(Written by Pete F, a Philosophy & Literature graduate who is currently studying for an MPhil in Philosophy at UCL. Interests include language, art and Wittgenstein)
Andrew Hirst wrote here a little while ago about the expectation that certain (read:’classic’) art must be liked. I think the phenomenon he described is importantly symptomatic of an expectation that the most appropriate reaction to art in general is enjoyment or pleasure.
Hume and Kant
Such prominent writers on aesthetics as Hume and Kant more-or-less took it for granted that aesthetic experience, at least of beauty, was pleasurable in and of itself, or was perhaps itself a special form of pleasure. Of course they acknowledged that not everyone will take pleasure in the same art, but largely attributed this to, say, prejudice, lack of sensory refinement or a less-than-wholly disinterested attitude. On these sorts of assumptions, taking pleasure in art is a condition on proper aesthetic judgement of art. Claiming not to take pleasure in a play of Shakespeare’s, then, will be tantamount either to saying that it is not good art, or that one is not a good judge.
Of course both Hume’s and Kant’s positions are much more subtle and interesting than the caricature sketched above, but I think that the prominence of the idea of pleasure and enjoyment as an appropriate aesthetic response holds in their thought has had a huge effect on the way we often frame issues of enjoyment and understanding in art.
I recently read an article entitled I’m Sick Of Pretending: I Don’t “Get” Art (and its follow-up I Still Don’t “Get Art, and its follow up Ok, Do It: Teach Me How To “Get” Art) with interest. Each article is essentially a humorous diatribe written by an exasperated art school graduate viciously expressing his dislike of the kind of art style that can be loosely grouped under the terms contemporary, modern or conceptual (I’ll use modern for the rest of this post). Considering he is an art school graduate, he clearly does not equate all art with modern art; the titles of each article are clearly designed to be deliberately controversial. What he is actually saying is that he doesn’t “get” modern art, not the entirety of the human cultural practice of art itself. Most of each article is dedicated to declaring how poor he thinks certain examples of modern art are, in the first article focussing solely on a Tracey Emin retrospective.
Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”
The Mass Effect series of games are amongst some of the most popular and most critically acclaimed video games of recent times, with each game scoring over 90% on average on Metacritic and GameRankings (The Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 2 even scoring as high as 96% on Metacritic). Exact sales figures are hard to find, but EA confirmed that 3.5 million copies of Mass Effect 3 were shipped for its launch. Mass Effect 3 (ME3) is the end of the series, completing Commander Shepard’s story-arc in the Mass Effect universe.
The story, quickly summarised, involves the discovery in the first game that an ancient race of highly advanced machines called the Reapers, which have been hiding in the dark space between galaxies for 50,000 years, are about to return to “harvest” the advanced organic races of the galaxy, something they have done over and over in 50,000 year cycles. You spend the next two games trying to learn more about them and how they can be stopped. The final game involves rallying the troops of the galaxy together and building a superweapon in a desperate attempt to destroy the Reapers before they destroy the advanced organic species of the galaxy and head back into dark space, completing this “cycle” of destruction. It is the stuff of epic science fiction, a battle of good versus evil on a grand scale, but with an added element that only video games can allow: you get to make many major (and minor) decisions throughout the series which have wide-scale consequences on how the story advances, developing your “own” Commander Shepard character with his/her own custom back-story and personality. This means that each person playing the games has a huge say in how the story unfolds, creating a kind of immersion in the story that even the best epic science fiction narratives told outside the medium of games cannot allow.
The man himself, Commander Shepard
Before I begin this post, I just want to note that I will be using many complex terms from evolutionary biology throughout. I will do my best to stop and explain them, but should I let one pass without explaining it then Google is your friend!
Firstly, a brief outline of the post. Several theorists working on the psychology of art have, of late, presented (or assumed) a theory of a universal aesthetic psychology, grounded in evolutionary psychological reasoning about human nature. In this post I will criticise this theory by arguing that we should expect to see mixed strategies in creative displays (of which the most obvious is art) which serve as costly hard-to-fake displays of protean cognition. If these mixed strategies are maintained as balanced polymorphisms in protean cognition both across and within individuals, then there is not a single universal aesthetic psychology.
On the 14th January, Pascal Boyer wrote this article on the blog for the International Cognition and Culture Institute, in which he makes the case for serious cognitive science work on the difference between high and low brow cultural works. He argues that high brow works are essentially more complex – in his words they require “more mental work” – but must share some obvious similarites to more popular works, for example a Chopin waltz still sounds a bit like a waltz.
Video games are suffering. Despite recent technological advancements and the success of certain games consoles (the Nintendo Wii has managed to attain true popularity with those who would usually be seen as non-gamers, a first in the history of video games), video games remain either intellectually underrated, abused, or just simply ignored. As an avid gamer myself, I spend a lot of time both bemused and confused as to why this is the case. After all, I would seriously consider certain games (such as Dragon Age: Origins or Half-Life 2) to be some of the greatest works of art I have had the pleasure of experiencing. Unfortunately, many people seem to consider video games to be either downright harmful or simply distractions from more important things.
Praise for video games
Despite this, I am not on my own in voicing my praise for games. A recent book entitled Fun Inc.: Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business by Tom Chatfield surveys the state of play in society with regards to video games, and attempts to dispel many myths surrounding them. For example, he reveals that 40% of gamers are women, that most of the bestselling console games of all time involve no real-world violence at all, and that in South Korea it is more socially acceptable to hang out in a “PC bang” (a kind of internet café) than a bar, where people play networked games with their friends over a bowl of ramen and a coffee. I highly recommend this book; he gives a fair and clear headed analysis of violence in games, something which is very rare in an area mired by moral panic. Furthermore, this author collates various sources of evidence which all point to games being “useful” in some way (i.e. inspiring creativity or certain kinds of learning). Whilst I welcome these arguments, I am interested in defending a different stance. I wish to claim that video games are art, worthy of consideration by any academic working in art or aesthetics.