We often think of art as having its meaning baked into it by the artist, of having a shape entirely formed by intent, and that the role of the audience is to simply partake of that message. The meaning of art isn’t really intrinsic to its form, though: it is contextual, interpreted, a relationship between the artist and audience. The consumer, by defining the boundaries and methodologies of their consumption, define their final experience as much or more than the artist does. The act of interpretation is thus not a secondary experience to the appreciation of art, not a self-indulgent path for critics and academics, but the core of the experience. Those who wish to write essays and reviews expanding and expounding upon those interpretations aren’t engaging in a fundamentally different method of appreciation than the ‘common’ consumer, but merely formalizing and notating their experiences.
To a certain extent we acknowledge the contextuality of art. We go on quests to consume art in the perfect way, to create a space free of spoilers so that we will be just surprised enough, to ensure the room is quiet and dark so we can create the perfect atmosphere. As with all attempts at perfection, this creates a kind of tyranny, the perfect the enemy of the good, so busy trying to find the right way to experience things that we forget to experience anything at all. We believe so fervently in the wrong and right way to experience art, but gainsay the glaring fact that beyond right and wrong there is an infinite tapestry of ways art can be experienced, too many to count, too much to control, flavors that influence flavors. The entirety of our lives forms the context in which we play, read, watch: Should we try to empty our lives and make them bland so that we can taste the ‘true’ flavor of art? What makes us believe that such an unattainable ‘pure’ experience is more valuable?
It becomes difficult to evaluate art when the audience always has the option to refuse to engage. Even the most brilliant work won’t reach someone who doesn’t want to be reached. To some extent, art has to communicate the methods of its consumption before it can be enjoyed – its language, its rules, its values. This is part of why we have genre. This also constrains the possibility space of popular art, of what art can be popular: Not only is a game that pushes the boundaries of how we play difficult to appreciate, it’s difficult to even understand how to appreciate it. We’re beginning to see this problem crop up frequently, now, as more people try to push that possibility space – as we question whether a game needs certain traditional game-like elements, as we invent new ways to engage with games or reinvent old ones, we leave the interactive language established by decades of genres behind, and cut ourselves adrift from those who have a more old-fashioned understanding of what a game is or can be – those who don’t even understand that there’s a language they can’t understand, much less expend the effort to learn it.
It’s fine to like what you like and dislike what you dislike – but is it because you expect it to be something it was never trying to be, and aren’t even trying to understand what it is?