Friday, July 23, 2010

The Disaster that is Art, Part II

In my last Disastrous Art post, I explored the reasons why artists, musicians, actors, writers and craftspeople in North America are forced to choose between their art and survival. In this post, I wish to examine the very idea of art itself and how Art is deepening the divide between itself and its audience. I am not talking about the generous, broad definition of art which can be defined as "human expression". I'm also not talking about indigenous art that collectors fawn over because they want to make themselves look worldly. I'm talking about Art.

It goes by many names. Fine art, high art, literature, art-music, classical music, or just Art with a capital "A". It is difficult to define, but some people define it by what it isn't. It isn't pop-art. It isn't genre-fiction. It isn't popular music. That would be fine, except "pop-art," "genre-fiction," and "popular music" are all terms equally difficult to define. At best, Art can be defined as human expression which is "better" than others.

Why is this definition important? Because many institutions place high value on Art. For example, within my own experience, Grain Magazine publishes "engaging, surprising, eclectic, and challenging writing and art" according to their website, which is code for "we're not looking for genre-fiction". The Saskatoon Symphony differentiates between its main concerts in which it plays "classical" music from established masters and new Canadian composers, and its "Pop Series", in which it plays film music by John Williams and ABBA. When I applied for arts funding from the Saskatchewan government, I was advised that if my project was "popular" in nature, I should apply to the extra-governmental Saskfilm for funding.

I see Art-exaltation in people around me, particularly those with a university education in an artistic field. People who work in artistic fields have much of their self-esteem tied into Art, and many feel that they are better than other artists because they practice true Art instead of vulgar entertainment and commercialism. I too have a Bachelor of Arts degree and for a long time I believed in Art. I believed that some art was better than others, that some human expression should be written-off as "entertainment". It was the cause of much snobbery, haughtiness and pooh-poohing on my part. However, since I graduated I have been tormented with the suspicion, then the conviction, that the concept of Art is total bullshit.

I believe that Art is a holdover from less democratic times. Hundreds of years ago, nobles needed a way to make their form of entertainment seem superior to the entertainment of their smelly, toothless subjects. As a noble, the myth of superior breeding had to be upheld. Not only was a noble born better than his subjects, everything he did and appreciated was better. This was essential to his survival, because appearing unworthy of leadership could lead to his head on a pike. Thus was born the concept of entertainment that was better, smarter and elevating. With the growth of the middle-class in the 19th Century, the new moneyed class desired to imitate the nobles. So they bore the noble concept of Art, showing themselves to be cleverer and more refined than those who had less money. While the nobles and their courts have vanished, the concept of Art has lingered among the wealthy, intellectuals and professionals. In our society, it is permissible for people well-versed in Art to hold themselves in superiority over people who do not.

I have said that people believe Art is "better". So what does "better" mean? Firstly, it means a higher degree of skill on the part of the artist. Skill comes with hours of practice at the art form, to a point where technical mastery is achieved. I have no objection to this, although it's worth noting that technical mastery does not equal art. A potter can create a functional plate with mastery, but it does not become art until he uses the medium for expression with glaze and decoration.

Secondly, in the past, Art was distinct because it sought to "elevate" the audience. Elevation is the result of "the sublime", a strange concept based in grandeur, bigness, beauty and proximity to God. An elevated individual is brought into the throes of ecstasy by the Art in question. However, with the decline of religion in Western Society, so has the idea of the sublime fallen. Now, many would submit, Art is achieved by breaking boundaries and expectations. Art must be new, intellectually stimulating and challenging.

Lastly, and most importantly, Art is only for certain people. Many people mask this intent by saying that Art should not be "commercial" or "out to make money". However, what they mean is that Art should not appeal to the vulgar masses. How else does one make lots of money, but by appealing to lots of people? The intended audience of Art must be connoisseurs of art: other artists, intellectuals, scholars, critics and collectors.

So, Art is masterful, challenging human expression that is meant for smart people. Well, my friends, there is no imperial scale that judges the skill of an artist, nor the intellectual value, nor the IQ of the intended audience. That means that Art is subjective. SUBJECTIVE. Because it is subjective, "Art" is a completely useless term with which to judge human expression.

Everybody has varying levels of different types of intelligence and different amounts of experience with entertainment. One man's Art is, to others, either vulgar or incomprehensible. To some, a Fellini film is Art, while most Americans wouldn't understand it. For others, Fellini is vulgar merely because he is a filmmaker.

Another example: when I was ten years old, I watched the legendary wrestling match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. Professional Wrestling is a form of entertainment of the most vulgar kind. No Art could possibly result from such spectacle. But there they were, two men feigning rage, pain and exaltation. Kinda like actors. There they were, using their bodies to express emotion. Kinda like dancers. When Hulk Hogan triumphed and held the title belt above his head, exhausted and elated, my ten-year-old mind was moved. I felt the ecstacy of victory, the thrill of hard-won triumph. I had never seen anything like it before and my developing mind was touched with the sublime. Yes, I was just a dumb kid. But to me, a WWF match was elevating. At the same age, I would have found a Mozart symphony boring.

What I am trying to say is that it is incorrect to declare any entertainment as "better" than another. Art and entertainment are the same thing. Each individual has opinions and a less harmful way of expressing them is to say "I like this" or "I don't like this".

Harmful? Yes. I say this to all who are reading who believe that Art is better than entertainment and have their egos wrapped in this fallacy: others can detect it. They see that because you know your Art, you think you are better than them on some level. It leeks through your personality and effects your behaviour. It makes people feel small. It makes them hate you. It perpetuates the view that artists are snobby and self-absorbed. It is one of the reasons why Stephen Harper declared that ordinary Canadians don't care about art.

I normally wouldn't mind that people believe in the existence of Art. It is, after all, only an opinion. However, from what I've experienced, art snobs populate high places: universities, arts funding boards, galleries, newspapers, scholarship committees, and friends-of societies. They pass judgment on other people's projects, using the bullshit-definition of Art as a standard. They indoctrinate young artists with a belief that is false and offensive. While film has just started to become recognized as an Art form, film composers are still ostracized by their peers. Sequential art and Video Games are ignored or mocked.

A gaping crevasse yawns between high-artists and the rest of the world. Ordinary folks resent artists for their snobbery and artists resent the hordes of philistines who marginalize them. This is unbelievable. Isn't art supposed to be about communication and expression? Shouldn't people trained to communicate be the best-understood people on the planet?

Artists, we must take the first step, because the rest of the world won't. We must get off our high-horses and stop being so damned smug about ourselves. We have to recognize that our worldview is not the only correct one. We have to respect the tastes of others and not take it personally if they would rather watch CSI. Lastly, and most importantly, we must remember that there are six billion people out there hungering to be entertained; if we can do that, they will love us.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Review of "Flashman in the Great Game" by George MacDonald Fraser

Harry Paget Flashman is the greatest hero of the British Empire. He gained respectful fame in the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Sikh Wars, the Crimean War, and the American Civil War. At the end of his distinguished career, he is a Knight of the Bath, a General, and a Victoria Cross recipient. He also happens to be a spineless, chauvenistic cad who flees from battle and into famous women's beds. Flashman in the Great Game is the fifth installment of the Flashman Papers, the memoir of the famous Englishman, which were "discovered" by writer George MacDonald Fraser.

On this occasion, the hapless Flashy is bundled off to India by Prime Minister Palmerston to investigate rumours of discontent amongst the sepoys. Flashman's attempts to lay low and stay out of trouble are menaced by the Russian spy Count Ignatieff, who pursues him with assassins, spreading discontent in his wake. As is usual for Flashman, he appears in every important conflict in the coming Indian Mutiny, desperately trying to stay alive and flee. He falls in love with Rani Lakshmibai along the way and by the end of the book he has nearly been shot, stabbed, starved to death, eaten by crocodiles and blown out of a cannon.

It is my favourite Flashman adventure since the first book. This is partly because during the middle bits Flashman is forced to masquerade as a Pashtun Warrior in the Native Cavalry and the readers are offered a fascinating view of the reasons for the Indian Mutiny. In the N.I. barracks, rumours abound that the British are trying to defile the Muslims and break the castes of the Hindus. The British East India Company foolishly allows Christian chaplains to preach at the sepoys during parade, deepening suspicions. Then a rumour emerges that a new rifle cartridge being issued to the sepoys is greased with a mixture of pork and beef fat. Such a cartridge, when bitten to load a rifle, would defile the loader's religion. Interesting stuff.

Another satisfying angle of the book is that, more than any other Flashy adventure so far, bad things happen to Flashman consistently. Harry Flashman really is not a very nice person. So when awful things happen to him it's enormously gratifying.

Yet, there is an angle to Flashman's character that is curious. As bad as he is, the reader is forced to identify with him as the protagonist. He does things that are repellent, but every man dreams about, ie. hops into bed with any woman he wants. Sometimes Flashman even seems admirable, as he is in fact a very clever person, assuming a pretty woman isn't foiling him. One scene in this book in particular will stay with me. I'll paraphrase it as best I can:

A pious former aquaintance accosts Flashman on the eve of a hopeless battle. He confesses that he has been angry since Flashy tossed an unrequited love out the back of a moving sled in Russia (see Flashman at the Charge) and begs for forgiveness. Flashman refuses on principle. This aquaintence persists, saying he should give forgiveness for the good of his soul. At that, Flashman berates him, calling him a hypocrite. "Don't pretend," Flashman says, "that it would be for anyone's good but your own. As for your true love, I had her four or five times a week. There, I've made it easy for you to not worry about my forgiveness. Now bugger off." Classic.

Flashman in the Great Game is yet another excellent book in the Flashman series. The quality of these books is astounding. They are extensively entertaining and researched. Normally one can expect a decline in quality in a series as the author becomes complacent, but this one is still going strong. To have a book so close to perfection this late in the series is unheard-of.

If you haven't sampled Flashy yet, go out and purchase the first volume, Flashman, and let the adventure begin.
5 ladies bedded out of 5

Friday, July 9, 2010

Review of Red Dead Redemption

It's brilliant. It's art. It's an epic. It's the best sandbox game ever. It's Red Dead Redemption.

It's 1911. The freedoms of the old West are dying, replaced by civilization, technology and big government. The trails of cowboys and outlaws are vanishing under rail ties and the wheels of automobiles.

Two government agents in bowler hats escort a scarred and hardened man aboard a westbound train. The man is John Marston, a former outlaw who tried to leave his life behind and raise a family. But the federal government now holds his family hostage, threatening to kill them if John doesn't track down his former gang-mates. So John must face his dark former-life in order to save his wife and son.

Video games do not normally move me to write reviews, but this game is different. Aspects of it are not entirely original. One could easily describe it as "Grand Theft Auto in the Old West". But it's more than that. What makes it different is the love. For it is love that separates great games from the crap. Red Dead Redemption has more love than ANY video game I have ever played.

For example, the first thing I said when I saw it was, "Oh my God, look at the trees!" Yes, the trees are beautiful. The water looks beautiful. The care and attention to detail is astounding. For further example, if John is walking by the river past sundown, one can hear the sound of night insects and frogs. But here's the shocking part. If you make John fire his gun by said river, the sound echoes and the night noises stop, then gradually return. Some developer thought this little audio detail was important enough to add. The game is full of details like this and it makes the experience magical.

The main plot is involving and interesting. Each new mission left me yearning to "do just one more". However, the side plots are a tad predictable and usually involve discovering that somebody or something is dead, or perhaps somebody not discovering treasure. That in itself is not so bad, as it goes toward establishing the game's atmosphere of madness and desperation.

The weapons are awesome! Marston has at his disposal a variety of weapons from then-new bolt-action rifles and Luger pistols to old guns from the American Civil War. I was at a first confused as to why old civil war weapons were included, but then I recalled how many modern shooters include the AK-47, which is about as old for us as the LeMat Revolver would be for John Marston. Maybe I'm just sentimental, but it's somehow more classy to blow open somebody's skull with a classic Spencer Carbine than with a vulgar modern FAMAS or Steyr AUG.

I actually really enjoyed hunting. Yes, the hunting is pretty fanciful and unrealistic. The countryside teems with wildlife and one can sell buzzard feathers for $5 each, which would be an amazing buying price today, but in 1911 money that's the equivalent of $116! John can also carry seventeen grizzly bear hides on his person without breaking a sweat, or indeed, smothering. However, there's something very freeing about wandering about the countryside butchering everything in sight.

The bad: many of the cliches I previously blogged about are present: tickling bullets, proactive bullets, magic head shots, me-time, extremely nutritious food and exploding fucking barrels are present. That's six of my least favourite video game cliches out of ten. Boo!

I have now gained a 100% completion rating for this game. All the missions are done after about thirty hours of gameplay. The stats say I have killed 1200 people, which is typical for a Rockstar game. However, the fun is not over. I am having a blast in multiplayer. Also, I am enjoying collecting PS3 trophies, something I have never previously cared about. For instance, I recently collected the "Dastardly" trophy, which I earned by hogtying a woman and laying her on the railroad tracks in front of an advancing train. More fun awaits in the future, as Rockstar Games recently announced downloadable content: online poker and liar's dice, more game modes and even a supernatural expansion with ghost towns and zombies. Squee!

My friends, games like this are rare and special. I'm sure in the future, the graphics and gameplay will seem laughable, but for now it's here to be enjoyed and it's almost perfect. If you have a PS3, go buy it so we can posse up and kill some saps!
5 anti-government rants out of 5