Baraka, the Revolutionary Theater, and Games and/as Critique
For my final answer to the question “what is art?” I want to discuss art that overtly or explicitly offers political commentary. Critical art is similar to the surrealist or (post)modern art we examined last class: except, with critical or revolutionary art, the question it attempts to engender is often quite clear. There is usually little guess work. A simple check for whether you are working with a critical, satiric, allegorical, revolutionary art/game: can you fill in the template: If we do not X, then Y (or, similarly, if we continue to do X, then Y).
Below I will address Baraka directly, but first I want to discuss a few other variations of this kind of art. The first that comes to mind for me is satire. Satire uses pointed hyperbole that both targets human flaws and offers solutions/remedies/improvements. This pedagogic dimension is what separates true satire from mere mockery–what separates SNL from Chapelle Show or the Simpsons from South Park. There is often an underlying moral argument to satire, or at the very least, a moment in which the satirist pulls back the veil, the mask, to reveal the target of their outrage. Famous example: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which Swift argues that the Irish economy could be boosted if poor Irish parents began selling their children to rich English kitchens. Swift:
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
This epitomizes the satiric moment in which the artist drops the facade and drops the hammer.
Related to satire is allegory, a story which contains a poignant but (somewhat) “hidden” message. We tend to think of allegory and children’s stories, such as the tortoise and the hair or the ant and the grasshopper. But allegory can also work in more sophisticated ways: and I would argue that science fiction has become, principally, a medium that operates allegorically to critique 20 century politics. There is a long list of works here, from 1984 to Brave New World to F. 451 to something more contemporary like The Matrix or Battlestar Galactica. Most of these works expose pressing dangers to individuals under increasingly totalitarian or dehumanizing governments/economies. But they also explore our complicity in such systems, our desire for simplicity, our desire for a Father who orders and commands. Most of these allegories contain traces Immanuel Kant’s “A Question Concerning Enlightenment, which warns that most people want to be led, duped, controlled–only a select few can achieve or appreciate Enlightenment. This is a common theme of late 20th century art. I am unsure if this remains a theme in the 21st century.
Deconstruction is an often overused term. I will not dedicated too much time to it here, other than to say that it is (in part) a form of criticism that seeks to identify and expose determined foundations and wonder how they might be otherwise determined. Take 2: a deconstructionist recognizes that, at the base of every social/political system or idea, there is a moment in which something undecideable has been concretely decided, and the trace of that decision–its initial undecideability, ambiguity, uncertainty–has been erased. To deconstruct something (say an argument) is to expose this initial ambiguity.
It isn’t (or I would say shouldn’t be) necessarily destructive in its intentions. Rather, it is productive, attempting to explore new ways for doing things. What if we structured the system around a different decision? What if we operated otherwise? What new avenues would we discover? That said, deconstruction is a progressive argumentative strategy, one vigorously suspicious of fundamentalist thought. This is why deconstruction is only in part a method of criticism: it is also a mindset, a conviction, a metaphysic, built around the idea that transcendental Truth (a truth that comes to us from beyond the material world and our social/cultural/linguistic relations) is impossible. And, equally, a conviction that such Truth is both alluring and dangerous. People will kill to sustain a Truth. In the words of theorist Victor Vitanza in his 1997 book Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric: “My position is [...] that we are not at home in our world/whirl of language. Any and every attempt to assume that we are has or will have created for human beings dangerous situations.”
And in the words of Chris Rock:
“I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive, working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth. New ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.” (Dogma)
Deconstruction is a commitment to ideas and an opposition to belief.
Of course, the “Revolutionary Theater” Baraka endorses isn’t so subtle–it is art that is confrontational, aggressive, assaulting. It often will attempt to shock, transgress, violate, disturb. At its worst, it is merely shock value–something gross or vile without insight (say, the film The Human Centipede). But at its best, it uses shock value, it generates abjection or disgust, in order to force us to reassess ideas, to motivate us to action, to rally us to a cause. Often, it pushes on the borders of obscenity, such as Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s campaigns against Egyptian patriarchy and, more recently, ISIS’s sexual politics.
I tend to categorize art in the Revolutionary category in two ways. First, there is the kind of art that works with its enemy, or at least on them. Think of the way To Kill a Mockingbird or Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of a Slave work to mortify us. It is there everyday, common presentation of violence, rape, and terror that strikes us. Hard. Two quotes of particular importance:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
Baraka’s theater of destruction isn’t as much an attempt to get you to walk in his shoes as it is an attempt to crush you under the weight of his pain, outrage, frustration. It assaults you. Think here of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening, in which the protagonist Edna Pontellier would rather kill herself than live under the patriarchal expectations of 19th century Southern life.
I am unsure if any video game would qualify as the theater of destruction, or even as critical art. I might toy with the idea of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, if only because there is a strong attempt to contextualize the protagonist’s crimes as a result of the impoverished world and (especially) corrupt policemen and politicians that fill it. I am also curious about war games that critique the impulse/necessity towards/of war. And there is a long appreciation of the critical dimensions of Final Fantasy VII (its attack both on corporate capitalism and ecological disaster)
Other contemporary examples I would point to: The Chapelle Show. Although, as Katherine Zapos argues in her thesis on The Chapelle Show and satire:
I argue that using satire often has the unintended consequence of crossing the line between “sending up” a behavior and supporting it, essentially becoming that which it is trying to discount, though this is not to say that its intrinsic value is therefore completely negated.
A less confrontational, but perhaps more uncomfortable and profound example would be Eddie Murphy’s comedy Trading Places.
Another example from popular culture would be Rage Against the Machine.
What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive and movin’
They don’t got to burn the books they just remove’em,
While arms warehouses grow as large as the cells,
Rally around the family,
With a pocket full of shells.
But the video for “Sleep Now in the Fire” is probably a better example.
At some point I will want to show Ill Doctrine’s “How to tell somebody they sound racist” video.
Writing the Paper
I recognize for many of you, writing a paper isn’t an every day/week/semester activity. So I’ll try to provide some details here for what I am (and am not) looking for. First, the “am not.” Thanks StrongBad.
I’m looking for a response to Ebert’s claim that games cannot be art. The response should be written as if it would be posted online to a blog or online outlet (such as, say, Joystick, Gawker, Salon, etc). What follows below is not absolute insistence, more suggestion. You can argue (Chet) that games are not art yet, and tell me why. You can argue that a game created a moment that was amazing and artistic, even if the rest of it is dribble. This is your paper, “paint a happy tree.” Or an angry bird.
The paper could/should have the following parts:
- An interesting title that doesn’t suck (perhaps using the MLA “joke-colon-paper topic” format.
- An introduction that lays out the problem (in this case, Ebert’s claim that video games cannot be art)
- A thesis (of sorts) that explains if we define art as X, then we can see that, contrary to Ebert, a number of games can be art. I examine Y, paying particular attention to how it.. Z
- A definition of art. You can, of course, begin by stressing the difficulty of defining art. But you cannot excuse yourself from the task. You must offer a definition of art that mentions (either in support or contrast) two of the theorists/theories we have used in class. These mentions need to include summaries and specifics.
- Introduce your game–give relevant contextual info (when was it made? Popularity? Genre?). Provide a plot summary for those who have not played.
- Address theme: EVEN IF YOUR GAME DOESN’T HAVE AN ARTISTIC THEME. This might be a sentence, or several paragraphs (e.g., Though Resident Evil’s basic theme is fairly traditional, in the sense that a hero arrives to destroy an unquestionable evil and restore order, this does not make the game uninteresting. What is interesting about Resident Evil is the way in which it…).
- Some kind of conclusion. Conclusions are tricky. They summarize your argument and return to the original premise (reminding us of the problem, Ebert’s dismissal, and suggesting to the reader what they might do next, or what lingering questions remains unanswered). DO NOT TELL ME THAT YOUR WHOLE PAPER IS MERELY ONE OPINION AND THAT AS A READER I AM ENTITLED TO MY OWN OPINION. I will fail any paper that does that. Your paper isn’t an opinion. It is an argument, an idea. Just because it might not be absolutely True doesn’t mean it is insignificant.
- This paper does not need any kind of Works Cited or Reference list, but it does need to attribute sources. You can often do this in text (look above at the way I bring in names).
Today I want to work on smoothing out the transitions into sources, and share what I call the “magic” sentence. I call this the magic sentence because it does so much for us in such a compact frame. Here it is:
Shakespeare’s Renaissance tragedy Romeo and Juliet documents the titular characters’ intense love and foolhardy demise. Shakespeare’s play leads us to question both the sincerity of young love.
I came up with this sentence while prepping high school students to take placement exams, hence the literary material. But the semantics of the sentence make it useful for virtually every kind of writing. I especially want to highlight the importance of the verbs in this sentence, because choosing the proper verb often reveals both our appraisal of the source and our thinking on the questions it raises.
[Author]‘s [time period] [genre] [title] [verb] [plot summary]. [Author] [verb] [theme/purpose].
Ok, so in reality I have two sentences here. But, when dealing with non-fiction works, they can often be combined into one:
[Author's] [time period] [genre] [title] [verb] [purpose].
As I indicated above, it is the verb that is the silent star of the show here. Consider for a minute the following example:
Malcom Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink exposes how subconscious part of our brain think in ways we are not consciously aware.
Exposes. How does the meaning of the sentence change if I use the verb:
- questions whether
- offers a theory of
Each of these verb choices subtly alters the way I approach the work discussed. Exposes suggests something secret and perhaps mysterious is being uncovered. Suggests suggests that an amount of doubt surrounds the issue. Supposes implies that I am hostile or at least quite skeptical toward the idea. This subtle indicator allows my an opportunity to softly align or distance myself from the source I am using. Good authors do this all the time to subconsciously prepare readers for their arguments