May 12, 2006

In discussing whether or not the ready accessibility of imaging software had killed art, a friend once suggested to me a distinction between art and craft. Craft, he suggested, was a beautiful manipulation, a consumate of skill, the necessary basis for true art: but by itself craft is only the application of skill to create a thing.
The imagination is not expounded upon to make any larger point about human existence; which is what art does. Thus, a well-made table is exquisite, and precious; as a piece of craftsmanship. So is a film poster -- a well-made one. But neither are art -- they remain confined in a certain function, even if they are fine examples of the craft.
Craft does not inherently require any use of imagination except insofar as is absolutely necessary in the context of creating a form or product for the first time: and consuming even the best-made craft requires no imagination whatsoever. Applying to this the ideas of an earlier entry, craft, perhaps, might be an expression of what and how; while art touches on the sweeping, unspeakable why.

Unlike what and how, why is not an efficient question.

Why is efficiency so important, so very valued? Art, like recreation, is inherently inefficient. A truly creative work of art cannot be understood on a single read/watch-through: although we can be taught -- in this consumptive model of production of a social environment -- to accept this minimum-average as the norm. Because a whole human being cannot be subdivided into isolated sets of skills and datums, any crafted medium not only transmits sensory information but also shapes both that information and the person interacting with it. In parallel, a popular medium must always reflect trends within the culture which spawned it. Thus, today, a non-desire to re-read any novel as an adult apparently no longer contradicts an abstract "I enjoy reading". A book's "single" track of narrative will be differently appreciated when the reader chooses to try to understand the characters, the greater story environment, let alone the background why of the creator's choices (eg. why did the author choose to let the plot structure unfold in this way and not in that?) or the historical why shaping this and other art: but the only relevant aspect of desirable reading in a modern, craft-structured context would seem to be what can be determined on the first reading: the what and how of the linear narrative.

In fact, efficiency only has real meaning within a consumption-oriented worldview. The concept of efficiency is an assembly-line model designed to output the most units of a certain minimum-average quality in the least amount of time, a consumptive model of production which has no space in it for the kind of imagination that asks the human questions ... for the human element can only ever muck up assembly lines, never enhance them; and thus the only kind of intelligence which is valued today is the kind of analytical reasoning which can be sublimated entirely to process, with any remaining creativity harnessed entirely to finding more efficient paths to what and how.

Within such a perspective, the plot-based videogame quickly becomes the new mask of what passes for freeing creativity and even for art, simply because it creates the illusion of allowing the player to explore the world beyond the strict linear narrative. Yet consider: Have you ever re-visited a plot-based solo videogame after you had (1) "beaten it" and (2) discovered everything you wanted to find in that particular world? (I specify not multiplayer and not shooter: for the first pulls on actual human interaction rather than solely the game; while the second frequently serves the secondary escapist function of giving frustrations a pseudo-violent electronic outlet.) Has a videogame ever aroused any questions in your soul, not of some plot detail of what or how or who, but of having discovered something of yourself? Once you have solved a one-player videogame, how often have you had the urge to re-visit "just because" [it might evoke something new -- in you]?

The only possibilities for real creativity here is for those working within the source code itself. Everyone else is held to the parameters set by others. All the modding does not seem to alter one bit that what was not intended, one cannot interact with: and what one can, can only be interacted with within the framework of the game. Simply playing videogames cannot evoke creativity outside the existing framework and truncates curiosity to the limits of the designer's own imagination; but at the same time the ability of self-direction within a pre-existing system of roads creates an illusion of such creativity ... always focused toward solution of the puzzle.

A videogame goal almost never deals with a deeper why that cannot also be approximated with factoids of how or what [happened]. The limitation is neither data storage nor financial limitations in a game's development cycle, nor even processor power or yet-to-be-discovered expansions of virtual sensory realities, but is implicit in the approach itself, in what is seen as relevant and what is not -- and yet how could it be otherwise, given that the approach is only a symptom of something much societally deeper? It would cost more neither in development nor in data storage nor even in processor power were the why even to be considered beyond how and what : two questions which do eat up the data storage. Unlike the core questioning common to art (not craft), why is simply never relevant to the entire structure of the videogame narrative.

Interestingly, it also does not seem to be relevant to much of what today passes for art. Why should it be necessary to ask the non-factoid questions? Why should it be necessary to re-visit? The vast majority of fiction in print does not bother with any depth of characterisation or environment, in favour of the superficial how and what of exciting and immediate (and thus too often disjointed) events. Why re-visit a game, unless you have not yet teased out the how of the end goal, which after all is the only thing of enduring interest? and that only until it is solved? Why re-read a book, once you know how it is going to turn out?

Curiously, most of the people I know who do re-read (some) books and re-listen to (some) music tend both to watch relatively little "time-filler" television and to have very little interest in videogames. It seems almost as though some element found in a rare few pieces of writing and music is completely lacking in all the rest. But then: how else would one evoke an insatiable need for consumption without satiation? As when crucial nutrients are lacking in food, we can consume and consume and consume all the rest indefinitely, even experience health side-effects from all the consumption and the constant hunger for the new, and yet be starving.

Is empathy the responsibility of the viewer or the creator?

I begin to suspect, these days, that empathy quite simply is seen as increasingly irrelevant: a reflection of what already exists within greater society. Certainly in the craft produced by and for our society there will continue to be ever greater sophistication of the how and what and visually descriptive who and where -- but of the background, empathic why, nothing: and no one even notices that it has vanished.

On a popular level, we seem to have been taught to accept that this is all that creation should be (and yet we hunger, and so we continue to consume and consume and consume). After a while, even creative people trained within such an efficiency-oriented perspective learn never to stray beyond these tight whats and hows -- and perhaps even, after a while, to see nothing else ... which may go far toward explaining The Phantom Menace, the non-Ludlum Bourne sequels, the non-Herbert Dune prequels. Where the only relevancy and perhaps the only perception is the strictly linear string of events masquerading as a plot, attempting to understand the characters or the environment about which one writes becomes as irrelevant as asking any questions about human existence which can't be answered within the space of the average attention-span.

There is no soul-resonance here, no curiosity, no imagination, no evocation of empathy: only an empty series of puzzle-solving actions channelling any remaining creative urge into societally-safe avenues. The videogame mentality helps train its players to approach all true art in the same casual, superficial, disposable manner: mining the edges of an ocean for its salt without ever once even recognising that there might exist something deeper and worth plunging into for all its dangers. If this is to be art henceforth, then human existence is nothing more than consumption of resources and desperate filling of time. Oh ye who yearn for immortality, but don't know how to fill a rainy Sunday afternoon!

(Worth noting, perhaps, that the crossword puzzle, first published shortly before Christmas in 1913 -- two years after the publication of the principles of scientific management -- is another product of the assembly-line consumer age. A time-consuming puzzle, yes: but at least not pretending to be anything other than what it is, and not undermining those things which are.)

So long as the videogame remains nothing more than a glorified spatio-visual crossword puzzle to be "beaten", a glorified how-to with a defined, fixed goal, with any actions not leading toward that goal nothing more than "fill in the detail" tangents; no matter how much of a world the designers give the players to explore: it can never be more than a well-crafted diversion to be consumed hungrily (seeking for something else, perhaps, which can never be found here?) and discarded ... and its interchangeable, disposable players right along with the game.

I left some thoughts on this topic over at Sinfonia. At least, I think I did. :)
I found them :)
Apologies.. I did not read the whole blog before posting. But I got bit by this randomness bug, and I randomly had this impulse to post. So, randomly: I have said for a while that "art is the result of skill."
I came across you site in exploring for blogs that speak of wisdom. I'll spend some time with your site and absorb what you have to say.

The essential problem for wisdom today is that we have lost touch with all the traditional bases from which wisdom arose. We are now dealing with a society which, by and large, acknowledges no wisdom that puts constraint on its consumerism and general hedonism. It is not just that it ignores wisdom; it has actively destroyed the foundations from which wisdom arises.

We can't simply go back to those old traditions. The challenge, as I see it, is to create a new and global cultural miieu, effectively a new civilisation, with fountations that allow wisdom, ethics and genuine spirituality to be part of the whole of life, not just some private, personal corner.
Hmm. To say simply that art is the result of skill might be to suggest that sufficient skill automatically morphs into art -- that improving skill causes art. I might suggest rather that skill is to art as foundation is to house: the house cannot stand without the foundation (or at least not well), but the house is not the result of the foundation.

What there might or might not be of wisdom in this blog, Digger, you will find only in your own reflection ... and that not efficiently ;)
Nice put down, Tenebris. Yes, I am searching for some signs of an emerging wisdom but the issue is not a personal one. Sure, each individual has to find thier personal wisdom source but the real issue is a global one and its about human survival. Guess i'm in the wrong place.
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