Thursday, 8 March 2012

A Cognitivist-Subjectivist Theory of Art For Video Games (Pt. 1 of 2)

Some time ago I rocked up to the Bioware talk at BAFTA, in which Greg and Ray expounded their relativist theories of art: namely that since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, anything can be art, and therefore video games are art provided we say they are. Their position was reasonable, consistent, but lacking any real punch.

The punch that's pulled - the willingness to actually pin down what art is beyond what we think it is - renders the art world a much less interesting place to be. It means there is no right and no wrong in taste; that the statement 'video games are art' is meaningless, because we can say with equal validity 'Kenco coffee is art', provided someone somewhere considers it so.

More recently I wrote up an alternate take on subjectivist aesthetics that I think achieves three key things:

1. It provides us a standard of taste: it remains possible for us to have meaningful discussions over whose taste (and which artworks) is better (it is a 'cognitivist' account; it takes aesthetic statements to mean something concrete)

2. It gives us a deeper way in which to understand and debate questions of video games' artistic validity

3. And it maintains the common sense perspective that sometimes who we are affects where we find beauty, and that we needn't all have identical standards of taste in order to appreciate true beauty (it is relativist)

Aesthetic values are subjective
Aesthetic value is a subjective property: it's a property that can only be felt, that can only have reality if there is a subject - a human being, most likely - to experience it. A world without subjects is a world without aesthetic value. Since beauty isn't an atom or a wave floating around in the universe that we can point to as a way to justify our artistic values, we need to find something else to provide them objective reality, otherwise we're left with the relativist picture the doctors present.

So, nothing about a value being subjective entails that it has no objective element about which we can argue. A value statement, on my picture, retains its propositional aspect: when I say 'video games are art' I'm commenting on a genuine set of physical features borne out by video games that make them art which are missing from Kenco coffee.

Aesthetic values are causally related to objective features
It's all based around David Hume's concept of aesthetic value as the 'power-to-produce'. Essentially, any physical object has a set of real, objective properties: in painting these would be physical dimensions, colours, textures etc; in literature it's the organisation of the words; in video games it's a bit of both and something else besides. These physical properties have the power to produce feelings in human subjects. For instance, Schindler's List is built in such a way as to produce feelings of roughly resentment, regret, shock, and beauty in most people who watch it. It could be meaningfully described as a beautiful film, or even a great piece of art, on the strength of these powers-to-produce.

What's crucial here is that we're maintaining the perfectly reasonable observation that the beauty itself relies on subjective response, but we're identifying an objective feature to which to attach those responses (the causal relationship between the object and the subject), and on which to base our discussions. Simply calling an artwork beautiful is no longer sufficient justification; we can now explain clearly the real features of the work which promote this response. We could meaningfully argue that Schindler's List is a better film than Men in Black on the basis that the former presents human relationships in a much truer form than the latter, or because it's based on a true story, or because Neeson is more believable than Smith; ultimately that Schindler's List has greater power-to-produce feelings of beauty in its viewers.

The human nature dilemma
But how do we handle the situation where I simply prefer the humour of MiB to the drama of the holocaust film? How can we say that on the one hand taste can be right or wrong, while on the other it's okay to disagree sometimes?

This is where we have to split the class. Both horns of the dilemma tend to rest on some consideration of a shared human nature, but the degrees affect the outcome. Classic normative aestheticians (ie people like Kant or Hume on a certain reading) who think artistic value is an absolute about which there is only one truth would want to claim that we have enough shared genetic programming to agree about all aesthetic judgements. Perception of beauty is just one of those things - like logical thought or linguistic capacity - that all human beings (and perhaps all self-aware beings) share. Like logic there can be disagreement, but there remains only one correct answer; and like logic some subjects may have a superior capacity for identifying objects with the power-to-produce beauty than others, and this makes them more reliable judges in such matters.

This article continues with other horn and how it affects video games.


  1. Oh so good! Truth is, "games are art 'cause many people says they are" is an incomplete explanation, because that way you still don't explain why so many people said games are art in the first place.

    Looking forward to the next one!

  2. 1. "meaningful discussions over whose taste is better" is an oxymoron. Your taste is better for you. Mine is for me. That's all there is to it.

    2. Similarly, "We could meaningfully argue that Schindler's List is a better film than Men in Black". No, we couldn't. We could argue, but that would not be in any way meaningful.

    3. Why is it so important to you to establish that some people are 'better at taste' than others? Why not just let one person enjoy what they like and another enjoy something else that they prefer?

    4. Beauty and art are not analogous. You can have art that's not beautiful (Bacon, much of Goya, Un Chien Andalou etc.) and beauty that's not art (natural subjects, coincidences of circumstance). Ability to recognise beauty, wherever it comes from, has nothing to do with artistic merit.

    5. "shared genetic programming to agree about all aesthetic judgements" - genes do not work like that. Do you have any idea how amazingly complex such a set of genes would have to be, and thus how many millions of years we'd have had to spend evolving this sort of thing? I mean, mankind has only been capable of aesthetic judgement, or any sort of judgement since language formed; in those, what, 20,000 years, we got a bit taller. We as a species find it hard enough to express this through language, let alone our bodies doing so through infinitesmally small non-directed changes.

    6. Perception of beauty is not shared. Perception is shared. Beauty is like language, you need to learn to recognise and understand it. That's why appreciation of some art is culturally based. Look at any relatively new medium, like anime or computer games; some people love it, others hate it. Some grew up surrounded by its tropes, others learned to appreciate it, still others to detest it. So is it beautiful? How much of it? All of it? And is it art? Is it all art? How much of it? None of these questions can be answered 'correctly'.

  3. "The punch that's pulled - the willingness to actually pin down what art is beyond what we think it is - renders the art world a much less interesting place to be. It means there is no right and no wrong in taste; that the statement 'video games are art' is meaningless, because we can say with equal validity 'Kenco coffee is art', provided someone somewhere considers it so."

    It might be worth brushing up on your Duchamp. The art world has already confronted this very problem, although substitute urinals for Kenco coffee.

  4. Well, Marcus, he didn't say Kenco coffee on a pedestal in an art museum can't be art. It would be, but it would be a sculpture work (a ready-made if you will), not a Kenco coffee work. The phrase 'is art' is not used here as 'is a work of art' but as 'is an art discipline'.

    And, Anonymous, you kinda make your point there, but that's exactly the point Tom here is trying to prove wrong, or insufficient. You can't really say all tastes are different, you can't assume just everyone has a random, impossible to predict taste, because then all writers, for example, instead of writing meaningful novels, they would just hit random keys on their keyboards, and the resulting work of literature would have the same probability to be loved by readers than an old school story.

    Now if you think we all have different tastes, but not random, and that there's no significant, material proof to justify why one work of art is better than others, then at least you should be interested in what gives a person her taste, and how comes so many people agree on the superiority of some works of art. And, I think, this article is pretty much an interesting take on those questions.

  5. Great post, not the biggest fan of Hume, but do like Kant. On the other hand, one comment wrote about Duchamp... hardly see relevance considering the short lived surrealist movement. Although the urinal makes for an interesting lead in.

    There is one supposes, art, and then there is design. In many respects one could say that one begets the other, but no matter. Working in a design field, that of aviation, clearly one see's that form and function are closely related... while not genetic, one may agree that through phenomenological experiences, or accumulating a strong visual library, that even the common man may look, let us say, at a high tech fighter plane, and "get" what it does, "how" it more or less goes about doing it, and perhaps is "moved" by the lines of the object... which looks like it is "screaming, even when sitting in the hangar." Moving without moving.

    (By the by, the word "manga" means "wispy lines", see Renascence art technique or Japanese zen art, and while a comic may not be high art, one may rest assured that the ink paintings of Musashi are cultural treasures.)

    When a "piece" or a completed work demonstrates a form, function, and a complete "thought" or design I find that it is much more considered positively, and ergo, is art... as in "state of the art".

    Outside of this, and really reaching for a subjective philosophical qualifier such as that of Hume, in some respects weakens the case, not strengthen it. Hume is well known for using circular reasoning and catch-22 logical fallacies, and as you stated, there are "correct" and "incorrect" logical statements... however, I must insist, that a=b, b=a is a perfectly valid logical statement... it is "just" that it is not particularly reasonable outside of the "proposition" that is being posited. Although in propositional calculus it is (again) perfectly valid.

    That is to remark, "Ode to a Grecian Urn", which is clearly what this article is "getting at", does state, "Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty", A=B, B=A. The logic is perfectly A-OK, but it is a logical fallacy. (Reasserting the original position as an a priory to the truth value of the position).

    While I do not wish to go any further, I would leave this, that an argument is simply one side armed with some truth, but also burdened with nonsense, pushing their agenda onto another group with some truth and also burdened with nonsense.

    A debate, is civil, typically in agreement, and is merely concerned with the limit, or "to what extent" as to the case of such and thus.

    Some video games are clearly more than the sum of their parts, not all of them, certainly not. In many respects the tooling has become so "easy" that any talent-less unskilled schlep may make "something" and call it art. Even in that their are "sometimes" happy accidents, should we praise a broken clock that is right twice a day though?

  6. As someone who spent many years in graduate school studying art, I'd say that no one is willing to pin down "art" in this situation because they lack the several years necessary to have the discussion. 15 minutes or a couple pages definition doesn't cover it. To fall back on the "art is whatever you think is art" is unfortunate, however, because it's not only useless but arguable untrue. There are some pitfalls to avoid when discussing art that are relevant here, however:

    1) "Art" is not a value judgement. It's a category definition. That is, that something can be labeled "art" doesn't make it better than something that can't be so labeled. (I don't think we'd say that pose is "better" than poetry, or the reverse, for example. They serve different functions.) A particular piece of non-art can be marvelous and beautiful while a piece of art may not be so. There's good and bad art, and being bad doesn't disqualify it as being art.
    2) "Art" exists and is defined within a cultural (and historical) framework, so it's not universal or consistent. Semiotics are culturally dependent, so art is, too.
    3) Whether art is "good" or not is also culturally defined, so a work can become more or less relevant over time (and fall in or out of favor) depending on how it speaks to us at any given time. This is also individually defined based on personal taste or ability to extract anything of value from it. We may lack the background knowledge that the art depends on us knowing to make its points, because of cultural or educational differences.
    4) "Art" is not necessarily beautiful. "Good art" isn't necessarily beautiful, either.
    5) The artist's intention is irrelevant. It's about how the thing functions, which means art can indeed be accidental. Context matters, however, which is why Duchamp's "Fountain" works as art. (This doesn't help games, however.)

    So what is art? I'd argue it's a particular way of exploring an idea (and that idea may be "beauty" or even just "formal exploration of the medium"). The problem is that the "particular way" it functions that makes it art requires a self-referential definition, which is why it takes several years to fully define, in order to study the history and theory of art. Art-works themselves tend to be self-referential for this reason, making reference to the history of art or formal issues. (I think this is relevant to the game discussion.) In the fine arts world, art institutions play an active role in defining what art is. (Which doesn't help us in the game discussion.) Some definitions of art require this self-referentiality. Ultimately what it comes down to is: art is that which functions as art.

  7. Thanks for your comments guys, and for keeping it mostly friendly. Some thoughts...

    "meaningful discussions over whose taste is better is an oxymoron"

    "Why is it so important to you to establish that some people are 'better at taste' than others?"

    Obviously I think there can be such a thing as a meaningful discussion of taste. Obviously for some I haven't succeeded in explaining why. Ultimately, the purpose of this piece is not to be some kind of art nazi who tells everyone what they ought to like. More accurately, I'm seeking to develop a picture that explains the actual ways in which we interact with art; to explain, most crucially, why we have this dualism which seems to say on the one hand that taste is subjective (each to their own), and on the other that there's something about our taste that often feels *justified*. Straight relativism of the type usually adopted denies, as David points out, that good art is really any different to bad art, and that just doesn't seem to conform to how we tend to think about art. Perhaps our intuitions on the latter are wrong; but perhaps (as I've tried to argue) plain relativism just simplifies the issue too much.

    I've tried to make clear in part 2 that I actually rally against staunch realists like Kant, and that I value differences in taste when well informed. If you and I are both good judges and we have different preferences: viva la difference. However, if my objective ability as a judge is rather limited then my insistence that MiB is better than Schindler's List and that you ought to see that is rather midguided.

    "Beauty and art are not analogous."

    True. I've rather avoided questions of what actually constitutes 'aesthetic approbation' becuase that's another essay in itself.

    "shared genetic programming to agree about all aesthetic judgements" - genes do not work like that."

    I have to disagree on this point. I'm not arguing, here, that there's some kind of Good Dialogue Gene ;-) What I'm suggesting is some kind of Kantian notion of the essential framework of the human mind, and his eternally elegant ideas around 'the freeplay between reason and imagination'. Our brains absolutely are wired in certain similar ways, and one of the outcomes of this common wiring is at least the tendency to find value or approbation in things that are otherwise of little or no use to us (Kant's disinterested pleasures). It's not a massive leap to propose that we might often find that value in the same places; though I don't claim that need always be the case.

    I have rather simplified the argument for the sake of keeping this post as accessible as possible. If you're interested in the more rigorous version you can grab it over here:

    I'd be interested to know if it addresses things any better.

  8. David Marchand : Kenco coffee is art insofar as anyone is able to appreciate how the effort that went into making it and the decisions that led to its being the way it is, led to a specific aesthetic response (its taste, smell, how it's presented in the can, the process it requires to make it, etc).

    Most people don't particularly appreciate Kenco Coffee as art to any great extent. Arguably, that means it isn't particularly useful to consider it as art most of the time -- at least, until you get into a debate like this where its status as art is actually useful to talk about. However, to draw a distinction between Kenco Coffee and, say, a painting, and say that the former is absolutely "not art" where the latter is, is arbitrary.

    You can't really say all tastes are different, you can't assume just everyone has a random, impossible to predict taste

    But that's not what Anonymous was saying. The fact that many people have overlap in their tastes does not mean that there's an objective measure for it - unless you want to say "the more people like it, the better art it is," which is as arbitrary as any other aesthetic statement and no more objectively true.

    Now if you think we all have different tastes, but not random, and that there's no significant, material proof to justify why one work of art is better than others

    Which is broadly correct...

    then at least you should be interested in what gives a person her taste, and how comes so many people agree on the superiority of some works of art.

    We are interested in that, but this article (by my understanding) is saying that "what gives a person her taste" is some vague combination of objective artistic qualities and a "shared genetic heritage" which I don't think could possibly mean anything useful.

    Having said that, much as this debate recurs perennially, I appreciate Tom's attempt to bring a fresh angle to it.

  9. @Dogface
    I do appreciate that this is, for many, a very tired topic. Glad my treatment of it isn't exacerbating the issue for everyone ;-)

    What I'm trying to do here is not to go into details of what actual features make something valuable as art; but to establish a sound philosophical framework that's able to support relativism *without* just consigning the whole of art criticism to "I like this just because".

  10. TJ, (I am the anon that wrote about the aircraft), I find the discussion interesting, though I am curious as to why you would discount a certain "borrow" from the physical sciences, such as a Galilean Inference, or In-variance; which is very useful for describing how subjective reference frames are quite capable of establishing reliable objective "truth" values.

    Only to reassert that such a subjective truth "is" capable of an objective or at-the-least universal appreciation of a value judgement (subject) as being an objectively meaningful judgement call.

    As far as Kant, and I think bob_d echoes some of my own sentiment, is that it is not a "leap of faith", rather a "little hop" that certain quanta or understanding of "form and function", (to go a step further) implies a self narrative, inside of "itself" as being a self referential truth.

    Many a mathematical "truth" relies on self reference to proof itself, yet, mathematical systems are often inconsistent in so doing. That someone who studies art, and someone who studies mathematical systems for industrial applications are able to appreciate this phenomena, as an experience, is an interesting "emergent" truth in and of itself.

    To call it a gene is a a bit of a social crap concept... though to say that a certain subconscious hierarchy does exist, as a framework from which to objectify a subject, and give it meaning in the context of the self, is a viable position.

    Art illustration is an interesting rapid anecdote to this, as someone once asked, "what is off with this figure drawing"... looked at it... and stated, the wrist position is wrong, it is locked, subconsciously an observer is thinking that a "locked wrist" is not appropriate in a combat stance... then I presented a picture of someone being handcuffed... and said "see" you already knew it was off, one just didn't know why... a priory in one way, but in fact a posteriori once having of analyzed the consequence of the flow of the piece with what one already knew.

    The SL and MiB discussion, begs a certain false dichotomy... these seem like different products with different markets in mind. the top of my head, there is also something to "saying more with less"... as an example, happen to like old Jaguars, interestingly I feel an old Jag may be expressed in profile, as a single line or stroke... while a modern car needs many strokes to say the same thing... when the mind brings a quality to the work, such as, motion to a static line; perhaps it is "high art", when it is abrupt or shows many inconsistencies, such as an American sports car, with a plastic interior, the flow is broken... just to ramble.

  11. "Schindler's List is a better film than Men in Black"

    ... no, you could say that SL is a more artistic/some other adjective film than MiB. Not "better". Better at evoking emotion, maybe (do you count amusement as an emotion? I was not very amused by SL. Do you need to qualify the evocation of which particular emotions are valid to be considered art under your definition?).