A quick note on aesthetics and history

There is yet another lamentful post on Slashdot about how video games lack artistic merit. Anyone who knows me on even in the most cursory of ways will know that this is an issue that deeply engages me. Not so much aesthetics of video games in general, but the relation of art to modern society.

The general theme among most of the people I talk to who actually care about such things (the minorest of minorities) have a general conclusion that the arts are dying, or at least dramatically reduced from some prior pinnacle of their former glory. The idea is that the various arts flourished "back in the day", and now languish in obscurity, where only a few poor kind souls attempt to keep the flame alive.

This brought me to a bit of accidental nuance to my view, it isn't so much how art relates to modern society, but how art relates to modern CONSUMERIST culture, where being a commodity is a goal unto itself, and salability is an ends-unto-itself beyond mastery or skill (the Latin ars root of art comes in here). How can something that we usually see as a means-to-itself (aesthetics) live in a world where the only thing that matters is consumer mindshare, and mass production?

With this new-found specifity (which MSWord has decided is not actually a real word) of my purpose flowing into my mind, also came its negation.

Art in the contemporary context is probably exactly what art has always been.

Yes, read that again, as I'm going against the popular conception, and my previous misconceptions.

Nothing has changed.

Now that I got the pithy single-sentence-paragraphs out of the way, let's explore this; there has always been two forms of public art, the art for the masses and the art for artists. By always, I mean since the first modern human sketched something in the sand with his or her hairy finger, up until now where we have massive film and game studios spending millions of dollars to release the next brown-and-beige ultra realistic WWII/Tactical Stealth blockbuster or romantic comedy.

The idea that art is languishing in current times is supported by the fact that there is so much "consumer grade" mass-produced pap floating around, and very little actual "deep" content to be found. Here are some quick observations to prove this point:

Hollywood is in the grips of acute sequelitus, and churning out purely derivative works (such as comic book movies). What little that is "unique" is formulaic and shallow. All romantic comedies are the same, all pure comedy movies are the same, all action movies are the same. They follow a predictable formula, have the same actors, and are extremely vapid and shallow. No intellectual engagement is involved, and upon experiencing them you remain unchanged. They are passive, shallow and trite.
Most of the bestselling books are also formulaic crap. Books seem to have a better chance of actually being good and innovative for some reason, but a quick glance at the various lists of books the people actually read will show that most books are mass produced crap. Poignant stories of families, stories of love, etc... Other books are purely iterations of older themes, such as the Harry Potter phenomena, which is nothing but a rehash of older themes, and completely shallow. It might be enjoyable (I say this only to avoid the flamewar), but is still requires no emotional or intellectual investment, something that we find essential to "real" art.

There is a lack of style in most video games. Mostly they go for a boring gray-brown "realistic" palette, and try for realism as much as possible, and most games, game-play wise, are boring cut-and-paste jobs from previous successful games in their genre, with perhaps a single added gimmick to sell themselves as better than I-XVI in whatever series. Boring stealth based first person shooters, and WWII simulators abound. When we actually move towards game with story (RPGs), we find the same trite "the princess is in another castle" clich├ęs, where our young man grows up to be a man, and saves the world (same crap that infests 99% of fiction).

As for traditional visual arts (painting, etc) we are simply rehashing stylistic elements made popular in the 20's and 30's, with perhaps some Andy Warhol color hacks thrown in for good measure. The popular market is infested with Tuscan doorways and sad American Indians, with a good smattering of Bob-Rossian nature scenes, and boring Thomas Kincaid crap. It has grown largely into an exploration of "style" and not of "content". The clever has supplanted technique and mastery. Art is becoming a visual pun, and a statement of our individuality.

I could go on. The point of the above was to highlight how seductive this line of reasoning is, and also how common it is. Of all of you reading this, I'm sure the small percentage of you who actually care have muttered things like this before.

We must remember that there still are great things happening in each area of the arts, there are unique things, innovative things, and truly awe-inspiring things. But we perceive the ratio to be vastly different from what is used to be. Hence the idea that "art" is dying, or literature is dying (the recent spring book edition of the Nation claims this times beyond counting). Each academic field of the humanities spend more time lamenting their own death and irrelevancy, than actually creating or analyzing (their job) their field. Philosophy is very good at this, just about every major work in philosophy since Wittgenstein (or Heidegger) has claimed the death of philosophy at some point, while blithely continuing philosophizing after that. Philosophy is far from unique in this, though.

This perception is a lie.

Cultural memory is a strange beast. In the short term it focuses on the negative, holding the current up against some glorious (and mythical) past. In the long term, when we decide to call it history, it focuses on the unique, innovation, and grand achievements. Modern memory is largely negative, while long-term memory is largely positive. This creates the fallacious idea of "the good old days", and how everything is decaying more rapidly. This is a self-perpetuating lie. This is my revelation, or at least an important sub-clause to it.

90% of everything is derivative, shallow, and made for mass consumption (though it is usually based on some past moment of aesthetic glory). The 10% that is truly masterful, though, is what gets filtered through the lens of history to come to us. The lens of history, we can say, has a very limited bandwidth, so we only get the important bits, the rest of the pap gets filtered into some general "spirit" of the age.
I have two related premises that support this conclusion, as it relates to the various fields of aesthetics. There always have existed two distinct flavors of the arts, and the second a more general point about the content of culture as it moves through time.

There have always been two major motivations in the creation of aesthetic artifacts; means-towards-an-end, and the ends-unto-itself approaches. Artists can hop between these two classes, but a majority of work is created in the guise of the former, though the latter is where actual meaning is created, and innovation happens (mostly). In the means-towards-and-end mode, the ends can be financial, prestige, or furthering ones self-identity and social place. In the other mode aesthetics is the main point of the work, even if the creators want to sell or distribute their work the aesthetic integrity is the most important goal, with all the other ends being enslaved to that one goal. We can think of this as "mastery". The means-towards-an-end mode focuses on mass acceptance via incorporation of popular styles, easily digestible bits of the current popular culture, and marketing techniques/psychological tricks. We can simplify this as saying that the first, and more popular, mode values form, while the masterful mode focuses on substance.

Artists can fall into either mode, but most of the time they are in the formulaic one.

For every thousand WWII shooters, there is one Katamari or No More Heroes. For every thousand Stephen Spielbergs, or trite fart joke comedy, there is a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick. For umpteen billion Dan Browns, Rowlings, or Anne Rices, there is a House of Leaves, or such. Etc... The lens of history will slowly erase all of the background noise, and purify it into just the shining examples of innovative culture. The other things are inconsequential, and thus not worth remembering, they all blend together into a gray, irrelevant mass. In short, the formulaic popular aspects of any culture just aren't worth remembering, given the limited bandwidth of history.

The second, and much broader, premise I would like to attach here is that of signal to noise ratio, as this directly relates to what we're discussing here, but is much more deep and general. For every pathway of communications there is a lot of meaningless chatter, and a small amount of genuine meaning. It is our job to filter out the noise, and focus mostly on the small meaningful amount of content.

The common myth is; as the amount of available forms and pathways of information transfer has increased, the amount of noise has become too prevalent, and thus lessens the value of communications as a whole. To bring this back to aesthetics, there are now being produced more types of arts, and in greater quantities, than there ever were in the history of culture, and this lessens the value of the endeavor. Because there is more production, there is more crap, out of necessity.

Being that our short term cultural memories focus mainly on the negative, things appear to be much worse than they were when there was less. And being that the paths of communication increase, as do their bandwidths, things must be continually worse than they were at any previous point. The fact that every generation has viewed themselves as in decline goes towards this point.

In short: the signal to noise ratio remains constant even as amount of communications rises, the end result is MORE signal, but harder discrimination. (I'm now using "signal" and "content" interchangeably)
The point we miss is that this ratio of signal to noise remains constant. So even if there is more crap, there still is more actual content worthy of our attention. The average value of human communications remains the same, even while increasing dramatically. But being that there is more noise, the difficulty arises in the discrimination of the content from the background. How do we find the actual substance in a sea of mere form?

In the long term, history will continue to play this role. As to how to achieve this end in the short term, I leave that up to the reader, I have no clue. This is one of the most important problems that we face today (as evident in most of our recent important developments being that of synthesis, as opposed to creation of new ideas).

Pessimism and fatalism are the human condition, but we should always avoid taking these as the truth. If we are constantly in decline, then how have we reached the pinnacle we currently stand upon? We indeed stand upon a pinnacle, but sadly the view is obscured by fog.


Yousef Alshaikh said...

Dearest sir,

This article is a testament to what you have written regarding signal and noise. This remains a gem in an ever expanding sphere tripe and agitprop.

I have had this article open in the background of my browser for a few days now and can't honestly begin to remember how I came across it.

I very much support your stance but still to this day wonder if the criterion of "depth" is an objectively quantifiable quality. I personally see depth where many others would disagree with me, while simultaneously finding some of the more "deep" works very pretentious and affected.

I guess my cup of tea lies on the thin line between the rational and the sensational.

Respectfully yours,

P.S. I hope you still check this blog, and wish you a wonderful year.

Omestes said...

Thank you for your comment, and praise. This blog has sadly died a quiet death, I regret its passing, and am at a loss as to actually say why.

Going back and reading this entry, though, I am at a loss as to why I chose a "deep vs. shallow" dichotomy. These terms strike me as a bit limiting and subjective now. Depth can be everywhere, it can be intentional (and often shallow, or pretentious because the desire for depth outweighs the creator's ability to supply it) or accidental. I agree with your assessment.

I, again, thank you for the reply, and would extend your wishes for the new year back to you.


Yousef Alshaikh said...

Thank you for the prompt reply sir. Please drop me a line if you decide to resume blogging. My contacts are on my website.