Monday, May 31, 2010

WFJ Book Club #4 - Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life

While wandering the rows of my local Borders store a few months ago, I felt the urge to read a new biography.  This isn't unusual, as biography is typically my favorite genre of book.  A good biography is a delight to read because it puts individual human lives in the context of history, and enhances the experience of both in the process.  They also tend to be quite long, which means that they can be counted on to last for at least a week or two (or more, if you do not read as quickly as I do).  The really good ones give the reader a kind of personal connection with the subject of the book, a sense of having known them as well as a friend (or at least a close acquaintance), the kind of connection that can lead to an inspirational look at one's own life.

So I found it a little disappointing to find the biography section so uninspiring.  Everywhere I looked, I saw Churchills and Roosevelts and Eisenhowers; an assembly of Great Men whose claim to greatness lies in having fought wars and governed countries and other great, manly things.  "What I'm looking for today," I said to myself, "is a book about an artist, a creative person.  The kind of person whose 'greatness' came from the private accomplishments of artistry and invention rather than the tedious affairs of politics and public life."  Better yet, I added, "how about the accomplishments of a woman?"

Sadly, it's particularly in that category that the biography section is most lacking.  I had never really noticed it before, but of all the books worth reading in that row, a nearly total majority primarily concern males (unless you're interested in reading the inebriated musings of Chelsea Handler).  At first glance, it almost seems like it's Churchills all the way down.

So thank goodness I found Rebecca Fraser's 500 page life of Charlotte Brontë, one of those canonical British authors whose works I was supposed to have read in high school, but somehow never quite got around to.  So much the better, I figured.  I'd read books about people whose work I knew quite well, and though I enjoyed them, the amount I actually learned from the experience was arguably small.  Why not take a chance, and learn about someone whose life's work was still unknown to me?

And what a sobering array of lessons it proved to be.  Charlotte was the daughter of an austere Anglican cleric in the windswept moors of Yorkshire, and the eldest of four surviving siblings; her younger brother and sisters would all die within two years of one another, before any of them could pass the age of thirty.  Charlotte herself would survive six more years before succumbing to a sudden illness in 1855, six years spent mostly tending to her elderly father in relative solitude.  If there is any happiness to be found in her last years, apart from the dubious kind brought by the success of her novels, it is that she spent her final months married to a man who loved her, and who she seems to have loved as well.  But as with most artists, it was her unhappiness that proved to be her greatest inspiration.

The real unhappiness of Charlotte Brontë was not the result of any tragedy, but rather the general circumstances of her life, and the unsuitability of her nature to living it.  She was brought up reading Gothic romances, and aspired to write them herself.  Above all else she admired "truth" in writing, which she defined as an emotional, passionate truth.  For women of her time, however, acknowledgment of the truth of women's inner lives and desires represented an affront to the more comfortable "truths" on which society rested. 

Charlotte's thoughts were defined by opposition to that way of thinking, and yet it's difficult to say that it did her any good.  Apart from her incidental, almost accidental career as a literary celebrity, she lived a painfully conventional life of self-denial, sacrificing much of her potential for the care of her father, and restraining her fitful passions for the sake of appearances and her religious faith.  She disdained the notion that her work might be considered inappropriate for a woman, but just as much she distanced herself from the idea that it represented anything radical or "feminist" (however scandalously it was received).

How could anyone who aspired to success and accomplishment, yet felt painfully averse to public attention and fame, ever be content with her life?  That is a question with which troubled artists have struggled for all time, and there are no better symbols of it than Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.  Indeed, one of the best attributes of the book is the way it deals with the Brontës as a group.  Alongside Charlotte we meet Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights and the most original (and eccentric) writer of the family, whose work today is the most highly regarded, yet received the most uncomprehending reviews in its time.  There is also Anne, whose stories were less passionately charged yet more self-consciously radical.  Only Anne would put so clearly in writing the proto-feminist sentiments Charlotte would only imply; and yet, she was perhaps the most deeply religious.

The three together became a literary sensation (all the more so for their initial anonymity), and yet the younger two would have no time to enjoy it, for they died soon after.  The style of Fraser's book shifts deliberately after the death of the sisters from tuberculosis, and it's no surprise, because their successes were mutually dependent: without the support of one another, it's unlikely that any of them would have published a thing.  The rest of the story is a slow countdown through Charlotte's final years, as she finds her solitude a crippling barrier to her ability to write more.

And then there is the brother, Branwell Brontë.  As teenagers he and Charlotte collaborated and inspired one another in writing endless fantastic manuscripts.  But despite the equal nature of their enterprise, it was he who was considered the prodigious talent, and groomed for an education in writing and painting.  That he should be so singled out in a family of aspiring authors by default speaks to the profound bias of their time; whatever the pleasures of Charlotte's literary ability, it was not appropriate for her to make a career of it.  In the end Branwell  turned out to be more prodigal than prodigy: his ambitions came to naught, and he burned his life and talents away in a delirium of alcohol and opiates, without producing a single major work in any medium.  The decline and self-destruction of Branwell Brontë would by pitiful, but historically insignificant, were it not for the contrast it bore against the success of his sisters, and the sad fact that his death was the immediate harbinger of Emily's and Anne's.  In the book, it is the slow burning fuse that reminds the reader that temporary successes may well be built on crumbled foundations.

It's the existence of a positive creative impulse, surviving amidst all that pain and limitation, that is most endearing about Charlotte's work.  Her books make use of her loss, her frustration, and her unrequited love, and she sacrificed all of these things for her art.  In a time when novels were expected to be morally didactic, she wrote her characters to act as they truly felt; astonishing as it may seem to us now, for a mild-mannered female writer this was a real breakthrough.  She was offended to be identified as Jane Eyre herself by the literary establishment, but she had poured her heart and soul into that book, and would fiercely defend it (and her right to have written it) against her critics for the rest of her days.

She fought that battle until a pregnancy-related illness cut her life short, leaving behind a scattering of literary landmarks for the edification and enjoyment of sympathetic readers.  But despite her artistic success, amid all the controversy it's hard not to notice that our times are not so different from hers.  The attitudes which conspired to keep Charlotte Brontë's spirit in a quiet domestic sphere no longer suffocate our atmosphere, but they are far from extinct.  Even today a man can choose just about any path or job he likes, and rarely have his masculinity questioned for it (nurses and fashion designers notwithstanding).  The crux of femininity, meanwhile, remains the choice between two sets of duties: those of family, and those of career.  That a father should rise to success and power is entirely expected, but for a mother to accomplish the same is considered remarkable at best, unseemly at worst.

If continuity is an indication, then feminists may not have a future of ultimate victory to look forward to.  Women may one day even overtake men in success, but will that stop the sideways-whispers and judgments?  Perhaps resentment is a small price to pay for cultural liberation, but that there should be resentment at all smacks of injustice.  People of both sexes may have the best of intentions for doing so (and more often than not, they do), but what a world we live in where society tells a woman that she must be less than she is to be more of a woman!

Charlotte Brontë is long gone now, un-liberated yet mostly vindicated in her life-long quest to be taken seriously as an artist.  Thanks to her numerous correspondences and manuscripts her life is incredibly well documented, allowing clever historians like Fraser to present us with an image of Charlotte as she was: a creative, intellectual, and deeply emotional woman, whose trials and sorrows echo backwards and forwards across time in the lives of men and women.  In spite of the evolution of society (to say nothing of the advance of medicine and technology), life is no less tragic, the life of an artist especially so. Charlotte's life is a testimony to the true worth and power of art: to take the fragile, marginalized people of the world, and give them a voice.

Of course, I still have yet to read any of Charlotte's books, or her sisters'.  Ironically, as well as I feel I've come to know her, I've yet to read her own words without mediation; I've come to know the artist without knowing her art.  Even so, Fraser's book is one of the most fascinating biographies I've ever read.  It serves its purpose well as a guide to the world of the Brontës, a melancholy world of lost potential, yet beautiful with its genuine, heroic achievement.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gallic Adventures

Welcome friends, to the fifth and final (yes final, stop cheering) installment of my European journey. At long last, my shameless self-indulgence can come to a conclusion; starting next week, I can resume my regular brand of self-indulgence. In short, everybody wins.

This week is going to be a little different from previous entries on account of the status of my journal. To be specific, I didn't actually write any journal entries for that week. Due to the general hustle/bustle of traveling, the distractions inherent in exotic locations, and general laziness, by the end of the tour I was writing entries about seven days after the fact. Once I returned to the normal rhythms of life in the U.S., further completion no longer seemed like a worthwhile use of my time. Odds are, these entries will be somewhat shorter than has thus far been typical. I trust no one is saddened by this.

Fortunately, I've got a pretty good memory. Really, I do! And it was a fairly memorable week, so I shouldn't forget too much. In fact, there's a a few things that went down that I'd distinctly rather not remember, but it's too late to turn back now!

Day Twenty Nine: More Paris

For some reason, the breakfast room for this hotel was located in the basement, a labyrinthine complex more resembling an aircraft carrier than anything remotely luxurious. Breakfast is now, of course, officially the least luxurious meal of the day. Deep in the subterranean corridors I found the fabled laundry room, seemingly abandoned by God and man, with a flooded floor and dank, shady walls. It was sufficiently sketchy that I momentarily considered turning back, but my clothing shortage was by now quite dire. I made a mental calculation of how much I needed to last the week, and ran like the dickens to catch the bus before it left without me.

Eric handed things off to a local guide (in spite of the fact that he was completely qualified to lead the tour himself), who gave us some interesting information about one of Paris' many public transportation options. The city actually owns hundreds (or thousands, even!) of bicycles, stationed at various places where citizens can quickly rent them for some indefinite period of time. I can't imagine they wouldn't get stolen if this were introduced in an American city, but the people of France seem to do alright with these "city bikes," so it might be an interesting experiment to run in some urban centers.

We rode the bus through the city in typical whirlwind fashion, beginning in the Latin Quarter, home of the University of Paris. In medieval times the professors and students who frequented the area actually spoke Latin on a fairly regular basis, but now the name is merely historical. It's apparently a great scene for nightlife as well as daytime recreation, with lots of those fancy cafes and bistros that make the city famous.

Over the river, we passed the Île de la Cité, a small island in the Seine, and the oldest part of Paris. The island is the home of Notre Dame, as well as the Palais de Justice, a former royal residence and (until the French Revolution) home of the Parlement of Paris. Today the palace is the home of a number of France's highest courts of law. Nearby is the Île Saint-Louis, Which is smaller and less notably populated, being made up of mostly residential districts.

On the other side of the river, we parked briefly alongside the famous Louvre to take some pictures of the city's picturesque bridges. Oldest of these is the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, which is called new because it was new, a long long time ago. Next downstream was the Pont des Arts, a popular site for exhibitions of paintings. It was also, as I was reminded repeatedly, a location in the final episode of Sex & the City. Honestly, is that all this city is to some people? Along the river banks you could see parts where the city government had imported sand from the French Riviera to create some faux-beaches. It was tacky, but people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The next stop was the Place de la Concorde, one of Paris' largest and most historic public squares. In Revolutionary times it was the home of the dreaded guillotine, where King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and many others were executed. On a lighter note, the square boasts a hefty Egyptian obelisk from the days of Ramses II, which I thought was very fascinating. About this time, Eric made the announcement that he was organizing a trip to the Moulin Rouge the next evening, which unleashed a wave of hysteria the likes of which I would have liked to have avoided at all costs; the commotion became such that I couldn't hear a damn thing the guide had to say. So while I'm sure the Place de la Concorde has some more interesting history behind it, we'll never know what it is.

From there it was down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, "the most beautiful avenue in the world." It probably got the name before it was turned into an enormous shopping mall, but it's pleasingly wide and lined with some well-kept trees, so I can't complain too much. Globalization will do what it does, after all. We rode the length of the road down to the Arc de Triomphe, which like many famous monuments in the world is too damned big for its own good. Underneath it is France's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one of the two oldest such monuments in the world.

The tour came to an end at the Place du Trocadéro, home of the Palais de Chaillot, where the option was presented to us to take a bus to the palace of Versailles.  I would have liked very much to go, but I was distracted by one niggling reminder: my clothes were still in the basement washing machine, ripe for thievery.  I had to return!

Of course, Paris is a very beautiful city, and it was hardly two minutes before I was distracted by the magnificent fountains and pool outside the Pailais de Chaillot. I circled the water once and a half, marveling at the urban splendor of the moment and space, thinking I might just take a while and stay there, but I remembered my mission: I had to find a metro!

On the way past the tower I was accosted by a street vendor, who flagged me down by asking if I spoke English (a common tactic in France) and insisted that he really wanted to sketch my portrait. Having difficulties saying no, I stood there awkwardly for a while. But when he told me that the decent thing for me to do would be for me to buy the portrait from him, I knew the smart thing to do was to flee post haste.

Having carefully memorized the route back home, I had none of the navigational troubles that plagued me the night before. I hit all the correct exits, and was soon walking down the now-familiar road to the hotel, a somewhat industrial zone marked by billboards. Interestingly, alongside the signs for the Eurodisney park were ads for another theme park, dedicated to France's world-famous comic book characters, Asterix and Obelix. You know you're not in Kansas anymore when characters like these are considered viable theme park material.

Thank heavens, my laundry remained unmolested in the filthy, filthy basement. Greatly relieved, I moved it along to the drier and went upstairs to the lobby, to read a book and enjoy some sunshine. It was a beautiful summer day, even in the industrial section, and the windows let in a lot of light, with plenty of lounging space.

While I was reading, I received some startling news from a friend: someone had stolen a laptop out of someone's room. Because the doors were locked, it was widely assumed to have been the work of the cleaning service, but there was no direct evidence. In a panic, I realized that my laptop, along with all my other valuables, had been left in plain sight on the desk by my bed. Visions of horrors unimaginable flashed before my eyes as I rushed to my room, but fortunately, it was still there, whole and hale. I resolved to hide it thoroughly when I was not present to guard it.

That night, an informal expedition was gathered to eat at an expensive French restaurant, because money grows on trees in France; big tall trees, with coins bursting from the bark and big leafy bills for....leaves. I could not find my own such tree, and so I went looking for my own food. I found a small-ish Chinese restaurant several blocks away from the hotel, which was delicious as per usual (even the Chinese food is better in France).

I had an unexpected linguistic adventure when a woman at the table next to mine turned to me for advice on ordering. She spoke Spanish and a small amount of English, and could not figure out how to order rice in French. Though I protested "Señora, no hablo Francés," I could not resist the challenge, and determined the correct word for her to use.

As it turns out, it was "riz."

Day Thirty: Even More Paris

The underlined item on the day's agenda was a tour of the Louvre, a museum which holds more masterpieces than have any reason to exist in one place. Once a royal palace of ridiculously epic proportions, its purpose changed forever with the French Revolution, and since those heady (headless?) days it has slowly become more and more stuffed with all manner of high class goodies. It also boasts a shopping mall and a McDonald's, so it really can be said to hold everything of true value on Earth.

The Louvre is such an ancient, important museum that a high degree of meta-reference is necessary in any tour. One of the earliest stops is deep within the building's catacombs, where sections of the old castle wall can be seen embedded in the structure of the palace. We spent about fifteen minutes on this aspect of the museum's history, after which it was back into the light of day to see some of the most famous artworks in the world.

No, I'm not going to list all those artworks. There are, quite literally, far too many of them. You walk in one room, there's the Nike of Samothrace; you walk in another, there's the Venus de Milo; turn a corner, and it's the Mona Lisa. It's several shades north of ridiculous. When you're there, you almost want to tell yourself that the objects in front of you are replicas or reproductions. After all this time, it's still difficult to conceive of these famous images as real, original objects.

A thought occurred to me while viewing the Venus de Milo in particular. It's called a great statue, and it is pretty great, as statues go. In the popular imagination it's a statue of a woman without arms, but that's only because its arms have fallen off due to some unknown trauma, and it's essentially a broken piece, existing for all time as something apart from the sculptor's original intent. Imagining the statue in its true form takes work, more than it would if we had a bona fide image of the original to compare. It seems like it should be hard to get excited about a statue like that, and yet when you're standing within a few feet of it, it really does seem special. Really great classical statues often give an impression of realism almost as striking as the "uncanny valley" of modern computer imagery, and the Venus is like that. When you're right there, it is much easier to believe that it's one of the greatest artworks of all time.

We dispersed through the museum after the tour to seek out its many mysteries on our own time, which was nice, but also an overwhelming task; giving every painting, statue, and curio in the Louvre its due would take weeks. We didn't have weeks, so before long my sister, her friends, and I broke for lunch. After that, we had an appointment with the rest of the group at the Pont Neuf, to board a ferry for a luxurious Seine cruise.

The problem was, we forgot where the Pont Neuf was. We only knew that it was near the Louvre, and managed to walk past at least three bridges in the wrong direction before we got ourselves properly oriented. We were so late, the boat very nearly left without us.

The river cruise was fine, a welcome luxury for a hot summer's day. Unfortunately, it was very hot, and nearly all the seats were filled with hot, sweaty people. Most people were tired or irritable, so we all just sast around, marveling at the bridges and the tops of landmarks looming over the streets. When we finally disembarked, it was time for some desperately needed gelato, as the afternoon grew ever more stifling.

The last official component of the day was a march to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is somewhat different in appearance than I expected. I had pictured a grey, solemn building, but it is in fact mostly white, with a staggering array of gargoyles and statues on its front facade. Here, Eric left us to our fate, with the choice to explore the cathedral or not as individuals. Doing so would have required standing in a very long line, so I opted out. Before I took the Saint Michel metro home, I stopped to appreciate a small marker in the middle of the Cathedral square: point zero for all the roads in France. It is appropriately placed, as the cathedral sits roughly at the very center of Paris.

I don't really remember what I did that night, but I can sure tell you what I didn't do: spend a million euros on tickets to the Moulin Rouge. Utter foolishness! If my memory serves, dinner that night was Italian, and you can't go wrong with that.

Day Thirty One: Nice

A scheduling panic arose this morning, as a handful of people missed their wake up calls and held up the bus. If we'd intended to drive all the way to the coast, it might have been excusable, but we had train tickets, so the pressure was on. Chastisement was properly given, even as we sped through the streets of Paris to the station. Of course, you're always earliest when you think you're running late, and we ended up having about twenty minutes to spare. This traveler's paradox (as I call it) is not always true, but that's beside the point.

We were among the first people to board the train, which gave us the illusion that we might have the entire compartment to ourselves, with room to stretch out and relax. This was obviously not to be, for there is no justice in the world, but I would still rank trains a million slots above planes in terms of comfort and class.

The ride was not very exciting, rolling quickly through miles and miles of mostly monotonous French countryside; I might have enjoyed the view more if my seat had been near a window. At one point I decided to take a short nap, and when I woke up we were passing through Cannes. This delighted me more than it probably should have, since we were not stopping there, and I thought of how funny it would be to pretentiously tell people that I'd "been to Cannes," with no context or caveat. These are the thoughts I have when I wake up on trains.

Nice is nice (I swear I'll never do that again), with the typical flavor of a beach resort town, being the second most popular destination for tourists in the country. The atmosphere had shades of Honolulu in my perception, particularly on account of the day's exceptional humidity.  I don't know if anyone has ever described southern France as being like Hawaii, but I will gladly be the first if I can.  Like all beach towns, the whole place has a definite feel of being subtly tilted, even when it appears more or less flat.  Places like that just seem to want you to move in a certain direction, until you're surrounded by street performers and souvenir vendors.  It's the natural progression of the universe.

Before I was going to let the universe lead me anywhere, I had to set up camp in the local hotel.  There I was temporarily waylaid, as I discovered in my room what might accurately be called the most comfortable bed in the entire world.  What this bed was doing in a mediocre hotel in Nice, I haven't the slightest idea about, but a nap was most certainly called for.  So I spent the hottest part of the afternoon on the most comfortable bed in the entire world, dreaming pleasant dreams and nearly missing the evening meal.

It was one of the few meals we ate as an entire group on a truly organized basis, though I could never exactly tell how they were organized; sometimes, if you follow the group, you find yourselves in classy restaurants that someone conveniently reserved eight or nine tables at.  I don't remember whose tab the meal was on, either, although it was probably ours.  In any event, after dinner Eric kindly led us down to the boardwalk for a night-time walking tour of the city.

There's plenty of entertainment to be found down by the beach, along the Promenade des Anglais, mostly in the form of rollerskating, boombox-hoisting madmen.  We passed relatively close to the Hotel Negresco, a fabulous historic building far beyond the the means of our suffering wallets.  Instead, we moved east into the vicinity of Old Town, whereupon we found delicious, delicious gelato at the Place du Palais de Justice. Amidst the general confusion of the crowded square, another band of rollerskaters was busy launching themselves off ramps.  That's just the kind of place Nice is.

Old Town sits at the base of a really big hill, where the Château de Nice is located.  The hill has a bit of history associated with it (like most things in Europe), but its principle attractions are closed at night, and getting up the hill is quite a hike, so I made a mental note to visit the next day.

On the way back I passed through the Place Masséna, the main square of the city.  It's home to a series of bizarre plastic statues on tall pillars, which glow in changing colors every night, because why not?  More interestingly, the square has some impressive waterworks.  It's not exactly on the level of Rome, but fountains are fountains, and when there are statues of naked people and horses in the water, you've got half of the general attractions of Europe in one spectacular package.  Finally, the square is home to even more nighttime street performers: I saw a particularly limber fellow do a stunning recreation of the dace routine from the video of Smooth Criminal.  I'm sure Nice has a number of poetic names attributed to it already, but I have taken to calling it Boom Box Town.  To put it mildly, portable stereos are a major presence.

The management of the hotel was remarkably tolerant of my using their internet connection in the lobby until two in the morning.  Since their chairs are nearly as comfortable as their ridiculously comfortable beds, I'm surprised it wasn't more crowded.

Day Thirty Two: More Nice

By the time I awoke, most of my compatriots were gone, having bolted by bus to Monaco to hobnob with high rollers and princes (I assume).  In retrospect, it seems rather foolish to have slept through an opportunity like that; if I had to choose between "having been to Monaco" and "not having been to Monaco," it's hard to justify a preference for the latter.

But I knew that Nice had more to offer than I'd already seen, and I had one specific target in mind: the Château de Nice, the old fort by the beach.  After a small breakfast, I set out in the direction of the Place Masséna and the sea, opting to walk rather than wait for a trolley to pass by.

It was an absurdly hot, humid day, and I was soon telling myself that walking had been a mistake.  Halfway to the beach I ducked into a Virgin mega-store for some sweet, sweet air conditioning.  Big media stores like that are very similar in Europe and America, with the exception that prices are listed in euros, although the actual numeric values don't seem different.  Also, everything's in French, which should go without saying.  If I could have found a book in English upstairs, I might have got one, but it just wasn't to be.

When I finally reached the Promenade, I was confronted by a veritable motorcade, which I soon discovered to be in association with a wedding party.  Some lucky young couple was apparently having the run of the town, which is pretty awesome, but if you ask me some of the drivers of those cars had been a little too festive.

By this point my pitiful canteen had been depleted by unnatural thirst, so in preparation of my ascent of the Château hill, I bought myself a great big gatorade at a little store.  This barely lasted up the hike, but aside from the oppressive heat it was really a lovely walk up a twisting staircase to various look-out points.  Up top is a public park with lots of grass for general-purpose lounging, and some playgrounds and toys for families and children.  Mercifully, there are also plenty of trees for shade.

After a brief lunch at a convenient snack shack, I took a little path down to the waterfall I'd seen the night before from the streets below.  As I understand things (and I don't claim to understand them well), the fall is fed by a natural spring that comes out of the hill, but it's framed by man-made tile-work and a reflecting pool, for the benefit of travelers and tourists in search of picturesque locations to contemplate.  I stuck around the waterfall and the cool breeze for a long time before resuming my path to the site of the fort.

The Château itself is mostly gone now, but you can still climb up on top of it, where you'll be greeted by postcard sellers and other such entrepreneurs.  The real benefit is of course the enhanced view of the beach and the town.  Meanwhile, just to the east are some real archaeological goodies: the ruins and foundations of a small-ish church and other buildings that, curiously, none of my fellow tourists seemed to be interested in.  Neither was there very much information posted by the digs.  All I could tell was that there was a church, it was used concurrently with the fort, and had been destroyed and never properly rebuilt.  It was probably destroyed by the Ottoman Turks during the Siege of Nice in 1543, a traumatic event that has a lot of resonance in the folk-tradition of the city.

Back at the park I ran into the wedding party once again: this time, the bride and groom were taking pictures against the Mediterranean sea.  Their expansive entourage was now assembled and appeared ready to take control of that quarter of the hillside.  Rather than get in their way, I made my way down the stairs toward old town to treat myself to some desperately needed gelato.

Dinner that night was much more low-key.  I had some tasty seafood with a few of the girls and (as the air was much cooler in the evening) took a final walk down by the beach.  I increasingly reflected on two thoughts.  First between these was the bittersweet realization that the tour would be over in a matter of days, and that I'd soon be on the plane home.  Second, I considered how thoroughly awesome (apart from the oppressive summer heat, exorbitant media prices, and homicidally reckless drivers) it would be to just stay on the Mediterranean coast for the rest of my life.  Maybe I'd even get another chance at Monaco.

Day Thirty Three: Nice to Barcelona

We boarded a full bus that morning for the last time, thank God.  Of all the things you can share with fifty people for five weeks, cramped metal tubes are among the most unbearable.  Although friendships were made, a fair amount of enmity and antagonism had manifested itself by this point, which I was in no mood to deal with.  Headphones certainly come in handy when the world around you is devolving into childish backbiting and the like.  To add to the misery, the weather turned violently rainy as we ascended the Pyrenees mountains, and it seemed plausible that we might get blown right off the road.  It was, to say the least, not a very good morning.

Things got nicer on the Spanish side of the mountains, although the sky remained vaguely overcast for the rest of the day.  We broke for a snack at a truck stop which happened to have a snooker table, which we quickly converted to a billiards table for lack of knowledge of the game of snooker.  I managed to embarrass myself badly in rematch of the tournament in Amsterdam, but I maintain that on an orthodox table I would have done better.

We rolled into Barcelona around mid-afternoon under light grey skies and checked in at the Catalonia Suites, our final stop in a long list of hotels of various qualities (though not all as bad as one might expect).  We were a considerable distance from the central part of the city, and the only immediate attractions to be found were a few small shops and a convenience store which, notably, sold miniature kegs.  This information was promptly filed away for later retrieval.

In the evening Eric led us to the metro station at El Putxet, and took us on a train-hopping tour of the underground, until we found ourselves in La Rambla, a sort of outdoor mall on one of the most popular tourist streets in the city.  Here at last was the Barcelona I'd been picturing, with its gratuitous palm trees and night-club atmosphere.  Parts of the streets were decorated with colorful tiles, and the entire area was brightly lit with strands of electric lights.  Specifically, we explored the part that ran through El Barri Gòtic, or the "Gothic Quarter."  El Gòtic is the oldest part of La Ciutat Vella, which is itself the oldest district in Barcelona, with many buildings dating to the medieval period.

We disbanded at the historic 19th Century Plaça Reial, where several famous night clubs now fill the arcades along side some (rather expensive) restaurants.  Now was not the time to shrink from prices, however, for I had long nursed a craving for that most Spanish of foods, paella.  Though I later learned that paella is specifically a Valencian specialty (while Barcelona on the other hand is a Catalonian city), but the most inarguably important information about paella is that wherever you can get it, it is delicious.  Go get some now.

After dinner, I rambled around La Rambla for about half an hour, before finally getting bored/sleepy/stuffed with paella, and returning via metro to the hotel.  I assumed (rightly) that I would be back again; no need to wear it out all at once.

Day Thirty Four: Barcelona

Without exactly meaning to, I slept in past the appointed meeting time, and the crew left without me to view the works of Antoni Gaudí, the architect who made Barcelonian buildings synonymous with bizarre.  Being thus left to my own devices I made for the hotel lounge, with the thought that I might practice my Spanish by reading the free newspapers.  Alas, the newspapers was printed not in conventional Spanish but Catalan, the local dialect which I could read about as well as Portuguese (half by guessing, half by educated guessing). 

Since I am a terminally poor judge of distances, I thought it might be a fun adventure to walk from the hotel to the beach, thus saving on cab fare and justifying my lone-wolf status.  I stepped out onto the Carrer de Muntaner and headed down hill, happy to see that the weather had become much sunnier than on the day before.  As I walked, the vaguely dilapidated buildings gradually became more upscale and grand (with only the occasional sound of jackhammers from sidewalk maintenance crews).

After about an hour of walking I made it to Avinguda Diagonal, and began to realize that I was not even half way to the beach.  With the city continually growing larger and less navigable all around me, I decided the safe thing to do would be to turn back.  On the way, I stopped at a small tapas bar for some lunch, intending once again to practice my Spanish in a practical setting.

Before I came to Spain, my knowledge of the Catalan language was limited; I only knew of it as a dialect of Spanish.  Upon arriving in Barcelona, however, I was puzzled by the utter strangeness of the place names I was encountering, and could not even make an attempt at pronouncing words like "Putxet."  The menu at the tapas bar was highly illuminating, as it was trilingual: I could read the items in English, Catalan, and Castilian Spanish.  I managed to work out that the "x" in Catalan words made a sound like "sh" in English (very different from the Castilian use), and furthermore that there was a very wide divergence in vocabulary, with some of the Catalan terms for foods like "cheese" more closely resembling French words than Spanish ones.  It was a real revelation in my understanding of dialect; though I found I could impose a sort of Spanish "order" on the words, the differences were definitely big enough to matter.

Rather than risk mangling a language I knew next to nothing about, I ordered my food in American-accented Castilian, prompting uncomfortably hilarious looks from the servers.  

I laid low for the rest of the day until my compatriots returned, at which point plans were made for a night out at La Barceloneta, the trendy beach neighborhood in the old part of town.  I happened to hold a debt to certain people for beverages stretching all the way back to our time in Greece, so when we arrived at the restaurant I bought a big jug of sangría for our table.  I ventured to share my new-found linguistic discoveries with my friends over drinks, but predictably they showed little enthusiasm; I guess it's tough to appreciate the ravings of a word nerd when you're drinking sangria on the beach.  As for the food, the meal decisively vaulted Spanish cooking into the top tier of European cuisines in my mind.  It's really impossible to rank the cuisines of Europe, but one thing's for sure: they all have a way of convincing you they're the best while you're eating them.

The Mediterranean was beautiful, as usual, especially since we had the benefit of an exceptionally full moon on a clear night.  I'm of the opinion that beaches are infinitely more enjoyable at night than during the day, and La Barceloneta is one of the best.  Nightclubs line the boardwalk, drawing in people who might otherwise be out on the sand.  If you're like me, you'd take pleasure in putting your back to the lights and music and looking out on the water for a while.

Day Thirty Five: Even More Barcelona

The first half of the final day was designated a free day, which for most people meant a "beach day."  My preference for beaches at night, however, is directly related to my dislike of beaches during the day, which tend to leave me exasperated and sunburnt.  So I made it a reading day instead, polishing off the last book on my reading list, More Information Than You Require, by John Hodgman.  Having thus deprived myself of any fresh reading matter for the plane ride home, I turned my attention to my luggage.  I'd accumulated a few fragile objects, and I'd flown on enough planes to be wary of the haphazard habits of airport bag handlers.  After devising clever methods of insulating clay statuettes and thin wooden pipes from crashes and bumps, I went into a little preemptive panic over the location of my passport.  Things like that have a way of losing themselves amidst all the hubbub, and as much as I love Spain, I had no intention of being stuck there.

No sooner had I satisfied myself in my obsessive packing and double checking than some of the guys returned from the beach, Heineken mini-kegs in hand.  This was all kept very hush-hush, perhaps for fear of some arcane Barcelona hotel regulation against fun, but good times were nonetheless had by all.

We took a brief bus and walking tour of some more parts of the old city in the afternoon, this time taking in the park where the Olympic Village was set up back in 1992.  From there we wandered down through La Ciutat Vella back to the beach, where we pretended to continue to enjoy each others' company long enough for a farewell group photograph.  After that, it was time for a special farewell dinner, where unfortunately forgettable food was served.  Oh well.

After dinner, it was time for heartfelt goodbyes.  Many plans had been made, and the rushed nature of our schedules made it possible we'd have no more meaningful contact with them before the trip was through.  So we hugged, we took pictures, and we splintered into smaller and smaller groups.  The last big splinter occurred at an Ice Bar, a literally sub-zero night club where patrons were issued parkas and everything was made of ice.  As cool as that sounds, it wasn't enough for me to overcome my typical hatred of clubs.

As for myself, I needed one last gelato fix.  My sister said she knew where to get the best gelato in town, so I followed her down the boardwalk to La Plaça Portal De La Pau (which has a pointy-looking fountain) and back to La Rambla, which incidentally has a number of fine gelato shops.  "No," she said, "we're going to the GOOD one."  And we did find the shop, and they served us the biggest scoops of gelato I have ever seen.  

As the night was wearing on, we decided to return to the hotel by taxi, having completely lost track of where we were.  Finding the hotel was trickier than it ought to have been, but our driver was handy enough and we made it back without busting our wallets in two.  Once we were home I obsessively set to repacking my previously packed luggage, and managed to get myself about two hours of sleep.

Day Thirty Six: Barcelona, London, Los Angeles

Two hours later, the call went out for the first round of air travelers to report to the bus for transportation.  It was all dark and confusing and miserable, but we made it, and reported to the proper desk well ahead of schedule, whereupon we were told that our tickets were invalid.

After about a half an hour of desperate calls home, Spanish-language haranguing and unproductive fretting, a computer glitch was discovered and corrected, re-validating our tickets and granting us the privilege of waiting an hour for our flight inside the terminal.

From there it was back to London Heathrow, where my sister and I had a classy meal at a surprisingly upscale French restaurant.  Heathrow is of course nearly a city unto itself, so it's not that surprising they should have good eateries.  The heavily armed guards overlooking the rooms are a little off-putting, though.

We had no time to go into the city this time around, nor did we have the energy or inclination.  Instead we bought some of those nifty travel pillows and, a few hours later, boarded the wonderful Air New Zealand for our flight back to California.  As unbearably long as such a flight can be, you can't scoff at an airline that lets you watch Star Trek on your own personal screen.

For all our fun adventures, it was an unbelievably good day to be home at last.  One day  I may return to Europe with more freedom of movement and/or money, but for now I'll just relax and remember the good times.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

An Open Letter to Roger Ebert

Dear Roger,

May I call you Roger? I ask only because I've seen a bit of what some people have been saying about you on the internet.  It's mostly not very friendly, and I thought maybe you'd like to see at least one video game player on the web greet you in a friendly manner.

Having said that, Roger, you wrote something recently that made me sad. Very, very sad.

It's been common knowledge in gamer circles for a while that you don't think video games are art. All things considered, that's a reasonable perspective for someone of your generation to have. Many of us happen to disagree with you, but for the most part we are content to let it slide. We young turks, you see, we think we know better, and we are usually too busy staring at glowing screens to get very worked up about it. Since you happen to make your living in part by staring at glowing screens, I'm sure you understand.

Roger, you really ought to know better. History is replete with examples of things which were originally classed as "not art" or worse, yet now are taken completely for granted as art works. At the very least, one would expect a lifelong student of the arts such as yourself to draw the lesson that, in the eyes of history, it is a very risky proposition to say something is "not art," especially when a passionate minority thinks otherwise. Conversely, I can think of no significant medium that, having once been regarded as an artistic endeavor, has been subsequently downgraded to a less prestigious status. It's clear that art, as narrowly as some would define it, is in practice a category which is prone toward inclusion and expansion.

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with your work would readily acknowledge that you are very, very knowledgeable about art. Not only are you inarguably the nation's most well-known film critic, you are among the most famous and well-regarded critics of any artistic medium in the world. Your understanding of aesthetic and cultural issues pertaining to film is excellent, and you are in all other respects an admirable and commendable human being.

But when you post pictures like this on your anti-gaming tracts, well, it really feels like you're trying to insult us.

You're on track to go down in gamer lore alongside truly reprehensible bogeymen like Jack Thompson if you keep this sort of thing up, Roger. That probably doesn't bother you too much, given your otherwise lofty reputation and low regard for the opinions of gamers, but all the same you really don't deserve it. I just don't like the idea of you being despised by an entire sub-culture. Gamers like movies, too, and I know you wouldn't want potential readers to dismiss your critical work on the basis of unrelated opinions. Why encourage needless scorn?

So that's why I'm going to offer my own interpretation of the Video-Games-As-Art Question, and thereby explain why exactly I believe video games to be one among many of mankind's various domains of artistry. I hope my insights are, in some manner, persuasive.

What is Art?

To begin, I would define art as the product of an artist. This definition may sound trite, but consider this: no human has ever successfully built an ant-hill, because an ant-hill is necessarily the product of an ant. If I were to evaluate whether the raised earth structure in my back yard met the criteria of being or not being an ant-hill, I would really only have to ask myself two questions: is it a hill, and was it made by ants?

Because art is uniquely the product of thinking beings, the definition of art is therefore dependent on the definition of an artist. If we were to list the attributes of an artist, we might come up with something like this:
  • Artists are creative.
  • Artists are expressive.
  • Artists are skilled.
  • Artists are reflective.
  • Artists are aesthetic.
To clarify, when I say an artist is creative, I mean that an artist creates something, which need not be tangible. When I say an artist is expressive, I say that an artist takes something internal and makes it external, be it an emotion, impression, idea, or message. When I say that an artist is skilled, I mean that an artist uses his or her physical or mental abilities in the act of creation. When I say an artist is reflective, I mean that the internal state that gave rise to expression is a reflection of the external influences upon the artist. When I say an artist is aesthetic, I mean that an artist makes decisions with questions of mood, quality, beauty, ugliness, etc., in mind.

All humans possess these attributes to some degree. I propose that when a person acts in such a way that these attributes are clearly observed, then that person is an artist. I further propose that when an artist acts in such a way that all or most of these attributes can be observed, then the artist makes art.

This definition is necessarily and purposefully over-inclusive: it covers just about everything that people do that is not necessary for life. We can make our lives easier by making the first of many possible distinctions, and I'd like to start the most unobjectionable, namely, by excluding the trivial. I could make the argument that the bottle of gravy in my cupboard is a work of art, on the basis that it was created, that its label expresses something (in this case, that it is full of delicious gravy), that it was made with some skill, that it reflects society's love of delicious food covered in gravy, and that it was purposefully designed to be visually appealing.

I could make this argument, but I'd be wasting your time.*  There's just no point in talking about a bottle of gravy as art, because nobody's taste lies primarily in food containers.  Other things are more impressive, and so more worthy of our attention and consideration.

*Please forgive me for wasting your time.

Hopefully, you now have some understanding of what it is that I, and many others, consider to be art. I'd like to modify that definition a bit with a few more qualifications.

First, art may be utilitarian, but it is not defined as art by the presence or absence of utility. Second, art may be commercial, but it is not defined as art by the presence or absence of commerce. Third, art may be entertaining, but it is not defined as art by the presence or absence of entertainment. Fourth, art may be beautiful, ugly, or neither, but it is not defined as art by any particular aesthetic sense. Fifth, and finally, art may be good or it may be bad, but it is not defined as art by its quality, however that word may be defined.

Our tastes may define what art we consider worth our time. Some have no patience for "unskilled" art, or pedestrian art, or commercial art, or ugly art. But that doesn't give them the right to categorize these art forms out of existence.

This is, of course, only one of many possible ways of defining art. You are free to disagree with it entirely, but I think you will find it useful in evaluating and appreciating the rest of my argument.


Undeniable Artistry Within Games

Let us turn now to the question of video games. Using my definition, I assert that if video games are made by artists in the manner that artists make art, then they are works of art. I think you'll agree that this is fair, at least insofar as it is a consistent application of my definition.

As it happens, a typical video game development company is staffed by artists, and often retains the services of outside artists. In producing a game, visual elements need to be composed and designed: this calls for the use of traditional tools like pencils, pens and brushes, alongside modern tools like computer software. Using these materials, video game makers develop concepts into concrete images, which are incorporated by the programmers into the final product.

I'm sure you're quite familiar with the visual aspect of video games. It nearly goes without saying that video games are a visual medium; that's why we call them video games. But just to get all our ducks in a row, it's worth remembering that the visual aspect of game design is a rich and impressive field. As graphical technology improves, we often see games praised for their increasing realism, but other styles flourish as well. Even old-fashioned styles like sprite graphics can be appreciated for their artistry: though they are primitive in every sense of the world, they have been used effectively to convey emotion, and remain popular among many enthusiasts (myself included) for their charm and simplicity.

It's true that the most artistically striking visuals in games are usually found in full motion video "cut scenes," which derive their artistic sensibilities from the movies and, for all intents and purposes, are movies. A skeptic might see this as evidence that games, if anything, are derived from (and hence subordinate to) movies as art. This is a facile hypocrisy. Movies, after all, derive their aesthetics and compositional rules from static visual media like paintings and photography.

The movies, in fact, are one of the best examples of mixed media artwork in existence, combining drama, visual arts, music and others into what is generally considered a single work. For games to include movies is not artistic parasitism, any more than a film can be called parasitic for using music to enhance acting.

So there is art in video game graphics; of that there can be no doubt. We also find art in video game music. In fact, music that was originally written for video games is increasingly being recorded and performed outside of its original context, by groups of musicians ranging from symphony orchestras to enthusiastic Youtube prodigies. Certain melodies have embedded themselves so deeply in popular culture that they are recognized far beyond the limits of gamers and even the people who put up with them. Uncertain as I am as to whether they've penetrated to your particular plane of existence, I offer a humble example.

Of course, the quality of video game music has nothing to do with its status as art, any more than the quality of graphics has anything to do with the same. Both, however, have reached a stage of exceptional quality in composition and in execution, and have been at that level for some time now. It's a sad fact that when establishing the definition of art as encompassing one particular endeavor or another, we instinctively appeal to quality for the purpose of fortifying our convictions. I prefer a simpler rule of thumb: if a six second video clip is a movie (and objectively, it is), and movies are art, then the six second clip is also art. Quality is far too subjective to be used as a criteria for classification on any basis apart from quality itself, which is plainly absurd.

Writing and story is the one aspect of the video game art ensemble that is most commonly, and most justifiably, singled out for qualitative criticism.  To put it simply, much of it is utter crap, at least by the usual standards of the written word. There are many reasons for this to be so. Games are a mass market-medium, and so are usually written to appeal broadly. Gamers typically appreciate flexibility and non-linear progression, so vagueness or mutability is often required. Many games are adaptations of movies, books, and other existing intellectual properties, and these seldom turn out to enhance the script of the original. Independent game developers, though somewhat isolated from these concerns, are usually intensely focused on technological or visual aspects of their craft, less so on writing. These conditions, taken together, are not a recipe for Tolstoy.

Still, the classical masterpieces of narrative excellence exist as islands in a vast sea of unmitigated awfulness, and it wouldn't be fair to call books a lesser form of art simply because so many books are written to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Movies could easily be criticized for debasing the literacy of the public: why read Sherlock Holmes when you can watch Robert Downey Jr. act out a facsimile? Whatever the relative quality of the average film story compared to the average game story, it's almost guaranteed that the audience will be doing a great deal more reading of the story in the latter case.

And besides, great writing does exist in games. The makers of Grand Theft Auto have been writing deep, brilliant, and scathing satire for years now, along with incidental background narratives to more fully realize the worlds they have created. The makers of Portal took a relatively simple concept and morphed it into a complex examination of science, ethics, and survival. The makers of Bioshock built an elegant, Art Deco dystopia to house a highly literate, compelling tale of hubris and redemption. I won't claim that any of these are as good as Shakespeare; by now, it should be clear that such comparisons are thoroughly beside the point. These stories possess quality on their own terms.

Considering all of the work that artists do to make games such an enjoyable experience, it seems perverse to say that the product which their efforts are directed toward is not itself a work of art.

The Problem of Game Play

I take issue with the assertion that games are necessarily something you can win. This is clearly not true, even when we consider only traditional, non-electronic games. An informal gathering of kids playing basketball or racquetball or anything else immediately becomes un-winnable the moment nobody is keeping score, and I am entirely unaware of any international body that prescribes the rules, regulations, and criteria for winning of a game of catch.

Furthermore, if we assume that anything you can win is not art, then we have a glaringly obvious exception to explain away. Dance is an art, but ice dancing is also an Olympic sport, one of many to be evaluated at least partially on the basis of aesthetic criteria. If we accept that ice dancing is art, then the ice dancer is an artist. If we accept that it is an athletic sport (which is a kind of game), then the ice dancer is also necessarily an athlete. One might claim that the dancer is making art by dancing, while simultaneously making "not-art" by competing against other dancers, even though the dancing and the competition are composed of the same physical actions. To this I say bullshit. The competition is intrinsically part of the artistry of the moment, and cannot be separated from it.

It is not at all unusual to make competition out of art. Simon Cowell built an empire out of what is essentially a Karaoke contest, and after the humiliating auditions of the hoi polloi are taken care of, the participants are expected to be taken seriously as artists throughout the entire process. A Kelly Clarkson opens her mouth and sings a song, creating a work of art; America promptly tells her "you win!" and rewards her with fame and other fabulous prizes. In another vein, we speak of oratory as a form of art; the art of the spoken, as opposed to the written, word. When we put two orators in a room and have them speak in turn, we call it a debate and it becomes a competition: when does the skillful use of words to move or persuade stop being art?

The issue of winning or not winning is a red herring to distract us from the truth that games and sports really are art. It's true that you won't find many athletes, coaches, or other such people who consider what they do to be art, or themselves to be artists (you can find many video game creators who disavow the same). All the same, they are surprisingly willing to use aesthetic, artistic words to describe skillful planning or execution. A clever play devised by a coach and implemented by a quarterback is called "beautiful." A distance runner who moves swiftly in fine form is called "graceful." When a chess player devises a path to victory from a difficult position, we call his solution "elegant." And in these and many other cases, amazing instances of skill are not infrequently described as being "like a work of art." Just how alike can art and non-art be?

Athletes (by which I include chess players, etc) are artists who make art spontaneously, and that is OK. Many conventional artists create works of art without fully planning the result beforehand, and spontaneity is actually considered a worthy quality to possess.  Steps don't need to be planned out in advance for artwork to be moving or appreciable, and the artist does not necessarily need to know how things will turn out.

For an athlete to protest that he does not consider himself an artist hardly matters. Jack Thompson doesn't consider himself a self-righteous idiot, but he is one all the same, because he meets all of the requirements of a good definition of self-righteous idiocy. His own definition simply happens to exclude himself and the things he does. Similarly, sportsmen use a definition of art that excludes themselves and what they do, for no other reason than the fact that it is different from what a painter does. It is undeniably different, but only in medium and message, and art is neither medium nor message. When we are conditioned to regard art as something that other people do, we are of course inclined to think that we can only be artists by emulating those people, but this is a fallacy.

Now, a typical baseball game is not expressive in the same way that a painting is. A baseball game can tell only a few kinds of stories, and they generally have to do principally with the game at hand. But on the other hand, a painting cannot really "tell" a story, either. A painting is a single image, and a story implies a sequence of more than one event. A painting can only suggest a story, because it is not a narrative medium. Likewise, a baseball game can suggest all manner of ideas.  Effort to score and win is an expression of civic or national pride.  A home run may manifest the beauty of well-honed technique and power. Even the relative ages of the players is potentially evocative, as when a talented young rookie breathes new life into a team filled with aging warhorses.  Playing well in sports or other games is essentially a kind of performance art.  Simply by being there and playing his heart out, the rookie makes a story: that is art!

Video games are ideally positioned to wed the more traditional arts with the spontaneous act of creation that comes from competition or exploration. Whether a video game can really be won or not, it's in precisely this integrative quality that artistry comes most naturally to the medium.


The Illusion of Control

The idea that a single genius controls the destiny of a work of art is very appealing.  It's appealing because it's easy to understand: the artist conceives an idea, realizes it by arranging elements, and makes a thing.  If we look at art as a form of intellectual property, this point of view is also useful in establishing who the work "belongs to" (even if the actual legal principles indicate something differently).  Serious attempts at disqualifying games as art almost always point to the lack of total authorship in games: the experience always varies from audience to audience, because the audience is capable of influencing its progression.

When multiple ideas from multiple minds come together to create a single product or experience, we call it a collaboration, but we're always careful to give as few people priority as possible.  For example, we typically say a film is "by" its director.  Therefore, The Godfather is by Francis Ford Coppola, although he had many collaborators.  We could just as easily say that the performance of the character of Michael Corleone is by Al Pacino, but the performance is a "subordinate" part of a work that is generally attributed to Coppola.  So there's something of a conflict here: the performance is one of the most important parts of the movie, but it doesn't belong to the director!  His only claim to it is to have arranged it along with other things that were done by people other than him.  He has complete control over that arrangement (at least as much as can be had when your resources are controlled by studios, or when you're dependent upon anyone else in the slightest), but at best his control over the elements themselves is limited.

Once the elements are arranged, the film is printed, and the movie is playing on screens around the country, the director's tenuous control over the experience is lost.  The movie will play to audiences who will use it as just another element to build their own experiences.  However meticulously a director tries to control the emotional experience in viewing a film, the experience will vary markedly on the basis of the audience's intentions.  The experience of watching The Godfather varies depending whether you're watching it alone, on a date, or in a college course on Cultural Depictions of Italian-Americans in 20th Century Popular Cinema.  The ideas and emotions that are an integral part of the experience of viewing The Godfather are dependent on the context in which it is viewed, and who controls that context, if not the audience?

We don't need to be that abstract to find examples of audience control "intruding" on an artist's authority.  We might say, for example, that a musician has absolute control over the sounds that make up his performance.  But in the midst of a rock concert, his sounds become intermingled with the sounds produced by the audience.  These might seem like separate things, from a certain conceptual view, but when your ear is trapped between them it can be tough to tell where one begins and the other ends.  In any event, the experience of a rock n' roll show is not the same without the audience: they become partners in the crafting of the moment, and wise musicians welcome that partnership, rather than stubbornly insist that their art belongs to themselves alone.

Artists can even create art while deliberately abandoning control over certain aspects of the process.  The Beatles famously took odd recordings of sound, chopped them up, arranged them randomly, and stuck them in the mix of Tomorrow Never Knows without quite knowing how they'd come out.  It would be next to impossible to replicate the recording exactly a second time, but all the same the song is considered a milestone in the band's artistic development.  In this case, the Beatles surrendered their artistic control to the laws of probability and chance, relying on these to complete the experience they had conceived.  Is it any less artistic to delegate a measure of control to the audience?

The only difference between the makers of movies and the makers of video games is the point at which they willingly concede the inevitable appropriation of their artistic control by the audience.  The director produces a series of images and sounds that will play the same way every time.  The game developer produces a series of images and sounds that will play differently, but eventually end up in much the same place.  The director wants to hold your hand: the game developer backs off.  The game developer gives the audience explicit permission to do to the game what it does implicitly to the movie.  If that's the distinction between art and non-art, it's a poor one, and really quite delusional on the part of those who advocate for greater control.

How much "control" over the work an artist wishes to claim is the business of the artist, of course, but artists never really do claim that absolute authority they may wish for.  Their willingness to embrace or push against that limitation is a dynamic that makes art interesting on a deeper level. 


Nothing is Diminished

In all honesty, Roger, I think the biggest difference between our positions is grounded in culture.  Your ideas about art were forged from a lifetime of watching movies.  By the time Pong came out, you were deep in the world of film, and had no time to bother classifying as art or not-art what were, at best, childish diversions.  By the time people began calling those things art, you were old enough to wish not to be bothered with them.  Asking you about video games is a bit like asking Frank Sinatra about Led Zeppelin; it's just not fair to either party.

But at the same time, I would hope that you would be more open to the idea that games might be art.  At the very least, you could grant that art, being notoriously difficult to define to the satisfaction of all, might be defined in such a way as to include video games.  If that's too far, then perhaps we could draw the line at disparaging us for thinking so?

I can assure you, gamers do not call games art because we are self-serving, or in denial about wasting our lives away.  We call it art because it is an important part of our culture.  It may sound difficult to believe, but there are games that matter as much to us as Citizen Kane or Casablanca do to you.  And here's the best part: this by no means diminishes the greatness of film, or any other art form.  Art is not the preserve of the great against the many; it is an expansive, inclusive category of the creative works of humankind.  Every second we spend talking about what isn't art is a second that could have been put toward appreciating artistry, and it's that appreciation that is the end and goal of all art.

I won't recommend any games to try and change your opinion, because I know you're a very busy man, and old prejudices are hard to get over.  I do hope, however, that you may come to appreciate where I and others like me are coming from, and this whole silly controversy can disappear forever.

David Miller