I see a lot of posts these days about art and games. I like that. It’s about time these discussions get going and I’m excited that they’re happening in a very grassroots sort of way. However, while the subject’s discussion pleases me, I find most comments on it to be flawed, to say the least. The truth is that most game developers and players have put little or no study in art, but have been forced into it by the advancement of games and their obvious artistic elements. I would like to provide a groundwork for future discussion by offering my own idea of what art is and I hope my philosophy can help others expand their applications of artistic concepts. First we’ll have to clarify our language a bit and create a general sense of the world of art, then I will categorize art into a number of perspectives to better describe the value of a given work in a concise and accurate manner. All of this is being done very briskly, so please respond with any questions.
“Art” has evolved into a horrible word because the concept itself has been misunderstood for centuries. If anyone ever sat down and said, “Art is all that which is produced by way of paint on a canvas,” things would be simple. All paintings would be art and everything would just be . . . everything else. Instead, every kind of object has been accepted as a kind of art at one time or another, warping the definition of this word into “everything.” Well, if art is everything, it cannot be limited to or defined by any physical form. If you ask, “What is an apple?” I can point to one on a table or a tree, you can learn its form and recognize other apples as similar enough to the original that they may all be called apples. Art cannot work this way. I cannot point to a Van Gogh as an example of art and expect you to comprehend all else that is art. Still, the definition of art as an object or the state of an object persists. Even the question, “What is Art?” perpetuates the misconception that art is a “thing.”
Art can be more accurately refered to as a quality of tangible objects. I liken it to mass:
If you’re a flash actionscripter, you know that you can find the x coordinate of a given object by simply typing “object._x”. Well, let’s imagine a universe in which we could do something similar to find a given object’s mass. Let’s imagine we can type into a big computer somewere “apple._mass” and the computer would return the mass of a given apple. All apples would have a mass value and everything else in the universe would too. Even if an object had a mass of zero or a negative mass, it would still have a mass value. Nothing has a mass of “NaN” (“Not A Number” = n / 0).* The same is true for art.
My mass/art analogy isn’t over there, it’s just getting started! There is the word “massive.” How much mass does something need before it’s massive? An object’s state as “massive,” is arbitrarily decided by the speaker describing it, which means the only thing a listener knows for sure is that the object has a mass value that is probably not zero. Well, a word that describes something as having a mass value not equal to zero is pretty useless because it applies to so many different and unrelated objects. That would be like telling a policeman to be on the look-out for a killer with skin. This is exactly the way the term “art” is generally used. When someone asks “Is this art?” what they’re really asking is “Does this have a lot of art?” Unfortunately, art as a quality and art as a state are spelled and pronounced in exactly the same way, confusing many into believing they are the same word. In fact, they are as different as the words mass and massive. This becomes a problem because unlike the term “massive,” which most people perceive similarly, an object’s state as “art” can be perceived uniquely among individuals even of the same cultural and educational backgrounds. The term “art,” as used to describe the state of an object is then worthless, despite the attribute of artistic value that all things share.
Having described the meaninglessness of the definition of “art” as anything more than a quality of objects, I shall avoid using the term in any other manner within the text hereafter. For the sake of simplicity, I shall refer to objects with an artistic value as “artwork.”
There is one vital difference between art and mass that I must explain. An object’s mass can be measured on a number line and the accuracy of its measurement can be proven mathematically. Art, however, cannot be measured one-dimensionally, nor can its measurement be proven absolutely. No work can be called “3 art units” and be “2 art units” more than a “1 art unit” work. This is the cause of all art arguments. Without being able to judge art absolutely, no artistic judgements can go without challenge.
Artistic value can only be estimated by our individual perceptions, making each measurement totally relative. That being said, there are ways we can break art into more measurable values, allowing us to convey our perception of artwork more clearly. If the concept of art could be visualized over a square; its height could be divided over one pair of conflicting perspectives, the Psychological and the Physical; and its width over another, that of Intention (of the artist) and that of Effect (of the audience). The resulting area would then be divided into four pieces that each represent a single dimension of all artwork. The Psychological state would converge with Intention to produce Expression and then converge with Effect to produce Impression. The Physical state would converge with Intention to produce Craftsmanship and with Effect to produce Utility.**
Expression: This includes any emotion, idea or other message that the artist communicates to the audience. The key factor is that the emotion, idea or message has origins in the artist. This dimension begs the question, “How does one identify aspects of artwork as having originated within the artist?”
Impression: Anything that the audience perceives as true of the work is the impression. It is the audience’s response to artwork as stimulus, regardless of the intention (or lack thereof) of its creator. If an audience member is reminded of something sad by a work, that is irrelevent to the impression. However, if they believe the painting to be a “sad painting,” then they are describing exactly its impression, even if that impression was generated by a factor that is otherwise unrelated to the painting’s Impression. All variables must be taken into account when evaluating a work’s impressive qualities.
Craftsmanship: This is the technical prowess demonstrated by a given work of art. Often an artist’s control over the medium is seen as the greatest show of mastery. This may manifest itself in carefully blown glass, tightly stroked paints, calculated photography or even precision military strikes. The trained eye may also identify elements of great craftsmanship in apparently chaotic styles, like that of Jackson Pollock’s paintings.
Utility: A work’s utility depends simply on what it does. Does a chair hold a person’s weight? Does it fit in a living room? Does it compliment the couch? Does it hurt your back? Does it make you feel happy? Or does a song hurt your ears? Does it inspire you to dance? Does it put you to sleep? What does a work do and how well does it do it. The saddened audience member mentioned in the description of Impression could identify his rememberance of tragic events as relevent to the work’s Utility.
One might read these 4 dimensions and think of some obvious flaws in their design. These are not separate dimensions because they are clearly interrelated. In fact, they’re not at all measurable because their measurability is just as arbitrary as judging any artwork would be without them. Well, not so fast. Allow me to demonstrate their use in philosphy and evaluation.
I’ll start with philosophy by returning to our fundamental question, “What is Art?” I’ll throw out some potential examples of art and try to answer how they may be art based on any of our 4 dimensions.
Clouds? They can completely alter one’s perceptions and feelings. They are among the most emotionally powerful objects human beings can witness though they are an expression of nothing. Clouds are entirely defined by their Impression.
Knives? Knives have thousands of uses; some of which are obvious, like using a butter knife to butter bread; while others are coincedental, like using a knife to pry a jar open. They are excellently designed for maximizing Utility.
Swords? Big, heavy and illegal, definitely not as useful as a knife, but their Craftsmanship is usually much greater. Master swordsmiths have been revered as long as the weapons have existed and even after they were outdated by weapons as superior as automatic rifles. A sword is defined by its Craftsmanship.
Screaming? Screaming is perhaps the most raw representation of emotion. There is a way to scream out any feeling and if done honestly, if it is not a contrived scream, it can be incredibly striking to anyone it reaches, no matter what they gather from it. Screaming is undoubtedly Expression.
Now to put our dimensions to the test by briefly evaluating Picasso’s Guernica. To me, this painting appears chaotic and somewhat disturbing, probably because of the disorienting lines, irregular shapes and patterns, and misshapen human forms it contains. That is my Impression. I understand Guernica to be a depiction of the bombing of the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso was from Spain, so it is logical to conclude that the chaotic and disturbing elements of the painting are honest Expressions of Picasso’s feelings on the bombing and because I know Picasso to have been a pacifist, I can safely assume that the painting expresses his perception of war in general as something chaotic and disturbing. The Craftsmanship of Guernica is interesting because there is no obvious hand control shown, but it does display an obvious use of composition and color (if only grayscale) so I know that the creator was not simply layering shapes in random order. Finally, the painting’s Utility: It succeeds in reminding me of the horrors of warfare, but I honestly do not feel anymore obligated to promote or stop war in the world. I also find the general pattern of this sizable painting to be of aesthetic interest so its placement on a wall does look pretty cool.
Based on this evaluation, I would call Guernica a primarily Expressive work. Its expressive qualities are the ones that shine most brightly to me and while the others have their good points, they do not particularly attract my attention. My Impression was that the painting was strikingly moody, but not particularly powerful (though this may be a result of my upbringing as an individual familiar with the images of warfare and in a society already accepting of such abstract artwork) . The Craftsmanship involved is definitely notable, but it does not boggle the mind like so many other world class paintings. And as far as Utility, the painting honestly does little for me except for broach the subject of warfare and inspire some interest in Picasso’s life and ideas, so its Utility is definitely limited. So is Picasso a failure or a success? Well, if he hoped his painting would make me crave raisins, he’s a failure. However, if he hoped to be remembered all over the world, he did very well with Guernica.
The success of an artist is dependent on the artist’s goals. If Picasso was trying to exercise his own demons, he easily succeeded because his painting appears to be very expressive of his ideas and emotions. If he was trying to make me feel the way he does about warfare, he probably failed because I expect he felt much more strongly against war than I did, after having viewed his painting. If he hoped to prove what a technically amazing painter he is, Guernica is an awful example of that.*** If he thought large museums didn’t carry enough huge paintings and he wanted to change that, he did a great job because museums around the globe would love to have his huge painting up. On the other hand, if he wanted to make a comfortable pair of shoes, he did a pathetic job by producing Guernica. In reality, Picasso probably had many goals in producing Guernica, but I gather that his highest priority was still self-expression.
I know, the 4 dimensions are still interrelated and somewhat complex, and their measurements are still arbitrary and totally relative, but as you can see above, they can help us sift through artistic information and swallow it in chunks, evaluating things clearly. Nothing will make art completely simple to understand and absolute in measurement because art will never become a tangible object with a specific purpose. It is all objects and all purposes, we have simply learned to identify a level of mastery and creativity in any given field as “artistic” despite the absurdity of calling less masterful or creative works “unartistic” or “not art.”
While everyone may perceive a work uniquely, by discussing our perceptions we may learn more about each other, the work we are observing, and art in general, earning a sort of “universal” perspective. Achieving that universal perspective is as close as one can get to understanding art in an absolute sense, but it is still only one perspective of art. Tools like language, for defining Art, and philsophy, for categorizing Art, can help us to understand this subject of our obsession, but as our we advance, our tools must as well. We must always be prepared to update our beliefs, perspectives and methods.
-Christopher J. Rock
*If you’ve heard of some wacky physics theory that suggests an existing object has an undefinable mass and it’s not a load a’ crock, I’m afraid you’ll have to ignore that theory for the sake of this analogy. I’m sorry my comparison could not be so flawless as to account for the logical oddities of our world. Post about your wacky theory and maybe I’ll compare Art to something else.
**If this “divided square” visualization is confusing or just sounds silly, feel free to ignore it. The point is that I am defining artwork based on 4 dimensions and those four dimensions are based on 2 pairs of perspectives. I have included the square idea because of my own need to visualize, because I believe it may be helpful to anyone seeking an understanding of these ideas and because if I or anyone else were to expand on them in the future, the “divided square” may be a source of inspiration. For example, one might find the 4 dimensions of artwork rather comprehensive until realizing their roots in only 2 pairs of perspectives and then discover the need for a 3rd pair of perspectives, or a triplet, or whatever else. Perhaps with the visualization, one could quickly discover 2 or 4 or any number of other dimensions of artwork that the original 4 fail to address. Regardless, one should be aware that I did not come to these 4 dimensions by actually multiplying 2 pairs of perspectives. I just felt out my own sensations of artwork and counted 4 basic values. While questioning my process, I realized they only acknowledged 2 pairs of opposing perspectives, but 2 pairs of great relevance to understanding the 4 dimensions I started with. Basically, I made some guesses, they sounded right and then I backsolved the details, which made the whole thing sound even better.
***Picasso was, in fact, an amazing technical artist so clearly he was not concerned with our knowledge of that fact when he made Guernica.