Art’s Sense and Importance: Tolstoy and The Human Value of Art

“It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self… It is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace’s account of depression:  a solemn display of artistic mastery. From his body of work and biography, we know that the depression Wallace describes is one he himself often felt- and yet, experience with depression is no prerequisite in feeling the power behind his words (Weber). Somehow, through Wallace’s artistic expression, we are able to gain sudden insight into a way of being, a way of feeling, that we may never have comprehended before. This perspective sharing enables us to understand something important about life (depression is, after all, a real thing, which real human beings suffer with) and is a fascinating component of art. Sadly, our study of art often fails to investigate this connection between life and art. The purely formal (“art for art’s sake”) and institutional approaches which can dominate our study do have their own merit, but they never seem to explain this profound link between art and our individual lives.

Broadly speaking then (for details will be forthcoming), our aim here is to utilize Tolstoy’s What is Art?, … Continue Suffering

Aesthetic Self-destruction: Ugliness as Entropy and the Disruption of Order

If, as Socrates wished us to believe, Philosophy is a field of questions, then aesthetics must be the field which asks the question of art. Yet, any study of art leads inevitably to considering art as an exploratory form itself seeking answers, as itself a form of questioning. Perhaps then the concern of the aesthetic philosopher should not be “What is art?” but “What is art asking? What does it seek to explore?”. In the realm of the positive, the beautiful and the pleasing, these questions do not seem to diverge: art is that which is beautiful (or some other positive quality) and its intention is to explore that beauty. In the negative, however, in the manifestation of ugliness and the unappealing, we see art complete its exploration but find as answer something wholly disturbing or unacceptable. We know this unsightliness when we encounter it (a sudden aversion, a headshaking revulsion, a disgusted frown, a provocation to righteous anger- ugliness always manages to engender a response), but what exactly is this negative aesthetic answer? What is ugliness? Taking Ruth Lorand’s account as our guide (with supplements from Michael Carmichael and Frank Sibley) we will attempt to prove here that negative aesthetic reactions, generally, arise from a disruption of order and that ugliness, specifically, is the manifestation of chaos and its inevitable conquest of order (i.e. entropy).

Beginning, as Lorand does, with straightforward ugliness, we can identify the foundational role of disorder quite directly. Lorand equates beauty with order by telling us that already the concept “is implied by many aestheticians” when they say beautiful art is “constructed of parts… fitted to give pleasure and satisfaction” or that the object is “well organized [with] every element is in its right place,” but here we can conceive of order even more broadly (402). Order, taken without specificity, merely implies the existence of some system, some way for the presented elements to be organized. In this sense, both a philosophical theory and a city are orderly, while a dice roll or an explosion are not (or, at least, are less orderly). In essence, … Continue Suffering

Why Video Games are a Danger to Art(ists)

No doubt you are expecting this to be an impassioned polemic piece (read: rant) about how video games threaten our society and our oh-so-inviolate morals. Though incorrect, given the climate of rhetoric on video games and “interactive entertainment” you would be hardly remiss in making such an assumption. Years ago, in 2010, Roger Ebert, the renowned movie critic, made a controversial blog post on a similar topic, and for his opposition to video games as art he was bombarded with comments upon comments, the most of which were of the same tone as the very first: “Roger- you just don’t get it.”

Such a line-drawing, “them vs. us” mentality is common in this debate, as is the refusal to engage in serious conversation. Video game fans and developers seek legitimacy for their creative medium, art “fans” seek to guard their Canon and dismiss video games as children’s entertainment- compromise would be fatal to either. Whatever camp you may fall into, I do not seek to sway you here: only to caution that part of you which demands expression. If you are an artist or writer, you know of what I speak; If you are not, merely think of the last time you truly loved something, when you felt like finally, something in this world was truly for you, when something was right, just right and that was the end of it. I aim to caution that, if you play games, this part of you is being slowly enfeebled, not from malnourishment, but, in fact, from overindulgence.

What drives us all to creativity and expression is the search for personal validation and perfection. Like a lovelorn Narcissus, we stumble around the world, desperately looking for a reflection of our own perfection. What good video games offer us is a way to cheat to such perfection. No matter the potency of your feeling, the work (writing, painting, reading, watching, understanding, talking) is difficult and the results often inaccurate. The painter tears his canvas, the writer has a block, the reader cannot penetrate the density of language, the movie-goer is cheated … Continue Suffering