer it?  Is it only asked rhetorically?  Or is the point only to illustrate the fear and confusion behind the question itself?  However, something entirely different occurs when we read Blake:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Suddenly, the question becomes much more complex and intriguing.  Why is God not mentioned explicitly in that poem?  Why is it so childish in its form and rhyme?  There is power there, gravity and seriousness in those words that are lacking from a simple verbal communication.

For video games to become high art, they would need to do more than simply elicit emotions.  Any Maxwell House commercial can do that.  Also, they would have to do more than simply be crafted and constructed into a pretty package, whether we’re talking about visuals or story.  They need to explore the medium itself and express ideas that could only come by means of the medium.

They would also need to relate a world view that the audience can or will experience in real life, not just in the mind of the creator or within the context of a fantasy world.  Most contemporary art, especially cinema, fails on this standard.  For something like a video game, that explores the realm of fantasy fiction regularly (or even, perhaps, exclusively), that task is even more difficult.  Rod Serling once pointed out that the audience will only believe the unbelievable if human nature stays constant and rational within the context of the story.  (If you have the Twilight Zone DVD set, it’s during the audio commentary to the episode “Walking Distance,” I believe.)

On a side note, I wish more film makers understood that concept.  Visual effects have become so easy to create that things are starting to get out of hand.  There has also been a push towards emotion over logic (Spock be damned), so much so that characterization is based only on emotional responses to things rather than through a character’s rational mind that consists of emotions, logic, and the capacity to regulate the two.  For example, when Batman stopped being wholly, completely in control of his emotional state and started to just emotionally react to everything around him, we lost him as a cultural icon.  But I digress…

Video games elicit emotions without rationality.  They promote “messages” without the internal ability to scrutinize them.  They exhibit craft without the capacity to use the medium itself as a necessary method of communication.  Simple entertainment is not high or fine art; it is just simple escapism.  Escapism does nothing except allow temporary relief from the mundane world and prevents engagement with it.  For these reasons, video games may be considered “art,” but will never be considered…

Fine Art.

Related pages:

Video Games Can Never Be Art

Game Designer Kellee Santiago Responds to Roger Ebert


Posted in Art & Literature, video games | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Science poetry

Posted by madaardvark on July 14, 2010

The human soul is a singularity

existing in theory, but as yet undiscovered,

emitting virtual particles, undetectable,

that can only be observed indirectly

by the effect they have on nearby systems:

the heart, the mind, the world.

We observe the effects,

hypothesize and experiment,

and we call this experiment Art.

Posted in Art & Literature, poetry, science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Daily Distractions – PoMo Poetry

Posted by madaardvark on June 28, 2010

[insert postmodern picture here]

The most fun I have by myself

is reading terrible poetry that

people post on their blogs.  It’s fun

and easy to find.  I am usually

horrified at the postmodern

implications of the phenomenon.

It’s easy to slap together a poorly

planned poem and post it on a blog.

While I was letting the WordPress

Readomatic find random new blog

entries for me, based either on tags

or categories that show up on my

own blog, I see a new poem posted

nearly every five minutes.  Maybe

it’s a Monday phenomenon.  Maybe

people have an urge on a Monday

lunch break to reduce their stress

and find an outlet for their frustrations

by posting a poem about something

unrelated to their boss acting like

an asshole, rather than tell their boss

that he is, in fact, an asshole.  They

would probably help themselves much

more by blogging or even writing a

poem about their shitty boss instead

of the most popular postmodern poetry

themes: their individuality, their love life,

or their secret Christianity.  (For some

reason, everybody wants to write about

Jesus, but nobody wants to admit it.)

Posted in Art & Literature, blog, poetry | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Light Summer Reading

Posted by madaardvark on June 24, 2010

June 16 came and went, and I spent most of the day at work.  This year I made it through the Telemachus chapters of Ulysses and through the first Bloom chapter before Bloomsday was over.  Bloomsday is never the raucous event that I always pretend it’s going to be.  But I kept the day in my heart and made my students listen to the Dubliners while I lectured.  There were a few complaints.

Meanwhile, my daughter poked me in the eye during finals week last semester and I had an eyepatch for a few days.  It was acting up again, so I went to the eye doctor.  She told me that they don’t use eyepatches anymore because they can cause infections.  So much for my Joycean portrait.

I’m on to Hemingway, now, and have been for a little over a week.  Papa makes me feel better about where I am in my struggles and inspires me to move forward despite adversity.  A student came into the Writing Center looking for help with his research paper yesterday, which happened to be on Hemingway.  I don’t believe in destiny or fate, but I do keep my eyes open for synchronicity.  I don’t know how much I actually helped him, but I did open his eyes to Hemingway a little more.  He left with the insight that there is more to Papa than drinking and fishing.

I’ll be teaching Women’s Lit next month, which will be an odd and welcome contrast to the Hemingway I’m reading now.  My sister doubts my qualifications to teach it based on my dislike for Jane Austin, which is strange since I tend to be in the anti-Austin pro-Feminism camp in my analysis.

Here are a few of the women writers I do like:  Mary Wolstonecraft, Mary Shelly, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Willa Cather, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Louise Erdrich, Charlotte Smith, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson sometimes, Maya Angelou occasionally, and Virginia Woolf always.  That’s not a complete list.  It’s going to be an interesting class.

Posted in Art & Literature, books, summer jobs | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Of Pigs and Men

Posted by madaardvark on May 13, 2010

People, please read more than one work of literature in your lives, and stay away from Orwell, especially if you’re politically minded. Everyone always misunderstands Orwell because they think he writes well and they want to agree with him.

Orwell was a communist, through and through. 1984 and Animal Farm are (ironically) about the way people misunderstand and misuse what Orwell saw as true communism for their own purposes, and how the ideals of revolution are ultimately betrayed by new totalitarian regimes.   Neither one is about the evils of communism, and even suggesting that they painted capitalism as the opposing evil to good and pure communism is incorrect.

Even though Orwell knows how to turn a phrase, those works are not exactly considered the height of literature.  Both of those books are severely limited by the time in which they were written and can rarely be applied to contemporary politics. Unless you can take into account the European and American post-WWII, early Cold War, Russian Revolutionary political climate, stop using Orwell to support your OWN culturally limited views.

Incidentally, here is the webpage that had the header picture I borrowed.  A nice blog entry here about postmodernism at its worst.

Posted in america, Art & Literature, books | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

American Purpose

Posted by madaardvark on April 26, 2010

In environments where nothing is beautiful, the elements of functionality and standardization encourage the living body to engage in all kinds of fruitless, purposeless activity, interested only in the aesthetic experience rather than substance or meaning.  It is a revolution and a rejection of formal, day-to-day, purposefully direct activity meant for pure literal productivity and materialist representation.  Even the soul, craving for something more interesting or beautiful than simple practicality in daily living, turns to the religious as metaphor while keeping the ideal of purpose and direction within.  Work, then, in deep boxes made of plastic and textile fabrics, reaches a religious experience: Puritanism returns in the form of work expectation and the beauty of a clear, white, cloud-like afterlife, floating in a blue sky.  Retirement is the Nirvana of American work ethic – dedicated mindfulness of duty to home, employer, God, society.  And Christ provides, typically through magnificent acts of favorable destruction that pays dividends to the honest, upright citizen – one who pays his insurance on time and keeps his premiums low.  We function for ourselves, our families, our companies, the burden of meaning and direction spiraling outward from the individual to the greater whole: the country, the Christ.  The melting pot is one of religious commerce, as each to their own and ability spreads out towards community, communication, commonwealth, capitalism, Catholicism, and corporate hierarchy.  Even those who profess no allegiance to deity or demon contribute to the overall workings of a Christian nation, spreading the value of dollar and deity further and further.  In the hearts and minds, all work and political ties are linked to religion, the thread of a single worker helping weave a tri-colored flag, and each thread made of singular strands of individuality, religion, work ethic, and want, until national identity is composed of all these things, inseparable from one another despite our attempts to ensure otherwise.  For the goal is the spread of ideas and ideals, the encouragement for other flags to keep their colors while adopting our threads and the machines  that make them, the machines that spin them, and the machines that sell them.  In the midst of this overwhelming necessity and drive, this unyielding demand for purpose and direction, this terrible importance of destiny in efficiency, the only escape is through emptiness, thoughtlessness, a void of refreshing oblivion and lack of stressful demands and doomed responsibility.  Impossibility breeds carelessness, ultimate urgency breeds frivolity.

God is a boss that knows our names.  Faceless crowds of people, pushing forward, buzzing, consist of individuals longing for recognition and thanks.  Personal saviors are the foremen and managers that are familiar with us and our work, who know how our efforts contribute to the whole project.  The earthly overseer all too often ignores us, forgets us, and has our checks signed by secretaries with rubber stamps that simulate names of power.  Take this check ye forth and present it, for unto those who believe, the relics of My station, My profits, may be seen as embodiments of My own Self and righteous Name.  I bestow upon the faithful the riches of Heaven.

Posted in america, Art & Literature, poetry | Leave a Comment »

The Sketchbook

Posted by madaardvark on March 10, 2010

When J.D. Salinger died, he left a very detailed list of what to do with all of his writings that were piled up in his safe.  They were mostly broken down into two categories: Publish or Burn.  Hopefully, his living relatives (his wife, I think) will follow those instructions to the letter.

Like any artist, a writer has a collection of sketches that are not meant for publication.  Everyone makes a big deal about DaVinci’s notebook, when in reality it’s full of half-ideas and stupid crap that he didn’t or couldn’t develop into full works of art.  That notebook is only important to art historians who may want to reconstruct idea threads that lead to great works of art or revive lost techniques.  The rest of the world should leave them alone.  DaVinci didn’t want people to try to find out who he was by looking at his private notes.  His importance comes from the finished art he left behind, not the speculations of what his beliefs were.

Artist sketchbooks and writer notebooks are private journals used to experiment with ideas and techniques.  If they’re any good, they’ll see the light of day.  If they’re not, they stay stashed in the artist’s private library as references to future projects, personal notes of progression and achievement, and private thoughts and life reflections.  These are the things that spawn great works of art, but they are not works of art in and of themselves.

So I look forward to whatever it is that Salinger wanted published, and I hope we don’t see some half-completed scribblings that his wife, or anybody else in his family, publishes to make some money.  Each time something like this happens, the world of that artist or writer is turned around and their secrets are exposed.  The art itself becomes less important as the mystery of technique is shown to the world.  Worse, there have been some famous cases of fraud in the works of writers, as some fan or historian tries to pan off a refurbished unfinished manuscript or collection of notes as a complete and authentic work found after the writer was dead (this happened to Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and others).

Posted in Art & Literature | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Theory of mind in literature

Posted by madaardvark on September 14, 2009


I had been reading Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, and I had some reservations about it.  I will have to explain what I perceive that the book is about, and what I imagine that the writer is thinking that I will understand from her perceived idea of who I am and what my background may be.

Why We Read Fiction was published in 2006.  There has been an increasing push in literary studies to draw outside disciplines into the discussion, and Zunshine follows suit by attempting to apply psychology’s Theory of Mind to literary analysis.  The idea behind Theory of Mind is that we have the capacity to imagine that other people are animated by other minds, and that we are able to understand people’s actions based on that imagination.  We are not privy, after all, to the exact thoughts or emotional state of anyone but ourselves, and it requires the ability to intuitively make abstract the subtle information that we receive from them (facial movements, body language, tone of voice, etc.).  Zunshine believes that this has an impact on how we read fiction, that we appreciate fiction because we enjoy the game of imagining hypothetical social situations involving imagined people.  It lets us stretch out brain muscles and get ready for the real thing.

I get troubled by a number of things:

1) Zunshine is writing from the perspective of a student of literature, so she makes no allowances for quality.  Her examples are Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway), Nabokov (Lolita, primarily for shock value), and Henry James (just name it).  Aside from a section at the end of the book about detective novels, she’s entering this conversation by using people who are experts at their craft and are generally encouraging people to respond a certain way, rather than letting people just wander into it.  I do not like the agency of the writers being removed in this fashion.  This is another postmodernist attempt to give the reader the power to do whatever they want with the text.  The closest I see Zunshine getting to quality and writer agency is by suggesting that getting James ‘right’ lets the reader understand a deeper nuance, and thus a richer Theory of Mind experience.

2) She suggests that it doesn’t matter if people are correct or not in their assumptions about the people in a work of fiction for them to enjoy it.  They could be completely wrong in their imaginings of what the characters are thinking, and they would still get something out of the reading, or enjoy the reading simply for the chance to play the imagination game.  I have to disagree.  By misinterpreting those fictional mental states in a work of fiction, the reader is often left confused and angry because the perceived mental states do not make contextual sense.  Again, we need some agency put in the hands of the writer, who, if they have done their job well, will guide the reader through the mental states accurately.  If a reader is not reaching a properly conceived idea of those mental states, either the writer is not doing his/her job correctly, or the reader is unaware of how those mental states could possibly be – either through mental deficiency or through a lack of…

3) …experience.  Zunshine makes no allowances for experience, which is necessary for a proper (or, at least, less likely to be incorrect) Theory of Mind.  The ability to imagine another mind is all fine and good, but that imagining must be based on experience and understanding of both ourselves and others for it to be at all accurate.  If it is habitually inaccurate, how could it evolve into a necessary component of modern human minds?  This, of course, goes back to my previous two points, suggesting that the writer must have the skills necessary to guide a properly ordered mind towards a believable outcome.

4) My final concern is less about content and more about delivery.  Zunshine relies on postmodernist language to deliver her message, which is confused, conflated, and contrived.  First, there is the invented terminology.  I don’t care if Zunshine coined this or the cognitive psychologists did, but I hate reading the word ‘metarepresentationality.’  Seriously, do we need a new word to suggest that I can imagine that someone else has a brain?  Second, and perhaps more importantly to me, I get tired very quickly of Zunshine’s reiteration of ideas by breaking it down into ‘plain old’ English.  I constantly feel like she is saying “HERE are the educated words I use to describe it to people who are LITERATE, and here are the words that I will use to explain it in simple terms, for simple people, like yourself.”  Make no mistake that I can understand her inflated vocabulary.  I read a critical work as though it was meant for me to read, as a peer, and I get offended by the suggestion that she has to dumb down her argument for me.  More likely, if she spoke plainly and directly, she wouldn’t have to explain herself a second time.  She even asks the reader, “why do we need this newfangled concept?”  Newfangled?  Is she intentionally using language that suggests I am an uneducated hick?  Or am I supposed to be on her side of the joke, laughing at the people who just don’t understand her genius?  I get offended because I find myself disagreeing with her, and her approach to any argument against her is to turn to this ‘local dialect’ speak.  Clearly, if you do not agree with her, it must be because you just don’t understand her argument, so she has to dumb it down for you.

She asks early in her work why we assume, in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that Peter Walsh’s shaking is attributed to his mental state and not a physical ailment.  Her naswer is that we automatically assume it’s a mental state because that’s what we do with fiction.  The truth is this:

1) The passage came and went, and was never again mentioned.  The brevity suggests that it is a mental state and not a physical ailment because it is never mentioned again for the rest of the novel.

2) We have known people who have shaken due to emotional distress, or have shaken ourselves.  Knowledge and experience.  Parkinson’s disease is and was a rare thing.  Why would we assume the less likely reason behind something?

3) Woolf is a writer with serious control over her craft, and is writing a novel based on states of mind.  That is, the entire novel deals with what people think or feel while performing actions.  She guides us to that conclusion intentionally through her writing, because she understands what our experiences will imply to us, and she is very good at it.  We were supposed to conclude that based on what was written.

4) I am not an idiot, nor should we assume that anyone reading Mrs. Dalloway is an idiot, nor is Virginia Woolf.

…of course, here is a complaint of mine, for a nice rant to finish off this blog entry.  Poorly written works, including anime and Batman Beyond, have an underdeveloped Theory of Mind.  Simply having a Theory of Mind (or metarepresentationality ability) does not mean that it is developed healthily.  The people who like these works either do not care about the accuracy of mental states in the work or in other REAL people (such as anyone who liked The Dark Knight – the characters could never possibly exist mentally, let alone biographically) or are confused as to the general mental states of others (such as anyone who likes anime).  Good writing does not have to be High Art and Literature, but it does have to maintain a healthy Theory of Mind rather than rely on ‘making a point” and ignoring character development.  This rant will, from now on (thank you for that at least, Zunshine) suppliment previous rants I have had about misunderstanding characterization or motivation, because it’s damned important to the conversation and damned accurate.

Posted in Art & Literature, books | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Contemporary Poetry

Posted by madaardvark on August 7, 2009

I’d like to draw your attention to poetry.  After some sudden life realizations, I’ve decided to turn my energies to active creation rather than active criticism of things that do not deserve the attention.  One problem I’ve noticed that I have with my own poetry is that it isn’t marketable to contemporary audiences.  Now, I prefer art and poetry to reach out to the world and engage it, rather than reach in to my [inner turmoil/masturbatory fantasies/truths only pertaining to me].  Because of my natural aversion to self-expressive diary-diarrhetic word jumbles, my own work tends to get impersonal and sound pretentious.

There isn’t a magic wand I can wave that makes me more approachable, but I have been working on it.  Strangely enough, my whole argument against contemporary poetry is that it is less and less approachable because it is far too personal.  I do not understand what is going on in one person’s mind, and they don’t seem to want to share it. They’re skipping steps on the journey and not telling me what’s left out – they’re leaving out connections in their argument, and that makes it look like they’re jumping to conclusions.  And I think that’s my biggest problem.  Here is an illustration of my point, written by myself.

Love is failure

when wings of

broken butterflies, spinning

in oil at milestone 124, highway 79

fade to onion pulp and neon

relish in warm rancid bowls

in West Virginia.

Now, I personally think that is hilarious.  I have taken a private, personal memory, shared by only one other person, and convoluted a poem with it’s meaning, memory, and no roadsigns to tell my audience what the hell I am talking about.  The next thing that the contemporary poet will do is remove themselves from accountability, never to reveal the big ‘secret’ that the poem sprang from, saying it is because ‘everyone will interpret it how they will,’ but truthfully, it takes away the mystery that the poem relies on.  Or, they will go into overabundant detail, explaining what every word means to them, in order for the poem to take on a meaning beyond the few confusing nonsense phrases the poet vomits onto paper.  It’s about deception, either way.  I want poems to get richer and deeper when I know where they come from, but stand alone without that information because they stand for common experiences rather than the specific event a poet happened to go through personally.

For reading this entire post, I’ll give you a bonus treat.  This link. Enjoy.

Posted in Art & Literature, poetry | 4 Comments »

new directions

Posted by madaardvark on August 5, 2009


I’ve had to reconsider how I’m approaching the world and the craft of writing.  I realize that I have to approach things from a more professional angle.  It’s difficult, though, to maintain composure in the face of hideously insulting artwork.

…There has been some kind of misunderstanding of how artists are viewed by the world.  And the artists are doing everything they can to promote the misconceptions.  I get the impression that the world of art and literature is made up of stage magicians, all hiding  their secrets from an audience that may lose interest if those secrets are revealed.  So the artists perpetuate a mystery of divine inspiration and raw talent.

Am I a traitor to my profession if I give away these secrets to a general public?  Will the other magicians hold it against me later in life?

I have expressed that I dislike pure self-expression in art.  Writing should not be journal entries, no matter how therapeutic it is for the writer.  In fact, I would rather see writers kill themselves, literally, in an attempt to express something to the world about the world.

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