OK, well, obviously, anything that spawned Godwin’s Law isn’t going to be the best place to start an intellectual inquiry into tolerance, but I am drawn to the difficult and obtuse and comment threads are nothing if not difficult and obtuse and nothing’s going to cure me of this perversity short of a stroke or a railroad spike so here we go. Reading the comments below the following video led me to think further about the ill effects that aboutness can have. First, let’s take a quick look at the video:
As I’ve already said, the video is less important than the comments that follow it, so let’s see a couple of those:
Because really these comments are an excellent illustration of the failures of aboutness, aren’t they? If we can understand claims of “This isn’t art!” as being more or less equivalent to complaints that one hasn’t “gotten the point” (that being the other main strain of complaint)—”this isn’t art” being at least the close cousin to “there is no point,” ipso facto: “I don’t get the point”—the overwhelming majority of people who feel compelled to comment on this video and the performance piece it represents complain either that they’ve haven’t gotten the point or that there is no point to get. So, what is the point and how does one “get” it?
Let’s be clear: I have no opinion about the artwork itself. I didn’t actually watch the whole video until after I’d written most of this post (and I watched it for you, dear reader; I wouldn’t have bothered if I hadn’t bothered to write this post), but, again, I’m much more interested in the comments (which I did read, and which I suppose could be considered as part of the artwork, but we won’t get into that here). But! I have played Pac-Man, so, instead of thinking too hard about something that may or may not merit thinking too hard about, let’s play a game of Pac-Man.
Pretty fun, huh? Thusly refreshed, we’re now ready to ask each other, point-blank: Did you “get it,” Pac-Man? Asked such a question, one’s response might rightfully be: “What is there to get?” Or, a slightly more sophisticated approach to the same query, “What do you mean by ‘get’?” And you might well say that a game like Pac-Man is very different from a novel by Thomas Pynchon or an artwork by Gabbi Colette. And you’d be right. But why?
Can we agree that even those people who badly want to cut federal funding for the arts because of Piss Christ or Interior Semiotics (notwithstanding that the latter artwork didn’t receive any direct federal funding) will play Pac-Man and never blink an eye, much less argue that Namco ought to be destroyed and programmers shot before they’ve finished their education? I think we can agree on that, right? One might argue that this is because Pac-Man is a “game,” and Piss Christ is an “artwork.” Fair enough: two genres, two sets of expectations. Comes with the territory. But that is exactly where my problem lies, and I think it’s where much of the confusion in aboutness comes from. Because what really is the difference between Pac-Man and Interior Semiotics?
Expectations are, as I’m sure we all recognize, formed through experience. Put your finger on the stove while the burner’s on and burn your finger = know what to expect next time you have a burning desire to put your finger on the stove when the burner’s on. But sometimes expectations aren’t formed through experience, right? Sometimes they’re passed on, without accompanying experience. Though we might call the accumulation of such expectations “education,” I think what I’m talking about is something more typically called “bias,” or “racism,” or “ignorance,” or “fear,” or “received wisdom,” etc., since education need not be expectation without experience. (One doesn’t, for example, teach a man to fish by telling him to fish: in general, one guides him as he fishes.) Such expectations are not a good thing, we tell ourselves. So it would be well to know which it is, with art—experience or bias. Do we expect meaning from art because of our experience with art, or do we expect meaning from it because we are told to expect meaning from it?
Let’s look at Pac-Man again. Or, no, let’s play a different game. We’ve already played Pac-Man. How about Monster Party, an NES platformer from 1989. Why not? (I dig the music, don’t you?) OK. Now let’s try to approach Monster Party in the way that the commenters above approached Interior Semiotics. Here, I’ll stay with YouTube, so that we’ll all feel more comfortable:
Of course, heisanevilgenius (the man behind WeirdVideoGames) has a much better sense of humor than any of the YouTube commenters I’ve cited as examples in the case of Interior Semiotics, and it seems to me this might have something to do with expectations again (though I also suspect heisanevilgenius is more thoughtful than many of those commenters). We can laugh at Monster Party’s apparent lapses of logic because, even though it has a story, we were told that story wasn’t an important part of our experience of a video game. To some degree, the reason that heisanevilgenius’s video is funny is that he makes story important and finds the results frustrating. But it’s easy enough to make story important, right? And, historically, we have made story important in games—that Heavy Rain, which you can almost play with your TV remote, won Game of the Year awards from several trade publications seems like a definitive sign of that (and there’s nothing wrong with Heavy Rain, just so we’re clear). We may say this is a result of increasing technological sophistication (now games can be more cinematic!), but then there are things like Adventure and hypertexts to contend with, which were roughly contemporaneous with or out even earlier than Pac-Man and Monster Party, and they had story. And anyway, do we wonder what the story is behind the cards when we play solitaire, or do we just lose ourselves in the experience?
My point isn’t to bring video games up to art’s standards or bring art down to video games’ standards or bring art up to video games’ standards or bring video games down to art’s standards or anything like any of that—it’s that when we ask that a piece of art have a “meaning” or a “point,” we are imposing that requirement from outside of the artwork itself. It isn’t necessarily an aspect of that work of art, and maybe it necessarily isn’t part of that work of art (since those of us not obsessed with the “meaning” of art generally agree that art with a “message” is not especially good as art, however good it may be at conveying its “message”). Leaving us with what?
Let’s forget about how we approach art and video games for a moment and look instead at the other end of the thing: where do we end up, after we’ve experienced them? Some people (clearly) are made angry, some people find comfort or gratification, some people feel a sense of accomplishment, and so on and so forth. In this, the experience of a video game isn’t so different from the experience of a work of art—even if the ranges of experience aren’t identical, they overlap in significant areas. And even if we say we’ve only done it (video game, movie, “beach read”) to pass the time, without thinking about them as experiences, the experience of passing the time is an experience, both implicitly and explicitly the experience of change—we want to pass the time because we anticipate that, at the end of that time passed, we will inhabit some other state of being, a more desirable one. In other words, no matter how we approach art and games, we expect by their end to have been changed by them. Just as Monster Party doesn’t require a coherent story to effect its change, neither does Interior Semiotics require a coherent “meaning” to effect its. That both may be intensely frustrating—and perhaps not frustrating by design but through failures in their design—says nothing about what they are. That frustration may make it less likely that we will want to have their particular experience again, but even that isn’t necessarily an indication of their validity or of their worth. (For example, when I was a child, I never wanted to rewatch the movies that most scared me (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Day of the Dead, Night of the Creeps (yeah, yeah, I know))—I could recognize that they were incredibly effective, want their effect, and then not want to be so affected again).
Oh, yeah! I almost forgot. I wanted to ask: Does the idea of aboutness in art necessarily lead to intolerance and inaccessibility? I worry that the answer is yes, but I think I’ll have to address that in a Part II. Stay tuned?