In the comments section of my last post, Can Video Games Be Art?, I sketched out a definition of art as experience, or even as an attitude, rather than as a thing or a collection of things (see here and here). At the risk of repeating myself, I’d like expound on that position, in case anyone is interested (and wants to discuss/debate it).
But first, and briefly: I really do consider Roger Ebert’s argument—that video games aren’t art and can never be art—easily refuted. (I suspect Ebert thinks similarly; he’s obviously being polemical.) Here are two different ways:
1. Redefine art so that it includes video games. (As far as I’ve seen, no one caught up in the Ebert-inspired debate has taken the trouble to actually define art—always a big mistake.)
2. Demonstrate how video games display, in their own way, artistry (formal elegance, originality, personal expression, ingenuity, response to an artistic tradition, etc.). This is what I see most people trying to do, but the key is to find that artistry in the video games themselves, without comparing them to paintings, literature, cinema, etc. If they are an artistic medium, then video games should have their own unique artistic integrity.
That said, Ebert’s right when he asks why anyone really cares whether video games are art. I think it’s self-evident that they can be, but despite that most of them still totally suck.
Art as Experience
So, returning to that first rhetorical maneuver: many artists have redefined art to suit their own needs. Arnold Schoenberg famously replaced Bach’s well temperment with a system of equal temperment, developing the twelve-tone technique and thereby redefining the very rules by which one composed music:
Some time later, one of Schoenberg’s students, John Cage, studied the twelve-tone technique but, by his own admission, wasn’t very skilled at employing it:
I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’
But Cage didn’t do that; he was far cleverer. He himself redefined music, taking it more afield than Schoenberg had. Cage found paths that led him away from that wall. In his (re-)conception of music, time became the medium’s foundation, making music “sounds over time, either organized or not.” Cage arrived at this conclusion in the 1930s, and everything else that he did extends from there: his inclusion of everyday objects and recorded sounds, his development of the prepared piano, his adoption of chance techniques, his organizing Happenings, his use of computers, his late indeterminate works—everything.
What’s worth noting here is how Cage’s redefinition pushed music away from being a thing (a composition, say) and more toward being an experience. This can perhaps most clearly be seen in 4’33”. Cage later expanded that work (and his definition of music) to include space as well—as he said, we have eyes in addition to our ears, and should use them. His later works make no distinction between musical composition and theater.
I love sounds just as they are. I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. […] The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. […] If you listen to Beethoven, or to Mozart, you see that they’re always the same. But if you listen to traffic, you see it’s always different.
Cage’s silence is of course not the absence of sound, but the absence of intentional sound. One simply listens to the sounds of one’s environment. This is music (and therefore theater) as pure experience. Whether one is experiencing art or not at any given moment is dependent entirely upon the audience. (You can, if you want to, stop reading this post right now, and perform 4’33”.)
Cage mentions Duchamp in the above video, and his hero had already been pushing sculpture in a similar direction: less an object, and more something to be experienced. And his chess playing is arguably performance art. (Why is it, again, that games can’t be art?)
An entire generation of performance artists and conceptual artists followed Cage and Duchamp. Allan Kaprow, one of Cage’s own students, coined the term “Happening” to describe the simultaneous multimedia events that Cage and others liked to organize. It’s a brilliant choice of word: art is what’s happening. And the root of happening, hap, ultimately means “luck, chance.”
A brief aside
Why don’t we have Happenings any more? In the late 50s and 1960s they were very popular; even Elvis got in on them (see 3:04–5:53):
It boggles my mind that so many writers today ignore don’t make much use of so many of the artistic innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, let alone the teens and 20s. For instance, after the 1970s, when the major presses essentially stopped publishing poetry, you think poets would have done anything and everything to get their work out there: team up with other artists, stage Happenings, make comics, make children’s books, embrace the performance and conceptual movements that have become dominant in the visual arts.
And some did, I guess. But poetry has, for the most part, gone in completely the opposite direction, becoming more inaccessible and more insular. Most poetry readings find poets standing in front of bored audiences, doing their best to bore them further. It’s no wonder that no one—except other writers—comes! (And then the poets complain about the fact that no one comes.)
Of course of course there are exceptions—but you know what I’m talking about.
(Klein was a great one for turning art into experience. Art, in his view, transcended physicality.)
But Happenings were rather diverse affairs. Like any other artistic enterprise, they could be big or small, public or private. Allan Kaprow spent decades exploring the form, evolving them from stereotypical spectacular “spaghetti incidents” into more intimate, everyday actions (correspondingly, he shifted to calling them “Actions”):
Self-Service, a piece without spectators, was performed in the summer of 1967 in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. It spanned four months, June through September. Thirty-one activities were selected from a much larger number. Their time and locality distribution were determined by chance methods. Participants selected events from those offered for their city; each had to pick at least one, although doing many or all was preferable. Details of time and place were flexible within each month; choices made from month to month overlapped, some actions recurring. Activities took place among those of the participants’ normal lives. These were not necessarily coordinated; it was by chance that some actions turned out to be similar in two or all of the cities. (230)
—from Allan Kaprow’s “Self-Service: A Happening” in Mariellen R. Sandford’s Happenings and Other Acts, 1995, Routledge
Activities in Self-Service included things like “Couples kiss in the midst of the world, go on,” and “People shout in subway just before getting off, leave immediately,” and “Some torn paper is released from a high window, piece by piece, and slowly watched.” Others leave more of a trace in the world, but most are ephemeral, abstract, absurd. As Kaprow intended, they become more and more like everyday life—bizarre but also ordinary, beautiful yet mundane. Above all else, they are experiences.
(They are also extremely poetic; in my estimation, Kaprow was one of the greatest poets of the past 50 years.)
Art as Both Process and Product (And More)
As performance art has gained great influence in the art world, critics and artists have become more inclined to regard earlier works as performative. To cite one popular example, many critics have singled out the performative aspect of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; some now regard him as an early performance artist. (Even James Franco thinks so.)
(Another brief aside: I’m aware that some think James Franco foolish—and maybe he is—but he strikes me as someone who’s exploring whatever interests him, and keeping an open mind about a lot of things. Compare him to Elvis, above.) (Although maybe I’m just tickled—or jealous?—that he can see a connection between Marina Abramović and the Green Goblin.)
I don’t mention any of this because I want to get bogged down in some discussion of when performance art started. Performance has always been an aspect of art; art has always been to performative. Today, performance garners more attention more than at other times; it is dominant (as is concept). And in time, performance and concept will lose their currency, and other aspects of art will replace them as dominants. Such is the story of art (all art).
So the question is really when did performance become dominant. But let’s leave that aside for now; rather, what I find interesting is how our contemporary emphasis on performance allows us to re-view art not as a collection of things, but as an experience—as Kaprow teaches us in Self-Service, art can be a way of interacting with the world, and considering it. This lesson holds true even when one’s looking at more object-based art.
Another way of thinking about it: Cage’s definition of music included both intentional and unintentional sounds. Therefore, an experiential view of art includes both intentional and unintentional objects (and experiences). What’s important is the attitude one brings to them.
I’m fond of saying that one can have an artistic experience with a tree, just as one can also have a religious experience with it, or a scientific experience with it, or an historical experience with it, and so forth. (Sometimes those experiences can overlap, or even become indistinguishable.) What matters is one’s perception. Watch a group of dancers interacting (especially post-1960); what they’re doing is often playful, absurd, meaningless, purely experiential:
Now watch a group of children climbing a tree. Why aren’t they having an artistic experience? (And why is it, again, that games can’t be art?) (If you want to ground it more in an artistic pedigree, you can sit it under the tree and perform 4’33”.)
That said, it’s easier to have an artistic experience with some things than with others. Art, like religion and science and history, has its rituals, its dominant conventions. It has its places and times and objects that make it easier to enter into what Laurie Anderson called “the art trance.” (Although of course some will argue that going to a museum to look at Degas paintings is not an artistic experience—and that the only real art is out in the street, etc. Different backgrounds, different perspectives.)
One of the things I like about this concept of art as experience is that it is fairly inclusive. It allows one to include as art more than just statues and paintings; it accommodates performance and process and experience and concept. It helps explain how the things that John Cage and Allan Kaprow did are related to the things that, say, Edward Hopper did. It expands easily to include a great deal of “extra stuff” we’re also always talking about when we talk about art—art instruction, institutions, the market, criticism… And yet it doesn’t focus only on process and concept and performance. Even under this definition, art-objects still remain important.
Why Do You Like Mark Rothko?
Two weekends ago I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, where someone asked me what I thought of a Rothko painting on display. (This is the one Rothko in the Modern Wing. The AIC has more than one in their collection; they rotate them. Right now Untitled (Purple, White, and Red) is up.)
What did I think of the Rothko? Or Rothko in general? These are difficult questions to answer. I simply adore Rothko—but why? And how to communicate that adoration, maybe even transfer it? (And was the person asking for that?)
My love for Rothko’s work, and for the man himself, is personal and irrational. There was a time when I didn’t care for his paintings—when I dismissed all abstract and modern art out of hand. But eventually I ran into a teacher who showed me some Rothko paintings, and I happened to be open to actually looking at them, and I thought they were really pretty. It wasn’t anything deeper than that: just beauty. And so I started looking at more Rothkos (well, prints), and slowly I began to appreciate other abstract art. So I’ve always felt a debt toward the man and his work, for opening things up for me like that.
Around the same time, I fell in love with someone who really liked Dar Williams. (To anyone rolling their eyes, c’mon—we were in college. But also c’mon—Dar’s pretty cool!) And Dar Williams wrote a song about Mark Rothko. And my then-girlfriend and I spent a lot of time looking at Mark Rothko paintings (well, prints—the paintings work better, but you can fall in love over Rothko prints).
And around the same time, Meet Joe Black came out, which has some great Rothkos in it. And I know it’s not a great movie, but I’ll always be fond of it, too, simply because it contains those paintings. So for a while it was love, love, love, and Rothko, Rothko, Rothko. (And of course this happens whenever you find something new—you start seeing it everywhere—but at the time I thought it magical.)
Seeing a Rothko painting now—and I don’t look at them too often anymore—stirs all of this up again, a very intense and bittersweet experience. We each of us have artists like that. Of course emotional intensity was a lot of what Rothko intended, and like most I find it impossible to look at his work without thinking of his suicide—it’s all so sad—but there’s a lot of other personal sentimentality and romanticism wrapped up in it, impossible to untangle. A lot of experience.
I can’t separate any of that from the object. Nor would I want to.
Art as Experience
This isn’t a new idea, but it’s an idea that’s easy to forget (I often forget it). So can video games be art? Well…like I said, who really cares? (I imagine that someone cares.)
The title of this post is borrowed from John Dewey, so I’ll let him have the final word:
In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventioned that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience. (1)
—John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)