Tag Archives: what is art

What Is Art 3

Guess what. I have some ideas about Jay-Z rapping in the gallery, and I decided to blog about it.

First of all, the question that lots of people raised about this event—“is it art?”—seems irrelevant. Jay-Z is making a music video. He’s making entertainment. Yes, he spent six hours lip syncing his rap, but is it more of a “durational performance” than any Hollywood shoot? Making videos for the entertainment industry is always grueling work; setting this shoot up as a six-hour marathon, with extras and guest stars lined up to take turns in front of the camera, was a good way to get the most people involved while expending the least possible effort. The point of setting the video in a gallery was not to present it as a performance but because art is a theme of the song, “Picasso Baby”: “I just want a Picasso, in my casa/ No, my castle … I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel, No I want a wife that fuck me like a prostitute.” This is a standard pop-music wish-fantasy about having the immense wealth that allows private access to rare cultural artifacts among many other luxury items; the desire for ownership and the fact of ownership equal sexual desire and sexual satisfaction, etc.

So the people who counted Jay-Z among Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga, and James Franco as another celebrity who claims status as an artist asks for respect as such from the art world are, I think, mistaken; I doubt that this was Jay-Z’s wish. But I’m interested in the reactions from these self-appointed gatekeepers. It expresses a vision of the art world as professionalized and quasi-corporate, a regulated environment where everyone occupies a well-defined position, where the bosses can decide who gets to do what, and where, and when. People get mad about celebrities encroaching on the art world–and yet they want the art world to be as rigid as the entertainment industry. Where were they when Kenneth Goldsmith invited poets to give readings alongside artworks at the Museum of Modern Art? Were they mad that the last Whitney Biennial devoted nearly an entire floor to choreographer Sarah Michelson? Poets and choreographers aren’t artists, in the professionalized art-world sense of a person who has exhibited in galleries and museums–the credentials one needs to get an artist’s membership card from a museum. But the art world thrives on ignoring these disciplinary boundaries, because art in the broader, anthropological sense (which includes poetry and choreography and other creative pursuits) is about identifying boundaries and ignoring them (cf. What Is Art 1).

But some boundaries are more interesting than others.

There was something art-like about Jay-Z’s appearance at Pace, and the images of it that circulated, and the opinions they generated. People felt invited to treat the event like art, and they could read it as such because of the ambiguities that the situation presented: art can be a “durational performance,” i.e. a unique and ephemeral experience, or it can be a set of objects to be desired and acquired; charisma can manifest itself in the smoothness of pop celebrity, or in the gravitas possessed by Marina Abramovic and Lawrence Weiner. If you approach the “Picasso Baby” shoot as art, then it is art about the power structures of the art world and the status of the art object–issues that William Powhida and Jayson Musson raise in their comics and comedy routines, respectively, although they address them from the position of outsiders, which makes it charming and sympathetic to art-world kids who identify with them. But Jay-Z and Pace and the other participants (if they can all be called the artists in this situation) address it as insiders, which makes it off-putting, and I think that’s largely what generated the negative feeling that launched a thousand Facebook posts.

I’m going to quote myself. This is from a review of Gagosian Gallery’s 24th St. location that I posted to Yelp, about the Richard Phillips show that was there in the fall of 2012 and featured the painted and recorded images of Sasha Grey and Lindsay Lohan: “At the end of the video the titles said ‘Lindsay Lohan [or Sasha Grey, in the Sasha Grey video],’ then ‘Gagosian Gallery,’ then ‘Richard Phillips.’ Maybe I got the order wrong but it was those three, fading from one to the next. So it was like a commercial but you couldn’t tell what the commercial was for. That’s what made it art, if not very good art.”

Likewise, anything that has a lot of people asking “is it art?” probably is art, or it could be art. But it’s not necessarily good art.

What Is Art 2

I don’t think games are art. I don’t think games can be art. This isn’t because I think one is “good” and one is “bad,” that one is “high” and one is “low,” or one is “elite” and the other is “popular,” etc. I really don’t care about those binaries. What I do care about is how games and art operate as social objects. I’m interested in how people engage with them, how people incorporate them in their life. And the ways in which this happens for games and for art are very different—and I don’t think it’s useful or interesting to lump them together under more general rubrics like culture or play. Understanding the distinctions between them is also important because it produces a vocabulary for discussing the special instances when a game has the properties of a work of art, or an artwork has properties of play.

Games have rules. Games are rules—the rules are what gives them form. Gameplay is what happens within the rules’ structure. A game can be repeated limitlessly, and each iteration of play is unique.

There are rules in art too, after a fashion, but they are rules in a broader sense: the rules of how perception is organized, the rules of how relationships are formed and recognized, rules that are more like the ones in grammar than the ones in a game. What makes art special as a social object is that art points to a set of rules and also to how they might be broken, to what lies beyond the domain of those rules. Art is special because it reveals many possibilities of meaning, which it does by simultaneously revealing rules and revealing how things could be otherwise, whether those rules pertain to the relationship between church and state (i.e., Pussy Riot) or to the relationship of lines to a plane (i.e., Agnes Martin).

Works of fiction that follow a set of rules are classified as genre fiction—mysteries, romance novels, thrillers. Paintings that follow a set of rules hang in hotels. Working with the genres and mediums of art while adhering to formal rules produces entertainment and/or decoration. Again, this is not a dis—it’s a distinction! People need entertainment and decoration as much as (or more than) they need art. I just want recognize the differences of those needs.

I suspect that a lot of the guys who insist that games are art (for the purpose of defending them against charges of sexism or making them seem Important or whatever) are the kind of people who think that The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings are art, when in fact those are entertainment. They’re good entertainment, because they push against the conventions of their genre (The Matrix) or invent the genre (The Lord of the Rings, though this is an invention that depends on the rules of folklore’s archetypes), but these pushes remind the audience that the rules are there and their presence gives comfort and satisfaction.

Perhaps the main distinction between a game and a work of art is in the uniqueness (or variability) of form, and how that limits (or enables) audience engagement. A game is unique in each of its iterations, whereas the artwork is unique in its creation. If not physically unique—if it is a poem or a novel or a video or a photograph that can be reproduced—it has a limited form that generates the experience of the audience’s encounter with it. A game’s rules generate the form of an iteration, and that form is unique.

When John Cage introduced elements of chance to music and ceded some of the composer’s decisions to performers, he injected properties of the game into the composition and performance of music—he made something that had certain rules that would be unique with each iteration (to a greater extent than that to which any musical score is unique each time it is played). But by retaining the framework of the audience, the composer, and performer Cage remained within the realm of art. His artistic gesture was to indicate the rules of the artist’s control over the artwork while also indicating how it could be otherwise.

Jason Rohrer is a game designer whose games include Chain World, a modification to Minecraft that can only be played by one person at a time, and which upon completion must be passed along to another player who is willing to accept the rules, and A Game for Someone, a board game constructed from titanium and buried in a desert in Nevada that (Rohrer hopes) will only be found and played hundreds or thousands of years in the future. These games are about limiting how, when, and by whom the game can be played—Rohrer is making games but he’s imposing limitations on them that are close to the limitations inherent to the work of art. A game can played by anyone who knows the rules, and by concealing the game and the rules Rohrer indicates this truth while also indicating how it could be otherwise. As a result, these works of Rohrer circulate primarily as stories or legends among people who haven’t actually played them—and this reminds me of the performance pieces Tino Sehgal, which aren’t documented and are passed to performers verbally, without written instructions.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about the world of indie game design but from the outside it seems like more and more designers are trying to expand the idea of what a game can be in the way Cage tried to expand the idea of what art can be. Games and art fit in certain social context (i.e., the home and the museum, respectively, to name two) and so the areas that are ripe for crossover between them—the places where art can be the most like games—are performance and net art, where artist/game designers can work with the modes of bodily contact or network contact that have been used in both games and art. It will be interesting to see how these new works negotiate between the satisfaction with order that comes with gameplay and the fascination with the mysteries of meaning inherent to the experience of art.

What Is Art 1

What is art?

Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist, said art is “a social technique for the conveyance of emotion.” That sounds good to me. Vygotsky was thinking, among other things, of the Greek drama, when the polis came together at the theater and shared cathartic emotional reactions, and in doing so strengthened relations within the community.

I agree with Vygotsky that art is a social technique but I think that there is more to it than affect. I would add that art conveys the richness of the possibilities of meaning. To Vygotsky I would add Jakobson’s theory of the poetic function of language, which describes the way that language draws attention to the sonic shape of itself, to how its sounds, to how that sound makes meaning, to how it relates to other sounds with different meanings. This attention always yields a recognition of multiplicity and variation of meaning, its asymmetry with its bodily, vocal means of conveyance.

Art that is rich in ambiguity, contrast, and complexity lasts longer than the simple stuff, because people keep finding fresh meanings in it, they keep finding new reasons to establish relations around it. If something superficially resembles art—it has the physical shape often occupied by works of art, it can’t be easily recognized as work or play—but lacks multi-faceted meanings then it is something else (usually design, propaganda, advertising, or entertainment).

My understanding of art is primarily anthropological: Humans are social animals and groups of them thrive by sharing signs; the more they thrive the more signs they make, and the more complex these signs get.

Why does political art usually suck?

Politics is another kind of social technique. But it is not like art. It manages relations instead of allowing them to proliferate. It establishes meanings of social actions, and relations among them. It sets limits—whereas art is about exceeding limits. Most political art sucks because it points to where the limits lie, or establishes the boundaries of behavior in the community of its audience.

Politics is bigger than individuals but art is bigger than politics. Politics cannot contain art. When it tries to it produces propaganda. It uses meaningful signs to manage relations; in so doing it puts limits on their signification. Art can contain politics. Art is often useful to historians as a document of society and politics because it envelops the political values of the context in which it is made. It can have other audiences because it exceeds the function of the document by opening affective and meaningful social relations around itself.

I put a “1” at the end of the title of the post because there will probably be a “What Is Art 2,” a “What Is Art 3” and so on. I will probably revisit and revise these definitions. I will probably blog about why games are not art.