Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Essential and Meaningful

A few days ago, I noticed a post from the New Yorker’s Culture Desk that talked about “something essential and meaningful in the Walmart universe.” This caught my eye for several reasons.
1)   When did Walmart become a universe? Is that like the Marvel Comics universe? Can a person become a Walmart ‘fanboy’? Is Walmart so prolific now that it has become a system of interconnected narratives from which infinite possibilities of character can arise, as long as they don’t contradict previous iterations?
2)   “Essential and meaningful?” What intrinsic quality of Walmart could be so inspiring (especially since Walmart is notorious for being attached to things like horrible working conditions and incidents in its overseas factories)?

The latter question is what concerns me here, though I would be very interested in opinions on the former. According to the New Yorker, what is essential and meaningful in the Walmart universe is its customers, whose narratives have been revealed through art. The post is actually about artist Brendan O’Connell, who has been painting scenes from Walmarts for a decade—the implication is that his art, which originally got him thrown out of the stores, has been able to uncover some deeper meaning in the lives of Walmart shoppers, or in the life of the store itself.

The connection between art and commerce is not surprising. What is surprising is that art is not being appropriated here to make Walmart seem more humanistic—in this world, Walmart is already humanistic, already exists as art, and O’Connell’s paintings are merely taking up its artistic spirit.

Consider a slightly different example: The Huffington Post recently linked to a Tumblr called “Swoosh Art” that inserts the Nike logo into famous paintings. While some may object to the defacing of classical artwork with a modern, commercial imprint, the intent of the juxtaposition doesn’t appear to be anything other than general whimsy. It, like the artist’s Walmart, does make a curious observation about the intersection of art and commerce, however. A quick Google search of “swoosh art” brings up a page full of art blogs and news sites that have mentioned the Tumblr, suggesting that simply pairing art and commerce (as opposed to commercializing art) attracts a wealth of attention that isn’t ordinarily paid to classical paintings by anyone other than art enthusiasts, historians, or Wikipedia. Though the popularity of the site may be due mostly to its novelty, the burgeoning taste for these types of combinations indicates that there is some inherent quality about both art and commerce that makes them suited to an aesthetic union.

We spend so much time—as producers and consumers of Art—believing that its deep capacity for inspiration and change defies commodification, and that it loses something when it becomes commercialized. What if, however, we were to place them alongside each other without asking one to create value for the other? What if we were to imagine them as forming a natural alliance? Maybe that is the answer to my first question as well—maybe the artist’s Walmart and Nike’s Caravaggio are really a system of narratives that work together to form the 21st century universe. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A "Coarsening of the Culture"

A recent Forbes article about VP Joe Biden’s meeting with video game developers and sellers noted how he was careful not to accuse anyone of being responsible for what he called a “coarsening of the culture.” As the article rightly pointed out, however, the very fact that Biden scheduled this particular meeting in response to the Newtown massacre and the president’s demand for gun reform “seems to suggest…that video games help contribute to a culture of violence in some way.”
           The idea that video games are somehow making people more violent is part of an ongoing backlash against dramatically misunderstood genres in the humanities. To discuss this in more detail, I turned to Cody Mejeur, a graduate student who specializes in video game narrative and has considerable experience in the field.

Q: Cody, in your experience with video game narratives, have you noticed a correlation between the violence of the game’s narrative and a discourse of violence that exists among the players? And, if so, does it alter according to the format of the game (e.g. first-person shooter, MMORPG, etc.) or the tools for which it is designed (e.g. handheld controller, virtual reality simulation, mouse/keyboard)?

“It's difficult to speak generally about this, especially across genres. One of the things worth noting is that many games which feature some sort of violence in combat do not necessarily promote doing so—there are many protagonists who are everyday, non-violent people that use violence only because they are forced to. Such games often promote flight as opposed to fight, with the successful player avoiding combat when he/she can. Add to these games the many, many games where the player is asked to fight some manifestation of evil, and violence becomes a necessary means toward the end of safeguarding the world. Both of these types of games demonstrate how violence in games is rarely of the mindless sort often alleged, but often exists within a moral framework.

It is also important that a growing number of games are raising questions and concerns about violence. A recent third-person shooter, Spec Ops: The Line, features a protagonist who is revealed to lose his sanity through the combat scenarios he is placed in, and the ending [SPOILER ALERT] calls into question whether or not he's psychotic. The game [shows] what violence can do to the human mind, and overall presents a very inglorious portrait of war.

The genre most frequently linked with violence is the shooter genre, including both first-and third-person shooters. It is not surprising that some people link the genre to gun violence, as the games all include weaponry of some form and focus around the player using it. It is also true that the online communities for games like Call of Duty can at times be very disheartening, with the anonymity provided through a screen name being used by some players to allow racist, sexist, and inappropriate behavior.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Pretending Art is Hard

For the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about humanistic efforts that undermine their own projects by not reevaluating what they’re saying about the humanities’ potential, or simply by not availing themselves of that potential.
This week, I want to highlight someone who seems to be getting it right, someone who has revolutionized the idea of modern public Art—a musician whose songs and videos and projects are becoming a major force for humanistic expression in the world.
            Amanda Palmer (also known as “AFP,” or “Amanda F***ing Palmer”) started as a street performer after college—something music critic Bob Lefsetz incorrectly calls the “lowest rung of entertainment”—and then functioned in relative obscurity until she became half of that genre-defying and self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo, The Dresden Dolls. Since then, she has rocketed to fame for her unconventional music and several other important reasons: 1) her connection to/treatment of her enormous and devoted fan base, 2) her refusal to participate in what she believes is an anti-artist music label industry, and 3) her personal aesthetic decisions, which often include things like nudity and unshaved armpits, despite the vitriol that is spewed in her direction for not representing an aesthetic ideal.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Scary Pictures of Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman wrote a children’s book. Since that sentence is disturbing enough to warrant a repetition, let me say it again: Dennis Rodman wrote a children’s book. It is called Dennis the Wild Bull.

Shockingly, it’s about himself.

Neil Gaiman also wrote a children’s book. It was called The Graveyard Book, and earned him the Carnegie Award, Newbery Medal, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

It was not about himself.