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Everyone who likes art inevitably has the experience of revisiting something that they loved many years ago and, with older and more experienced eyes, finding it deeply Problematic. ‘Problematic’ is a strange word, being essentially a shorthand for “has issues which are too abstract to fit conveniently into this sentence without making it unwieldy”, but it’s become rather popular over recent decades specifically because of this vagueness. Problems are commonplace, complex, and interwoven, and though we must eventually get into the guts of what those particular problems and their complexities are it is useful to have a catch-all term to start with.

As time passes, and we gain a greater understanding of the societal issues of the past and how they contribute to current issues, as we find out more potentially troubling background information about the creators, more and more work shifts into problematic territory. We can probably safely assume that everything, sooner or later and to greater or lesser degree, will eventually be problematic. The question that naturally follows when something you love becomes problematic, for whatever reason, is: Do you continue to love it? Can you? Should you?

Can you even completely stop loving something you once loved if you feel you ought to? Once we have a positive experience it sticks in memory, and barring something really traumatic it tends to stay there for life. There’s a part of you that will always have time for this piece of art, no matter how troubling its implications or stereotypical its characters – and this is fine.

More than fine: It’s good.

Just as no piece of art will ever be aesthetically perfect, no piece of art will ever be ideologically perfect, and learning to see, evaluate, and appreciate those imperfections will give you a lens through which to see the ways in which your own beliefs and ideals may be harmful. It will give you a critical eye to see how a piece can be deeply flawed, irresponsible, even dangerous, but still be worthy of your love – the bits and pieces of brilliance that shine through the stupidity and cruelty, sometimes even without the creator really intending them to.

All art is problematic, it’s just a question of whether or not we’ve noticed it and put names to those problems yet. More than though, all art should be problematic – the only way it could ever be anything less is by staying purely within well understood boundaries of fact and portraying only perfectly kind and healthy people and relationships – in other words, only if it had nothing to say and nothing to offer. Even then, it would probably fail – frequently it is those works which tried to be most morally upstanding at the time which become most troubling in retrospect.

Yet we desire purity, and this desire manifests in two ways: Many people will reject any and all criticism of something they love out of hand, deny there are any issues so that they can still love uncomplicatedly, and presume a perfection that does not exist just to avoid considering any potential flaws. Others will immediately discard any work, no matter how much they might otherwise value it, the moment there’s any question of it having issues, of it being less than perfect: They will deny the validity of any art that fails to hew to their moral standards. Either art is beyond criticism, or it is hanging on a thread above a pit of cancellation. These two opposing stances have the same root cause: Unwillingness to love imperfection.

The challenges of loving art are much the same as the challenges of loving people: Both are unreliable, both will let you down sometime, there is no perfection and as time moves on it leaves our flawed beliefs and aesthetics behind. It is necessary, though, to learn both to see imperfection and to see past imperfection: To see the harm done by careless stereotypes or hamfisted allegories, but also see the moments of beauty and insight and humanity lying just beyond. This isn’t to say you have to continue to love art that the world has moved past, just that you not feel obligated to hate it – or to ignore its flaws.

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Everyone feels trapped. Helpless. We have a problem, and it’s a trolley problem. We are on rails, and the scope of our choices sharply constrained. There is no preventing the harm, only, perhaps, reducing it.

In the face of impending disaster, the scope of the world shrinks. When the tiger is chasing us, there is no east or west, just a one-dimensional measure: Away from or towards. Like an action hero escaping a rolling boulder, the idea of dodging to the side never enters our minds: We must move as quickly as possible away from the threat, even if it dooms us.

We wake up. We eat breakfast. Go to work, go to the movies, go to sleep, and follow the tracks laid out, and the scarier it is the more unthinkable it becomes to change the routine. Even if our routine is part of the threat, we cling to it because it is also the only thing we can rely upon. Trapped in a prison, we reinforce its walls to try to feel safer.

Violence blooms. When you believe your life exists on a single axis, that your worth is measured by your impact and that the only tool you have to create an impact is your violence, it becomes startlingly easy to justify unthinkable atrocity to yourself. It is only expected that someone will do something drastic when they feel trapped – and the more horrible things we do to each other the more trapped we feel by one another, and each act of violence acts catalyst to the next.

What role does art have in this world? What role do games have in it? Violence has always been a huge part of American art. We see the world in terms of violence – the real, physical, undeniable kind, because the tacit violences of oppression and denial are invisible and unacknowledged by us. Crime is violence. Justice is violence. Violence is understood as the alpha and omega, the cause and solution of all of our problems. When presented with a time machine and the horrors of the holocaust, the question we come up with is whether you should go back in time to murder baby Hitler. This probably wouldn’t solve the problem and it would be murdering a baby, but this is the calculus of our morality, atrocity vs atrocity. This has become extremely normal. We export it worldwide.

There is no reason to believe that this is a necessary intrinsic trait of art. It’s just how things are now.

Traditional narrative art, novels and movies and so forth, frequently feature violence – but, because they are singular narratives, it’s easy for us to assume that this violence is just a point of drama and interest in the context of an otherwise full world, with love and science and food and all that other good stuff that we like to spend time on. Games, though… are odd. Violent games aren’t just a portrayal of a violent anomaly in a normal world, they are portrayals of violent worlds, worlds where the only way to interact is through attacking and killing. You are on a track. Your only problem is a trolley problem: What path will you take, and what will the final body count be?

Narrative art, in each case, tells just one story, but implies the existence of many diverse others within its unseen world. Games, by necessity, have to collapse the possibilities of their world into near-nothingness, just so their inevitable bloody endings will make sense. This tendency is, if anything, made worse by the advent of “open-world” games – games which pretend to a living and breathing verisimilitude while presenting a paucity of genuine options. “You can do anything” they quietly promise – and, as long as the only thing you want to do is race cars and shoot people, you might never know the difference.

Obvious lies are not ineffective lies, and are still easily believed by those with motivation to believe them. They tell us we can do anything. They tell us this world exists beyond the boundaries of violence, and then give us only the tools of violence with which to explore it – and, in this way, these games truly are simulations of America: A country that believes it still must arm good guys in order to kill bad guys, a country that believes it is the sole role of a man to stand up and fight for what he believe in no matter what it might be, a country that believes that choosing the hard choice to sacrifice human life for the ‘greater good’ is just and admirable. A country with an entire toolbox but that never lays down its hammer, and sees human lives only as nails.

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What is good art? We are constantly declaring various books and movies and games to be good or bad – we get in arguments about these classifications, have entire professions dedicated to evangelizing them. We go to great lengths to highlight the good points of one thing or the bad points of another, and we rarely bother to define what we mean when we say that it’s good or that it’s bad. Does it just mean that we enjoyed it? No, because sometimes we say things that are harrowing or awkward or unpleasant are good. Does it just mean that we found value in the time we spent with it? No, because if that’s all it was then we wouldn’t get into arguments over it, since there’s no point in trying to convince someone they actually did or didn’t enjoy something (not that that stops anyone from trying).

I don’t think good/bad judgments mean much of anything in the absence of more specificity. Art isn’t good or bad, it’s good at or bad at – good at making you understand the internal conflict of a character, for instance, or bad at presenting a physically convincing reality. These artistic traits may or may not be something you personally are interested in , but they’re something you can make a convincing argument about when debating the nature of a work and what it accomplishes.

Yet it obviously means something when we say that a given work is good. There’s some nebulous but shared set of standards that, when a work excels at them, defines it as good. So we end up with weird splittings-of-hairs – “Oh, it’s not a good movie, but it’s a good action movie,” “I don’t think it’s a bad book but it’s deeply misogynist” – where these standards for what we expect and how we measure quality butt up against one another.

When we say “good” we are secretly saying “good at“, with the ‘at’ standing in for a whole host of assumed criteria for quality: It has to have convincing characters and effects, it has to have reasonably but not excessively attractive people, it has to have an epic or emotionally moving score, it has to be between 80 and 160 minutes, the motion of the plot and systems have to be completely transparent at all moments, to be sexy but not sexual, to deal with pain and violence and sadness and serious things, and it is judged bad if it fails to live up to these standards – regardless of whether these standards were even attempted, whether the artists cared at all in the first place.

Conflicts emerge between our personal style and standards and those metrics of quality that all art is measured against. We may deeply love a work, or merely enjoy it, while the standards of art proclaim that it is shlock, garbage, meritless. We call these “guilty pleasures”: That which lives up to our own personal standards of quality, that we find personally enjoyable, but which doesn’t adhere to the cultural standard, or possibly even attempt to. Yet sometimes, rather than declaim the guilt of our pleasures, we will call something “schlocky” good – not in support of these principles, but in defiance of them. Saying that art which does not adhere to these standards is still good is drawing a line in the sand and saying no, your criteria for quality are wrong and don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes if enough people recognize something the standards will shift: When the game Demon’s Souls came out a decade ago, many players immediately rejected it as confusing, clunky, and punishing. By most of the game design standards of the time, these traits were regarded by many as a sign of bad game design; any developer who put them into a game was assumed to be incompetent, whether or not it was done with intent or artistry. Yet enough people understood and appreciated the intent of the game that the loosely cohesive Souls-like series of followups has gained a massive and dedicated following. Demon’s Souls is still a fairly conventional game in most ways, though: For every Demon’s Souls, there’s hundreds of unconventional masterpieces that never find an audience.

However, as art becomes homogenized towards the Disney manual of style, audiences may come to see anything that deviates from the standards set by mega-corporations as artless, clumsy – not as an experiment in a different style, but as an amateurish bungling of what everyone knows is the correct way to make art. These fears may seem alarmist, but they’re already coming to pass: The scope of what’s considered a valid film, book, or game is vastly narrower now than it was even thirty years ago, and it’s hard not to see a correlation with the consolidation of most mass-media power, which unilaterally declares the standards of artistic merit, into a few wealthy white grasping hands.

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The way art happens, I think, is much the same way pearls are made: A tiny grit of something gets inside of our shells, grinds its way into us uncomfortably, and we have to weave some softer facade around it to keep it from hurting.

I’ve been very tired recently, so I’ve been dialing back my ambitions for the month. I’ve relaxed my scheduling, I’ve let myself feel okay with getting less done every day, and I’ve been generally taking a bit of time to lean back and think about why I feel so tired, so discouraged, so unenthusiastic.

For the most part I live a fairly solitary life. I sit around in my tiny room and I try to make art and enjoy art and that’s basically how it goes. I can usually do this because I believe in what I’m doing and I believe that it’s intrinsic to who I am to want to make things that are interesting and, perhaps, even beautiful.

The more I think about it, though, the less certain I am that this life is any more intrinsically a part of who I am than any other life I might live. Certainly I have certain priorities or activities I might be predisposed to, and certainly I value art, but I have learned to view certain aspects of my existence, certain priorities and values, as solid – as immovable. I have learned to believe that only one type of life could possibly suit me, and the only choice I had was to see what else I could fit in around those immobile points: That this was my nature, the core of who I am. However, when I ask myself questions about why I feel uncomfortable, why I live the life I do, I then also must question how much of this identity I inhabit is intrinsic to me as a person – and how much of it is just habit, just the memories called up by being in this room, living in this body, and having each day follow its predecessor in a chain that seems often to be unbreakable.

The tricky part is, even if you identify your current life as imperfect, it is at least one life that has worked. Out there, there’s an infinite number of lives that may or may not work. Once you identify that something that you thought was constant is a variable, you have to wonder what else could fit in its place… and, if it might be moved, what else could fit in around it that couldn’t before?

I like the idea of being an artist. I like the act of creating art – usually. However, I see very few models of how being an independent artist can be compatible with leading a happy and rewarding life. Not being able to see these lives being lived is unfortunate, because while I believe it can happen, I also believe it is a difficult life to build, and made more so by the lack of any reliable guide. In a context where many people exploit and abuse artists, in a context where what is considered good entertainment is increasingly consolidated into the coffers of a few megacorporations, in a context where social safety nets are getting sawed away by bandits, in a context where we are told that we must constantly be working and constantly be making or we are worse-than, less-than… How can one halfheartedly create, and hope to get anywhere? What can I do with these doubts besides diminish myself?

Yet halfhearted creation may sometimes be all I have, as I do not always have a whole heart available to create with. I’m split in so many directions, the projects and ambitions and the leisure and the longing, I feel like I have no time or energy left over to seek to rectify the holes I perceive in my life. I keep feeling I ought to give something up to make room for something else, and yet I have no idea what to give up, like ceding any territory is self-annihilation. I keep feeling that there has to be some way to rearrange things to make room.

I keep feeling so tired.

When you’re an independent artist, with little to no audience, and you lose interest in what you’re making, there’s no real reason to keep working on a thing that no one wants to exist – or, at least, a thing no one knows they want to exist. The only resource I have at my disposal for creating my passion-projects is passion, and if I let that slip I really don’t have anything. Which raises the question of how I can be consistently passionate if I want to do another project every month. Which raises the question of why I want to do another project every month.

I keep getting caught in these feedback loops, where I nudge myself to make progress, stall out, nudge again, stall, nudge, stall – and this process, even when I don’t actually do anything, consumes a huge amount of energy. While I burn energy this way, I burn even more energy getting angry at myself for not doing anything while I’m stalled out.

This, I think, is how a person can burn themselves out while doing absolutely nothing at all.

The nice thing about working for other people is you can know at least one other person wants your work. The nice thing about working for other people is you can blame someone besides yourself for feeling tired, crushed, hopeless. The nice thing about working for other people is that it doesn’t have to be your identity, it can just be a job.

The terrible thing about working for other people is that, because the richest have so much more power, the value your time and effort creates, in the form of the money you need to survive and thrive, is the value of the change in their pocket and is utterly without significance to them. The terrible thing about working for other people is you have no power to change your approach if you feel tired, crushed, hopeless. The terrible thing about working for other people is that they won’t let it just be a job for you, they want it to be the reason for your existence.

And at the end here I would like to come to some big meaningful conclusion, something with impact, something Important. We always want what we write to be important. And that which is important compels change. So if I conclude here with something Big and Important, I need to change my life afterwards. If I want to claim insight, I have to make a change. I wonder how much of my confusion stems from trying to regularly create viewpoint-shifting insights, and having to believe them. Is this another way I’ve sabotaged myself?

I suppose the next day will be much the same as today, and I won’t be compelled to make some huge lifestyle change. Perhaps this is just my process of finding point of discomfort and encasing them, softening them, beautifying them. Or perhaps my role, here, is just to be the tide that brings sand to you, and to make you uncomfortable – but just uncomfortable enough, and in a way that you can work with.

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I always had trouble identifying with the parts of kids’ cartoons where the main character wishes they were normal. I think that this is partially an indication of privilege: I’ve never really had to suffer much for being a weirdo. I mostly kept to myself and, always having been on the big side, was never a very attractive target for bullying. Maybe that’s why I never found ‘normal’ a very appealing thing to be. Perhaps this means that I really internalized those cartoons’ lessons about how it’s okay to be different, that everyone is unique and contributes something of their own, but as time has gone on, as I’ve found myself isolated and struggling, I’ve come more and more to see the appeal of normalcy.

There’s probably some sort of difference between opting out and being unable to fit in. I’ve always strenuously avoided having to think too hard about which, exactly, I’m doing at any given time.

I don’t really believe that any existing human being is not, deep down, a huge weirdo. We are a fundamentally neurotic species, overloaded with crossed wires, beliefs connected to anxieties connected to fetishes connected to fears, all of it coated in a vague post-hoc rationalization we call a personality. Normal is a set of behaviors, a standardized interface between you and society that you can fit on top of your natural impulses, and some people have an easier time of making that fit than others. Normal is a thing that you do and that is done to you rather than a thing that you fundamentally are – a distinction far too fine for me to grasp as a child, or for these children’s cartoons to attempt to impart.

And this allergy to normality might sound like a good trait to have as an artist – I sure thought it would be! But art is communication, and communication gets a lot more difficult when you have semi-intentionally disconnected yourself from the standardized interface of your culture. What I mean when I say this is that the most generic, uninspired, boilerplate boring design-by-committee extra-smooth-applesauce piece of art has a huge advantage relative to anything I create, no matter how careful or inspired or well-thought-out my work may be: People know what it is, how to engage with it, and what it means.

When I’m in art classes, teachers frequently tell me that I needn’t try to be so representational, that I don’t have to get every color and proportion perfectly accurate – which is, of course, true, but is also unnecessary advice. I know how to not do the obvious thing. What I need to learn is how to be expected, predictable, how to meet people where they are at. Maybe this leads me to overcompensate, but I figure practice is the best time to fixate on technique. Everyone is probably going to come at this challenge from one side of the divide or the other: Every artist is going to either find it relatively easy to make generic art that everyone can appreciate but is soon forgotten, or to make weird art that few people enjoy but is extremely distinctive and perhaps offers something difficult to find elsewhere. For passionate creators, they’re probably going to start pursuing whichever one they perceive themselves to lack.

As hard as I work now to pursue an understanding of shared language, cultural norms, realism, and ‘polish’, others are surely working just as hard to define a unique voice, a look and sound, a bit of grit and identity. Perhaps we are working towards the same thing from different directions, some searching for a truth occluded while others for words to speak a truth perceived.

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Generally speaking, I want to make games. Specifically speaking, making an actual game of the sort I want to make is a nightmare proposition. Games take a tremendous amount time and of energy to create, and for many years I’ve said: That’s okay. I’ll put in the time. I’ll put in the energy. Right now, though, I’m not sure about the supplies of time and energy. Right now, on our current trajectory, time is running short. And the more I think about that, the less energy I have to work on making a game.

There is a plausible apocalypse looming. There’s no point in pretending it’s impossible. Even if we dodge the greater threat of the global ecosystem collapsing due to greenhouse gases, there’s still the global rise of nationalism and fascism, the increasingly unsustainable income inequality, the creeping capture of all political systems by malicious actors – and then there’s the old problems, stuff that has been around for a while, the racism and sexism and sundry bigotry, freehanded abuse of the socially and financially and physically disadvantaged.

It’s a lot. Not sure what to do about all that.

It feels like a blockage. Fixing this feels like a prerequisite without which no other work can commence. But this cannot be completely fixed. There are no complete solutions to these problems, only processes that can be enacted to slowly ameliorate them over time. This is a frustrating realization because honestly this is not how I work. I like to fix things once, and I like them to stay fixed. I freely admit that this is an unrealistic expectation.

So I fret. I wonder what I ought to be doing. Is it ethically acceptable to make art on the eve of Armageddon? Is it ethically acceptable not to? What could I realistically fix, out there, in the world, given my aptitudes and experience? What fundamental change would I have to enact upon myself in order to do so? How dangerous would it be to try? How dangerous would it be not to try?

And so forth, in circles.

I think sometimes maybe it would be better for me to just do small works. Just do little paintings, bits of music, write these posts. Forget games. I could, I suppose, just keep making small games, little monthly projects like I’ve been trying to do (with mixed success) – but, so far, all of my small games feel small. Some people have the knack of creating small projects that feel like little explorations of big ideas, bite-sized chunks of something huge and important. I don’t have that knack, at least not yet. So I keep thinking, then, that perhaps this isn’t a good use of my time and energy. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to make games.

And yet. The end can only come by consensus. This world ends when we agree it ends. Maybe right now is the perfect time, actually, for a long-term art project. It’s a vote for tomorrow. It’s a leap of belief in an audience existing.

There are three reasons to do creative work, as I see it – besides making money that is, which so far remains a largely hypothetical benefit to me. Often, it’s just for practice: We play our scales, do our figure studies, write journals or bits of poetry and lyrics that never go anywhere, and hone our skills. Sometimes, it’s to express something within us, to take it out of the unspeaking back corridors of our minds and out into the world, for exorcism or for self-understanding. And, of course, sometimes it’s for each other. Sometimes it’s to say something to someone else, to make them understand a viewpoint, feel an emotion, perceive a shift.

If we don’t practice we stagnate, lose the technical capacity to say what we want to say. If we don’t create for ourselves, we lose touch and create something we don’t care about, or cease to care enough to bring a work to completion. If we don’t create for each other, we sink into silence, stop hearing from each other, learning from each other, and eventually dissolve.

I’m going to keep creating. For practice, for me, and for you. I hope you will do likewise.

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Art is like clothing: It displays and it conceals at the same time. We open parts of ourselves to the world while closing off other parts, we express our self through artful concealment – projecting our light in certain particular ways; creating shadow puppets.

I often hear writing in particular, and art in general, discussed as an act of radical vulnerability, of pure honesty – opening up to the world in a pure and unfiltered way so that other people can engage most directly with your internal life. They say that to write is to reveal – and I think, like so many creative maxims, there is a bit of truth to it but that, but that it is incomplete. There is much of myself I’m not prepared to talk about in public: I don’t think that inherently makes me a worse writer or artist. There’s parts of my brain that I take care not to expose because the time isn’t right, the place isn’t right, because it makes me uncomfortable or because it’s inappropriate. I think that’s true of everyone to varying degrees, and artistic success is not reserved solely for those who manage to escape that gravity, to become emotional nudists. The aim of art, then, is not full exposure, but the careful decisions of what to expose, how much to expose, when to expose – and, conversely, what to conceal and how to conceal it.

That’s still not right, though, is it? That black and white balance suggests that concealment and exposure of the self are inherently in conflict, that we lift up a piece of our soul and choose to show or hide it based on the compositional needs of the work. I don’t think that’s actually the case. We are faceted – we have many faces. We wear many masks – and every mask serves a dual purpose, it both expresses a persona and conceals the face underneath. The act of choosing to express one aspect of our selves is also the act of choosing to conceal others.

“Write what you know”, they say. “Write with absolute honesty and openness”, they often say as well. Also, “Show, don’t tell”. These pat bits of advice are, again, scraping at a truth, but not wholly representing it. The truth is that absent care and attention it’s easy to end up on auto-pilot, mimicking other art, mindlessly copying styles and scenarios, because these are the things that are closest to the surface when we cast out the fishing lines of our imagination. These are just tricks to force you to Pay Attention. Writing what you know ensures that you have details and nuances at hand to work with, absolute honesty pushes you to access your own personality and opinion with care and attention. Showing, not telling forces you to think about the details of each scene instead of glossing over them* – and all of these work, but are really just ways of making sure that you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing and why, what each word and sentiment actually signifies, and aren’t on auto-pilot.

If your work is dishonest, if it’s misleading, then that’s fine: Mislead for a reason. If it’s truthful, that’s also fine: Decide what truth it is you want to tell. No matter what your intent is, whatever the end product is going to be is probably going to reveal something and conceal something. Art is a lie. Art is the truth. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a necessity of how we see the world, just from one angle at a time when infinite view-points are possible, two-dimensional minds occupying a three-dimensional space.

* As well as working to prevent structural analysis of culture, likely one of the reasons the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was funded by the CIA.

 

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