The Surface of Art

I wax a bit philosophical about Art and its relation to video games. This was prompted by Brian Moriarty’s “Apology for Roger Ebert” at GDC.

Art is the surface of water between stillness and chaos. It is what exists between the sudden splash and the soft stillness.

When chaos subsides, we find art in the after-pause. No great art is created in the midst of a war. No fine lines are drawn in an earthquake. But when the dust has settled and we have time to look, we can see great beauty, tragedy, comedy or humanity. This is where art can flourish.

When stillness pervades, we find art in the splash. When apathy or tradition dam up humanity into a stagnant pond, great art can punch through the stones and create sweeping waves of inspiration. More subtly, it can be casting an object into a still lake, a quick splash here but the ripples spread all over. The object might be a porcelain urinal, a babbling Irishman, a deformed monstrosity, or a goddamned mess, whose sudden entrance to the stillness may be seen as absurd, or as the discarding of trash. But the casting of today’s trash can be history’s treasure.

Art through the ages, I think, has – to a degree – understood the relationship between stillness and chaos. You can see it in the stone sculpture that looks like it’s alive, dried painted eyes that follow you around the room, fixed words on a page whisking drawing you through old London town, coils of celluloid recreating the movement of life in the same way forever. For the most part, however, we have leaned on a tradition that the Thing of Art (the artifact) is still. A sculpture is made of stone. Paint is dry. Type is set. Film is cut into its final edit. Even in the performing arts, there is the idea of the script, the choreography, the notes. Where these artifacts escape their stillness, there you find art. As the postmodernists rightly point out, the audience see movement and the chaos in this stillness, and thus the art. The artifact is not the art. Nevertheless we say that the person who created the artifact, created the art. They are the artist.

Enso Black 8/20

Buddhists have recognized this sort of thing throughout the universe. As the philosopher Alan Watts put it, stillness and chaos “go-with” each other. They rely on each other for existence. You can’t have one without the other, and to focus on one to the exclusion of the other is detrimental. Too much stillness is stagnation. Too much chaos is noise. The Middle Way balances both stillness and chaos, and understanding this relationship is where Art is.

In a play, there is a script and direction. Actors may faithfully but methodically reproduce this and it might be entertaining or insightful, but it won’t be art. They may forget all their lines and ad-lib like crazy, which again may be delightful and moving, but it won’t be art. The best play is one faithful to the script, but each actor brings something of their own.

So in a circuitous way, we come to today. The dominant creative industry (in terms of cash flow) is video games. It’s new money as the industry is still young. Even the “Old Money” people like EA have to fight for their income. We can draw parallels to writing, illustration, cinema and song. We wonder if perhaps games too can be art. Roger Ebert (and Brian Moriarty) say no. Others say yes.

I think we are in great chaos. ¬†The computer industry is one of the most disruptive and disrupted industries the world has ever seen. People can buy hardware and software that can provide any artistic outlet you’d want, for ever dropping prices. The Internet age means that anyone can show their art to anyone, anywhere, any time, on any device, to numbers that we can hardly fathom. Computer games can replicate experiences seen in other medias, and are slowly shaking off the artifice of their own nascent forms. As an art form, we haven’t yet had the chance for the chaos to die down for us to experience the art that is the new computer life. We don’t really understand what we’re working with.

Moreover, the key component of interactivity in computer games means that our tradition of the fixed artifact of Art is broken. We’ve been cognizant of this issue, but we’re still coming to grips with it in a practical sense. We still say a movie is art. It isn’t. Watching a movie is art. If no-one watches it, it cannot be art. In the same way, a video game isn’t art. Playing a video game can be. It might be a long time before we get over this – we still have troubles calling food art because the experience is so individual.

And because there is an entertainment industry, we get confused by the converse – if everyone watches a movie, it doesn’t make it great art. It makes it great business, but the chance of it being art is exactly the same as if it made no money.

Nevertheless, the prominence of the entertainment industry means that there will continue to be great improvements in technology and the uptake of technology. When people are comfortable with the tech, we will have an opportunity to turn it into new kinds of art. Dynamic forms of art that give us a better appreciation of the interplay of stillness and chaos, artist and audience, subject and object.  Games that are not just exploring within limited rulesets but providing new experiences for each player. Arguably we have this now, but we should strive for more. We should embrace the opportunities that computer-based art can provide. We can still always have our shoot-em ups and fantasy RPGs. You can still have rom-coms after you have Citizen Kane. We just need to go hand-in-hand with our computers to that place in the middle of stillness and chaos. That place called art.

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