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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Bioshock Infinite as Art: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 2- What Even IS Art?)

Return to Part 1  

Just a reminder, while this isn’t a “what does it all mean?” post analyzing the plot of B.I., I cannot avoid some spoilers. I also have some mild Inception spoilers, so if you haven’t seen that yet, go find out why all the critics were wetting themselves in 2010. I’m going to hit the ground running from Part One without any recap, so please check that out before digging in here if you haven’t already. 

In order to haughtily declare that something "isn't art," it's important that we all have a working definition of what art ACTUALLY IS that goes beyond "What I like is art" and "What I don't like isn't." Unfortunately for an awful lot of cookie-cutter academics and art snobs, "What I was taught to like is art" is a pretty close approximation of their best guess. But let's see if we can break "art" down past what these champions of bourgeoisie aesthetic who look for what conforms to their ethnocentric and back-in-the-good-old-day, past-revering sense of artistic merit say it is.

Is it simply a completely subjective matter of opinion? I have a friend who likes trashy movies (actually likes them, not just appreciates how terribad they are), and so has decided rather than confront the idea that he might like bad things (which is totally fucking okay), that good and bad is utterly meaningless and utterly subjective and there's no way anyone could possibly figure out art end of line thanks for playing pleasesigntheledgeronyourwayout. However, if that were the case, there would be no way anyone could agree on how to make something "better." There would be zero consensus. The entire art world would be anarchy and no one would ever know how to improve their craft. Perhaps there is a reason that people the world over and from many different cultures seem to have a general level of agreement about a lot of good art. What is it that makes art connoisseurs mouths go dry—whether schooled in New England or Uganda or Tokyo—when they look upon the statue of David by Michelangelo, The Persistence of Memory by Dali, or Spring Morning in the Han Palace by Qiu Ying. Even if they had not before been taught to like THAT work or style.

Is there some way to consider an offering of something totally new to the artistic world without getting a million people to upvote it on Reddit, or calling up your old Humanities professor to double-check that you're allowed to like it? Can an individual human look at some bit of art and decide if it is good at some level beyond their personal opinion?

“What is art?” is a complicated question wrapped up in the philosophical idea of beauty, and there’s no way anyone can definitively answer it—especially not while keeping geeky and making lots of threesome jokes.

The good news is that I don’t have to.

While there are problems at either end of the spectrum of “art is only narrow definition X” vs. “art is totally subjective", and a large grey area of personal taste and slippery definitions in the middle, there do tend to be certain factors that consistently play into art crossing the “real" art Rubicon, in a way that most people agree with most of the time. We don’t need to spend a lot of time examining the murky grey area between art, “high art,” and consumable entertainment. We can just look to see if the art that most people agree is fabulous has certain commonalities. You aren't going to see "rules" per se, but we can find some useful guidelines.

And we do*

*I would like to pause here to point out one very critical bit of dialogue from this conversation that has only JUST begun to reach the mainstream of academia in a meaningful way. "High art" has been defined for generations as white (mostly male) art. A highly Eurocentric, colonialist, and Orientalist view seeded deep into the pedagogy of much academia where European art was "high art" and art from other places was "folk art." And the colonialist legacy of stealing art from indigenous peoples and even MELTING IT DOWN TO SEND BACK TO SPAIN, has echoes that inform this imperious rubric. It is not impossible to still find a Humanities professor who believes that they aren't prejudiced, but the only "real" art happens to be European or European-style. Even after everyone in academia happily declared they were past all that, the aesthetic and methodologies that conveniently exclude most of the world's art live on as the metrics for what counts and doesn't.  Similarly there is a gender valuation in the labor of art vs the labor of "crafts." Frankly very little was traditionally considered art before the fifties or so if a white guy didn't do it, and don't think for a moment that that legacy doesn't endure.

Here's what we can say about most "real" art, most of the time (and while some of these can get a little.....elastic when it comes to art forms where they don't quite "fit" [like music] they still tend to have some identifiable threads :

1) It is technically excellent in either its realism or its abstraction. If it is writing, it is superior prose. If it is painting, it is masterful painting. If it is sculpture, it is nearly perfect. If it is film, it has seamless editing and audiovisual elements. If it's music, it is done in tune, to the beat, and with no wrong notes. Whatever the art is, it’s execution borders on flawless. Or at least as flawless humans are capable of.

2) It has subtext. Whatever the form of art, it goes beyond itself, with a meaning that is greater than its absolute. Its gestalt is greater than the sum of its parts—even if not explicitly in the mind of the artist during creation. There are things within the art that mean more than simply themselves. In a video game, as in a movie, this can take place by means of symbols in the visuals, subtext in the dialogue, or both. In a sculpture like David, there is an embodiment of power, prowess, and traditionally "male" virtues (according to the ancient Greeks). If it is Andy Warhol's 32 Soup Cans, its subtext is consumerism and commercialism. Within music, even without lyrics, elements weave to evoke feelings or occasionally (even more directly) are written with a deliberate subject in mind like Magic Flute freemasonry themes or Brahms' love letters.

3) It is relevant. Yes, the old famous “human condition” that has become a cliche of art departments round the world for the frequency of its parroting. "Good" art touches something within us in its examination of humanity. It can be politically relevant, socially poignant, or simply an expression of our longest standing philosophical struggles with our own existence. And music is so fundamental to human experience that it's hard to even think of separating the two. But at some level, the art explores something about humanity that we all share. This is why, within science fiction, infinite Star Wars clones fail to impress most “high art” sommeliers, but Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick are grudgingly allowed to sit at the "literary" table.

4) The composite elements that make up the art form help reinforce (either by working with or through the relief of contrast) a thematic vision of the art itself.  Here's where things get harder to explain and you start seeing a lot of four-year degrees among those with the knowledge to track entire movements with their historical contexts and such. But to put it as basically as possible: every art has elements that make it up. Painting has color and texture and form and content and imagery. Literature has setting, plot, character, tone. Film has cinematography, soundtrack, acting, costuming, and visual effects. Music has instrumentation, tempo, melody, and harmony. In many arts these elements themselves have further elements (like cinematography has lighting, focal points, composition and such) that all lead up to a massive composite of skill and artistry (or not) within the final work. If this artistry is haphazard, the work can be extremely technically proficient, relevant, and have subtext, but there is a strange discordance between the elements. What we tend to notice in “good art” is that these elements work with some of the work’s central themes and form a cohesive vision.

Consider John Steinbeck, an author I picked because most Americans have read at least some of his work. You probably had to do some homework at some point about how Steinbeck’s settings always mirrored the psychological struggle of the characters within the chapter. Rooms with old lamps that caused one half of the room to be lit and the other half to be in shadow became chapters where both the best and worst of humanity were revealed. Several books of his in which nothing has changed except a lot of suffering to no good end begin and end in essentially the same place. Steinbeck constantly used his settings as a kinetic landscape for the themes he explored.

However, this idea may be easiest to demonstrate rather than explain. Take the example of Inception. Critics went happyfeet over this soundtrack and it was nominated for the Academy Award for best original score (though it didn’t win). Here’s one of the best songs in that soundtrack:

It’s a simple song, reiterating a single theme over and over, but at each new iteration, it adds in a new layer of instrumentation. Most of the score involves songs that are very similar in execution. This is actually a pretty basic and overdone musical technique called “looping.” It’s considered to be pretty uninspired most of the time. Why did critics like looping so much for Inception? Because that layering effect both increases the complexity of the score and adds to the sense of danger at each new level….

…in an exact mirror of the movie itself.

At each level of the dream, a new layer of dramatic problem was added and the stakes increased.The music was a perfect reflection of the themes of the movie. Also, the movie itself was exploring the way that once an idea gets into your head, it goes around and around picking up steam—much like the songs themselves were doing—becoming louder each iteration. The soundtrack represented and enhanced the movie’s themes.

So those are the four elements. They aren’t comprehensive, and there’s a lot of room for personal aesthetic, but the works consistently deemed to be “high art” tend to have these things in common.

This is why Star Wars is always listed as one of the greatest films by all but the most snobbish of film critics—even though it gives most literature professors an eye twitch when they think about it. That movie is breathtaking. The flawless execution (for 1977) of audio and visual effects was a masterpiece, and every single frame reinforced the thematic core of good versus evil, from the costumes to the music to Han’s divorce from moral ambiguity at the end. And though it took a generation to consider the historical context of Star Wars, we now appreciate its response to a post-Vietnam-era world where culturally there was a lot of anxiety about good and evil and if either of those things were really real forces in the world. George Lucas gave us that world in a space opera steeped with mythological subtexts.

I will leave others to nitpick Bioshock Infinite’s technical excellence if they wish. I am neither a game designer nor a programmer, and I can’t really say if there were mistakes (as such) in its execution.

I will say this: I have played through perhaps 50 games per year since I was five or six. And probably turned on and PLAYED a hundred or so more in each of those years. So that’s like…um…carry the two…uh…a lot of games. I fought my first-grade friends with bouncy bullet tanks for a victory in Combat on my Atari. I got the Triforce and rescued Zelda back when that was an 8-bit quest—(and again at sixteen bits, and again at 32….) I’ve played every iteration of Final Fantasy (2019 edit: including that sausagefest road trip that was the most recent one). I have hunted the giant boatfly in the DLC of Fallout: New Vegas. I know the pain of the jumpy parts in Castlevania, and the triumph of beating the C&C General’s boss on the highest difficulty.

If gamer dudes look at me and say “Do you even game, bro?”, I have the honor of stoically nodding my head like the grizzled veteran I am.

My sense, as an experienced gamer, is that Bioshock Infinite was as close to flawless as I’ve seen a game. I have been watching acting in games since Malcolm McDowell blew us away as Admiral Talwyn and listening to non-midi soundtracks since I bought my first 3DO nearly 20 years ago now. I was there when the chill went up the collective spines of gamerdom as we realized that there was a choral accompaniment for the battle with Sephiroth. I was there when we had to plug our controller into the second player slot to beat Psycho Mantis. I was there when the mountain began to move and the fight with the first Colossus began. If there’s a game with a markedly better technical execution in terms of graphics, voice acting, or soundtrack, I’ve not seen it.

On to Part 3

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