Archive: April 6th, 2009

Hal Foster: The Return of the Real

[Readings] (04.06.09, 6:08 pm)

The Return of the Real is about relatively recent changes in the contemporary avant-garde. My interest in this comes from the analogy between art practice and the practice of creating games. The practice of game making has many differences from art practice, but it is important to realize that game making is a wide and open field, and there are many more types of games than the mainstream. It is equally important to remember that the avant-garde, with all of its self-reinvention is a small subset of art practice as a whole. Digital media is a common location for avant-garde works, (especially in early hypertext), but games themselves tend to be less considered. This is not to say that there are not avant-garde games, but they are far and away less common.

The avant-garde is about the cutting edge in art. To speak exceedingly generally, this usually means pushing what it means for something to be art, or to practice art. The analogy to games, by that measure, seems rather straightforward. When applied to games, we can question what it means for something to be a game (or software), question the rules, the relationship between the player and the space of the game versus outside the game, and so on. A lot of early theory about games in culture (Huizinga, Caillois) is sociological and anthropological and a lot of the ideas described there could be tested and challenged by an experimental avant-garde games movement.

It is interesting then to compare this idea of avant-garde experimentation with Hal Foster’s claim that the avant-garde has done a full circle and has become about presence and reality. The two movements being compared are the “historical avant-garde” of the 1910s and 20s and the postwar “neo avant-garde” generally of the 1960s. Both movements described are unmistakably avant-garde, characterized by their motivation at tackling the same types of problems, their often similar formal qualities, their aesthetics of rupture, and their hermetic inaccessibility. However, the concepts of the neo avant-garde have become more focused on body and reality, while the historical avant-garde had focused on the broader concepts of empire and state, at a level that eclipsed the individual participant.

Some of the concepts Foster describes in his early discussion are: the three-dimensional and spatial nature of art, the role of the body and of trauma, and the relationship between the past and present and actions that are reverted and deferred. The role of the real is not a as a medium, but as a subject, where the real itself is a thing of trauma and distress, acting on the individual.  The process of defamiliarization, common within avant-garde, seeks to reveal the grotesque and horriffic within the everyday and commonplace. The artist’s role is as an ethnographer, living in reality, but also observing it and criticizing it through artwork.

It is in this sense, that art practice is a form of ethnography, that interesting connections begin to get made. It is arguable that any work (either commercial or individually produced, with or without the self-critical obsession of the avant-garde) is a product of the culture in which it was produced. The artifact owes its existence not only to the author, but to the social and cultural world wherin that author resides, and within which the artifact may be recieved and interpreted. This is a pervasive argument within cultural study, and is made explicit in Goldmann. It may also be handily argued that the same connection applies to games. Being procedurally oriented, and built on rules and systems, we can make the claim that anyone who produces games reflects within the systems of the game the systems and values of the creator’s culture. When the medium shifts from the environmental, sculptural, or audio-visual used by avant-garde into the procedural, the systems modeled by the game can then be added to the rhetoric of cultural criticism.

I do not know offhand what types of artistic claims could be made through procedural media that could not be expressed using other media, but a couple of interesting points may be made. The first is that the format of a game, in general, is very interesting as a cultural object. Games have their own history and their own culture and role within popular culture. There are customary ways in which players interact with games, and how games work as social objects, and this may be interestingly extended for the purposes of the avant-garde. Furthermore, Foster claims that because the new avant-garde is about a return to the real, but games are generally characterized by the imaginary and the escape from the real. Games have an ambiguous relationship between the real and the imaginary. On one hand, through graphical sophistication, mainstream games are on a determined march toward the photorealistic, but the content and concepts of games are usually extremely far removed from realism. What is painted in many games is a hyper-realistic image with a level of sub-human expressivity. Violent games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series enable the player to move through an intense visual wonderland with the Freudian id running free.

If games represent within their systems the conceptual systems of our culture, then artistic works that aim to subvert the Freudian destructive impulses might have some potential. Mostly I am not interested in art about games, but rather games as art, though, and this would lead to different subjects. Much of the avant-garde described by Foster accounts for the shock and trauma of reality, and while games are often a medium of escape, so too have been fine art and film, media which have been co-opted by the avant-garde. Games too may take the concepts of escape and subvert these with clashes with reality, revealing the alien nature which the everyday world may sometimes possess. Generally, Foster is interested in the support and preservation of the avant-garde, and this is to be done with a shift in theory. Likewise, for games to function as culturally critical artifacts, so to must theory be used to treat them critically.

There is a useful review of the book, as well.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFoster, Hal
TitleThe Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century
Tagsmedia traditions, postmodernism, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon