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Game Criticism, Pollock and Taste

June 25, 2009

IMG_0774[1]Over the break between quarters, I visited the Smithsonian to see Pollock’s Lavender Mist. Click on the image at the right to see a detail from the painting. I spent 40 minutes with the piece looking at the thickness of the paint, the movement, the raisin, the cockroach and the crumpled up and paint-covered cigarette pack. Depending on where I stood in relation to the canvas, I could actually feel how his arm swayed or the strength of the movement necessary to create the lines. Up close, I could see how the colors blurred and melted into one another to create the lavender, a color that was emergent rather than primary in the painting’s creation. It was during this time that a guard approached me to say, “I like this painting. Pollock makes me feel like I could be in this museum, too.”

I know enough about his work to know that people suspect he had an innate understanding of movement and that his movements were significant enough to produce fractals. I know enough to know that I could never make what Pollock made. So, comparatively, me and this guard, we are both uneducated art critics offering a perspective on a piece. We both liked it, yet neither of us is able to offer anything that will further the discussion much in the years to come. Our taste, our liking of the piece, doesn’t particularly matter.

Art critics, on the other hand, provide value when they explore a piece and provide us with context on its creation (historically, culturally and politically) as well as a detailed look at the piece itself from a formal point of view. What color paint did Pollock use? What were his tools? What was happening in his life at the time? Why did he number the painting instead of naming it? The painting is Number 1. It was later titled Lavender Mist. Art critics are able to tell us how Pollock emerged from the crop of painters at the time to become the greatest American artist of his time, and we can later see how his work influenced others, including me. It is through this study of context that how art affects culture and how culture affects it, that we are able to generate meaning about a piece both when it is completed as well as 100 years from now. I see the role of the critic as the primary person who captures information which may then be used again and again as our understanding of a medium, a movement or an artist grows.

And now, we come to games. Grats on your 94%. To merely assess something as good or bad or interesting is a reflection of taste, and doesn’t provide context for future interpretation of the work. In the game industry, critics often resort to studying odd metrics (play time, “tilt” or a number rating) which provide little in the way of useful information for the medium as an artform. Twenty years from now, a 94% will mean little.

Taste is immediate and it is subjective. Criticism is lasting and looking. To say we merely like a piece fails to take into account the evolving nature of art or the importance of the work to come. Taste considers only the viewpoint of the critic and not those who might be consuming the work through his or her interpretation. To put taste into the equation is to take a very different role in the consumption of the piece. Criticism allows me, the reader, the latter viewer, to interpret the work, the game, for myself.

To a degree, however, taste does enter the equation. If an critic chooses to cover something, clearly his coverage tells us that this piece or this artist should be considered worthy of attention. Numerous critics have been influential in launching artists from one level to the next as in the case with Greenberg and Pollock and even Rohrer and Bogost.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. faustusnotes permalink
    June 27, 2009 6:24 am

    I’m not sure, but I think I read an article in an Australian magazine a few years ago about how Jackson Pollock’s work was partially funded by the CIA. Interesting, eh?

  2. June 27, 2009 12:16 pm

    Hi Brenda, thanks for an interesting read. I wonder to what extent taste vs. criticism is actually a matter of subjectivity vs. objectivity. For example, many of those traditional game reviews that you cite are at least attempting to provide an ‘objective’ analysis using all of those odd metrics, but as you stated they often miss the forest for the trees and fail to provide a context for deeper understanding. Then again, the audience for such reviews might not be looking for a deeper understanding than “is this worth my $50?”, and would find a more incisive analysis irrelevant.

    I do think you hit on a key point when you mention context, but there are really multiple contexts at work when we play a game or interpret a work of art. You mention the context surrounding the creator of the work, but what about the context of the person who experiences it? For example, if I learn a little bit more about you or about the guard, I might be able to gain some more insight into your perspective and why you each responded in different ways, and thus I can further contextualize the work itself based on how various people respond to it. Far be it from me to advocate for ‘new games journalism’, but I feel like this is what some of those folks were trying to get at with the movement toward subjectivity and personal experience in game reviews. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I believe ‘taste’ still has merit as a supplement to formal criticism when evaluating a work, and the conversations that arise from comparing our individual tastes are a primary source of the pleasure of art for me.

    Also, I agree that taste inevitably enters the equation anyway, especially when choosing what we herald and what we dismiss. But if a critic can construct a compelling formal defense of something new, it can definitely help to establish the validity of a particular work or artist, or even foment a group of individuals into a more cohesive movement as with Bogost’s identification of the ‘proceduralist‘ style.

    • June 27, 2009 1:27 pm

      The context of the person playing or experiencing a piece is an important point. I often read reviews about games that “suck” which would be excellent for different audiences. Monopoly is a travesty for me, but my kids love it and so do many of my relatives. It would likely take more time that any particular news source can provide to support this variety of opinion.

  3. June 29, 2009 6:06 am

    It’s true that reviews offer precious little captial c Criticism, but they’re not really supposed to. Reviews are a different beast to criticism. Their primary purpose is to serve as a buyer’s guide and entertainment. A Tom Chick or Kieron Gillen might sneak some criticism in there anyway as part of informing on their opinion, but still won’t spend the entire word count on deconstructing and contextualizing the game. Because while that might be an interesting read, it’s a failure as consumer guidance.

    • June 29, 2009 9:28 am

      Hi Sören,

      You make a valid point there. I think the category of criticism is evolving. The level of media literacy required to assess games formally is pretty high, and it will take some time for more critics to develop and game criticism to work its way into the larger media.

  4. March 7, 2010 8:15 pm

    Australia’s National Gallery has Pollock’s “Blue Poles”. I went to see some pieces from Paris and while I was there I checked out Blue Poles. Pretty neat.

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