Post from December, 2014

An Absence of Beauty

Monday, 29. December 2014 0:47

A friend of mine, an artist, mentioned to me that he had looked up the most beautiful video games and had found several that appealed to his aesthetic. The comment surprised me in three ways: the first was that one could actually look up “most beautiful video games” and get responses. I tried it and found not only that there were a plethora of results, but that rewording the search just slightly resulted in a different list with only a few overlaps.

The second thing that surprised me was that there were not just one, but several people out there compiling lists of the most beautiful video games. Best single-shooter, best action, best story line, most violent, sexiest characters—yes, but a “most beautiful” list took me completely off-guard.

The third surprise was contained in something else my friend said; he said that there was a subculture of game designers, players, and critics who thought that the beauty of the game was more important than game functionality. I had always thought that the whole point of a game was its functionality for the player. Some neat graphics wouldn’t hurt, but that was hardly the point. Obviously, I was wrong.

So I started poking around and discovered that indeed aesthetics were very important to several game design teams. There are online discussions of aesthetics in game design. Some writers as well as academics are beginning to wonder whether video games might be art (here and here, for example).

Now admittedly, it is not completely clear that those compiling the lists were using the same criteria for “beautiful” games. Indeed, almost none of these list compilers disclosed the criteria they were using to make these judgments. Upon examining the lists, however, it became apparent that visual appearance played a big role in arriving at these lists. And “visual appearance” does not simply mean that the visuals of the game were pretty (some were and some were not), but that they followed principles of composition and design and that their physical beauty was integral to gameplay. Not only does such integration occur, it can occur on a very sophisticated level.

What is the point of all of this, you may ask. There are several points: one is that aesthetics are important to all sorts of creators, not just the ones who call themselves artists. A second is that a large part of the aesthetic being used to judge video games is made up of two major components: the presence of visual beauty (determined by classical standards of beauty) and the integration of form and content.

A third point, and perhaps the major one, is that while video game designers are very concerned with aesthetics and beauty in the artifacts they produce, the same does not seem to be true of “serious” artists. This last point is based on observation of the pieces I see hanging on walls, sometimes in juried shows, sometimes in galleries. Some pieces try to say something, to present a truth, but very few attempt at the same time to be beautiful—pretty perhaps, but not beautiful.

Much art has become editorial and/or political, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that—so long as quality is maintained. A component of quality is beauty, and sadly, much of what I see being produced lacks that. This is a situation that needs to be corrected. We, as artists, need to think about beauty, I believe, and recognize that part of our job is to bring it to our audience.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity | Comments (4) | Author:

The Self-Taught Artist

Monday, 15. December 2014 0:05

Recently I was considering the term “self-taught artist.” Several things about the use of the term arouse my curiosity: why would anyone other than an academic care who taught an artist? Many academics have a thing about where people went to school, but it seems to me hardly anyone else cares—if the art is any good, that is. And the truth is every teacher and mentor has students who succeed and those who do not, so while knowing the teacher might tell us something, it certainly cannot predict the quality of the art a particular person produces.

Another question I have is whether the term is pejorative or complimentary. Is it better to have gone to art school or is it better to have learned on one’s own? Or does it matter? More importantly, why would an artist want to label him/herself anyway?

Evidently some see the label “self-taught” as a matter of pride. Not long ago a former student, now a scenic painter said, “Everything I know, I taught myself.” It was said proudly rather than complaining. It should have been a complaint; this person has attended two different schools and is currently trying to get into a third, curious behavior for someone who is learning only from himself.

And the statement is untrue. And while there is little doubt that much of what this person can do is the result of experimentation, that experimentation is based on a foundation acquired in educational theatre shops. There he learned the basics of color mixing and the fundamentals of basic painting techniques; along the way, he learned more about the materials and how they work.

In that sense, most of us are “self-taught.” We take what we learn from mentors and teachers and make it our own, modifying, adapting, and experimenting once we have the fundamentals in hand. This is, I’m sure, part of why no two artists who train with the same people in the same place develop the same way. There is influence, to be certain, but our skills develop according to our native talent, how much time and effort we are willing to put in, and our personal aesthetics and artistic vision.

The term “self-taught” applies more accurately to those artists who, for whatever reason, have not trained in a formal school situation. It is a short cut for saying “I did not attend a school to learn what I know.” But, my bet would be that most of them have had instruction of some kind. They may have attended workshops and seminars; they may have read extensively; they may have studied the work of others; they may have done some sort of informal apprenticeship or have been in a casual mentored situation. But it is highly likely that some sort of information and perhaps guidance came from outside themselves.

The difference then between a self-taught artist and any other is simply the formality of the situation in which the artist trained. The term (or indication of an arts degree) says nothing about the nature of the art the person is likely to produce, nor does it say anything about the artist’s skill level or sophistication in handling tools, materials, or ideas.

Regardless of how we obtained our basic skills and artistic approach, it is more than likely that we took that as a starting point and went on to improve those skills and build on what we already knew. Artists are not simply the products of their training; they are visionaries who develop over time and whose work usually gets better the more they mature and the further they move from that source of initial education.

Wonder why we even have the label?

 

Category:Aesthetics, Originality | Comments (4) | Author:

The Art of Transition

Monday, 1. December 2014 0:32

As I was listening near the end of an older Stephen King novel (Yes, I am addicted to audio books), I realized that King is, among other things, a master of the transition. He knows when and where to put them and, more importantly, how to make them work so that the reader is moved from one place/time/idea to another seamlessly and unnoticeably. As I think about it, it is one of the things that makes King so very readable (or in my case, listenable).

Whether he/she works in fiction, non-fiction, essay, or poetry, every writer is (hopefully) aware of the transition and the attendant difficulties. The good writer does exactly what King does, move the reader smoothly and effortlessly from one place/time/idea to another. And if those transitions can be made invisible, or at least transparent, so much the better. Anyone who writes seriously knows how difficult that is.

Mulling over King’s ability, it occurred to me that all artists have to deal with transitions. Certainly composers do; they must move the listener from one section of their music to another. Likewise the instrumentalists and vocalists who interpret that music must make those transitions as well. Similarly, all theatre artists (playwrights, directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers) must do the same thing in moving from one scene to another, one stage picture to another, one look to another. And certainly filmmakers (directors, editors) must master transition: not only must the dramatic units transition, but the camera shots must transition as well, and on a much more frequent basis

All this talk of transitions make sense in arts that take place, at least from an audience perspective, in a time sequence, but what of other arts? At first I thought that transition was a function of story or argument, then I realized that it exists in non-narrative art as well.

My own photographic work is an example: most of my recent work is gridded abstract collage. Even though these pieces fall into the category of meditation rather than story images, there must be transition between the pieces in the grid or the overall piece will absolutely fail. Likewise there must be transition between the parts of any visual or plastic composition. While each part may be interesting in itself, those parts must relate to each other and to the composition as a whole to tell the story or complete the meditation. Thus the transitions can make or break any piece art.

Given their importance, a reasonable expectation would be that transitioning would be taught in arts schools of all varieties. My experiences is that it isn’t. And when I read about art technique, I seldom find it mentioned. The single exception is film editing/directing, where it is not only taught, but the methods have names. It is as if once those of us who are not film editors or directors get out of those freshman composition classes, it is presumed that we know all that we need to know about transitions.

And that is not the case. Sometimes we find the piece that we are working on isn’t coming together the way that we want it to, and are not sure where to look to correct the situation. We would do well to look at the transitions, particularly if the work seems inappropriately fragmented or lacking in cohesiveness. In more cases than you’d think, that’s where the problems are, and so that’s the place to start repairs. Perhaps we should even take a little time out to study and learn how to transition better. After all, anything that results in better work is time well spent.

Category:Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

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