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Hypercritical Follow-up: a participatory art example

2012-05-07 09:42:03

On recent episodes of Hypercritical, John Siracusa has been discussing the notion that video games are a unusual art form because, to appreciate them, one must first attain a certain level of skill. I find this observation very interesting, and generally support its validity.

Much of the discussion has been spent looking for similar examples in other areas of art, but none really line up with the relationship of creator to consumer that exists in gaming. For example, in music, the performer and composer combine to play the role of creator, and the listener plays the role of consumer. Being a listener does not require any particular skill.

However, I would like to offer one scenario that is possibly comparable. I'll admit that it's a bit of a reach, but here it is.  Musical instruments are, or can be, a form of art. The people who make these instruments are the creators. The people who consume the art are musicians. Gibson is the artist, the Les Paul Custom is the art, and Slash is the audience.

One might argue that people listening to the music are also consuming the art, but I would disagree. I would liken such people to those watch someone else playing a video game: they may enjoy it, but they don't fully appreciate the value created by the artist. As a listener, I might really like Slash's Godfather Solo, but most people probably are not even aware which particular Les Paul model he is playing, if they are aware of it at all.  And they certainly are not feeling the beautiful instrument in their hands. Only Slash is getting that experience.

This example strikes me because I have long enjoyed looking at cool guitars, but I have never been able to play them. I like guitar music, and I like the way the guitars look. And I have a particular appreciation for industrial design, whether it is applied to computers, phones, cars or corkscrews.  But I definitely feel like I am missing out on a big aspect of appreciating the art of a guitar. I don't encounter the action of the fretboard, the feel of the instrument, or its sonic versatility.

So since my son is learning guitar (he's nine), I've been learning too. (He is ahead of me and accelerating away in terms of ability.) So I am starting, just a little, to be able to enjoy guitars as an art form at a different level. Even though I can barely play, just the process of learning adds new dimensions of understanding. Years from now, assuming I can stick with it and keep practicing, I hope to get much more out of holding these instruments.

As art forms, a video game and a musical instrument are quite comparable. They both create a bounded universe for the consumer (gamer/musician). Within that universe, each participant creates their own experience.

So there it is: an art form created for a very tiny slice of the population, those who both have the talent and have done the long, hard work to achieve a high skill level required to appreciate the art.

I would recommend this piece of music to John, whether he enjoys Slash's music or not.