By Fabius Mayland / March 3, 2013
This text is the result of multiple trains of thoughts whose rails I have been following for
the past few months and which have, in the past few days, somehow all
converged, leading to the creation of this slightly jumbled,
sprawling mess. Ideas from one domain sloshed over the others, and it
all became a huge entangled ball. These ideas constitute 1) an
attempt to explain some of Alex Kierkegaard's writings on art (or perhaps to
completely "bungle" them, who knows!), 2) an attempt to explain
some of my views of television as art and 3) general ideas on art
theory and criticism.
In two previous texts (1 and 2), I implied that I do not follow the news much anymore, as I simply do not see much value in doing so. One thing I often hear people exclaim regarding this is something along the lines of "Well, politics are so ridiculous, I just find humor in following them". And a similar sentiment is brought forth to defend various shows from the field of reality TV. These sentiments are utterly misguided.
To understand why, we need to first understand the basic properties of art. What is art? For our purposes, let's use the definition of art as given by Alex Kierkegaard: Art is the craft of illusion. From this it follows that "good" art should be as illusory as possible, as immersive as possible. Indeed, the quality of immersion has deeply rooted itself within our colloquial language in regards to art. When we deeply enjoy a novel, we "lose ourselves" in the story, we seemingly fall into it, feel like we are actually experiencing the plot. We take a glance at the clock hanging at the wall and realize that we've been reading throughout the entire night. The television series was so engrossing that we watched the entire season on Netflix in a single sitting.
But how does art achieve this? As Albert Camus notes in The Rebel, the artist is principally a selector. The author decides which words to include and which to omit. The painter spends as much time thinking about the composition (i.e. What is in the picture and what isn't) as he does painting the actual picture (well, he should, anyway). The crafting of art requires careful selection of what is included, because art can never represent the entirety of life. In fact, it shouldn't represent the entirety of life! Some parts of life are boring. A show about the life of Tony Soprano is more interesting than a show about my life. Therefore, David Chase selected the life of Tony Soprano, to the exclusion of my life, your life, and everyone else's life.
From this perspective, by the way, consider Andy Warhol's "Empire" – the continuous, static filming of the Empire State Building. On the one hand, it is of course a careful selection: The Empire State Building in favor of (to the exclusion of) any other building in New York, any other city in the United States, any other continent in the world, any other planet in the system; yet, on a more pragmatic level, it is an incredibly lazy piece of art. A careful selection and exclusion can only happen through terse writing (pre-production) and careful, in some cases, months-long editing (post-production). This selection allows the medium of cinema to tell complex stories within a timeframe of less than three hours. The Godfather tells a story that spans two decades without being incoherent on the one hand, and without ever being boring on the other (by including, e.g., scenes that only serve to feed expository dialogue to the audience) – incoherence being the result of carelessly cutting scenes, and boredom being the result of unnecessarily keeping scenes. As such, editing is an arduous, demanding process. Selection and Exclusion. Compared to masterpieces such as The Godfather or Citizen Kane then, "Empire" is not a careful selection, but rather a lazy and even downright insulting one.
How does all of this bring us back to the topic at hand? Well, apply this logic to the sentiments described in the second paragraph. If we are not looking at political news or reality TV as a form of information, what are we doing with it? Why, we are seeing it as art. That is, as either drama or comedy. But – and how incredibly ironic is this? – it turns out that "the news", the "political theatre" (see, our everyday language openly acknowledges politics as art), as well as "reality TV" are all very badly made art. This seems confusing if we just take art as the mimesis – i.e. the copying – of reality, because how could the direct representation of reality not be good? Well, see, it is not carefully selected. The storylines that pervade politics are, for the most part, not half as interesting as the fictional life of Tony Soprano. The – pretty much fictional – character of Mitt Romney, as it turns out, is less intriguing than the entirely fictional character of Tony Soprano. The plots are not as intricate, the characters not as complex, the locations drab, and, above all, the camerawork is absolutely mundane!
The same goes for the prose in the case of print journalism, which also neatly solves another problem. It lets us appreciate the works of people such as Gay Talese as works of art, not journalism. The story "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" is not only so very great because it is real, but rather because it is so deftly written, and such an interesting story. You could perhaps ascribe a certain "bonus" for things if they are actually true. But does the fact that the presidential election is real really make it all that interesting? I don't think the "realness"-bonus offsets all the shortcomings of the "realness" of today's politics (and "reality" TV). And by "realness", I mean fake-realness, all things considered. Remember George W. Bush's ranch in Texas, designed to give the impression of Bush being a manly man? Yeah, he tried to sell the ranch immediately after his presidency and he never was there, because he hated it. This is just the most hilarious example I can come up with, but it should not require an overly observant person to notice that politicians are always playing a character, and it is never a convincing one. Do you follow the news and politics because they are drama? You're intentionally watching mediocre art.
This concept of selection, by the way, also greatly helps us to realize something rather fundamental about television drama as art: the idea that TV is theoretically the superior form of cinema – yet in reality, by stark contrast, has produced almost no works that could hold a candle to the greatest movies. Television has been a purely commercial endeavour from its inception on. Cinema was invented by people who wanted to craft art. Television series were invented by corporations as a method of producing cheap, intentionally repetitive cinema. Episodic television was not seen as a chance to produce long-form movies – it was seen as a chance to recycle the basic plot of something once a week without being seen as a fraud. This is what we now call the procedural, where House M.D. can do the same exact thing every single week and win Emmys for it in the process.
Hollywood, due to its history, always has had room for Francis Ford Coppolas and Stanley Kubricks. Music always has had room for its Aphex Twins. And literature is possibly the one medium of art where great artists were more often recognized than not. But television? It took Twin Peaks and Homicide to wake people out of their lullaby, and it wasn't until The Sopranos that things actually got rocking [lol, I am sorry I couldn't help myself –Ed]. And even many of the great shows of today – The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter (first Season) – have their share of procedural content. The perfectly moulded first season of The Wire will remain the exception for some time, I fear. (Game of Thrones and Mad Men are other candidates, but more on that later.) [Ed's note on all of this: His taste in TV series is abominable, but rotten examples aside his points are valid.]
Had the potential of television been made use of from the start, then it might have surpassed cinema as an artform by now – television as a form of cinema that would require the process of selection to be so careful that not only an incredibly complex story is being told across dozens of hours (all the while remaining terse!), but furthermore so coherently that it can be told in little 40 minute segments, i.e. in episodes. Where a movie only has to keep up a terse pace for two hours, television has to do the same thing for ten or more. A season has to be coherent on two levels – on the level of the entire season and on the level of each individual episode. Much like a decent short story is easier to write than a decent novel – one that does not meander, does not sludge and trude, one that never gets bogged down. Just imagine: Maybe the conceptual weaknesses of the medium would have been alleviated by now! Maybe the budgets would go in the hundreds of millions. Maybe The Wire would have been filmed for and shown on 70mm in cinemas instead of the tiny screen you own at home.
And at that point, maybe the episodic structure of the medium could have been loosened up, allowing certain episodes to be twice or half as long, making for more natural ends and beginnings. But instead, the procedural happened, which is the mode of television wherein careful selection is actively discouraged, wherein everything repeats itself every week, again and again. It has indeed resulted in a view of television in which my above description of coulda-beens will actively revolt people – how would television still be television if it was shown in cinemas? It wouldn't, that is the point! Television has always been cinema, just on a – and that is what confuses people so much – simultaneously grander and smaller scale! Ten hours of content, but lower budgets, smaller screens, and, usually, worse writing. The state of television until the contemporary period (late '90s–now) was, in fact, so terrible that the creator of The Sopranos hates the genre he himself worked in, and always aspired to work in the movies. Which is exactly what we should all aspire towards, and which is exactly what The Sopranos, through The Wire, enabled. [The examples continue to be ludicrous. There were great TV series long before The Sopranos, and The Sopranos itself is merely a mediocre series. The author is obviously a young person with zero knowledge of the history of the medium, which is why all his examples are so recent and so terrible, but as I've said already his analysis is valid. –Ed]
The idea of selection is critical for videogame theory as well. With it, we can, for example more easily explain the failure of the GTA series. When Vice City was released, critics noted that the island is smaller than the island of GTA3. Well, they got their wishes handed to them with San Andreas, whose map is, how shall I put it, fucking huge. But half the map is boring, it is filler.
The game is, in other
words, bloated with shit that isn't fun. And it is not just the map
itself, it's the same thing with the mechanics. For some
reason, the player is supposed to send the protagonist to the gym to
train. Mashing control and spacebar for 10 minutes while watching a
virtual character work out sure is fun! Mind-numbingly repetitive
gangwars which always play out in the exact same fashion, burglary
missions, and so on. GTA4 upped it up another notch and
introduced all kinds of crap from real life, precisely the crap that
we are trying to escape from when we play videogames! GTA4
features its own fictional representation of the internet, only of
course it is nothing like the internet, but more like printing out
random pages from it. The game even features spam email –
who thought of this? With each succeeding GTA, that is, the
games have become more bloated, less dense, less terse. Or, in other
words, the elements to be included within where less carefully
selected (seriously, spam
There are even fictional TV channels within GTA4, but honestly, who actually watches these? Which is, by the way, exactly what always happens with terrible art like this – only a miniscule percentage of people who talk about "Empire" (and maybe even call it a great piece of art) have actually watched the entirety of Empire State Building, because they themselves are bored by it. "Empire" is the "postmodern" conception of art: Art that nobody actually consumes, that is only referenced, that is only talked about.
For another example of this, think of John Cage's 4'33", which is this super fun idea, but if somebody actually "played" the piece for you, you would be bored. We can all talk about how awesome John Cage was, yet most of us would not enjoy 4'33"! "GTA4 has an internal ironic TV station? So cool and ironic!“ – which is why it warrants a mention on Wikipedia, yet almost no one has actually seen it within the game, because it's shit.
Of course, if GTA4 actually kept up the "terseness" of GTA3 or Vice City all the while retaining the size of its city – i.e. a city just as large, with more interesting (i.e. more carefully selected) things in it – then it would be a vastly superior game. As it stands, not so much.
Something else about the TV channel inside GTA4: Kierkegaard has noted multiple times that he regards videogames as the highest art, which is, when using his definition of art as illusion, certainly quite salient. The reason for this is, in the end, that videogames can emulate every other medium of art. Movies are represented as cutscenes, literature within a game has also already been done (Deus Ex features both excerpts from existing works such as Sun Tzu's The Art of War as well as chapters from a book written especially for the game), music is almost always found in videogames (e.g. GTA series in the form of radio stations). In fact, San Andreas includes playable 2D games such as Duality, which is apparently basically Asteroids. So even 2D games have simply become sublimated, can become a part of modern 3D games.(*) So imagine, for the sake of the argument, that Duality is in fact Asteroids, and you consider Asteroids a 4/5 game. Would that automatically entail a 4/5 for San Andreas? No, because, once again, the game has failed on the front of selection: Within the game, we first had to drive some fictional characters' fictional car to the fictional arcade hall to play Asteroids, i.e. we first had to do something more boring.
(*) N.B.: Kierkegaard has in fact laid out this explanation himself, as seen here. I did not read that post before writing this, but when one is confronted with the assertion that videogames are the "highest artform that will ever be", it is quite easy to understand the fact that every other medium is a subset of videogames and can therefore be incorporated into them.
The density or terseness of the selection does not mean that every scene of a movie has to be filled to the brink with shit (e.g. Michael Bay). Pauses and emptiness are important to accentuate. A musical crescendo is often not as effective without build-up and denouement. Sometimes the most terse movie scene just shows a character thinking. During an episode of The Wire, we cut to one of the characters, Bubbles, three or four times throughout the hour, each time just showing him sitting, thinking. These scenes adhere to the demands of careful selection, because they are, in relation to the pre- and succeeding scenes, incredibly tense – and incredible terse. The best selection is the cinematic scene, the musical note, the splotch of paint, the game mechanic or the written sentence that, out of all the other theoretically possible scenes, notes, splotches, mechanics or sentences "fits" the best. If that happens to be a still-shot of a character thinking, so be it. Movies such as Dead Man, music such as The Fields album From Here We Go Sublime are incredibly terse in spite of what the muted plot and the repetitive elements respectively would suggest. Visually overblown movies such as the Star Wars prequels or Transformers are not – not to speak of any of the "postmodern" "artworks", of which we've already spoken.