This Is Not Art

Self-expression is a problem.

Let me rephrase: Self-expression is an endeavor that depends very much, both for its justification and in its outcome, on what we refer to when we say the self.

A human being, from one perspective, is a factory for producing feces. You may laugh, but this is indeed a creative process as creativity is now understood. A person takes pre-existing materials of nature or artifice, internalizes them, and finds a new way to rearrange the parts. No two people would do it in the exact same way, given that the experience, particularly the challenges, of each individual is unique. Finally, one excretes the remixed result and puts it on display for the public.

Art is self-expression, and that we find the contents of our commodes less appealing than Rembrandt is a matter of close-mindedness and limited taste. This is an internally consistent way of looking at art, but it, of course, renders “art” a completely useless category of assessment. Some are comfortable with this; for them, words maybe have no meaning anyway, and “knowing what they like” (the perennial defense of private personal taste) is sufficient to determine “art” from excrement.

 

For the rest of us, there’s an easily-applied lower bound for art: It does not merely require self-expression or creativity. Feces is only self-expression in its lowest sense, the product of a living body’s interface with edible matter, and not the higher product of it, either (assuming, again, that we have some sort of standard by which to declare excrement the “waste” of the process, a value judgement if ever there was one). Rather than these physical realities, we can limit art to the realm of thoughts and feelings.

Thoughts and feelings, that’s art! When I drek those out on a piece of paper, world take notice. No one has my exact thoughts and feelings, my struggles, and when that unique identity plays off my unique experiences it gives birth to a steaming pile of paint or ink or vibrating sound, ready for consumption. When I place it before you, you must meet me, must partake of the bouquet only I could have prepared, an arrangement of flavors straight from my soul.

For example, I could write tonight about politics, and morons, and President Trump, and if I really thought about it I could find an angle you wouldn’t hear elsewhere, neither left nor right. You couldn’t blame me for doing this. It is something I have had thoughts and felt feelings about. It would be very personal, and I would have complaints. No, this would be perfectly within my rights.

But would it be any good?

Well, there’s two standards by which to judge the thinky/feely art, two legs upon which stands the stool. The first is whether it changed anyone else’s thinking or feeling. If it makes someone literally shake, or elicits a “stunning,” or moistens their eyes, it’s a winner. If it pulls forth a “deep” or “my thoughts exactly,” all the work softening those ingredients was worth it. Indeed, even if it or the process of making it makes me feel or think differently, that is enough from the pose of humility. The second standard is authenticity. You can’t try too hard or use skill too far beyond the natural, and these things get in the way of pure thought or feeling. The key is to draw from deep inside you and put out exactly what you have for yourself. Don’t pee on their leg and tell them it’s raining.

My piece on Trump’s worrying new take on the sad old game of taking power in the nihilistic void of modernity (plus how really worried or sad this really makes me) would be more-or-less a winner, at least for myself. If I implied how a traditional power structure, say, Orthodox Judaism, was in some way responsible (I’d put “struggle” in the title), it might even get shares.

It’d still be sewage though.

And I know some ripe excrement when I smell it. I smell it all the time. Every time I check Twitter or (lord help us) Facebook. It is common discourse. It is thoughts and feelings as they pour out of us with more-or-less forbearance into the world. They mix and match ideas we find from different places. They express our selves. They are the human world layered upon that controversial world of the brute facts, and all day teeming humanity chews and swallows and regurgitates and remixes and snapchats and tumbles and memes and opines. And those who can make us cry or incensed or thoughtful are more-or-less the artists. Slap on a nice new label like “creatives” and call ’em special and buy ’em a ticket to Boulder or Santa Fe or Brooklyn.

What, you may be wondering, would I like? What do I expect? Thoughts and feelings are profoundly human, they’re what make us us. If what we normally call art shares similarities with the natural output of humanity, then so be it. At least we have effect and authenticity to divide pearls from swine.

Indeed, to expect something more upsets many people. It is elitist and snobbish and, worst of all by far, inauthentic. You see, if there’s something more than thoughts or feelings, if art is in some category quite separate from regular thoughts and feelings, this means that effectiveness and authenticity prove nothing. It means that whether it makes us weep or makes us think is irrelevant. And if we believe our minds and hearts are what we are, it attacks the very frame of our existence; in some sense, authenticity to thoughts and feelings is life, and to attack their expression is to attack the self. Our thoughts and emotions, if elevated to the ultimate reality, bind us as surely as gravity does. This is the way I am, this art is me, I have me down on paper now. Indeed, it has even been asserted that any art which claims to be something more than the inevitable flawed product of experience, biology, and feelings/thoughts is a liar.

But is this true? What else can there be?

There is ineffable truth, the unimplementable good, the great mystery.

Beyond the compulsions of current events, actions, politics, and beyond the bounds of appearances, fleshly bodies, and the apparent ugliness of nature lies something higher. Beyond our truths, so categorically expressed, sits the truth, and it is a truth we can only express through lies.

Art is self-expression that transcends expression, a story that never claims to be “true” and thus tells the ultimate truth. If The Brother’s Karamazov or War and Peace could tell the truth in any fewer words, they would, but they cannot. Because life is what we think and feel but also something else, because we are not feelings or thoughts, Bernini’s sculpture is of a king or a god but is of something else entirely.

And that’s why there’s art. Because life itself — politics, family, relationships, religion, and the rest turn to dead stone, fail to point like arrows to the unspeakable and the ephemeral, to that which cannot be named except in thousands of words. The work of art winks at us and says, “I am not mere self-expression, not a mere extension of the world. I am a secret compass, a self-erasing word. I am an entity designed by every tool of the craft to, upon being myself, cease to be myself, but to convey the secret whose name lies buried with the prophet.”

True art tells us that the common “self” of self-expression is not the truest reality, that our thoughts and feelings do not truly bind us, that we are something more that our likes and dislikes and our acquired realities.

When we run into art like this, it tastes different. It is not caught up in the petty and the temporal; it does not mistake the “self” for the mood of the moment. It is not thoughts and feelings demanding we cede the ground of our own existence to make room for their truth. It merely is, the way the moon is, the way an equation is. It is not an argument for something; it is the thing itself, instantiated, and in the instantiation the thing itself must hide.

And we must stalk it, like tiger, tiger, burning bright. With the right eye to see and ear to listen, we may hear the dulcet and harmonious breath, we may shoot from our spheres which tether us to the heaviness of our well-known selves, and we may finally, finally, get our art together.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Games Are Art

Pokémon Go may be the most effective video game ever at making people move their bodies, but my interest has always been more drawn to those games that move the soul. Allow me to advocate for them for a moment. Just as listening to Explosions in the Sky makes me want to grab the nearest person by the lapels and force them to listen, force them to share that space of beauty and light, so, too, there are games that redeem gaming, that transform a trivial pastime into something that must be experienced.

You see, I kind of resent the technologically impressive but emotionally vacant games such as the aforementioned Pokémon debacle, because I desperately need people to understand that video games are good. I don’t mean they’re good in that they’ll save the world; I don’t believe in saving the world. I don’t mean they’re good entertainment; our amusement may be the death of us in the end. I don’t even mean they’re well-made, technical achievements, outstanding human artifice — I leave that to the engineers and the overclockers.

Video games are art, like music or painting. Not every song or picture reaches into our cozy soiled caves and yanks us free to awe at the clear night sky. But some do. As Roger Scruton writes, “Art ennobles the human spirit, and presents us with a justifying vision of ourselves, as something higher than nature and apart from it.” And the same is true for games. Everyone who has played games since their youth and still plays them as an adult has these secret gems, these titles they go back to again and again because, amid the fun of the genre, they somehow go further and call to the soul’s profundity. This they accomplish through superb visuals, great music, and, of course, excellent storytelling.

Here are five video games and why they matter to me deeply. None of them involve capturing monsters of any sort. They are literary and transcendent and life-affirming and beautiful. They are an epic, a dystopia, an allegory, a science fiction, and a tragic romance:

 

1. Final Fantasy 6 (Square, 1994, Super Nintendo)

I first played this when I was thirteen and it blew my mind. It is hard to convey its perfection. This little Super Nintendo game is still held up by many as one of the greatest ever. It is an epic, the story of a great journey and its global ramifications. It is an outstanding technical achievement, squeezing everything possible out of the limited technology of its day, with stunningly beautiful and detailed pixel art (even as I’m writing this, it’s astonishing to realize that this full forty-hour adventure only takes up 3 MB of hard drive space). It also happens to be quite a fun game to play, if you can excuse the ancient (and now dying) turn-based battle mechanics.

Far more important than all of that is the Opera Scene. Anyone who has played this game knows exactly what I’m talking about; tears may begin to well. You have to understand, first of all, that Nobou Uematsu, the composer for most of the Final Fantasy games’ music, is a first-rate musical genius. And this was perhaps his greatest achievement. The opera scene raised games to a level one might argue they have never surpassed. For what is achieved here with such rudimentary tools, both visually and musically, one is for the first time forced to recognize that games are art. In the video below, don’t miss the fact that the characters actually sing so perfectly in their little synthesized voices that you can almost hear the lyrics. Electrifying.

 

2. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004, PC)

From the sublime to the sinister. If FF6 is an epic, Half-Life 2 is dystopian fiction. Rather than any one great moment (though there are many to choose from) it is the overall atmosphere of this game that staggered players on its first release. Never before had the helplessness, the oppression of living under a despotic tyranny felt so well-realized. Half-Life 2 is so good at putting you on edge in its first five minutes that for years I have not thought of HL2 as the video-game version of movies like Children of Men, but rather that the movies all aim at the game’s perfection.

Witness the totally creepy first five minutes of this masterpiece, which still looks fantastic (and is stupendous fun to play). Part of the emotional impact comes from the faces, which have probably never been surpassed for expressiveness and realism. There is a reason why HL2 is by critical consensus probably the best video game of all time, and certainly the best first-person shooter. “Wake up and smell the ashes.”

 

3. Valkyria Chronicles (SEGA, 2008, PS3/4 and PC)

This is the game on this list that I have played most recently, and it is in a way the least accessible. The first thing you have to get past is that it is unapologetically Japanese. It looks like an anime and the dialogue has the flavor of a direct translation. But this is also the game’s greatest strength.

You see, Valkyria Chronicles is a semi-fantastic allegory about World War II. You command a tank battalion and fight back against the evil Empire (guess who they represent). Though it focuses on the relationships between members of your squad and the love that binds them together, ultimately, WWII games are a dime a dozen. What makes VC unique is its treatment of the holocaust. After all, in a zillion games about World War II, none of them that I can think of actually deal with the Nazis’ greatest atrocities.

This one does. And because it is a modern Japanese commentary on a European phenomenon, it is excused to an extent from the most obvious and personal ruminations. On the contrary, VC approaches the terrible persecution of Jews and the concentration camps with a clear-eyed, almost naive humanity. It looks at the holocaust as a child, unable to fully comprehend but full of certainty that through comradeship and brotherhood, evil can be overcome.

A Japanese anime fairytale take on the holocaust. Only in games.

 

4. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational/2K, 2013, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360)

You know that weird sort of excitement that swelled up in your stomach the first time you saw The Matrix? You know how it was summoned by the perfect blend of astonishing production values, perfect art direction choices, adrenaline-filled action sequences, and a high-concept mind-bending plot that almost reaches the point of changing everything? That’s what it’s like to play Bioshock Infinite.

The third in a franchise known for its blend of historical and fantasy storytelling, Infinite takes you above the clouds instead of below the seas to a version of 1912 America in which (it turns out) everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong. As you sort out the story and take in the absolutely stunning vistas of Columbia, the city in the clouds, you eventually run into the time travel, the rips in space-time, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern references. The story is an absolute mindbender and manages to comment on Capitalism, Race, Religion as you electrocute your enemies and ride around huge set pieces on rails through the sky. Bioshock Infinite is exhilarating and leaves us pondering questions indefinitely the way only great Science Fiction can.

 

5. Transistor (Supergiant Games, 2014, PS4 and PC)

Transistor is actually also a science fiction, but the social commentary and the mind-bending plot pale in comparison to the best love story ever told in this medium. It turns out that the secret to good video game romance is “less is more.” Only one half of this relationship has a voice in the traditional sense, and the entire emotional weight of the game is supported by the actor’s performance. As the story progresses, expressed through a gorgeous Art Deco visual palette and the best game score in years, the feeling of “us against the world” mounts and mounts, building to a shocking-yet-inevitable conclusion that leaves you sitting speechless through the end credits. Like Final Fantasy 6, much is accomplished through little, and we are, for a moment, transported to a higher plane. A thin woman with a huge sword not only ceases to be trivial, it becomes part of a true work of art that we direct and inhabit, musical, visual, and tactile, a video game.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Abraham, Isaac, and Pizza

This post is dedicated to my friend Mordechai/Max, who would not leave me alone until I wrote about kosher pizza and creativity.

 

Kosher Pizza Sucks

Abraham and Isaac recline at a low table, eating a new food prepared with ingredients and a recipe from the west. Around sit students and guests from far and wide, leaning forward to catch the diamonds that drip from the forefathers’ mouths.

Abraham chews thoughtfully, swallows, and turning to a mustachioed traveler says, “This isn’t very good, is it?” He hands a piece over by its crusted underside and Mario opens his mouth to eat. “Uh-uh,” Abraham says, wagging his finger and withdrawing the food. “The blessing.” Laughs all around at Mario’s astonishment. “Thank G-d for the bread he has brought forth from the earth.”

Mario haltingly gives his thanks to the Lord and chomps into the morsel. His grimace as he chews tells them all they need to know. “They make it better in Italy.”

“Is the recipe you gave me incorrect?” asks Abraham.

“It’s the same recipe as always.”

“Is my Jewish cheese or my Jewish dough inferior?”

“What’s Jewish?”

I’m Jewish. Comes from Jew, which comes from Judah, one of my great-grandsons. It also means the cheese has to be made with special milk supervised by someone from my family, and the wheat and vegetables follow certain harvesting laws.”

“That’s weird. But no, no reason why it should be worse. Your mozzarella is excellent.”

“And yet it is worse.”

“Who cooked it?” asks Isaac.

“I did,” says Ishmael, appearing at the tent entrance. He takes a seat next to his brother, across from his father. “And I think it’s a little odd that you forefathers should complain. What do you care what food tastes like?”

“You assume that the kosher community is not interested in craft and artistry in their diet, because honestly most of us just have like thirty kids and need somewhere that will deliver sustenance into their gaping maws?” asks the Father of Many Nations.

The crowd gasps. Things are heating up.

Mediocrity Isn’t Us

“Even if just the three of us were eating, father,” replies Ishmael civilly, “I don’t see why we need ‘craft and artistry.’ Food is fuel; it exists only to give us the strength to serve G-d.”

“Don’t you want to make great things, instead of mediocre things?” says Abraham, with a smile. “That is what G-d wants of us! To be great! If a Jew makes pizza, it should be the best pizza the world has ever seen. When the pizza is great, when you fill someone’s stomach in the most pleasant way through mastering your ingredients, your recipe, and your method, you make greatness G-dly. Or is it that you make G-dliness great? I always forget.”

Don’t Be “Nothing”

Ishmael turns to face his brother Isaac, who has been eating quietly. “What about you, O paragon of self-negation, offered up as a lamb of G-d, without any identity of your own. Surely you think it madness to want to do great things? Aren’t we meant to be nothing?”

Touche,” thinks the crowd as they hem and haw. They know Abraham and especially Isaac to be quite fond of self-negation. They invented it at the Akeida, after all.

Isaac swallows and says, “Look at us.” He holds his face next to Abraham’s. They are each other’s’ reflection. “We are of a mind, as we are of a face, even though my father is known as G-d’s salesman and I as a bound sacrifice. The entire goal of my self-negation is self-expression. How does nothing benefit anyone? Did the creator create us that we return ourselves to the void? No, we must be great. But to be great, we must be nothing.”

“What,” asks Ishmael, “are you saying, exactly?”

“Look, this strange tomato’d and cheese’d wafer of the sunset lands probably requires genuine artistry and craftsmanship. That means you have to put your back into it, and you have to put your soul into it. You must enslave your intelligence, talents, and heart to something else. Does that sound selfish or self-negating?”

Instead, Let Things Happen

“Aha! But you are still putting your soul into it. That is self-expression, and for self-expression you need an excuse. A reason. Random self-expression is klippah and sitra achara; it conceals G-d. You surely agree.”

“All of that’s true. Almost everything the average person does is klippah and sitra achara. Most of us don’t pray or speak G-dly wisdom all day long, and the motives behind our eating, business dealings, and personal interactions are rarely perfectly selfless. That doesn’t mean we should stop. All of our relationships take place through self-expression, especially the selfless ones. Our goal isn’t to be nothing, a vacuum. Our goal is to be open to higher things, even in areas of klippah and sitra achara. That’s what it means to be joyous, you dig? Don’t get stuck in your own conception of reality. Be nothing but the mission. In this case, don’t invest yourself in making food to earn money or impress others.”

“That’s enslaving the food to your motivations, instead of the other way around.”

“Correct! It is fake and inauthentic because it’s merely an expression of your invested effort. And that’s rarely worth much. No matter how tasty it is, the food will remain only an effort. But if you make the food into a truly noble goal, it will be excellent, because you will not be making it happen. You will be letting it happen. Counter-intuitively, you’ll both enjoy making that dish more, and G-d will enjoy it more, because you are no longer living within your own boundaries but have opened up to the beyond.”

The Slave Of A King Is A King

Ishmael digests this for a moment, then says, “We are animals. Our self-expression is an animal’s. Isn’t G-d here to help us control and limit ourselves?”

“On the contrary. We are great. Just not as an end unto ourselves. When we harness ourselves to greater ends, we become great. The slave of a king is a king. Like Alfred Pennyworth.”

“Who’s Alfred Pennyworth?”

“Is your prophesy on the fritz again? Nevermind.”

Not Anything Can Be Self-Expression

“I don’t get it. I want to eat meat with this eight-sliced cheesy pastry, yet G-d says that’s not allowed. Sounds like the rules are getting in the way of my self-expression.”

“Does having two hands get in the way of your self-expression?”

For a moment there is silence. Mario scratches his head. Ishmael decides to move on.

Why Now?

“If creativity is so special,” says Ishmael, “why does it only sometimes seem to be a thing? For most of your people’s history, they will not need great pizza chefs in their service of G-d. They will have great Rabbis and communal leaders, warriors and saints. To come at some point in history and say self-expression is G-dly seems to be too convenient. Are you not using religion to justify something you want to do anyway, for other reasons? Is there any internally consistent reason there should be such a creative/culinary explosion at certain points in history?”

“Why, Ishmael,” says wise old Abraham, taking over from his son,“they are reading this story in what one might call the postmodern, premessianic age.”

“They?”

“You can’t see them?” asks Abraham. “Look at them there, staring at a piece of glowing plastic as these very words shoot through their optic nerves. They probably think I never even heard of an optic nerve.”

“Won’t they be uncomfortable if you talk about them?”

“Not particularly. It’s common to break the fourth wall in postmodern writing. It’s all about self-awareness and the alertness to subjectivity. It’s all just perspectives, different ways of looking at things. We are inside the story, but we also have an existence outside of it, to the reader. And that’s kind of the situation all of history builds toward, the time when we humans break the fourth wall and realize that our small universe is a substory of a greater divine whole.”

“But people have always known that! In fact, you were the first one to say it, father!”

“Too true, my son. But I and those like me, the Moses of every generation, are like the author’s representative in the story. We come from beyond the fourth wall. Sure, with our help everyone can break out of the story a bit. But that’s cheating. Why can’t the characters in the story go from a ‘no author’ perspective to an author perspective on their own?”

“But it’s very hard to see that the story has an author without someone constantly reminding you.”

“It’s not that hard, my dear Ishmael. After all, it is a story, and every story requires an author. This is why some thinkers in history will find the idea of a story to itself be appalling and will work to destroy it. But we’re getting too far afield.”

“Yes. What does all of this have to do with creativity?”

“Don’t you see? If that premessianic postmodern time is the one when they will break down the wall from the inside, then it will also be the time when the call of the hour is to serve G-d using the tools that are available, instead of stuff shoehorned into reality from beyond the veil like learning Torah or performing holy commandments and the like. In the past, the world wasn’t ready to try making its own garbage a vehicle for G-dliness. But one day, it will be.”

“I’m not sure I fully understand.”

“Yes, well, like I said, the world’s not ready. I think what’s best for now is to implore you to make better pizza next time, please. For goodness sake. That sauce could be Egyptian mortar. And never put corn on it again. What are we, Israeli?”

“Sorry, father.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Abraham turns to his manservant and student.

“Eliezer, the benchers, if you please.”

 

Originally posted on Hevria.