28 September 2013

Poetry and Banality in Second Life Art

Following the tip in a blog post by Ziki Questi, I visited the Frantastica sim, where there is a new installation by DB Bailey (David Denton). To say that Bailey's installation is eye-popping is almost an understatement: the colors are so bright, so astonishing in color, they send an electric jolt through the brain. Parts of the build are positively on fire. Images are layered like echoes -- a cathedral, the Eiffel Town, pagodas, a woman in a kimono, deer drinking at a lake -- establishing a clear sense of place, space, and depth. The textures sometimes suggest wireframe. The impact of these color-intensified scenes is other-worldly, or maybe a hypersensual and almost hallucinogenic version of this reality. Strictly speaking the installation is most likely "possible in real life," but its sensibility is decidedly outside it.

(Click to enlarge)

Startling and impressive as the build is, one small section was particularly striking. Compared to the rest, it is quite simple: using a narrow color palette, it consists just of a space with curved walls, within which are tall boards and poles stuck at various but not extreme angles. On the boards, a poem slowly scrolls upwards.

(Click to enlarge)

Nothing particularly unusual in any of that -- after a point, I'd bet that there are dozens of works more or less along these lines. Two things made this piece exceptional. First, the poem was good. That's rare: most of the poetry appearing on Second Life art makes for painful, occasionally even cringe-worthy reading. Written by Albert Murrian (one of DB's neighbors), the poem presents tiny vignettes of daily life, often preceded by the word "somewhere" -- a jazz clarinetist plays in the market square, a magician performs tricks, a waitress counts her tips -- which are framed or punctuated, depending on your perspective, by a recognition of the impermanence of everything around us ("In the morning, all of this..."). The poem's style, subject, and use of typography place it in the American modernist tradition of William Carlos Williams (rather than, say, the ruralism of Robert Frost, or at the all-too-familiar kitschy end, Rod McKuen).

The second element that stood out was how the presentation of the poem works with the poem itself. Scrolling text per se is, again, nothing unusual in SL. In this case, however, it directly adds to the meaning of the poem. Its slow cycling exactly matches the poem's subject, the routine pace of the world repeating without end, without beginning. Ordinariness -- the ordinariness of everyday life, the ordinariness of the poem's presentation -- becomes newly seen and newly valuable. It is a good example of content and presentation working together, possibly toward the same end, possibly in opposite ones (as, for instance, in irony), but in either case conjoined. This small section of the Frantastica installation prompted larger thoughts.

Poems abound; poetry does not. Poetry is often lacking in Second Life art. In a sense this is to be expected: as Sturgeon's Law puts it, 90% of everything is crap. But it's useful to have some idea why. It's also difficult to discuss. There is extremely little criticism of art in Second Life; Quan Lavender is one of the few people who tries to inject a little. One reason criticism is rare here is that it often seems like wasted energy: we all have limited time, why spend it writing about stuff you don't like? Another reason is that there's a danger of "hurting someone's feelings," which in a tiny community like ours is a pain in the ass. There's enough drama already. The sort of art that certain artists produce make a viewer suspect that the artist won't take criticism well, and for critics as much as anyone else, life is a lot easier when people like you than when they're mad.

But the fact is that no matter what sort of work someone does -- build installations, create scripts, paint, photograph, write -- they can benefit from critique, even when they disagree with it. I say this from lots of first-hand experience: I've written and continue to write scholarly articles and books, and scholarship usually can't get published unless two (sometimes three) other scholars have read and commented on it. Scholars must be able to endure criticism, or they won't survive as scholars. Sometimes the readers say the book/article is fine, sometimes they say it needs significant revisions, and sometimes they say the problems are so severe that the book/article shouldn't be published. After that, it's up to the author to decide what to do with the criticism. Like most scholars, I've also had to review other people's work and comment on it, and a couple of times I've had to say the book or article should be rejected, which is not a pleasure at all. I've had an article rejected only once, and actually the criticism was absurd, small-minded, a bit vicious, and showed a complete misunderstanding of what I was trying to say. But even though criticisms were wrong, it would have been dishonest of me to assume I had simply been the victim of bad readers. Identifying and solving the article's actual problems resulted in a stronger article, which did get published.

But when it comes to art, people are often afraid to criticize, partly because of the ideology that art is about self-expression. This is a terrible belief. Yes, art is frequently expressive -- but I'd say that generally speaking, it shouldn't be an act of expressing oneself. Instead, usually it should express the world we live in, necessarily based on the artist's perception of it, but without it being about the artist. As William Carlos Williams put it, "No ideas but in things." Otherwise, why should I care, what does the art actually tell me? The ideology of "self-expression" can easily lead to self-absorption. It also makes the work unassailable: by criticizing your art, I must be criticizing you as a person! In contrast, Albert Murrian's poem is an excellent example of how art can be an artist's expression yet not be about the artist. It clearly expresses a perception of the world, the perceiver is Murrian, and yet nowhere does he appear in the poem. Not once does he say "I" or "me" or in any other way point to himself. He simply and directly gives us perceptions, without stepping in the middle. DB Bailey does exactly the same thing. He confronts us with an experience of the world, without saying "This is how I experience the world." Whether he does or doesn't experience the world that way is not the point (it seems doubtful) -- but his installation is an amazing vision of the world.

Another detrimental ideology of art is that it's supposed to be about Important Matters. I probably won't explain this well, because good art does explore issues and ideas. However, the ideological version of that fact leads artists to distrust their art, and so they announce those issues, always (literally or figuratively) capitalized. Love. Family. The Cycle of Life. Loneliness. Devotion. Peace. Inequality. Et Cetera. Et Cetera. Et Cetera. Most of what's said through these Deep Statements is simplistic and trite. The art becomes merely an illustration. Let me demonstrate how the ideology of Important Issues can ruin art, by mangling Picasso's Guernica:

/Me is stunned and moved by the violence, confusion, pain and horror encapsulated by a brilliant painting,
which uses just the right techniques (such as distortion and monochrome) to build its meaning. [Source info]

/Me is dismayed by the artist's inability to trust his/her art, a distrust which wrecks a potentially
excellent painting, making it merely an illustration of war's destructiveness.

Compared to the presentations of Important Issues that often appear in SL art, SaveMe Oh's "(F)art," sophomoric as it is, is almost a relief. (Almost: it's still sophomoric, and it still tries to make a Big Statement.) Of course, anything can be done well. Consider, for instance, the bluntness (and ironies) of Jenny Holzer's "Truisms."  But such forcefulness is rare. And when an artist is obviously earnest in their desire to produce art that Says Something, what can one say when the art is awful? "I'm so glad you have these major ideas, now here's a bottle of scotch, let's see what you do when you're pissed and pissed off." The ideology that art is about Important Matters makes art unassailable in its own way: since I'm criticizing your art, I must be criticizing your ideas, but since you're the artist you know better, therefore I know nothing about art!

I'm particularly wary of works displaying people: the human figure so often invites platitudes. Only a few artists in Second Life get away with it. Bryn Oh and Romy Nayar spring to mind, and they succeed in part because they don't take the body literally. Their distortions or reconstructions of the body are necessary to their narratives. Eliza Weirwight does present realistic bodies, but for her the body is a surface -- sometimes simultaneously stripped and masked, sometimes radically naked when it's fully clothed, sometimes hidden and obscured by its nudity.

A third damaging ideology is that art consists of Pretty Pictures. There's not much one can say about this sort of art. It's basically candy. Which is fine, if you want candy. I myself want candy now and then. But good art is not always (or even usually) pretty. Guernica is not pretty. That doesn't mean art should be ugly -- it means that art can be beautiful without being pretty. Of course, art can also be both pretty and beautiful. Some of Ziki Questi's photos are of lovely places, some aren't, but the photos themselves are almost always beautiful: the composition is impeccable and the photos make one see via her perception. (Although I'll have to admit, she was over-using depth of field; she appears to be easing off.) Beauty isn't an essential criterion either. Some brilliant works of art are outright ugly, like Francis Bacon's. DB's installation and Albert Murrian's poem are neither pretty nor ugly -- but they're powerful works of art. The point is that prettiness, generally speaking, has no particular connection to art. Artists should ignore the concept entirely.

I suspect sometimes that those artists who actually believe the ideologies of "self-expression" and "important issues" think personal expression and significant topics can substitute for technical skill (which is pretty damn important) and thoroughgoing perception. As I've noted, by placing the artist's feelings and earnestness foremost, they make critical commentary unmistakably unwelcome. For its part, the ideology of "pretty pictures" misconstrues what art is altogether. All three ideologies lead to banality.

I haven't said much about technical skill. That's partly because this post is focused on a different issue, and partly because skills are learnable -- and if someone just can't get the knack of GIMP or Blender or whatever, they can figure out how to use whatever skills they do have to their best advantage.

True, I'm not an art teacher. Strictly speaking I'm not even an art scholar. All I can do is say is what, from my layperson's viewpoint, seems to work and what doesn't work. Sometimes I can even figure out why. Probably half of SL's artists disagree with me; such is life.

On the other hand, I do have limited time, so for the most part I focus on work I like. Plus pissing people off isn't really my favorite activity. Go see Frantastica.