A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

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Video Games as a Solution to the One-Sided Problem of Art

In October I wrote a post in defense of gaming in which the central argument is a claim that any person who takes experiencing art as an important human experience should consider certain types of games as a worthwhile use of time as well. Some games are basically interactive films, but some are much more interesting and original forms of interactive art. If you close yourself off from this world, then you close yourself off from deep artistic experiences that you can’t get elsewhere.

A few months ago I did two posts on David Foster Wallace, his philosophy of art, and how to get the most out of Infinite Jest.

One of DFW’s central concerns in art was the one-sided nature of art. The artist puts in hundreds of hours of work, and the viewer/reader/whatever passively experiences the work. He thought of the artist/viewer relationship as an honest relationship. If it is completely one-sided, then it is a defunct relationship and you won’t get much out of it for very long. To have a successful relationship, both sides have to be putting in reasonable amounts of work.

This is one way people justify postmodernist writing. You have a bunch of endnotes or footnotes or you pull the reader out of the reading experience in other ways by drawing attention to the fact that they are reading something. You write in stream of consciousness from points of view that change every couple of pages, so that the reader can’t immediately tell what is happening. Whatever the literary device, the idea is that the reader has to put in work.

The point is that the more work the reader puts in, the more they will get out of the experience. Just like in a relationship, the reader has to invest something if they want a meaningful experience. Of course, the relationship becomes one-sided on the other side if the author just uses a random word generator and plops nonsense on the page for the reader to spend months trying to decipher. It needs to be a symbiotic relationship where neither side carries too much of the burden.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this problem is a real problem, and what writers, filmmakers, artists, etc have come up with so far merely mitigates the problem. There hasn’t been a really good way to get the viewer to truly participate in and invest in the work of art … until the fairly recent paradigm shift in thinking about games as art.

I’m definitely not the first to propose this, so I won’t spend a lot of time making this into a long post. Now that I’ve blogged around this topic a few times without actually addressing it I thought I would just point out that games are one obvious solution to the problem. They provide an interactive experience where the “player” has to fully invest in the work.

In fact, if artists are scared of the idea that their art will be “played” and hence will not qualify as “serious” (two notions that are extraordinarily hard to define or separate), then they should check out some recent games like To the Moon. The game play is extremely minimal. The player experiences a moving story by progressing through the game. The game play consists of moving around to collect some items and at the end of certain segments of collecting you “solve a puzzle” (sometimes only 2 or 3 clicks of the mouse). Still, this level of interaction is vital to fully immersing you in the story as if you were really the main character. This interaction is impossible with film or literature.


In Defense of Gaming

It’s been over a month, so I decided to do a post that I’ve had in the bag for awhile, but don’t think adds anything to the discussion. This is what happens when you are taking classes, teaching classes, writing things up, and applying for jobs I guess.

Are video games art? What a bizarre question. It has been debated through the years, but I’m not sure there is anyone out there that has seriously thought about the question and is willing to defend that they are not. The debate seems over and the conclusion is that video games are art.

The one notable opposition is Roger Ebert, but his position boils down to a “no true Scotsman fallacy.” It is such a classic example that it should probably just start being used to illustrate what the fallacy is. He says games cannot be art. Then when shown a game that he admits is art he says, “But that isn’t a real game.” That would be like arguing novels cannot be art by just declaring that any novel that could be considered art is not a real novel. It is a silly argument that doesn’t need to be taken seriously.

First, we should notice that there is a “type error” (as a programmer would say) in the original question. No one would think “Are books art?” is a properly phrased question. What does that mean? If you find one book that is not art, then is the answer no? Do you merely need to give one book that is art to answer yes? The answer isn’t well-defined because “book” encompasses a whole class of objects: some of which are art and some of which are not.

For our purposes we’ll say a medium (like video games) “is art” if an artist can consistently use the medium to produce something that can be broadly recognized as art. This brings us to the difficult question of how to determine if something can be broadly recognized as art. Some things that come to mind are aesthetics/beauty, the ability to make a human being feel something, the ability to make someone think deeply about important questions, originality, and on and on we could go. Any given work of art could be missing any or all of these qualities, but if something exhibits enough these qualities, then we would probably have no problem calling it art.

In order to argue that games can be works of art, I’ll take two examples that are relatively recent from the “indie game” community. These are both games in a sense that even Ebert could not deny. I’ll stay away from controversial examples like Dear Esther or Proteus (which are undeniably works of art but more questionable about being games).

The first is Bastion. The art direction and world that has been constructed is a staggering work of beauty on its own. Remove everything about this game except just exploring this universe and I think you would find many people totally engrossed in the experience:


We already have check mark one down. But there’s more! The music is fantastic as well. But let’s get to what really sets this game apart as a work of art. The story is fantastic and is mostly told with great voice acting through a narrator. I won’t spoil the ending in its totality, but I’m about to give away a major plot point near the end.

Your good friend betrays you and comes close to destroying everything (literally the whole world) in the middle of the game. It hurts. Then near the end he is going to die and you have the choice to save him. The game branches and you can either keep your weapons and safely fight your way to the end of the game, or you can carry this traitor through a dangerous area possibly sacrificing your own life for him.

Books and movies can’t do this. You have to make this choice and it affects how the story progresses. It reveals to you what type of human you are. You have to live with the consequences of this choice. If you save him, then you slowly walk through an area where your enemies shoot you from afar and there is nothing you can do. When they realize what you’re doing they stop in awe and just solemnly let you pass. The visuals plus the music plus the dramatic climax of this moment brings many people to tears.

I know this because you can just search discussion boards on the game. Gaming discussion boards are notorious for being misogynistic and full of masculine one-up-manship. No one makes fun of the people who say it brought them to tears and usually there will be a bunch of other people admitting the same. If this sort of emotional connection isn’t art, then I don’t know what is. Not only that, but this type of connection can only really happen through games where you are wholly invested because you’ve made these decisions.

Maybe Bastion isn’t your thing, because it is a “gamer’s game” with a bit of a barrier to entry since it involves experience points, weapons, items, leveling up, and real-time fighting of monsters and bosses. That could be a bit much for the uninitiated. We’ll move on to a game that every person, regardless of gaming experience, can play and really see how elegantly simple an “art game” can be.

Thomas Was Alone is extremely simple. Thomas is a rectangle. You move him to a rectangular door. End of level. The game is in a genre called a “puzzle platformer.” As the levels progress you get different sized rectangles to move and moving and jumping in various orders will help you get to the end. This is the “puzzle” aspect, because you have to figure out the correct order to do things otherwise you’ll get stuck.

Why is this art? Well, why is writing a book about some animals on a farm art? Because it isn’t really about animals on a farm. The same is true here. The game is a huge metaphor. A deeply moving one at that. I consistently had to stop playing at parts because of how overwhelmed with the concept I became when I allowed myself to think about it.

Just like Bastion, this game is truly magnificent visually. The style is opposite. It has minimalism and simplicity as the guiding aesthetic virtue:


The music is perfect for the mood, and the narration which tells the story is beyond superb. You grow attached to these rectangles which have such nuanced personalities. What is the metaphor? Well, there are all these obstacles in your way, and you can’t get past them without working together. The whole idea is that there are seemingly impossible obstacles in life, but when humans cooperate and work together they can get past them.

The thing that makes the game so moving at parts is that your rectangle friends are so humanly flawed. They get upset at each other for such petty reasons. They have crushes on each other. They hate each other. But in the end they overcome those differences to work together and accomplish great things. If you haven’t experienced it, then this probably sounds totally absurd.

Again from discussion forums, I quote, “I just finished the game and a group of coloured quadrilaterals made me cry.” Or “Everything about this game makes me feel incredible. I feel as if I can achieve things I could never think of being. This is the best thing I could have experienced, and it’s worth everything…This game makes you love and cry over shapes.” When people have these reactions, that is without question the definition of art.

I think we’ve firmly established that games can be art. I thought I’d just bring up a few cultural tidbits right at the end here. Some famous art galleries across the world have started to recognize the importance of including works of art in their collection that happen to be games. MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in NY) has a collection of 14 games in its collection currently. Paris had an exhibit that included Fez. The Smithsonian American Art Museum had one last year. There have been many others too.

I’ll try to wrap up now. If you’re the type of person that reads literary novels and goes to the symphony because you think experiencing art is an important and enriching experience, then you probably also write off video games as a mindless waste of time. This is partially warranted because so many of the most popular games today are mindless wastes of time (just like most popular music and movies are too).

I hope that after this maybe your mind has changed a little. If you are willing to make time in your schedule to read a book or go to an art gallery, then I’d argue that you should also be willing to make time in your schedule to experience great games. The medium has all the same artistic qualities as a great film, but has added value given by the interactivity you have with the medium.


An Avant-Garde Movement for Math

This idea has been tossing around in my head recently, since I’ve been reading the book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. I know I’ve done the art/math comparison before. I think I’ve even done the math education/art education comparison before. But I want to re-cap it and go one step further this time.

I don’t really want to make the arguments that math is an art form. It is a rather easy argument to make (the hard parts are creating an aesthetic theory, etc). The comparison this time is that of education. I find it extremely disconcerting that math and science are taught so differently from art. Art education tries to bring out the original ideas in the student so that new and exciting progress can be made, whereas math and science education tries to squash creativity and teach that there are only right and wrong answers (at least in the American primary/secondary/undergraduate system).

Now I hear the complaints already, “But there are right and wrong answers in math. There is no such thing as right and wrong in art. Anything goes.” And so on. But hold on a minute. The person that makes these claims has certainly never taken music lessons. There are just as many black and white correct and incorrect ways of doing things. The rhythm is either right or wrong. You’re either in tune or you aren’t. You are either playing the right note or you aren’t. You must rigorously train all of these mechanical techniques just as mathematicians must train the mechanical techniques of symbol manipulation and logical argument.

The problem is that in art education, the student is constantly reminded that these mechanics must be learned, but they are not the art itself. Once you’ve internalized the mechanics you must transcend them in order to create new original art, but it is only after the necessary evil of these basics that one can do this.

In math education, we face the problem that not only is the second step of the art not emphasized, but it is often never even mentioned. You must learn basic arithmetic and how to solve quadratic equations, but this is not math by any mathematician’s standards. In order to create new and original math, you have to transcend these basics just as the artist has to. This is much harder for mathematicians (in my opinion) solely due to this educational reason. We get indoctrinated with old methods and techniques, and never are explicitly reminded that new techniques need to be invented. It is the creation aspect of math.

I don’t want to dwell on that since I believe I’ve posted about it before (I could go on forever about it), but I did want to bring up those points again so that the main idea here has context. All other arts have had “avant-garde movements” in some sense. These avant-garde movements have essentially rendered it nearly impossible for truly original things to come out of the arts now. The rules have been followed, the rules have been completely broken, and now if you sit somewhere in between it can be said to be a conglomeration of the two. The importance of avant-garde movements should not be underestimated, though. The avant-garde has opened up the freedom to create precisely what you want, and it will have a context. Creativity for these arts is also now a two-way street and not just a one-way as before the movement. Creativity comes not only from pushing the limits of the rules, but also from toning down the lack of rules of the avant-garde.

This is what I propose. There has been no avant-garde mathematical movement (well, maybe…). One reason that it is hard to produce original math is that mathematicians constantly have to push out in creativity. An avant-garde movement always will open up the door for originality by toning down. It cracks open an avenue for incredibly new techniques that can produce lots of results.

So why did I write “well, maybe…”? I think there have been some potential quasi-avant-garde movements already, and they have been wonderfully fruitful as I said should happen. I think the idea of categorification, or category theory as a foundation for mathematics as opposed to set theory was a pretty radical shift in perspective. I think anytime a major shift in notation useage happens, this could boarder on the avant-garde as with string diagrams.

The one true avant-garde that first got me thinking of this, though, is Grothendieck. I truly am not qualified to talk about any of his work (I’ve only recently started learning about schemes even), but it completely revolutionized algebraic geometry, not because of the standard mathematical method of proving/improving theorems. Not because of the standard mathematical method of inventing new techniques and tools. But because he actually completely changed the way people view and think about the subject. In the way of the avant-garde he decided to throw out not just some, but all of the old rules and invent his own. Now this can be applied all over mathematics.

So when I call for an avant-garde movement in math, I don’t mean throw out all of the rules in the sense of logic and sound reasoning, I mean dare to think radically differently than your predecessors. After all, the avant-gardes of music still used sound and instruments, the poets and authors still wrote things using words and English, painters still used paint. Avant-garde doesn’t mean you stop using what foundationally makes your art identifiable, but it might render some branches as unrecognizable (I don’t think a pre-Grothendieck algebraic geometer would recognize current algebraic geometry as such).

Anybody in?

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Artistic Influences

I personally subscribe to the idea that art is meaningless without its context. The question I’ve recently been asking is: How important are specific influences to the context? I’ve been on a kick of reading books and listening to music that my favorite artists have said have been major influences. This is an attempt to better understand where they are coming from.

A weird thing has happened, though. I’ve started to change my mind about how important this is. It seems as if the non-major influences are more important. The stuff that has randomly seeped in from all over the place is sort of what makes it original.

Some examples. In The Broom of the System, not only does one of the main characters carry a copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations around, but the title also refers to an important aphorism in that work. Clearly you will have a hard time reading this without at least some peripheral knowledge of that work. This is a case where reading the influence is very important.

Panic at the Disco’s new album is supposedly a reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To me this reference is almost not worth noting. The band itself does note this influence, but truly the similarities are that the songs are upbeat and there is a brass section. If every band that used a brass section with their upbeat songs had to note the Beatles as an influence, then we would be missing the point of influences. The interesting parts are where they differ from this traditional pop sound. There are definitely folk and other non-pop influences like skipping beats on the lead in to the chorus. This is a case where major influences can safely be ignored.

Then there are in between cases where it is probably good to know what the tradition that the work is coming from is about, but the specifics aren’t necessary (like the Beat generation writers).

What do you guys think? How important are specific influences to interpreting a work of art?

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Film Analysis

Today I saw a great film, yesterday I saw a horrible film. The great film was The Hawk is Dying (THID) and the horrible film was Ellie Parker (EP). It is rare that I see such a contrast so close together, so I’ve decided to analyze it. I haven’t analyzed any films yet on here (in my memory). Here is an interesting tidbit about why I’ve chosen these; both are independent. This means that to the average box office movie-goer, both of these films would probably be written off as “unbearable,” “plotless,” or “arty.” To the average independent film-goer, both of these would be considered huge successes. This gives me great opportunity to explore at a deeper level than just genre basing my opinions.

My typical analysis of whether a film is bad, OK, good, or great goes through many layers. So let’s lay out a bunch of parts of a film first. There is: acting, script, editing, directing, and cinematography as major categories (of course there are others, but these catch my attention first). To pass the first level, a film has to show proficiency in each of these areas. THID definitely passes round one in each of these categories. EP had some slight issues with acting. It was superficial at times. I’ll get to directing later, but this was definitely very immature directing, as well. Overall, both pass round one, but EP shows some weaknesses that could pose problems in later rounds.

Round two: originality vs predictability. In my mind, you either follow the formula or you break out of it. Now these are both independent films, so by their very nature they don’t follow the formula or else they would have funding from a major studio. Here is the interesting thing, though. THID decided to take a rather mundane idea (taming a hawk) and pull out a very original and intense film. EP decided to take the originality route from the ground up. This is sort cliche in my opinion. It is much more impressive to take something that is common place and make it original than to just toss together all sorts of randomness to make it original. Whatever the case may be, both pass round two.

Round three: balancing the creative and technical. This is the eternal struggle in creating art. You must know and be able to follow the rules in order to break them. A musician must have incredible technical proficiency that comes from training scales, arpeggios, and etudes with the relentless click of a metronome before they can play expressively, bending the tempo and tone to fit the mood. A film can easily fall prey to being too technical and dry or too artistic and without any technique. The two go hand-in-hand. THID blends this beautifully. The technique is often awe inspiring. Angles, lighting, and acting are pitch perfect to fit the scene. Every shot is thought about. EP goes over-the-top. It is what I often call “young director’s syndrome.” A director that is overflowing with ideas often lets too many of them spill over into the film. EP is filled with rapid editing showing a tour de force in both camera work and editing. It serves no purpose, though. It is a mindless show of flash. It lacks the artistic side. This can be explained perfectly, though. This was Scott Coffey’s first directing experience. He had been an actor in several Lynch films. For an aspiring director, it is clear that he was trying to imitate Lynch. The thing he didn’t realize is that Lynch does things with a great vision and masterful artistry. The technical display by Lynch is vacuous like what Coffey did. THID is clearly superior in this round.

Finally, I fall to overall purpose. Now I am a big supporter of art for art’s sake (meaning a work of art doesn’t need a purpose), but that is part of the process. I determine if there was a purpose or not. If not, did it accomplish that? If so, how well and accessible was it? THID also masterfully pulled this off. Nothing was handed to the watcher. This is important to me. If the purpose is handed to me, then I feel like the director and writer didn’t trust me (a common problem with major pictures). I like that I had to work and figure things out. Overall, nothing was beyond the watcher’s capabilities, though. EP on the other hand had another young director’s faux pas. It confused its purpose. It posed as a truly pure art film without a purpose, while at the same time it had one. This is a common mistake. Young directors want arty directors to respect them, so they think if their film has purpose then they will be written off as not serious or commercial or something. What they don’t realize is that trying to come across as something your not ruins the film.

Overall, THID was excellent. It had great technical proficiency balanced with the perfect amount of artistry to keep the watcher interested. It took the common place and made it original. EP tried to be too much. It was like freshmen writing class. You have an overambitious student take a grand topic and write a short essay on it. They try to cover everything. The true art of writing comes when you can take a very small idea and develop it in a long work. The artist that tries too much ends up digging their own grave. Yes, I was taught this by my freshmen writing professor when she took me aside and harshly told me that I was trying to write a lifetime’s work into a 10 page essay. Narrow the focus. Use the tools that suit the purpose. Be ambitious, but don’t let every idea that pops into your head appear in your work. This is the difference between an experienced director and a new one.

Hope you now have a better idea of how I critique films :)


The House of Mirth

I lied to you again. It turns out that Gravity’s Rainbow has been delayed by a week. I started looking up influences and references in it, and it turns out I have a lot of reading to do before starting the novel. Second, the book club I joined meets this Sat, and I haven’t even started the book. The book is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

OK. Since I’m interested in post-modernism, I would never dream of reading Wharton on my own. She writes social realism, which seems to be a wasted genre. Realism definitely has its pluses, since it points out faults with society, but to be considered literary enough for a book club is beyond me. When your main concern is to get things right, how can you include the millions of other aspects of a work of literature that actually requires interpretation and hence would make good discussion.

I started it, and it is quite enjoyable. At the same time it is highly frustrating. Wharton’s intent is to point out many dreadful aspects of society (of her time), but unintentionally she is pointing out something much bigger in my mind. The clearest theme (and I’m quite sure it is unintentional) that comes across is how unreflective western society is. These people are going through their entire lives and not once asking themselves any of what I consider the “big questions.” They don’t even realize that there could be something to think and talk about outside of their shallow thoughts.

I could be wrong about whether Wharton wanted this to come across or not, but I don’t think so. Her themes (as realism dictates) are quite obvious. Since she is portraying realistically, though, the theme I just discussed inevitably comes across as well to someone concerned with that aspect of society.

This just reminds me how far art has come in such a short period of time. This was only about 20 years before Faulkner, but Faulkner is at such a higher level. Other than theme, I can’t really think of good things to talk about in Wharton. If we were to discuss Faulkner, we would have to start at such a more fundamental level. What is the plot of the novel? There would be disagreement. What are all these crazy devices being used? Why? Look at all these different levels and patterns emerging, etc.

When we move even further along the literary timeline we get even crazier things like: Character A is thinking about Character B. Suddenly the narrative shifts to B, and travels via analepsis back in time to her life with Character C. Character C takes up the narrative and analeptically shifts the focus back in time farther to an event that shaped his life; then the focus returns to C’s “present.” The prose is then recycled back to its starting point with Character A, who is currently inhabiting the reader’s “real-time” present.

I just don’t understand why a book club would pick a novel that is so one-dimensional with so many other novels out there that have extreme interpretations worth discussing.


When Art is Meaningless

I recently read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Murakami brings up many fantastic themes in a very complicated plot, but simple writing style. I would like to focus on a very often overlooked function of art.

Page 393:

“Writing things was important, wasn’t it?” Nakata asked.
“Yes, it was. The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is completely meaningless.”

This quote reminds me that most of the time artists create to express themselves; to explore something that is bothering them, maybe. When interpreting a work, we often forget about this. This brings to mind two things. First, maybe we don’t have any right to judge a work of art. The work could be completely meaningless to everyone except the artist, but it did its job. It helped the artist through something. Who are we to judge whether it is good or not? Second, if we are to make judgments, write papers, critique, interpret, etc, then we really should take into consideration that the work could be meaningless to us.

This seems to have some interesting ramifications in analyzing math as an art form. When the lay person looks at a truly beautiful proof, all they get is something that is meaningless. The mathematician (eh erm, Andrew Wiles), may have been tormented by the concept for years. The end product that gets spewed out is something that the mathematician “needed” to do. It is a personal thing that doesn’t need to make sense to others.

This post is sort of interesting, since now that I finished this novel I am moving on to what I am calling the “Gravity’s Rainbow Challenge.” I will attempt to read (and probably write here about what I read) all of Gravity’s Rainbow in a two month period. This work is often considered one of the most challenging novels of all time. I need to bookmark this post to remind myself that despite thousands of Ph.D. thesis and many full length books being written on how to interpret this novel, the novel could be something that the author needed to get out and is not supposed to be something that outsiders get.

In other news. I gave up on that proof from the last post. It is too difficult, and was sort of a spur of the moment thing that I don’t have enough interest in to finish.


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