Category Archives: art

On Art, Awe and Simulations

I recently read two great posts on art by livelysceptic and bloggingisaresponsibility, followed by an amazing reply by Steve Armstrong. Today I’d like to add my grain of sand, bearing in mind what I say will be mostly applicable to music and literature, being as I am extremely ignorant of more visual art. And again and just in case people forget, these are just tentative ideas that I myself don’t take too seriously but that, hopefully, will give someone a little to think about.

One thing caught my attention in Steve’s extremely long reply to bloggingaresponsibility: he said that art is not about transmitting feelings and that, when it is, he considers it “amateur.” I think I understand what he means: it’s easy to make a sad song. That’s not the goal. The goal is to make a great sad song. However, I’d like to elaborate a bit and say that art is about transmitting feelings. In fact, it is about causing a very particular feeling in the receiver: awe.

Awe is hard to define, but it usually arrives when we are confronted with something that we can barely comprehend. Something that seems too big for our mind to contain. Awe may be felt when gazing at the stars or the ocean, but the feeling is particularly humbling when facing something made by another human being.

But where does this awe come from? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it may be related to the ability to simulate another mind. By this, I mean the ability to reproduce in our heads the author of that particular piece’s train of thought in making it. Here I am drawing on my own experience, so I am not sure whether this applies to other people.

Beckwith James Carroll Lost in Thought

Beckwith James Carroll Lost in Thought (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I listen to a song, I don’t limit myself to listening. In fact, I unconsciously analyze what I’m hearing and try to predict what’s coming. I’d say most of us do this or there would be little point in saying a song does something “unexpected.” In this sense, I am simulating the author in my head. When I am perceiving art, my mind automatically tries to simulate the thought process that produced it.

Sometimes, what I am hearing or seeing feels so completely alien that it remains a mystery. In this case, I don’t feel much when facing it. It could be a work of genius or it could be a piece of crap, but I have no way of knowing. Sometimes, I will hear or see something so familiar that I can almost picture every step in the creation process. In this case, I will probably deem the work “naïve” and move on. But sometimes, there is just enough for me to understand what the author was trying to do, but not enough for me to reproduce their thought process. That’s when the awe comes.

But let me elaborate, because I feel I’m not managing to communicate what I mean.

James Blunt en concert le 19 juillet lors du f...

James Blunt. He’s beautiful. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I’ll be listening to a song and, after two measures, I’ll be able to predict the rest of it. This causes a very particular feeling: boredom. In some, very rare occasions, I’ll even be able to predict the lyrics. I remember listening to James Blunt’s “You’re beautiful” for the first time and, after he said “and I don’t know what to do” I remember thinking: “please, for the love of God, don’t say “cause I’ll never be with you.”” Alas, he didn’t listen to my inner voice, thus causing another, very familiar feeling: embarrassment.

The same happens with books. Nothing kills a book more than being able to see its sewers. Reading a passage and thinking: “here the author was trying to be deep” or “now he wants me to feel sad.” When you manage to picture the author writing these lines, to simulate his thought process when writing, the book is doomed.

Art lives at the outer border of understanding. Sometimes we can get a glimpse of the author’s thought process, but the glimpse dies quickly and we’re just left with awe. Take Bach, for example. You can listen to Bach and try to follow each one of the many parallel melodies he manages; you probably won’t succeed. You can follow one for a while, then another. Sometimes you’ll be aware of two and maybe, at a moment of clarity, you’ll be able to gaze upon the whole in its full glory for a split second, enough to marvel at the genius of this man who not only was able to follow the voices but to write them, and then you’ll be back into darkness, having experienced awe. The same happens when you listen to Clare Fischer’s solo piano excursions or to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”

edited image of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, signin...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In literature, the feeling of awe comes (to me) from perfectly-rounded novels like Kundera’s “Immortality” or Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Works where each page counts but, maybe more importantly, where after reading the last page you are left with a feeling of completeness, of perfection. Nothing is there by accident; everything makes sense. You can perceive that roundness, that wholeness, but you wouldn’t be able to create it. You are unable to reproduce the author’s thought process, you can’t simulate their mind. You are smart enough to understand why what they did is so awe-inspiring; you’re just not smart enough to be able to create something like that yourself. Their work seems to come from a different, more elevated place that you will never be able to reach.

Hence, awe.

It is also possible to feel awe at other acts of human creation that would not generally be considered art. I felt awe when I first learned about general relativity and Riemannian geometry. I felt it when I saw the Euler formula for complex numbers and when I first learned about quantum mechanics and Hilbert spaces. I felt it when I discovered Gödel’s theorem and I learned about its implications for my beliefs on mathematical truth.

Would I define art this way? I am not sure. Maybe art is anything that strives to cause this feeling, the varying levels of success being the difference between great, good and bad art. Maybe not.  And of course, whether the art is considered good or bad will also depend on the observer: that which is too obvious to me may be not so obvious to you and vice-versa. The divide between the musical tastes of musicians and non-musicians seems extremely pronounced and is easily explained by the different capacities to simulate the creation of that particular piece.

Anyway, these are my fifty cents on art. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Are Videogames Art?

This may come as a surprise to you, but I’ve always been a huge fan of videogames. The first game I played when I was a kid was “The legend of Monkey Island” and I instantly fell in love with the story, the humor and the puzzles. The script was absolutely delirious and even the ending left you wondering who the hell those people were who came up with a 2-disk game that asked you for disk 22 just to screw with you.

As I grew older I played less and less videogames, having realized that they were taking a huge chunk of my time that I could have used for more productive endeavors, such as writing a magnificent blog. But I have never stopped indulging every now and then.

I’ve never been a fan of car games or first-person shooters. To me, gaming is about a story that unfolds through your actions, while your character’s ability and personality grows. That is why I almost exclusively play RPGs, graphic adventures or real-time strategy. The other types of games seem more suited for the sports types; I’ve always been a nerd. I don’t want to display feats of skill, but to use my brain to get out of certain situations.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island. Ah, the memories. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Playing videogames has always made me feel a little guilty. My father used to tell me I should call them “solitaires” since I was playing them alone. I guess it was his way of telling me I should be out there hanging out with real people. They have always been associated to wasting time: why play videogames when you could be reading a book? What’s funny is that, a couple centuries ago, reading books was also associated with idleness. Cinema was a similar guilty pleasure, until it recently started to be viewed as an art. Could the same happen with videogames?

I’d say yes. Not with all videogames, for sure, just like Transformers 2 probably does not qualify as art. Casablanca, however, does. And I’d say Monkey Island does too, since it is an absurd comedy in the line of Billy Wilder or the Monty Python (I’m not saying it’s as good, though).

Videogames, just like cinema, have experienced a tremendous evolution. The first games, like pong, were a little like the first movies by the Lumière brothers: something extremely simple made in order to wow the audience and show them the capabilities of those wonderful new machines. But graphics got better and stories got more complex; genres appeared and diversified. I am being deliberately ambiguous to show the parallelisms between videogames and cinema.

On the left is an Atari 2600 with Freeway, a g...

On the left is an Atari 2600 with Freeway, a game based on a bad joke. Pictured right is a Magnavox Odyssey, running the Tennis game that Nolan Bushnell copied for Pong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But videogames are different from cinema and books in a big way: interactivity. In every videogame you have the ability to manipulate the actions of a certain character in order to achieve some goal. What you do matters: this had never been done before (except maybe with table-top RPGs and “choose your own adventure” books). Interactivity, however, is a matter of degree: do we allow for the players’ actions to truly affect the story, having different endings depending on their decisions? Do we allow for the manipulation of any environment object? Do we enforce some type of morality or allow players to choose theirs? Do we just provide a world and allow the players to do whatever they want?

In the same vein, one needs to decide which skills will be the most important in order to achieve the game’s goals. Will it be reflexes? Intelligence? Speed? Precision? Patience? Yes, in some games (Diablo comes to mind) you need mostly patience. The patience to spend hours and hours playing in order to make your character stronger.

Art seeps into videogames through many different layers. First, through the graphics, which are sometimes extremely beautiful and original; second, through the music. Believe it or not, sometimes videogame music is extremely good: “sworcery” (an iPad game) or “Journey” come to mind; “Chrono Trigger” also has an excellent score, even with the limited instrument palette that came with the SNES. And maybe it’s for sentimental reasons, but the Final Fantasy VII melody and overall ambience really manage to affect my mood.

A screenshot of the game illustrating a new sc...

A screenshot of Chrono Trigger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is more, of course. The script is becoming increasingly important (though it already was during the 90s: see “Day of the Tentacle” or “Sam’n Max” from LucasArts), as well as the story. In fact, that’s what gets me hooked: I just need to know what happens next. And some games have amazing stories with plenty of plot twists, which may be hard to believe for people who don’t play computer games regularly. With the script comes voice acting, which is getting better every day (“DragonAge: Origins” was particularly good and included Claudia Black from Stargate).

And, of course, the game mechanics. Whether this is an art form is of course arguable, but there’s no denying finding proper game mechanics which are engaging, fun and have a proper learning curve is anything but easy. Games like Starcraft continue to be played more than a decade after they came out, precisely because the game mechanics were so perfect that gameplay got as complex as the players’ imagination. The game was so finely balanced that every skirmish against another human was unique and unpredictable, a true battle of wits that people actually watch like a sport. This is quite an achievement, art or not.

So there it goes: my fifty cents on videogames. What do you think?

  1. Are videogames art?
  2. Are they a waste of time?

Is there any videogame you consider being above all others? Any fond memories?

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David Yerle Writes about Art

David Yerle writes about art. He admits he has struggled with the notion more than is recommendable and that he doesn’t completely see the point.

David Yerle wonders when putting a toilet seat in a museum becomes art. He is aware of what de-contextualization means but he still has trouble seeing the point.

David Yerle believes some stuff out there is definitely art. He means the kind that sends shivers down your spine, the kind that seems to have been made by some being not from this world. An example of “art” would be the song Grace, by Jeff Buckley, which creates in David Yerle a state akin to mystical transcendence.

The question David Yerle wishes to answer is whether bad art is also art. Is a drawing from a kid “art”? How about a doodle on the side of a page? Is a caricature of a teacher “art”? Who decides it? Maybe art becomes art when the person who is making it believes it is art. But shouldn’t other people have a say?

David Yerle explains that artists did not even exist until the 15th century. Until then, there were only artisans. An amazing artisan could be considered an artist. Someone who elevated mere craft to another level. Someone who put you in touch with God or with whatever you believed in just by contemplating his or her works.

Some people believe art is whatever art critics say is art.

David Yerle is not sure of what he believes. He finds it hard to see the line separating Mozart from Britney Spears. Does Britney make art? Or products? What exactly is the difference? Does Bansky make art? Are the Beatles art? David Yerle would like to think so.

David Yerle suspects the trouble with art is that it’s a vaguely defined word. Maybe everyone is saying the same but interpreting the word “art” in a different way. Maybe there is only stuff and calling it “art” is just a way of stating whether you like it or whether you think it’s serious work or whether you think it belongs in a museum, like Indiana Jones.

Does David Yerle make art? Or does he just write a damn blog?

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