Our practical and intellectual nature is deeply interested in truth. What describes fact appeals to us for that reason; it has an inalienable interest. However unpleasant truth may prove, we long to know it, partly perhaps because experience has shown us the prudence of this kind of intellectual courage, and chiefly because the consciousness of ignorance and the dread of the unknown is more tormenting than any possible discovery. A primitive instinct makes us turn the eyes full on any object that appears in the dim borderland of our field of vision - and this all the more quickly, the more terrible that object threatens to be.
This physical thirst for seeing has its intellectual extension. We covet truth, and to attain it, amid all accidents, is a supreme satisfaction. Now this satisfaction the representation of evil can afford. Whether we hear the account of some personal accident, or listen to the symbolic representation of the inherent tragedy of life, we crave the same knowledge; the desire for truth makes us welcome eagerly whatever comes in its name. To be sure, the relief of such instruction does not of itself constitute an aesthetic pleasure: the other conditions of beauty remain to be fulfilled. But the satisfaction of so imperious an intellectual instinct insures our willing attention to the tragic object, and strengthens the hold which any beauties it may possess will take upon us. An intellectual value stands ready to be transmuted into an aesthetic one, if once its discursiveness is lost, and it is left hanging about the object as a vague sense of dignity and meaning.
To this must be added the specific pleasure of recognition, one of the keenest we have, and the sentimental one of nursing our own griefs and dignifying them by assimilation to a less inglorious representation of them. Here we have truth on a small scale; conformity in the fiction to incidents of our personal experience. Such correspondences are the basis of much popular appreciation of trivial and undigested works that appeal to some momentary phase of life or feeling, and disappear with it. They have the value of personal stimulants only; they never achieve beauty. Like the souvenirs of last season’s gayeties, or the diary of an early love, they are often hideous in themselves in proportion as they are redolent with personal associations. But however hopelessly mere history or confession may fail to constitute a work of art, a work of art that has an historical warrant, either literal or symbolical, gains the support of that vivid interest we have in facts. And many tragedies and farces, that to a mind without experience of this sublunary world might seem monstrous and disgusting fictions, may come to be forgiven and even perhaps preferred over all else, when they are found to be a sketch from life.
Truth is thus the excuse which ugliness has for being. Many people, in whom the pursuit of knowledge and the indulgence in sentiment have left no room for the cultivation of the aesthetic sense, look in art rather for this expression of fact or of passion than for the revelation of beauty. They accordingly produce and admire works without intrinsic value. They employ the procedure of the fine arts without an eye to what can give pleasure in the effect. They invoke rather the a priori interest which men are expected to have in the subject-matter, or in the theories and moral implied in the presentation of it. Instead of using the allurements of art to inspire wisdom, they require an appreciation of of wisdom to make us endure their lack of art.
Of course, the instruments of the arts are public property and any one is free to turn them to new uses. It would be an interesting development of civilization if they should now be employed only as methods of recording scientific ideas and personal confessions. But the experiment has not succeeded and can hardly succeed. There are other simpler, clearer, and more satisfying ways of expounding truth. A man who is really a student of history or philosophy will never rest with the vague and partial oracles of poetry, not to speak of the inarticulate suggestions of the plastic arts. He will at once make for the principles which art cannot express, even if it can embody them, and when those principles are attained, the works of art, if they had no other value than that of suggesting them, will lapse from his mind. Forms will give place to formulas as hieroglyphics have given place to the letters of the alphabet.
If, on the other hand, the primary interest is really in beauty, and only the confusion of a moral revolution has obscured for a while the vision of the ideal, then as the mind regains its mastery over the world, and digests its new experience, the imagination will again be liberated, and create its forms by its inward affinities, leaving all the weary burden, archaeological, psychological, and ethical, to those whose business is not to delight. But the sudden inundation of science and sentiment which has made the mind of the nineteenth century so confused, by overloading us with materials and breaking up our habits of apperception and our ideals, has led to an exclusive sense of the value of expressiveness, until this has been almost identified with beauty. This exaggeration can best prove how the expression of truth may enter into the play of aesthetic forces, and give a value to representations which, but for it, would be repulsive.
I think that by carefully studying the histories of current day technologies, we can uncover insights into the constellation of human and technical arrangements that can help to projectively crystallize an understanding of the real nature of our current condition. This is based on my prejudice that cultures have long-standing currents of agenda — over hundreds of years and often unspoken — and that technologies, like the rest of material culture, are a reification of these agendas. They are neither discoveries nor neutral. They come out of the dreams of people and offer indications of social relations.
Until recently, man found spiritual and physical sustenance in the knowledge that his environment consists of countless integrated natural systems - all operating as regularly as the seasons of the year. Now he is becoming increasingly responsible for his own existence within a maze of artificial systems. According to many observers, this trend is irreversible; there are too many reasons why mankind cannot revert to a simpler and far older ecological pattern.
The fearful quality about technology is that it is self-aggrandizing; it moves almost as if men were not its instigators; a self-propelled force, it evolves oblivious of the ambitions and contentments of the human race. The paradox of the science-technology syndrome (and there is scant reason to believe that these two forces should be regarded separately since they complement and stimulate the advancement of each other) is its tendency to make the total environment less habitable at the same time that it allows man greater latitude to determine new patterns of existence.
It seems possible that, if art has some aspects of Kant’s moral imperative, the steady infusion of systems consciousness into three-dimensional art will, temporarily at least, be regarded as no less than a biological survival mechanism. While we look forward to the idea of machines’ providing our surroundings and sustenance, this violates a sense of equilibrium with the forces of nature which the human race has maintained for hundreds of thousands of years. In the past our control of nature was never absolute, but more a tenuous, one-sided partnership in which we fearfully respected the sporadic, if incredible, powers of our surroundings. It may be that man psychically thrived on ignorance concerning his exact position in the universe - and perhaps the secrets locked within the mute sculptures of many past ages are symbols of confidence in this natural unknown. They at any rate seem to be symbols which we increasingly eschew today.
The downfall of the sculpted object will represent one of many climactic symbols for our civilization among them a realization that the old form-shaping approaches are no longer sufficient. By rendering the invisible visible through systems consciousness, we are beginning to accept responsibility for the well-being and continued existence of life upon the Earth.
[…] It goes almost without saying that future human life now depends upon the control, if not rehabilitation, of industrial technology - both as a maker of consumer goods and weapons. So far the motive forces behind technology have made life comfortable for a relatively few humans while they have un- intentionally but progressively destroyed the biosphere, that thin film of organic life covering the earth. Yet there is the possibility that an irreversible technology, one that destroys organic life and substitutes for it very sophisticated forms of synthetic life, is part of an unseen plan. If so, one might have a few premonitions of the part being played by sculpture in shaping our destination as a post-human species.
[…] While survival, adaptation, and regeneration form the cornerstones of biological existence, it may be that culture is fundamentally a means for implementing qualitative transformations of man’s biological status. Art, then, and the whole image-making drive may be means for preparing man for physical and mental changes which he will in time make upon himself. Sculpture, functioning so, becomes a kind of psychical radar signal preparing the human race thousands (or now perhaps only scores) of years in advance. While physical adaptation in lower animals evolves over spans of tens of thousands of years, the human brain remains the only organism capable of re- forming biological patterns in a matter of only dozens of years - and probably much less in the future. As the drama of self-awareness and scientific discovery unfolds, we near a point where self-inflicted evolution becomes an imminent possibility. Is it inconceivable that free-standing figure sculpture arose concurrent with the beginnings of science in Greece, preparing us spiritually and psychologically for the conscious task of radically altering the human race far in the future?
New York, 1933. An enormous gorilla falls off the top of the Empire State Building. This scene has long exerted a powerful grip on the collective imagination […]. New York, 2005. The same gorilla falls off the same skyscraper. This time however we do not see the modernist silhouette of the Empire State Building, beside which even the giant beast looked like a speck in the sky. This time we see the scene through the eyes of the lead character, who has also climbed up to the top of the building in a last-ditch attempt to save the soft-hearted monster.
You immediately start wondering why Peter Jackson, a great admirer of the original Kong, decided to leave that magnificent image out of his remake and opt instead for a powerful but decidedly less vivd subjective view. There has to be a reason for it in the story. In the first King Kong the lead character was a victim of the beast’s love, while in the remake it is more of a reciprocal thing. The psychological side plays an important role in the story, so it is therefore natural that the viewer is presented with the character’s point of view. But this is not enough to justify depriving us of the image we have been waiting for throughout the movie. When watching this remake the trained eye of the movie buff has to deal with the “insider’s eye view” that videogames have got us accustomed to, and his or her expectations are foiled. The need to experience a story from the inside has taken over from our desire to identify with powerful iconography. […]
I have chosen this example not in order to show that film, which has played such a decisive role in the development of the videogame, is now in turn being profoundly influenced by the younger medium. […] What I want to look at is the more general picture: how videogames are conditioning the aesthetics and registers of other media.
[…] Firstly in new media the act of aesthetic contemplation is replaced by immersion, which on the one hand disorients, and on the other creates a feeling of omnipotence, evident in the “user as demiurge” aspect of videogames. Secondly, hypertextuality does away with the distinction between the roles of author and spectator, generates confusion between various levels of expression, and destroys any sense of temporal depth. Thirdly, the visual takes over from the textual, and the virtual from the physical, destroying the distinction between real and imaginary. Lastly the “life on screen” wipes out the distinction between living and non-living, giving rise to a new form of fetishism. According to [Fulvio] Carmagnola, these four points come together to eliminate “the reassuring categories that allowed us to discriminate, assign a level of certainty to the tangible world and therefore to pass judgment with certainty.”
Modern aesthetic criticism perceives this setback strongly, and its suspicions are naturally aroused.
The new media theorist Lev Manovich […] has an entirely different brand of enthusiasm. “A computer: Never before a single machine was an engine of economy AND the main tool for representation. INFO-AESTHETICS needs to reflect this duality.” Info-Aesthetics is a heated encounter between the aesthetics of modernism, child of our industrial civilization, and that of informationalism (Manuel Castells), and it “suggests that the new aesthetics already exists in information interfaces and information tools that we use in everyday life. In other words, new aesthetics of information culture manifests itself most clearly in computer software and its interfaces. Similarly, I argue that computer applications employed in industry and science - simulation, visualization, databases - are the new cultural forms of information society. The challenge before us is to figure out how to employ these tools to create new art; in short, how to interface them not to quantified data but to human experience, subjectivity and memory.
There is nothing “solid” about these virtual landscapes. Solid comes from Latin solidus, indicating firm and stable objects. The virtual landscapes of the videogames, on the other hand, are fluid, transient, and unstable. They simulate solidity, but are fragile, much more fragile than the reality we take for granted. These spaces are made of polygons, that is, they appear to have three dimensions. They are solid in the sense that they present a “uniformly close and coherent texture”.
Our spaces are changing shape before our eyes. Marc Augé’s non-places have been superseded by hyper-places, the electronic landscapes of the videogame that have transcended the screen to become a forma mentis, a way of understanding and conceptualizing reality, an updated version of cognitive mapping. Hyper-places are abstractions of mediated spaces, like those we experience on television and cinema. Hyper-places are spatial instantiations of simulations Hyper-places are pervasive in technologically-advanced societies. These spaces have their own set of rules. An inner logic. Peculiar chronologies. Specific dynamics. Videogames do not really simulate reality: rather, they simulate mediated realities. FIFA Soccer is not a simulation of soccer (the sport), rather it is a simulation of televised soccer, with its visual and rhetoric conventions and codes.
Videogame spaces are as authentic as the real ones, or as Baudrillard would probably say, as fake. Videogame spaces are global, they speak a visual language that transcends local idioms. These spaces are a-historical, or, better, they create their own history even when they evoke “real” historical events. These are spaces that can be traversed individually but also collectively. Some can even be inhabited. They are all excessive, hence the prefix hyper. We cannot fully explore them: they always escape us, somehow. Videogames are mostly about architecture, not narrative. But even architecture is not what [it] used to be. As Virilio wrote in The Aesthetics of Disappearance, “architecture [is] no longer in architecture, but in geometry; the space-time of vectors, the aesthetic of construction is dissimulated in the special effects of the communication machines, engines of transfer and transmission” (1991, p. 64). Videogames are about simulating movement in space(s). Videogames are all about manipulating time and space.
[…] In a sense, videogame spaces are the prototypes of the cities of the future. Paul Virilio wrote that the airport prefigures tomorrow’s urban spaces. Airports are standardised spaces (or non-places, according to Augé), air-conditioned, and under a pervasive surveillance. Simulations are like airports: liminal places. Points of departure. Points of arrival.
We have here, then, an important element of the distinction between aesthetic and moral values. It is the same that has been pointed to in the famous contrast between work and play. These terms may be used in different senses and their importance in moral classification differs with the meaning attached to them. We may call everything play which is useless activity, exercise that springs from the physiological impulse to discharge the energy which the exigencies of life have not called out. Work will then be all action that is necessary or useful for life. Evidently if work and play are thus objectively distinguished as useful and useless action, work is a eulogistic term and play a disparaging one. It would be better for us that all our energy should be turned to account, that none of it should be wasted in aimless motion. Play, in this sense, is a sign of imperfect adaptation. It is proper to childhood, when the body and mind are not yet fit to cope with the environment, but it is unseemly in manhood and pitiable in old age, because it marks an atrophy of human nature, and a failure to take hold of the opportunities of life.
Play is thus essentially frivolous. Some persons, understanding the term in this sense, have felt an aversion, which every liberal mind will share, to classing social pleasures, art, and religion under the head of play, and by that epithet condemning them, as a certain school seems to do, to gradual extinction as the race approaches maturity. But if all the useless ornaments of our life are to be cut off in the process of adaptation, evolution would impoverish instead of enriching our nature. Perhaps that is the tendency of evolution, and our barbarous ancestors amid their toils and wars, with their flaming passions and mythologies, lived better lives than are reserved to our well-adapted descendants.
We may be allowed to hope, however, that some imagination may survive parasitically even in the most serviceable brain. Whatever course history may take, - and we are not here concerned with prophecy, - the question of what is desirable is not affected. To condemn spontaneous and delightful occupations because they are useless for self-preservation shows an uncritical prizing of life irrespective of its content. For such a system the worthiest function of the universe should be to establish perpetual motion. Uselessness is a fatal accusation to bring against any act which is done for its presumed utility, but those which are done for their own sake are their own justification.
At the same time there is an undeniable propriety in calling all the liberal and imaginative activities of man play, because they are spontaneous, and not carried on under pressure of external necessity or danger. Their utility for self-preservation may be very indirect and accidental, but they are not worthless for that reason. On the contrary, we may measure the degree of happiness and civilization which any race has attained by the proportion of its energy which is devoted to free and generous pursuits, to the adornment of life and the culture of the imagination. For it is in the spontaneous play of his faculties that man finds himself and his happiness. Slavery is the most degrading condition of which he is capable, and he is as often a slave to the niggardness of the earth and the inclemency of heaven, as to a master or an institution. He is a slave when all his energy is spent in avoiding suffering and death, when all his action is imposed from without, and no breath or strength is left him for free enjoyment.
Work and play here take on a different meaning, and become equivalent to servitude and freedom. The change consists in the subjective point of view from which the distinction is now made. We no longer mean by work all that is done usefully, but only what is done unwillingly and by the spur of necessity. By play we are designating, no longer what is done fruitlessly, but whatever is done spontaneously and for its own sake, whether it have or not an ulterior utility. Play, in this sense, may be our most useful occupation. So far would a gradual adaptation to the environment be from making this play obsolete, that it would tend to abolish work, and to make play universal. For with the elimination of all the conflicts and errors of instinct, the race would do spontaneously whatever conduced to its welfare and we should live safely and prosperously without external stimulus or restraint.
In this second and subjective sense, then, work is the disparaging term and play the eulogistic one. All who feel the dignity and importance o the things of the imagination, need not hesitate to adopt the classification which designates them as play. We point out thereby, not that they have no value, but that their value is intrinsic, that in them is one of the sources of all worth. Evidently all values must be ultimately intrinsic. The useful is good because of the excellence of its consequences; but these must somewhere cease to be merely useful in their turn, or only excellent as means; somewhere we must reach the good that is good in itself and for its own sake, else the whole process is futile, and the utility of our first object illusory.
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