Friday 16 March 2012

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

In part 1 (here) I suggested that "what is art?" boils down to how much we think human nature defines where we find beauty, and how universal that human nature is. I now suggest that it is universal enough for us to consider the validity of games in that scheme, but not enough for a true absolutist aesthetics.

My picture
I would want to argue that there exists no sound justification for an assumption of universal pre-programming in human subject's aesthetic taste, and that until there does we ought to take the simpler, less authoritative route of simply accepting that sometimes there will be no agreement between two persons on a particular subject. If I'm built in such a way that I prefer dark humour to light, and you the other, need there be a problem provided we are good enough judges to understand what is at the heart of the matter? Even cultural or personal differences, learnt biases of which one is aware but unable or unwilling to change, can be factored in and allowed for. Hume seems reluctant but committed to drawing much the same conclusion.

In this way we can account for common sense ideas like guilty pleasures. When I describe bad sci-fi as a guilty pleasure I don't mean that I enjoy it in the same way as someone who takes the pleasure at face value. I mean that as a reasonable judge I understand that the powers-to-produce of bad sci-fi are exaggerated on me thanks to my personal bias, and that my opinion will not necessarily be shared by other judges of a similar standard. This is not to say that I ought not enjoy bad sci-fi, only that I would be wrong to hold it up as great art.

What makes your taste superior to mine, then, is not the objects of your preference, but your understanding of the objective power-to-produce those objects hold. If a high art critic judges a smudge of paint on a wall to be beautiful, he is only correct if it he understands what about the paint has the power-to-produce such feelings in himself and in other subjects. Now, perhaps it turns out to be the case that the smudge of paint is pretentious. The critic was responding not to the work, but to external stimuli of which he wasn't aware (eg the reputation of the artist, the presentation of the work on the Turbine Floor of the Tate Modern, emperor's new clothes syndrome). In this case his judgement is wrong.

There's much more that could be written on how the good judge functions, but suffice to say I think there's sufficient evidence to suggest that we are capable of agreeing in a great many cases, and (at least in principle if not in practice) of understanding why we disagree in the rest.  For now, though, let's get back onto games. 

What does this mean for games?
Clearly, on my picture, video games are capable of being art. About this infamous detractor, Roger Ebert, does not disagree. In fact, he practically gives the entire game up when he writes:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
I'm sure we'd be quite comfortable seeing the future of artistic video games as being at least in part in 'immersive games without points or rules'. But would we be right to do so?

Let's recap. In order to be considered art, games must have the objective power-to-produce feelings of beauty or 'aesthetic approbation' in human subjects who are good judges of art. A logical equation cannot reasonably be considered valid until it has been judged so by a good logician, and likewise with artistic value.

The good judge has to be a whole bunch of things we can probably guess for ourselves. He has to have good self-understanding, he has to have good knowledge of the medium (for a certain shorthand is developed, and the same trick will not work the same way the tenth time), and his practical capacities (intelligence, perception etc) have to be up to the task.

So what do good judges make of video games? Well, we know the field is split. Ebert is well respected in his field and drastically opposed to video games as art, but then he's quick to accept that his knowledge of the medium is next to zero, which rather eliminates him from the conversation. Of course, if it's true that games are art, and it's true that Ebert is an intelligent and perceptive judge, then it must be true that he could be persuaded (through careful critique of the games in question) that those games are in fact art. I don't know if this has been attempted in earnest, but it would make for a fascinating experiment.

On the other hand, plainly a whole bunch of us say games are art, but might we not be positively biased given our investment in the medium? When we garner what emotion we obviously do from video games, is it right that the powers-to-produce those emotions are in the physical construction of the game itself, or do they really lie in our perception of the medium as something new and exciting? Who would we hold out as a games critic on Ebert's level, and would they agree with us?

Perhaps the naysayers are right when they say we're not there yet. Part of what we need to really answer the question is perspective: we need to know what we're going to achieve in the future, and by what standards the Braids and the Wakos will be compared. The question: are today's efforts closer to cave paintings that perhaps should be considered of greater historical interest than of genuine artistic merit?

It's a cop out, but time will tell. This thing we do - of not just shaping something that will affect the audience, but creating something that the audience can go on to affect in meaningful ways - is unique and developing, and those held in the artistic spotlight are usually quick to point out as much. For all that I enjoy and appreciate the original Pong, there's no doubt in my mind that it is not (and never was) art (though not to say it is impossible to find beauty in its function). Perhaps we'll feel the same about Braid in another 40 years.

Let's ask these questions again when we're in a better position to answer them. In the meantime we need to carry on with what we're doing: seeking a better understanding of interaction and its unique powers-to-produce.

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.