Friday, May 14, 2010

Going by What Works: Or, Judging a Book by Its Back Cover...

It all started with this little posting on the Atlantic. If you have time I highly recommend you read it then follow the rabbit hole that it presents. But in short the commentator was arguing against Roger Ebert's criticism against video games being medium of Art. He was in turn responding to a TED presentation asserting that very fact.

Now some of you know I hold some pretty strong opinions on these matters. I was thinking of writing some responses to any number of these articles, but I can't. There's just too many points to jump off of. But just for the sake of getting them off my chest, I'm going to rattle off a few comments:

1. Both the Atlantic article and the TED presentation annoy me just a little bit. Although the authors have the right rationale to pursue the point, the examples picked are really pretty flimsy in my mind... I especially disagree with the Wikipedia definition of Art that was used as the backbone of the TED presentation. I almost yelled at my computer screen when I read it the first time...

2. Roger Ebert is completely off-base in his criticisms against video games... but his snarky tone doesn't make me even want to argue against it. So I'm just gonna shrug, say he's wrong, and walk away.

Alright, now I've directly addressed those entries, but I'm not quite done yet. It's left me with a little more to think about.

How do you argue whether something is good art or not? Even side-stepping the challenge of agreeing on a single definition... let's just take a step back. I'd say it all comes down to the same question you'd ask of anything. Did it work?

In other words, when you looked at this alleged work of art, did it work? Did it do what it was supposed to? Once you start asking that question, then I think you're not only on to a feasible definition, but you've saved yourself from meaningless banter and gotten down to the question of why.

Looping this back to what I started with: I argue, quite assertively, that video games are Art. (Or rather, can be.) Why? Because I'm playing one right now that works.

I'm in the middle of a game right now (Persona, the Sin Megami Tensei Japanese RPG series) which does everything art should be doing.
-It inspires me to want to do things differently in my own life, to improve, strive, etc.
-It makes me reflect on themes in my life that go unnoticed sometimes.
-It generates empathetic feelings in me for the protagonists, their struggles, and wanting to know if they succeed in the end.
-It generates an aesthetic sense of wonder or fascination at the world it describes/creates.
-It also makes me uncomfortable at times because of it's edgy-ness, either when it hits too close to home, or takes the right idea and goes the wrong way.

I'd challenge anybody to take that list of pre-requisites and say that's not Art doing art's thing.

With that I rest my case. Not by dismantling the essays above, though I still could if somebody wanted to get into it, but by appealing to experience. I find in this case, and in a lot of cases with Art and Stories, it's just better that way.

So how about next time you judge a book, don't judge it by it's front cover, whether it looks like a novel, or a comic book, but judge it by the last page, or better yet, the back cover. Once you close it, take a second to see what it did to you.

Judge by that.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On Endings and Beginnings: Or, fighing the tyrrany of "real life"

In the very first entry of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes an incident where a person's mind was on the cusp of enlightenment, where really important ideas were coming up. This, of course, was met by resistance from Screwtape, his personal demon. I'll just go ahead and put the excerpt below:

"I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the countersuggestion ... that this was far more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, 'Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,' the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added 'Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,' he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a news-boy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of 'real life' (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all 'that sort of thing' just couldn't be true."
This little episode really tells the whole story of what I want to talk about in this entry. In fact, it can be summed up in an even simpler line a few paragraphs above that quote:

"...You don't realize how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary..."
My run with MetroWest in The Magic Flute is over, except for two abbreviated productions on Friday and a cast party. While I don't doubt I'll work with them again, this run is finished. A well-meaning friend at lunch today told me, "I bet your relieved now that it's done." My response was something along the lines of "not exactly, but yes, things are quieter now." But really, I have to confess that was out of politeness.

To be more direct and honest, I hate this part of the life-cycle of a show. Doing a staged production is not the same as finishing a painting or successfully writing a paper. Nor is it anything like surviving some kind of ordeal, though we certainly stress ourselves out in the process, that I'll admit. In theater and music, it's the process itself which brings the most fulfillment. Music and theater exist in the moment they're being performed. Afterward, they're gone and only memories. (Don't get me started on recordings. Those are downright painful for artists most of the time...)

I'll let you in on a secret. I have a theory about actors... we don't have cast parties to celebrate. We have cast parties to grieve. Oh sure, we revel in our accomplishments, but on a deep subliminal level, we get together one last time to look around and see those we worked with and it gives us a chance to say good-bye. If we're fortunate we'll work with them again. We usually hope for just that, but it's not a guarantee.

The word "inspiration" comes from the Latin root "to breathe life into." We also have the word "spirit" from the same source. Good art, and especially good theater, inspires.

By now you're starting to wonder why I've gone off on this tangent so suddenly after just introducing C.S. Lewis... well, there's more to the end of a show than just the nostalgic realization that it's over. Both for the actor and for the audience.

If art were just a momentary thing, it wouldn't be worth putting the energy into. Come to think of it, you could probably draw the line right there in differentiating Art from Entertainment. No matter how expertly done, one is purely for a moment's pleasure. The other leaves you with something. Or, more accurately, it can.

Doing this past production has left me with a lot of inspirational thoughts and ideas. I'm happy to report that while doing this show I've had a number of my little intellectual prejudices challenged. I've also found that I don't know nearly as much about the art form as I thought I did. I also know that I want to make up for that by doing more. This is what leads me to C.S. Lewis.

The man in that little story had a moment of choice. He could take the inspirational idea that hit him, whatever it was, and run with it... or he could shrug it off and go on with his "real" life. I think it especially helps in this example to point out that a) his inspirational thought was Divinely encouraged and b) that the word life was in quotes for a reason.

In that incident, he chose the latter, and was far the worse for it.

I can even hear that voice in the back of my own head right now. It's saying "oh yes, but wouldn't that be something. Everyone always running off, following half-realized fantasies at their first appearance. Nothing would get done and we'd all just be mad fools." Which is a fair point, but I'm not advocating running-off at every suggestion.

I am advocating that we take a second look at those inspirational ideas we get at the end of good shows. I can't use the phrase "it's safe to say..." because it decidedly isn't a safe suggestion. But I think it's a good one.

So here's the choice: At the end of an artistic show. Is it an ending? Or is it an ending and a beginning?