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The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus Volume LXXII

Published 4 months ago • 27 min read

Areopagus Volume LXXII

Welcome one and all to the seventy second volume of the Areopagus. As the waves of the sea are constant in their crashing but inconstant in their volume, last week's maelstrom shall by followed this week by a gentler swell. To the extent that I can, then, I have endeavoured to keep things brief. And to "kick things off", as they say, I offer you the wisdom of Hafiz, the great Persian poet of the 14th century who lived and died and composed his sumptuous verses in the rose-gardens and shaded pavilions of Shiraz:

The Sultan’s crown, with priceless jewels set,
Encircles fear of death and constant dread
It is a head-dress much desired–and yet
Art sure ’tis worth the danger to the head?
‘Twere best for thee to hide thy face from those
That long for thee; the Conqueror’s reward
Is never worth the army’s long-drawn woes,
Worth fire and sword.
Ah, seek the treasure of a mind at rest
And store it in the treasury of Ease;
Not worth a loyal heart, a tranquil breast,
Were all the riches of thy lands and seas!
Ah, scorn, like Hafiz, the delights of earth,
Ask not one grain of favour from the base,
Two hundred sacks of jewels were not worth
Thy soul’s disgrace.

This was translated by none other than the legendary explorer, diplomat, and archaeologist Gertrude Bell — two great minds and hearts united. Though wisdom is always labelled as "timeless", perhaps destroying the potential truthfulness of that wonderful word (to be timeless is surely rare and lofty praise), these lines of Hafez surely are. But timeless or not, time rolls on. Lights! Camera! Areopagus!


I - Classical Music

The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina

Francesca Caccini (1625)

You will know, if you have read previous volumes of the Areopagus, that the "Matter of France" is among my favourite literary traditions. These are the stories of Roland, the chevalier of Charlemagne, and of Rinaldo of Montalban and his brothers, among a host of other characters, told and retold from the 9th through to the 17th centuries. One of the major works in this tradition was Ludovico Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso, written in the early 1500s; it is a swashbuckling, fantastical, comical, fever-dream of a poem.

In 1625 a composer, music teacher, poet, and singer called Francesca Caccini was inspired by Ariosto's famous work to write an opera called La Liberazone di Ruggiero. Opera was at that time a new form of music; the first ever opera had been written less than thirty years prior by Jacopo Peri, and Claudio Monteverdi was still hard at work perfecting this nascent genre — both Peri and Monteverdi have featured in the Areopagus before! Thus what you are listening to is the first ever opera composed by a woman. Caccini wrote it under the patronage of Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of Cosimo II de' Medici and therefore Grand Duchess of Tuscany.

Caccini's opera retells of a delightful episode in Orlando Furioso whereby the knight Ruggiero is tricked by a wizard called Atlante into climbing aboard (is that the right word?) a hippogriff. This hippogriff then takes Ruggiero to a magical island on the far side of the world, beyond India, where he is bewitched by the enchantress Alcina and forgets all about the love of his life, a lady knight called Bradamante. Ruggiero eventually escapes this island with the help of a sorceress called Melissa (who was trained by Merlin and thereafter guards his tomb!) after she reveals Alcina's true, monstrous appearance. Ruggiero eventually marries Bradamante, but not before saving a maiden called Angelica from a sea monster... I told you Orlando Furioso was wild. The drawing in the video is from the original publication of Caccini's opera; it is by Alfonso Parigi, who designed sets for operas performed at the Medici court and did so for The Liberation of Ruggiero.

II - History

Did Ancient Greece Exist?

Rather than a historical figure I have decided that this week's second part shall be dedicated to a historical "fact", if we can call it that. Those who already know what I am about to say will think of it as obvious — but everything is obvious when you already know it! Thus, for those who are not aware of this curious "fact", it should prove to be useful, interesting, and even remarkable!

Ancient Greece was not a country. "Countries" as we understand them today didn't really exist in the ancient world. But, that being said, there were political entities similar enough to what we mean by "countries". When we hear about the Roman Republic, for example, we rightly imagine a certain extent of territory governed from the city of Rome itself — the capital. There are myriad differences between the nature of Roman rule and the manner in which we think of modern governments as "governing", but it is not wrong to think of the Roman Republic (or Roman Empire) as a single state.

That was not the case in Ancient Greece — not at all! There was no single political entity, no single state, no capital, no government, and no empire or kingdom. "Ancient Greece" was a collection of city states spread right across modern day Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, North Africa, Italy, Sicily, and even France. These city states had their own political assemblies and systems — some were republics, some were oligarchies, and some were kingdoms. They had their own separate calendars, monetary systems, laws, and — in many cases — their own languages. From time to time one city state would become powerful and subject other cities or regions to its rule: the "Athenian Empire" saw Athens extract financial tributes from and impose democracies on a number of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, and in cities on the coasts of modern day Turkey and Ukraine. That was in the 5th century BC. In the 3rd century BC there was something like the "Achaean League", an alliance of cities in the Peloponnese. For a time many of the Greek cities were conquered by Philip II of Macedon, who made himself ruler of the Hellenes — another name for the Greek peoples. But none of these unities ever represented more than a relatively brief alliance, rather than the sort of single political entity we have in mind when we hear the word "country".

What actually connected all these cities down the many centuries of Ancient Greek history is sometimes quite hard to say. Some of them shared a common heritage, and all of them had a shared religion (albeit with regional differences!), language, and (in broad terms) culture. For example, there were the Panhellenic Games, four athletic contests held at different places on the Greek mainland: the Olympic, Nemean, Isthmian, and Pythian Games. Athletes, spectators, officials, poets, and representatives came from as far afield as Sicily to attend or compete in these games, hoping to win both personal renown and glory for their home city. There were also Panhellenic places of worship. The famous Delphic Oracle, for example, was a prophetess at the Temple of Apollo on Mount Parnassus, and this temple was sacred to all Greeks.

There were countless attempts to create greater political and sociocultural unity among the city states, especially when threatened by the Persians, and after them the Macedonians, and long after that the Romans. Alas, the Greek cities could never form themselves into a single, coherent "country" — a fact much lamented by Polybius, a Greek historian who lived under Roman rule in the 2nd century BC. The history of his peoples was an ever-revolving matrix of alliances, factions, wars, tyrants, republics, betrayals, and destruction — with a great deal of art, philosophy, political theory, theatre, and architecture thrown in.

When we say that Socrates was from "Ancient Greece" this is not wrong, but it would be more appropriate to describe him as an Athenian. The same is true of Epaminondas, that great leader from Thebes who made his city, briefly, the most powerful in all the Greek World. I do not share this with you in the interests of pedantism. Rather, I hope it will clarify some of the confusion that arises from not knowing this about the Greeks, and thus of wars between Athens and Sparta, for example, and when you hear about Corinth, or Thebes, or Megalopolis, or Thessaly, or Akragas, or Syracuse, or Ionia, Miletus, Halicarnassus, and so on and so forth. It should, above all, help to paint a clearer picture of this vitally important period of history and to imagine more vividly what life was like in those long and storied centuries.

III - Painting

Full Moon in Winter

Louis Douzette (1869)

There is much we might say about this painting, but I have promised in this volume to speak with brevity and precision. Louis Douzette was a German painter who became known as "Mondschein-Douzette" — "Moonlight Douzette" — because of his expertise in creating moonlit landscapes. He had been academically trained but, as the years went by, was drawn to the methods of the Barbizon School, a group of French Realists who painted outdoors and in some ways pre-empted the Impressionists.

There is only one thing I shall say about Douzette's winter landscape: pay attention to its use of colour and light. Specifically, pay attention to the window of that steeply gabled cottage, otherwise buried in snow and shrouded in gloom. Orange! And, in the lower-right windowpane, a brighter patch of yellow — the source of this light; a fire. Some colours are "warm" and others are "cold". The majority of the colours in this painting are cold — not only the shadows of the trees and rocks, but even the ghoulish green light of the moon, refracted among the clouds and reflected by the snow. This one patch of warmth — the firelight — transforms the painting entirely. And this is not only because of the "association" between orange and firelight, and thus warmth, in contrast with the snow, ice, and obvious cold outside. The colour orange does not merely "tell" us this — in literally makes us feel that warmth, psychologically. The Devil is in the Details, as they say, and what much of what makes art "work" lies in this matrix of colours, what we associate them with, and the psychological reactions they produce.

IV - Architecture

The Queens House

Classical Revolution

In 1616 an English architect called Inigo Jones was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, to design a house for her at the Palace of Greenwich in London. He had recently returned from a tour of Italy, where he had been exposed to the Neoclassical architecture of Andrea Palladio. Jones learned Italian, read both Palladio's I quattro libri dell'architettura and Vitruvius' De Architectura (which you may recall from last week's Areopagus), and became an apostle of Classical Architecture. And it was the "Palladian" style that Jones chose for the Queens House; uncomplicated, almost austere, harmonious, and painted bright white. Construction stopped after the death of Anne and was only restarted in 1629, at the behest of Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, and finished in 1635.

Regardless of the specifics of Jones' Palladian style, this was the first time in well over one thousand years that anybody had built "classical architecture" in Britain — not since the retreat of the Romans had there been so much as a Corinthian capital carved in the British Isles! There had been plenty of loosely classical architecture, but only inasmuch as, say, the Normans had taken inspiration from Roman and Byzantine churches. With Jones it was different. This time there were rules — Vitruvius' rules, specifically — of design, decoration, and proportion. Think what a sight it must have been, this pure and symmetrical and snow-white villa, in comparison with the red-brick crenellations and turrets of something like Hampton Court Palace.

Inigo Jones thus created the model for classical architecture in Britain, established on the foundation of Andrea Palladio in Italy: simply, restrained, quietly sophisticated. In mainland Europe it was Baroque Architecture that had become fashionable — Classical in many ways, but defined by exuberant decoration, manifold detail, and flowing lines. Had Inigo Jones preferred that sort of thing then perhaps the streets of Britain would never have been filled with those rows of austere but elegant Georgian houses, most famously in the city of Bath. Queens House, then, is remarkable not only because it marks the advent of Classicism in British architecture, but also because it tells us just how important a single building can be, or even a single architect, in defining the tastes and aesthetics of a whole nation.

V - Rhetoric

Garlick > Food

It is an eternal truth of rhetoric — in all its forms: speeches, essays, adverts, novels, slogans — that whenever you want to make something more impactful, meaningful, and memorable, using specific or concrete words will help. What do I mean by these terms? Specific is the opposite of generic, and concrete is the opposite of abstract.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez did not merely write of "trees"; he wrote of almond trees — from a generic group noun to something specific. We can say that Mansa Musa was a "very wealthy king", or we can say that when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca he left behind so much gold that he ruined the Egyptian economy. The words "very wealthy" are abstract and conceptual; the fact that Mansa Musa was rich enough to give away sufficient money to damage an economy — that is an action, and it is concrete. A handy question, one asked most often by those in the copywriting business, is: "can you visualise it?"

Consider the King James Version of the Bible, compiled by a committee of forty-two translators and published in 1611 under the patronage of King James I. It is probably the most influential single book ever written in English; the King James Bible has shaped the English language itself — how it was spoken and written — for centuries thereafter. And little wonder! Those translators wrote a work of exemplary literary and linguistic clarity, simplicity, dignity, and elegance. They also had a wonderful penchant for using highly specific, marvellously concrete language. Consider this verse, where the Israelites are turning against Moses as they look back fondly on their time in Egypt:

We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.

By speaking of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlick — all of which are specific and concrete, each of which we can visualise and taste — the yearning of the Israelites is much more apparent to us than if they had merely alluded to the "nice food" or "good times" they once knew. Simple, but utterly transformative.

So reread something you have written and replace any generic or abstract words with specific and concrete words. Nine times out of ten it will be an improvement. And yet — I must interpose a caveat — there is nothing necessarily wrong with generic or abstract words so long as we really intend to use them. The problem, rather, is that we so often use abstract and generic words without really meaning to, and thus devalue the quality of our writing.

VI - Writing

The Fleeting Hopes of the Present

I much prefer "upstream" writing advice — principles of writing rather than specific, technical rules. For as soon as one creates a rule for using this word instead of that word, somebody will break that rule in a most glorious way and thereafter establish a new rule, only for that one be broken again in due course. Principles, however, operate on a level above and beyond specific technical rules; they guide us rather than dictate what we must do. Here is a principle of writing from Lucian of Samosata, then. This Lucian was a biting satirist and perceptive thinker who lived in Syria when it was under Roman rule; he may well have been the funniest man of the 2nd century AD. At some point he wrote an extended letter to one of his friends, deeply critical of the fashion for writing history that had then overtaken the Greco-Roman literati. Lucian says

You cannot find a man but is writing history; nay, everyone you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon.

Given this crop of subpar impersonators and would-be historians, Lucian goes on to outline for his friend how to write good and worthwhile history, throwing shade at a great many of his contemporaries in the process: their laziness, foolishness, partiality, lack of literary competence, and ridiculous methods. Lucian, when he finds it within himself to be serious, also argues for literary principles which hold no less true today than they did in his lifetime, foremost among them:

But the general principle I would have remembered — it will ever be on my lips — is this: do not write merely with an eye to the present, that those now living may commend and honour you; aim at eternity, compose for posterity, and from it ask your reward; and that reward?— that it be said of you, ‘This was a man indeed, free and free-spoken; flattery and servility were not in him; he was truth all through.’ It is a name which a man of judgement might well prefer to all the fleeting hopes of the present.

Powerful stuff. Lucian sets a standard that all of us can only hope to reach but surely must endeavour toward, however haltingly — write for all time, not only the flattery of the present day. And his How To Write History is a wonderful treatise throughout. It has the rare quality of being both useful and funny. Read it in full for a swathe of stellar literary analysis, apposite anecdotes, still-hilarious takedowns, broad principles, and handy practical advice.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

"Awake, thou that sleepest"

I know I have often quoted John Ruskin before; I cannot help but quote him again. And in so doing I am only taking after William Morris, after all, that great pattern-maker, public intellectual, patron of the arts, poet, and quasi-revolutionary. He said this, once:

I know that the pith of what I am saying on this subject was set forth years ago, and for the first time by Mr. Ruskin... in words more clear and eloquent than any man else now living could use. So important do they seem to me, that to my mind they should have been posted up in every school of art throughout the country; nay, in every association of English-speaking people which professes in any way to further the culture of mankind.

I agree. And so I simply must share with you a passage from the fifth volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters. This was a series of books he started writing in 1843, when he was only twenty four, and which was not completed for another seventeen years. The original aim of them had been to prove that J.M.W. Turner, whose art had received mixed reviews from British critics, was the greatest landscape painter who ever lived. Much of Turner's current reputation is thanks to Ruskin, even if Turner did say of him:

He knows a great deal more about my pictures than I do; he puts things into my head, and points out meanings in them that I never intended.

But Modern Painters was far more than a panegyric for Turner. It was, in many ways, a vast treatise on art itself. Among its most beautiful passages is this, where Ruskin describes the way in which great art does not only demand the full soul and intellect of the artist — it also demands our soul and intellect.

We have just seen that all great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul. But it is not only the work of the whole creature, it likewise addresses the whole creature. That in which the perfect being speaks, must also have the perfect being to listen. I am not to spend my utmost spirit, and give all my strength and life to my work, while you, spectator or hearer, will give me only the attention of half your soul. You must be all mine, as I am all yours; it is the only condition on which we can meet each other. All your faculties, all that is in you of greatest and best, must be awake in you, or I have no reward. The painter is not to cast the entire treasure of his human nature into his labor, merely to please a part of the beholder: not merely to delight his senses, not merely to amuse his fancy, not merely to beguile him into emotion, not merely to lead him into thought, but to do all this. Senses, fancy, feeling, reason, the whole of the beholding spirit, must be stilled in attention or stirred with delight; else the laboring spirit has not done its work well. For observe, it is not merely its right to be thus met, face to face, heart to heart; but it is its duty to evoke its answering of the other soul; its trumpet call must be so clear, that though the challenge may by dulness or indolence be unanswered, there shall be no error as to the meaning of the appeal; there must be a summons in the work, which it shall be our own fault if we do not obey. We require this of it, we beseech this of it. Most men do not know what is in them, till they receive this summons from their fellows: their hearts die within them, sleep settles upon them, the lethargy of the world’s miasmata; there is nothing for which they are so thankful as for that cry, “Awake, thou that sleepest.”
And this cry must be most loudly uttered to their noblest faculties; first of all to the imagination, for that is the most tender, and the soonest struck into numbness by the poisoned air; so that one of the main functions of art in its service to man, is to arouse the imagination from its palsy, like the angel troubling the Bethesda pool; and the art which does not do this is false to its duty, and degraded in its nature. It is not enough that it be well imagined, it must task the beholder also to imagine well; and this so imperatively, that if he does not choose to rouse himself to meet the work, he shall not taste it, nor enjoy it in any wise. Once that he is well awake, the guidance which the artist gives him should be full and authoritative: the beholder’s imagination must not be suffered to take its own way, or wander hither and thither; but neither must it be left at rest; and the right point of realization, for any given work of art, is that which will enable the spectator to complete it for himself, in the exact way the artist would have him, but not that which will save him the trouble of effecting the completion. So soon as the idea is entirely conveyed, the artist’s labor should cease; and every touch which he adds beyond the point when, with the help of the beholder’s imagination, the story ought to have been told, is a degradation to his work. So that the art is wrong, which either realizes its subject completely, or fails in giving such definite aid as shall enable it to be realized by the beholding imagination.

Ruskin had a way of explaining with supreme accuracy things which I have often thought but been unable to express with any firmness. You will understand, I think, why William Morris said what he did.

Question of the Week

Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:

Are video games a form of art?

And these were some of your answers:

Mark W

Yes, when there's artistic intent. No one (I hope) would argue that writing isn't an art form, but as someone who largely makes his living in web writing (SEO, etc.), oftentimes what I do is data science and brutal application of psychological principles. It's not art in any meaningful sense. Even marketing can be artistic, but it's more akin to a wing of mathematics at times with its codified best practices and analytical underpinnings. Music can be a perfunctory addition to a piece of media or it can inspire. Writing can be to meet a quota or to lift one's passions.
Similarly, video games can be mindless consumerist drivel or an artform. The only difference lies in the intent and execution. And though I'm at least a few years removed from playing any, I can still happily defend the best video games as artistic works on par with anything we might traditionally consider an art form.

Robin R

Video games are an important form of art!
I enjoyed Papers, Please! which puts you in the role of a border security officer of a Soviet country. You decide who comes in and who doesn't. At first, if you're like me, you do your best to do a good job and make moral decisions.But at the end of the first day, you see your daily salary. You realize you're paid in proportion to how many people you process. And then you must allocate your money. Food for the family. Heating for the winter. But then granny gets sick, and you don't have money for medicine. You start getting sloppy with the work to process more people, taking bribes from shady characters with agendas.
No other medium shows you what you would do in a situation. Video games do. They can show you that even you, if pressured, may be corrupted.
There's another that really hit me hard. You can decide to keep this or not. It's Before Your Eyes, which is a game that you control with your blinking. It uses your webcam to detect blinks.It tells a coming-of-age story from a first-person perspective. But every time you blink, the scene ends, and you skip forward in time. Whenever there's a beautiful scene, you try to force your eyes to stay open, but eventually you'll have to give in, and the scene is over.The story is about the fact that nothing lasts forever. And it's very well crafted. They know exactly when you will start to cry. You'll be blinking rapidly to get the tears out of your eyes, and time races forward.
The interactivity of video games gives them a special power to involve you. While a movie goes on without your input, and a painting hangs on the wall even if no one is looking, a game doesn't play itself. That makes it an important form of art.

David S

Every age has its own art, that a previous age might find objectionable.
The Beatles were not considered to be true artists by many, though today they are often ranked along with the greatest classical composers.Movies were merely amusements for the masses, but today few would dispute that The Godfather or 2001 rank as the highest form of artistic achievement.
Photography decimated the landscape and portrait artist - but created a new art form itself, Ansel Adams, Stiglitz, Dorothy Lange. The best video games transport the player - creating an experience that is expressive, deep and unrivaled by other media. A great video game is an exercise in world building - not unlike Tolkein, or Kubrick. And just as movies evolved as we discovered the language of film and enhanced it with technology - sound, color, widescreen, 3D, the same is true of video games.
We have just begun this exploration of this new medium. Video games are as expressive and compelling as any other media - they enable the player to experience a unique and compelling point of view - they make us think. What is art if not that?

Hugo M

One cannot respond without first establishing what "art" means. In my case, I grew with the version of my portuguese seniors, where "art" is used loosely to describe things which came out of human intellect, e.g. "arts for hunting or fishing" or "his/her art" (as in skills at a specific task). In this context a poet is an "artist" because of his "art at crafting lyrical texts", not because his works falls within a set of predetermined categories.

To this day I still prefer my grandmother's usage of the word than it's modern connotations.
Therefore, within this framework, crafting games - the rules, the history, the environment, the visual aspects of it, mapping the interactions it may yield, all of which taking into consideration the common constraints, traits and limits of the human mind (focus, boredom, joy, ...) - falls squarely into a form of art, as do the crafting of all the subparts which compose said game.
For the "video" side, that's just the medium of choice. And it's a great medium... very versatile and engaging. I see nothing derogatory in using video as a medium, quite the opposite, it pushes the requirements of human "art" as it adds a new dimension to the entire experience - the dinamism of time (how fast or how slow we can feel it running).
Video games to me are definitely the expression of many forms of art.

Nicholas C

On the question of if video games are art, I'm fond of the argument voiced by a comic called Penny Arcade on this question. Hundreds of artists create things conventionally considered as art in service of a product which synthesizes these down to a combination of music, scripts, digital graphics, and some of the original illustrations themselves. How this synthesis is experienced varies based on individual input. If people say it is not art, my question is how the synthesis, or the customization to use input, destroys the original art?
2 specific examples I'd offer are:1) Metal Gear Solid 2's narrative was prescient in 2001 in describing how the Internet would fragment media consumption and put information warfare between nation-states and NGOs on steroids.2) Final Fantasy XVI is a fine example of high fantasy aspiring to art. The song Away plays during a battle between two brothers and explicitly links their conflict to Prometheus and Epimetheus.
Are these original art? In a sense, no. For Metal Gear Solid 2, the script drew from the writing of intellectuals who thought on these for the decades prior. Final Fantasy XVI references Greek myth. In a sense, yes. There is much more inside of these video games than those aspects. The artistry of the song is still the artistry of the song.
I believe it was the 1960s that saw arguments over whether sci-fi/fantasy novels could be considered serious art. I consider this argument as settled. There are countless novels in this space meant for casual enjoyment that are not considered serious art. This is fine. Others are included in debates about The Great Books. I think this will be the fate of video games as well -- to go from intrinsically childish in one generation to debated the next generation and uncontested as possible art in the next. Give it 20 years.

Roraig F

Absolutely, video games can be a form of art, though as with any medium there are particular rules and limits. On a basic level, most video games are designed to evoke aesthetic or emotional responses in their audience, much as with the more traditional visual, aural, or performing arts. And video game designers indeed often pursue such through techniques familiar from those other media: the manipulation of visual imagery, of music and auditory phenomena, and the construction of compelling plot.
What sets video games apart, though, is two intertwined characteristics having to do with the "play" aspect of the medium: the author's relative surrender of control over audience engagement, and the audience's concomitant degree of self-directed experience. This has both promises and pitfalls. On the one hand, allowing players' agency to shape what they see and do allows them to identify with the game's subjects in deeper ways; on the other, it precludes the kind of tightly choreographed, artistically "precise" experience characteristic of, say, reading a novel or watching a film.
Video games also, and relatedly, have to balance the more traditional elements of artistic design with the "ludic" dimensions of the medium. A useful concept here is "ludonarrative consonance" (or dissonance), which describes the degree to which the structures of gameplay support (or detract from) its larger narrative purposes. It's for this reason that many artistically successful games - I think of Bioshock for instance - often deal precisely with questions of agency and free will, because the choice-centric architecture of the medium lends itself to such themes.

Michael M

First, what is art? There used to be rules to guide one in creating and appreciating “art”. But the best artists were the ones who either broke, or extended or changed the rules. Marcel Duchamp destroyed the rules altogether. A urinal he titled “Fountain” sold for over $1million. Since the late 19th century it has become somewhat arbitrary. Early films were considered unimportant and not worth preservation. Now many of those valuable “classics” of Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, etc. are lost. Early Television programs were not considered worth preserving and now we regret the loss of some classic programs of Ernie Kovacks or Sid Cesar or retain what’s left of some in very inferior form. What the 20th century aesthetics has established is that art is whatever one thinks it is. And if that “one” is influential or wealthy, anything they choose can be considered art by the general public, even multiple rows of Campbell’s Soup. Even video games, I suppose. Really, what does it matter if it’s called art? If you like something, enjoy it.

Walter P

As to whether or not video games are a form of art... Art in any medium is, of course, highly subjective, and any particular work or medium at large will have its detractors and naysayers. I'll also say up front that, having played games for about as long as I can remember, I am about as biased as it gets. And so, I say emphatically and unequivocally: YES! Yes, and in so many nuanced ways. I believe the concept of gesamtkuntswerk - the 'total artwork' - has been brought up in the Areopagus before. Either way, whenever I come across the word, my mind always goes straight to video games. Music, visual aesthetic, dialogue, narrative, even the programming making it all work, and gameplay - the direct engagement of the player themselves. One or two of these factors elevate plenty of bad games. When a game is firing on all cylinders in each of these categories, the effect is nothing short of sublime. And I have to dissuade the reader from only considering those typical examples of video games as art - Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, Rez. I love these games too and agree with some like Ico representing high points of the medium's potential. However - and I'm not sure how well I can articulate this - I believe a certain fun factor closely tied with gameplay is too often overlooked in such discussions, like if something is too fun then it somehow forgoes potential as art. I point to the following examples: Doom (the original), Devil May Cry 5, and Ultrakill. While, again, totally subject to personal taste, these games, to me, exemplify video games with a focus on gameplay. In other words, gameplay itself elevated to an art form, working in tandem with music and visual art. Learn the skills it takes to weave through enemies with flourish as pounding music urges you on, and you'll feel like you've mastered an intricate dance (is dance, too, not an art form?). As one last example, I'll say the recent Alan Wake II is an astounding meta-narrative regarding
meta-narratives, defying genre and medium itself. This is a game where the gameplay is just, in my opinion, pretty good, while everything else is dialed up to eleven. It feels like a must-play for
any creative, and I don't think it'd be possible to properly execute in any other single medium (film, etc.). In quick conclusion, I'll say video games are still in their infancy and I have no doubt we won't be asking this question anymore a hundred years from now. Now go play some games!!

Sam A

Like the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, many video games today have & have always had the likeness of man in them… and these wouldn’t have been possible without the slightest hint of the imagination. Colour combination, body proportions of figures, the creation of cities/town/villages both from reality and the imagination is just a step further from painting/drawing on canvas. Now, we no longer have to look at ancient mythical characters on canvas, we can see them in action. Take “Kratos” from “god of war” for example, I don’t think anyone can deny that the creators of such figures are in fact artists. Kids these days build cities depending on what has influenced them (Gothic, Neo-Classical etc) and these “Games” are undeniably art. One dictionary definition of art is: The products of human creativity… and video games are in fact products of human creativity.

Lorenzo D

I’ve played a lot in my life, and managed to do some level design for some small indie productions.
Creating a level in a videogame is creating a space where the player have to move (through the avatar), it is art as much as architecture is an art – and yes, also videogames levels should have the three virtues of Vitruvio: Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas. As good architecture leads the eye and the steps of the person, so does good level design.
I played videogame with a plot and a character “evolving” which made me cry and tear. Videogames narrative is as art as literary art. I a game you play a role, subjected to rule, not differently from a sport or an actor in theatre. And while we have no doubts theatre is an art, a sport… well watching a sport has an intrinsic aesthetics value. It is beautiful to see an athlete perform a jump or a run or a soccer team playing with coordination. And some sceneries… I played videogames where I stopped just to watch the scenery, whatever it was: fantasy lands, techbases on Mars etc… I’ve always seen art as an aesthetics purposely done to have an emotional reaction in the viewer. With this premise I think videogames are art.

And for this week's question to test your critical thinking...

What does it mean to "be a good person"?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.


And that's all

We end with Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the prophets-poets of Symbolism; in Symbolist art and poetry, so shrouded as it is in mystery and dreamlike allusions, one can quickly find a release from the hard facts and anxieties of the external world:

The flesh is sad, Alas! and I’ve read all the books.
Let’s go! Far off. Let’s go! I sense
That the birds, intoxicated, fly
Deep into unknown spume and sky!
Nothing – not even old gardens mirrored by eyes –
Can restrain this heart that drenches itself in the sea
O nights, or the abandoned light of my lamp,
On the void of paper, that whiteness defends,
No, not even the young woman feeding her child.
I shall go! Steamer, straining at your ropes
Lift your anchor towards an exotic rawness!
A Boredom, made desolate by cruel hope
Still believes in the last goodbye of handkerchiefs!
And perhaps the masts, inviting lightning,
Are those the gale bends over shipwrecks,
Lost, without masts, without masts, no fertile islands...
But, oh my heart, listen to the sailors’ chant!

Let us say with Mallarmé, then, that "we have read all the books" and that it is "time to go." Be that to sleep or the sea I know not, Gentle Readers, but wherever it is that you next venture I pray for your safe passage and enduring prosperity.

Yours,

The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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