Hello, gentle listeners. It’s been a while. So let me catch you up on a few things.
I had brain surgery on January 5th. And if you think that sounds intense, then you are right. The surgeon literally removed part of my skull to make room for my brain. But the upshot is that I’ve felt a lot better. I can’t get over-excited and say, “I’m cured!” because at this point, I’m living a much more relaxed and docile life than before the surgery. Things were always worse when I was working and teaching and on my feet much of the day. Right now I’m still convalescing at home. Then, about two weeks ago I started dealing with severe pain in the back of my head. We don’t know the cause of that, yet, but it’s kind of a bummer after feeling so good for two months. But, I knew this would be a tough road. It’s going to be okay, and I’m glad to have the time to heal..
And honestly, if you saw me, you’d be shocked. You’d never know I had such an invasive procedure just three months ago unless you saw my scar. Up until the new headaches I was doing REMARKABLY well. And it’s not like things have taken a 180. I’m still up and around and doing things. And I give a lot of that credit to my family. My husband and kiddo have taken such AMAZING care of me.
And I think I am well enough to return to the podcasting world. If the episodes are short or if I miss a week here and there I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m getting back into the swing of things, and as I talked about in my last podcast, I have to listen to my body these days.
But I have missed sharing with you. I’m really glad to be back. So let’s help each other ease our way into the conversations we used to have.
Today, I want to tell you about a discussion I had with my kid, and how they have challenged me to think through some big ideas.
First, you have to know, I have the coolest kid. One of my favorite things to do is sit and talk with my 13-year-old. They are bright, clever, funny, and empathetic. And I learn a lot from them. They’re just good people.
A few weeks back my kid and I started talking about video games. This isn’t anything really surprising because my child is a devoted gamer and if left to their own devices would spend most of the time playing video games, and the rest of their time reading sci-fi.
I, however, am not a gamer. I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon and I’m very curious about the gaming world, but when it comes down to it, I just don’t enjoy the action of playing a video game. This means there is a bit of a gap between my teenager and me. While my husband loves gaming, and he and my kid can bond over and through that forever, I am just an observer in this world. The kid and I are more likely to share books.
But this day in particular gaming brought me and the teenager into a very challenging, and very uniting conversation. The question at hand was, are video games art?
They had been playing Journey, which if you’re unfamiliar with it, is an older game, but is absolutely beautiful. It’s basically one big allegory for death. Which sounds dark and macabre, but the game itself is breathtaking. Even just watching my family play I get caught up in the emotion of it. It’s just lovely.
Now compare that to Mario 3D World. Not exactly the same thing. One is a commentary on the poetry of life, one is a time-filler with walking mushrooms and fireball plants. There’s a pretty big disparity between these two games. Right?
So I asked my kid, are video games art? They thought for a moment and said, yes, they are. So I followed up – are ALL video games art, or does the label of “art” only apply to some? This took some time and effort to parse out. There were certain games, like Journey, Unfinished Swan, and What Remains of Edith Finch, that are distinctly moving and artistic. There are games like the Stanley Parable that are meant to make you think about big ideas. They are, for lack of a better term, artistic. But what about Mario Kart? Getting Over It? Are you consuming art when you play World of Warcraft?
My kid concluded that pretty much all video games are in some way, art. And they talked for a bit about how things that seem to be as far apart from art as it gets, can be very artistic. So for example, Horizon Zero Dawn is a combination of a lot of things – visual arts, story-telling, and technical skill and science. My child doesn’t separate the technical part of it from the art. Coding and computer science produce art – making them artistic. The enhanced visuals and the narrative can’t exist without the technical, engineering part of the game, so they all work together to create art. Science and art are co-parents, here.
I however, was not as convinced. I heartily agreed that video games can be art. But I was hesitant to call all games art. There are some, I said, that are just more artistic than others.
But that presented a real problem for me. In order to make that statement I had to acknowledge that I was working from some definition of “art” that I was applying, and in doing so some games made the cut, while others were lacking. My child agreed that was an issue.
The question then, is, what is art?
It’s a daunting question, but for those of us with humanities backgrounds, it’s about as important a question as there is. For some, art is just creative enterprises. But other people demand more of art – it has to move you or make you think in some way.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I think about it. I feel pretty comfortable calling something artistic, but things are dicier when you ask me to say something ISN’T art. You know the old definition of pornography – you know it when you see it? I think art is more difficult than that. Because so many people have such wildly different experiences and expectations of art.
Consider for a moment the classic book Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. There aren’t many books more famous – or more divisive.
If you ask people who have read it, they all agree that the writing is amazing. The prose itself just sparkles. But many of those people would also admit having real problems with the book. The main character, the narrator, is a pedophile. And it doesn’t get much worse than that. Now, we are trained to empathize with the narrators of our stories. Unless it is a specifically unreliable narrator, we tend to take the perspective of that main character. That’s not always the case, but as a generality, it can be a starting point. Now, Humbert Humbert, the narrator, does not come across as a particularly reliable narrator in some ways. He seems to idealize things and deny some basic rules or observations. But where people really get caught, is he’s just a bad guy. Humbert Humbert is despicable. The problem is this is a good book. And a lot of people are really put off by being put in the position of relying on this bad dude for the story. Some people read it initially as a defense of the indefensible.
But there are other readers who see it very differently. Some readers see Nabokov’s lilting prose as part of the story. Humbert is terrible, but the world he inhabits is one of his own building. There are plenty of readers who see this book as an example of irony. We are told the story by the eloquent Humbert, but we are not supposed to buy what he is selling. For those readers, Humbert is not the protagonist, but the antagonist of the story. This, too, is problematic – does that make Delores, or Lolita, the hero? It doesn’t seem to make sense because Lolita isn’t treated like a person in the text. She is mostly described as a body, and in many ways is silenced by Humbert. But is that the point? Is the fact that the hero is treated pretty much like a sex doll some lesson for us to learn?
Nabokov disliked Humbert. He said he was pretty much reprehensible. So why center the story on him? What are we supposed to glean from that?
People are torn. Is the book about how Humbert is excusable, or should people like Humbert be ostracized?
In some ways, these challenging questions indicate that Lolita is art. It invites interpretation, exacts a big emotional toll, and shows the skill and technique of the artist. In other ways, it’s kind of garbage. It’s a despicable story about a repulsive person. But does that make it any less artistic?
Most people would agree that art doesn’t have to be positive. All we need to do to prove that is turn to Shakespeare’s tragedies or familiarize ourselves with all of Van Gogh’s work to know that art doesn’t always make you happy. But should art make you angry? Or disgusted?
So this question of what art is becomes more and more complicated when you consider what people call “art.” I’ll admit my personal biases – I want art to be evocative. I want art to make me feel something. But what if I don’t understand something? What if my reaction to something artistic is apathy because I don’t get it. Does that make it less artistic, or is that a user error?
On the one hand, I don’t know that I trust the consumers to decide what is and is not art. Some people only see art in the relatable or the realistic. That seems too narrow to me. But then who DOES get to define art? If you make something and call it art, is it definitively art? That seems weird, too. Because then ANYTHING could be art. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so perhaps the audience is the one who decides if something is art. At the same time, I don’t think beauty is necessary for art. There are many ugly, atrocious, or just depressing things that can be art. And sometimes things skate the line between all of these things. The movies Moonlight and Banshees of Inishirin are largely sad stories. You spend an entire movie feeling bad for these characters. The tail end of the movies seem to offer some hope, but is that enough after the emotional turmoil you’ve been through with these fictional people? For the most part, these are not happy movies. But one is a devastating look at sexuality and masculinity, and the other is a small-scale allegory for civil war. I would be very quick to call both of these movies art. But the real question is, are they beautiful? Is that necessary for art?
Well, that kind of depends on what you think is beautiful. If “beautiful” means “aesthetically pleasing” to you, then you have a much more limited understanding of art. But if beauty can be found in exploring our innermost selves, telling true stories in fiction, or just making you FEEL something – then these are beautiful movies. Defining terms is a bugbear.
But something that you have to consider is what the implications are for calling something art. Lots of gamers want to say that video games are art. But then those communities get upset when games are treated like art.
Art is meant to be interpreted, explored, and even critiqued. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. If you’re going to hold something up as art, people are going to expect it to meet SOME kind of standard. If you demand that your work be treated like art, you then have to expect that people are going to analyze it as such – and if people come away thinking it is racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever, then you can’t say, “come on, don’t take things so seriously.” Because if you argue it is art, then people have a right to take it seriously.
I think this is most abundantly clear in school districts where they offer the “Bible as Literature.” This class can serve a number of purposes. For some people, it is just an excuse to shoehorn Christianity into the public schools. But consider what you are doing here – if the Bible is literature, and you’re wanting to do a whole semester on it, you are pretty much admitting that the Bible is art. That’s what lit classes do, right? Work through the written word of a culture to find out more about them – because art is expressive. But this just leads to the same problem as we have with video games. If something is art, then it is open to interpretation. You consider the skill with which the story is told. You look for meaning at a variety of levels – from the surface to the theoretical to the metaphorical. If you’re going to teach the Bible as literature, you can’t get upset when people apply the tools of literary criticism to it.
If you want the Bible to be taught as fact, having a Bible as Literature course is not your best option. Because literature courses ask us things like, what myths inform this piece? Who are the main characters and what are they saying to us? Is this only useful as a piece of historical representation, or are there lessons beyond what its original iteration implied? Where does this come from? Who created it? What were their biases?
These are all things we consider when we look at art. Art, in the form of literature in this case, asks us to consider things personally, politically, and intellectually. It’s one thing to say “these events happened.” It’s quite another to say, “this story is important.” If you want to teach the Bible as history, then it is not good to place it in the literature category. Because while literature can give us insight to another time, there are also issues of narrative form, style, and insights into the author or narrator. When you label something as art, you invite critique.
So all of that is to say – I don’t know the definition of art. I know what I look for to indicate that a thing is artistic – but some, like my teenager for instance, would think that my expectations for art are too narrow, and eliminate some things that shouldn’t be eliminated. And weirdly, I think my teenager makes a pretty solid point. I just don’t know what I’m going to do about it.
What I do know, beyond any doubt, is that art is necessary. We need that emotional release or that challenge to our sensibilities or that bit of inspiration to keep us going as a culture. During the pandemic that became abundantly clear. When we were afraid and isolated, we turned to the arts – to movies, TV, music, and games. It kept us connected as humans and reminded us we are more than just what we produce or our physical bodies. Art excites the inner mind, and if you believe in this kind of thing, the soul. Without it we are empty.
So I have decided instead of trying to define art, we should be more focused on defending it. Keep books in schools. Introduce students to art from all eras. Be the anti-Florida. Our inner lives depend on it.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.