Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Perils of “Art”

This is a subject I’ve spoken on several times before when it comes to the Star Wars movies- in response to them being the artistic vision of George Lucas. The concept has been thrust into the center of my personal attention by the recent controversy over the ending of the Mass Effect video game trilogy as well. The arguments floating around for BOTH of these franchises are eerily similar, as are my responses to them.

The course of the Star Wars films (particularly the prequels) and the ending of Mass Effect 3 are being defended primarily on the basis that they are ‘art’. This line of thinking professes that the creative vision of the people who made these things outweighs the opinions of their fans. In essence, the artists are creating what THEY feel is compelling and THAT is what is most important. As I’ve said before. This kind of ‘artistic integrity’ is understandable- even rational- but I feel there are some important caveats to this rule.

I do not consider myself a ‘fine artist’, but I have studied art (got my degree in it) and I work in a creative medium (I am a graphic artist and senior art director for an advertising agency). I therefore have to ponder the interaction of art and outside opinion on an almost daily basis. When I create a layout or design that I think is beautiful I am, of course, very resistant to someone else stepping in and telling me to change it. Afterall, art is a personal and subjective thing, and when someone questions your own tastes and aesthetics, the knee-jerk reaction is to resist.

In commercial art, however, rarely does the creator get the luxury of
maintaining his ‘creative vision’. There is always compromise, whether it is for practical reasons or subjective tastes. Some times this is to the detriment of whatever the art is supposed to achieve. But often times, different viewpoints can improve something an artist already thought ‘perfect’. Mistakes that were not seen from one viewpoint may be found by another. Different and better ways of expressing an idea may come about. In short, collaboration CAN be a very positive thing with art.

Some might argue that film and video-games are not ‘commercial’ art- that they are FINE art, and thus this rule of collaboration should not come into play, at least not outside of the creative team that put them together. Fan opinion should be largely ignored in favor of the artistic vision of that individual (director) or creative team. To this, I say: Fine. Yes. If you view your work as a means to express your own viewpoints above all else then so be it. That’s perfectly cool. Some GREAT things have come out of the personal visions of a few people (The original Star Wars, for instance!) But on the other hand, creators have to realize that if they set out to satisfy their own tastes above all other considerations then people have the right to disagree with and dislike their ‘product’.

In short: Artists, you can make whatever you like. Just don’t expect us to like it, too.

I think this point was well illustrated in a recent interview with George Lucas where he complained that the fans were ‘ruining’ Star Wars. Why? How? Because they didn’t like what he was doing with it. But that’s the thing, what he was doing was MORE of the stuff that Fans had already (quite vocally) complained about him doing. The most notable example of this is the Darth Vader “Nooooo!” scene. This was almost universally reviled (and/or laughed at) by fans when it happened in Revenge of the Sith. So how could George be surprised when fans HATED its inclusion in yet another revamped edition of the Original Trilogy. So Fine, George. Star Wars is your playground. Your creation. Yes. You can do whatever you want to it. Just don’t expect Fans to like it when you keep doing the stuff they have already expressed displeasure at.

The flip-side of this argument is that too much ‘listening to fans’ can water down an idea or take it in a direction the creator never intended and/or is not interested in going. And this is a valid argument. Collaboration is a good thing, up to a point. If things were entirely ‘designed by committee’, however, we would get nothing but bland crap with no real punch (want proof? Just look at quite a few other movies). But I believe there has to be some kind of happy medium. That fans and/or the ‘general public’, should have some say in a final product. Obviously, many film companies feel the same way, otherwise, why would they do ‘test screenings’ of movies. At the very least, if a majority of fans are vehemently against something maybe you should at last consider the reasons why and factor them into your plans for moving forward. And if you go against what fans seem to want? Well, then don’t be surprised or dismayed by getting a hostile reaction. No. You can’t please everyone, but if you aim only to please yourself…well, odds are that will be the ONLY person you please.

This brings me around to Mass Effect. This game trilogy was excellent, in my opinion. In fact, the last in the series was my favorite game of all time- right up until the last ten minutes. I will try not to get into the what’s and whys here. If you are curious about why so many hated the ending, just do an internet search. You will find people a lot more eloquent than I have expressed exactly why. Rather, what I want to talk about is the defense from the creators of the game that the ending was their Artistic expression. This seems to imply that fans should simply ‘accept’ the ending BECAUSE it is ‘art’. They should respect the vision of the creators.

Well, as I said before: Just because something is ‘art’ doesn’t mean we have to like it. And it doesn’t make those who dislike it somehow ‘less’ or ‘stupid’. It doesn’t mean they ‘don’t get it’, or ‘can’t appreciate’ it. It means they do not like it and perhaps have valid reasons for not liking it. And if the creators of the game went with the ‘art’ angle, then they should have been prepared to deal with the fallout from it. From what I have seen, they were not.

This sudden leap to ‘the game is art’, and therefore irreproachable is all the more jarring because Mass Effect was always very good at allowing the player to determine the story- or at least it gave me the illusion that this was so. In fact, I would argue that THIS was the true ‘art’ of this series.

Mass Effect was not about walking the player through the creative vision of one person or team. It was not about expressing the morality or socio-political views of that person or team. It presented the player with issues and allowed THEM to decide what to do. For me, at least, it really made me think about what I valued. About hard decisions that people have had to make in REAL life and how I would possibly handle them if I were ever in that situation. It made me question my ideals. Yes. A video game did that.

The ART of the Mass Effect game was in providing a wonderful framework to tell our OWN story. That is something so unique and beautiful- and only possible in an interactive medium like games. Bioware painted a beautiful canvas, then gave their fans a handful of brushes and paints and said “Add to it”. THAT is art. A darn difficult art to pull off. But they did it.

A popular definition of art is: The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.

That last part seems especially poignant in relation to Mass Effect. They ‘shared’ their art in a way completely unique- in a way that NOBODY has really done before.

And that is why the ending was all the more bitter (not bittersweet as Bioware claims it to be).

It was as though they suddenly yanked the canvas away and took your paints and brushes along with it. Then, they painted something they liked, hung it on your wall and said. “Wow. Neat, huh?”

No. I didn’t think it was.

The ending COULD have been extraordinary- The first truly NEW expression of ‘Art’ in hundreds of years; A collaboration of artist and audience unprecedented in history. Instead, it returned to the idea of one artist, one artistic vision. So fine, Bioware. The game is yours. Your art. Your final vision. Thanks for all the great things that came out of this game, but claiming something is ‘art’ doesn’t mean I have to like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment