Category Archives: Popular modernism and narrative
In 2014 on the website Polygon (polygon.org), Eric Zimmerman wrote an opinion piece on videogames and art. He argued that the question of whether videogames can be art ‘is simply the wrong question.” You can read this thoughtful piece here: http://www.polygon.com/2014/9/10/6101639/games-art.
There are two sides in the debate, but most in the games community are on one side: namely, that videogames can attain the heights of art, perhaps already have. Those outside the games community—famously the film critic Roger Ebert, but many others— are usually the ones who want to deny games this elevated status. Zimmerman is addressing the games community and shows (quite convincingly, I think) that the argument for games as art depends on misconceptions about the nature and status of art today.
It is a misconception to think that art today can be an absolute category. Rather, as Zimmerman says, “art becomes art when it participates in the practices of art.” In other words, the art community decides what is art and who is an artist. As I have argued, our media culture consists of a large number of diverse communities of practice—communities whose memberships may grow, shrink, and intersect constantly. By this standard the art community is still relatively well-defined today. It includes some artists who make videogames or game-like art, but the vast majority of videogame designers and makers are not part of the art community. The terms “art” and “artist,” on the other hand, are applied very broadly today, far beyond the borders of the art community. The reason for that is the breakdown of the categories of “high”and “popular” culture in the second half of the twentieth century, and the rise of popular modernism, which I have discussed in earlier posts.
When Zimmerman claims that art is “no longer the highest classification by which all culture should be valued,” he is pointing out something that should be obvious today. There is no single classification or hierarchy to which our media culture subscribes today. The formerly elite arts and popular entertainments are all now special interests, each with a community of practitioners and audience. Each art and entertainment may have many subcommunities, and any and all of these can overlap, sharing audience and practitioners. But, the point is that if elite arts are special interests, they are no more special than any others. No one form of expression has an importance that unarguably transcends its community. This is what the plenitude means for art and indeed other forms of culture today. Each community is still free to define its art as central, and many do, but they cannot compel general cultural assent, as the elites of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries were able to do.
Art in the now classic modernist sense does not preserve or elevate culture as a whole, because there is no whole, no unified culture to preserve. This is something that creators of popular media forms such as videogames should be happy about. Videogames do not have to compete with traditional art for cultural status. There is no universally agreed upon scale in which painting or poetry or for that matter film is more important, more central than videogames. But of course the reverse is true as well—videogames are not more important that painting, poetry or film. Those kinds of judgments of relative value can only be made from within particular communities. Unfortunately many in the videogame community are heirs to the tradition of popular modernism. And popular modernists want to break into the club of elite culture rather than break down its walls. They want their favorite media form (videogames, rock music, hip-hop) to be acknowledged as part of art as a special cultural category.
That’s why Zimmerman’s article is so refreshing. He is encouraging videogame makers to enjoy and celebrate the particular qualities of their media form, rather than trying to insert it in the category of elite art, a category that I would argue simply belongs to another community.
Digital culture today is divided between an older aesthetic of catharsis and the newer aesthetic of flow.
The new film by Christopher Nolan is a scifi adventure, but it is also a film that reflects on the nature of filmmaking in an age of digital media. The goal of the team that is to break into the dreaming mind of Australian businessman and plant an idea. The inception of an idea can only be accomplished by inducing an intense emotional release, or catharsis (the movie’s term), in the subject’s mind. Catharsis is of course what “serious” Hollywood movies and television dramas are all about. Inception is not only an emotionally charged drama; it is also and obviously an action-adventure film with clear references to videogames and the videogame style that we find in many films today. The team has to operate simultaneously on three dream levels (like the levels in a FPS)– each with its own architecture and a set of obstacles and anonymous assassins. And videogames work primarily with an aesthetic different from catharsis: that of flow.
Because Inception is a film and not a videogame, it ultimately comes down on the side of catharsis. The main character Dom gets his own cathartic moment at the end of the film. But by putting these two forms (film and videogames) in tension, Nolan is playfully suggesting the danger that videogames and the aesthetic of flow pose for traditional film and its aesthetic of catharsis.
Many would say that appealing to the avant-garde as a critique of IN is elitist and out of touch. The IN movement wants to create popular narrative forms. Millions of people go to see Titanic and still watch Casablanca or It’s a Wonderful Life on television. Only a tiny group knows or cares about the films of Man Ray or Hollis Frampton. But we can still argue that these avant-garde authors could inject new ideas and new life into the IN project – just as they did repeatedly in the twentieth century to film and even television. Avant-garde notions of montage and editing have been taken into the grammar of popular film. So we can ask: why can’t the IN movement benefit in the same way from the work of past innovators? Why not try to develop new forms of fragmented and incomplete narrative based on the model of the experiments of the past? Why couldn’t research be conducted into how to proceduralize the narratives style of Buñuel or Warhol?
In fact, the fragmentary and incomplete narrative forms are sometimes popular today. They are not necessarily elite. Music videos are a good example. There is a wide range of styles of visual narrative styles in music videos. Often the scenes present disconnected, fragmented, even contradictory moments in a story that may work with or against the music. The genres and media forms that are popular with younger people often seem to be prefer these angular and incomplete narrative forms. Facebook is an exercise in building little narratives that make sense only to a few friend, if even to them. So is Twitter. And among its many genres, YouTube includes talking head videos that seldom give us a sense of narrative closure. I’m tempted to suggest that rounded closed narratives are popular with the Baby Boomers and progressively less so with younger generations. What are the age demographics for shows like Mad Men or reruns of the West Wing?
IN may be committing itself to a narrative model that has the same future as the Cadillac.