Story Structure

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Because I’ve already spoken on narrative structures, the title probably deserves clarification. For my purposes, narrative structure is the shape of the story – how it’s told. Story structure, by comparison, is the form of the story – what makes it a story. A story needs to be built around a narrative structure; any story can be analysed according to any story structure.

There are a potentially unlimited number of story structures, but the two most well-known structures are the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Three Act Structure.”  As had been previously stated, these are structures that can be applied to any story.  Therefore, a story structure is only valuable as an analytical tool. “A man goes to the fridge to get a beer” is a complete story. You can break down the actions, from him deciding he wants a beer all the way through him returning to the couch, into the Three Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. I state this because many people think a story structure is a guideline to building a good story. Following a story structure, especially slavishly following a story structure, only guarantees that you have crafted a story. It is natural to tell stories, and one can instinctually tell whether a story exists. Story structures are good for analysis and interpretation – nothing more, nothing less.

As has been previously established in my musings on art, interpretation is key to experiencing art. Similarly, analysis is integral to forming a coherent interpretation. Therefore, story structures are quite useful – in their proper place.

The Hero’s Journey has been addressed by many people far more eloquent than I (banana), and I’m not sure I’m really qualified to add to the conversation, but the worst I can do is make a total ass of myself and be wrong on all counts. So on we go!

As you likely already know (especially if you read the links), the Hero’s Journey (AKA the Monomyth) was popularized by Joseph Campbell, breaking the story down into 17 distinct parts.  Dan Harmon cut it down to 8, because he’s twice as good as Joseph Campbell.

Many people get frustrated with the Hero’s Journey because, as already noted, it has a tendency to be used as scaffolding to build, rather than a tool to analyze. For the sake of absurdity, let us apply the 17 steps of the Monomyth to the guy getting a beer:

1. Call to Adventure – The guy is thirsty.

2. Refusal of the Call – If the guy wants a beer, he’ll have to get off the couch. The couch is comfortable. Besides, his show is on.

3. Supernatural Aid – A commercial comes on.

4. Crossing the First Threshold – The man gets up.

5. Belly of the Whale – The man steps away from the couch – it will now take effort to return.

6. The Road of Trials – The man’s kid left his toys all over the floor, the kitchen tiles are cold, and the beer’s hidden behind a watermelon.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess – The man grabs a beer.

8. Woman as Temptress – The beer needs a bottle opener. It might be easier to grab a swig of milk from the carton instead.

9. Atonement with the Father – Rifling through the drawer, the man seeks out the bottle opener.

10. Apotheosis – The bottle opener has been found, and the beer is liberated.

11. The Ultimate Boon – Still in the kitchen, the man tastes the sweet nectar, the fruits of his achievement.

12. Refusal of the Return – It’s not that bad standing in the kitchen. Besides, he has his beer.

13. The Magic Flight – Seeing as it’s 11 AM, it might be best to not be caught.

14. Rescue from Without – The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” shouts his wife.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold – The man returns to the couch, more aware of his kid’s toys.

16. Master of Two Worlds – The man is back at the couch, beer in hand, and the commercials are just ending.

17. Freedom to Live – Life is good.

While, in theory, my slavish adherence to the Monomyth has made a rather compelling version of “Guy goes to the fridge to get a beer,” it’s still about a guy getting a beer. Also, were all those steps really necessary? Do we care that the guy was comfortable on the couch watching his show? Did we need the ordeal of procuring the bottle opener? Arguably, the story was made worse by insistence on hitting every beat. Especially when equal time is given to each step.

In fairness, using the Hero’s Journey as a tool for analysis is itself fraught with peril. Taken to the extreme, the Hero’s Journey means that Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory(Warning: Link to TVTropes). This should not discourage the use of a valuable tool – it should be an admonition toward moderation. Any interpretation can be applied to any work of art – what matters is whether the interpretation fits. The Hero’s Journey is excellent at decoding allegory, as well as developing analogies. But it is only a tool. It is one way to connect the dots, but not the only way, and not the best way. The Hero’s Journey will connect every set of dots into a dog, but not every set of dots should be a dog.

The Three Act Structure is a more general approach, as are any X Act Structures. Arguably, the Monomyth is a 17 Act structure. Because it’s more general, it has more flexibility, but that also means it has a greater potential for abuse. When crafting from an act structure, the inclination is to separate everything into equal parts – the story suffers because the important stuff is crammed into a tight space, while boring and unimportant elements are stretched. Because three acts means three equal parts. While this may be mitigated by a theoretical perfect number of acts properly defined, it simply serves to reemphasise the point previously made – story structure is a tool for analysis, not for construction.


Consuming Content

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I am in the habit of consuming a prodigious amount of content.

Before expanding on this idea, let’s begin with a definition or two. By “consume content,” I mean “to actively engage a sensory input with one’s intellect.” Put simply, this is the distinction between hearing and listening. Content is sensory information, but organized in such a manner that it is itself a unit (in a logical sense), generally with a discrete and recognizable “source.”  A source can be a TV screen, a conversation, or anything else which can be tied to the production of content. Content can be engaged on several levels, from a general overview to a precise analysis. Someone can hear a song (not consuming content), can listen to the song (consuming content), or can analyze the melodies, harmonies, chord progression, and/or individual instruments (consuming content on a deeper level).

Everyone is capable of consuming content from multiple sources simultaneously, but the wider the net is cast, the shallower one’s consumption ability becomes. Therefore, at a certain point, one is no longer effective at consuming any content, leading to the neglect of one or more sources. Aside from this hard limit, there is also a comfort limit.  It is assumed that most people are comfortable engaging one or two sources at a given time. As a general rule, it is considered polite to engage 1 or 2 sources when people are involved. This is by practicality, because, as stated, the more sources engaged, the less depth available to any given source. No one appreciates a shallow engagement. Such encounters lead to one being considered “aloof” or “disconnected.”

By personal estimation, I have found myself capable of meaningful engagement with as many as 4 or 5 sources, but tend to find my comfort level is engaging 2-3 sources. This may appear to be signs of a data addiction, but that would come from a misinterpretation of the phrases “consuming content” and “engaging sources.” The phrases are roughly synonymous, with consuming content being the general term, while engaging a source refers to a specific action, rather than the general activity. While driving, engaging a single source would be paying attention to the road. Engaging two sources would be watching the road and listening to the song on the radio, or holding a conversation with a passenger. Engaging three sources would be watching the road, talking to the passenger, and listening to the radio playing at a low enough level that it doesn’t compete with or overpower the conversation. I am confining this discussion to mental engagement; the physical engagement of interacting with devices provides an unnecessary level of complexity for this discussion.

Like memory, content consumption can be divided into short-term and long-term, as consumption is directed directly toward short-term memory and long-term memory. Depending on the nature of the car conversation, consumption may be short-term(chatting about the weather) or long-term(talking about  your mutual future). Listening to a song on the radio can similarly be short-term(enjoying the song) or long-term(analysing the song). Watching the road can be short-term(watching for traffic, signals) or long-term(memorising a new route). As can be inferred from the examples, long-term consumption tends to require a deeper level of engagement.

Much of my life is directed toward consuming content. I am by nature analytical, so I often find myself consuming even trivial content, as my mind is extremely active. Without trying, I find myself deconstructing every book, movie, game, song, or other form of content as I experience them. To go back to my essays on art, consumption of content is actively applying and criticising interpretations, often at a rapid pace as new information presents itself. When I engage a source, then, it tends toward the deeper levels. As a benefit, I tend to have a modest understanding of my experiences, but I tend to be accused of overthinking things.

On top of the method of consumption, there is the sheer scale of my consumption. I place consumption of content in its proper role, but I have watched hundreds of movies and TV shows, and have a massive list of movies and shows to watch. I have played hundreds of video games, with hundreds more readily accessible at my fingertips. I have likely read over a thousand books, and have shelves full of books I haven’t read, as well as a list of books I do not own but intend to read. One of my primary roles at my full-time job is to consume content, interpret it, and reproduce it in a more digestible form for the sake oft hose that report to me,a s well as for those to whom I report. Additionally, I likely read several thousands of words each day, as I keep myself informed about the news and other points of interest.

With all this consumption, there remains the question: to what end? Why do I consider it worth my time to consume content at such a sustained level? It is understood that engaging film will bolster your cinematic vocabulary. What is often missed is that the cinematic vocabulary is meant to be applicable to life in an analogical sense – we watch movies in part for entertainment, but also because we wish to see the reflection of truth in our own world. Explosions may be fun, but we return to the value of art. I consume this content, rapidly applying interpretations to the content, so that I might find an interpretation that helps in my edification. Each point of data helps to develop a catalog of reference points and interrelations, both for my own personal use, but also for the sake of others – by sharing what I have learned and the connections and interpretations I have drawn, I can direct them to build off my success, to reach even greater heights. Similarly, I turn to those that have come before me in consuming content, so I may in turn benefit from their curation. We have a massive network of information at our fingertips, but, more importantly, we also have useful guideposts set along the way. A herculean task is impossible for one man. The wisdom of the crowds can come to resemble a swarm at times. But, with the help of good guides, an ordinary man can see far by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Sovereignty of the Internet

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There is a lot happening around the world in relation to the internet. In a sense, everyone is trying to figure it out, to understand it, or to simply live with it. It is very possible, as history writes itself, that the Digital Revolution will be as pivotal as the Industrial Revolution.

Recently, there have been many calls for an “Internet Bill of Rights,” and even a push for a Declaration of Internet Freedom. This illustrates a striking point: There is a large faction of people who see the Internet as a Sovereign entity, independent of any country or nation. Currently, this is an ideal, as the practical truth is that the infrastructure of the internet is controlled in various parts by several countries. The people for a sovereign internet argue that this is not merely an ideal, but a necessity – if the internet is not open and free, it will not work properly. The internet transcends borders, so it is either subject to its own laws, or subject to all laws of all countries.

People have expressed particular distress at actions of the United states in relation to the Internet. The Department of State advocates a free internet to fight oppression, but sees no problem with suppressing websites which may be illegal under US law, or encourage acts against US law. The US seeks extradition of  individuals who violate US law while not on US soil, because it was on the internet. Politicians call the internet a lawless “Wild West” that needs law imposed upon it for its own good.

Aside from the fact that the Wild West analogy is an example of “You fail history forever,” all these actions are in fact consistent, provided you accept their core assumption: the US believes the internet to be a US colony. There is no inconsistency with supporting freedom, democracy, and opposition to tyranny, yet enforcing your laws on your own colony. There is nothing unusual about demanding extradition of an individual who committed a crime in your colony. If you see lawlessness in your colony, it is only natural to desire to impose order.

The issue at hand, however, is that the “people of the internet” see the internet much like the original American colonies – nominally, they show allegiance to their colonial masters, but they have been in the practical habit of self-governance. The colonies police themselves, enforce their own laws, and in all practical aspects remain a separate entity. This came to a head when the ruling powers began imposing their will on the colonies in the form of taxation and laws, such as the infamous Intolerable Acts. This is all American History 101, placed into a different context. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Americans who consider themselves in part denizens of the internet are calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” or an “Internet declaration of independence.” Look at the list of grievances in the original Declaration of Independence. One more inflammatory than myself could argue that each and every grievance listed has a counterpart in this conflict between the US and the internet.

In Jefferson’s original draft, the Declaration included this phrase: “We might have been a free & a great people together; but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. be it so, since they will have it: the road to glory & happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a separate state, and acquiesce in the necessity which pronounces our everlasting Adieu!” He laments the irreconcilable differences, that the rift need not have been created.

Reconciliation is possible. Let us return to the ever popular example of “the Wild West.” Lawlessness in the Wild West came from the strong imposing their will on the weak, and law was enforced by the strong who stood up for the weak. The weak learned to adapt to the harsh new environment and became strong, and established their own laws and order. Once they had become a coherent whole, capable of some degree of self-government, they petitioned to enter the Union. There was no instance of the Federal government coming into town, shooting up the lawbreakers, and imposing their own laws on the people. That approach is absurd, because it is patently un-American. The laws come up from the people, and the ideals of the people are enshrined as laws. They are not handed down from an authority on high, to be imposed upon the people.

The ideals and principles of the people of the internet are not the same as those of any regional authority. They can’t be so, and they shouldn’t be so. Laws are relegated to the people on the local level because the realities of the environment are different. Water rights are much more nuanced in the Western United States, because there is much less water – it would be absurd to enforce some sort of national law of water rights, because the realities of the different regions mean that many, if not most – or even all – regions are poorly served by this national rule. The realities of the digital world are dramatically different from the realities of the physical world – it would be absurd to apply the rules of one upon the realities of the other.

There are principles, and there should be rules. But they should be grounded in reality, and they should come from the people. Americans hold very dear to their hearts that they should not be subject to the whims of a foreign and alien ruler on distant shores, who can’t be bothered to learn about the realities of their life. Is it so much of a surprise that the people of the internet, often steeped in the same ideals of the US, demand the same respect?

The Creative Drive

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Everyone has a desire to create.

On the basest level, this manifests in the subconscious – daydreaming, imagining, even actual sleeping dreams.  Some are more inclined to this act of creation than others, but it is present in all people. Creation, especially on the mental level, need not be a spectacular event – if creation extends even to the imagination, than the imagination of the different flavors as one decides what to eat, or anticipates what he has already decided, is a form of creation.

Most people, perhaps all, are not satisfied with the mere imagination. People want to take their creations and make them real. The artist and the writer want to transfer their thoughts to a fixed medium; the architect wants to form structures; the chef and craftsman want to create things of beauty and utility from raw materials. Most people, however, do not have an overlap between their drive to create and their profession. They create as a hobby – either because their talents are not marketable or because they do not wish to create for a living.

Professional and amateur are held in tension, and often considered to be opposites. As the words imply, the professional performs the art as a job, while the amateur performs the art for love of the art. Linguistic bias implies that drive is not a factor in professionalism, only talent. Amateur quality is considered poor quality, often making rookie mistakes, while professional quality is considered solid and consistent quality, at a bare minimum. Needless to say, amateurs can be perfectly capable or professional quality work, while many professionals are guilty of doing amateur quality work.

Drive is in fact the most pivotal factor in the art of creation. There is no correlation between the decision to work professionally and the levels of drive and talent, though a minimum level of both drive and talent  is assumed for the individual that makes such a decision.

Talent is composed of two elements – gift and experience. Gift is the inborn ability – any element of oneself which makes a given art easier can be considered gift.  Gift is unevenly distributed, and may affect an individual’s inclination toward a given art. Experience is available to everyone equally – some may gain it faster than others, and experience will manifest for different individuals in different areas – again, the experience is unique to the individual. Talent is then somewhere between the sum of gift and experience and the product of gift and experience – someone with no gift is, in theory, capable of matching someone incredibly gifted, given enough experience. A popular theory of experience is the concept of 10,000 hours – after 10,000 hours of an activity, someone can truly be considered “good” at that activity. While there is truth to the 10,000 hours theory, it perhaps overvalues experience while diminishing gift.  There is, in theory, a critical mass where the level of gift is inconsequential in the face of experience, but I am not certain that that critical mass is 10,000 hours. The point remains that gift does not separate individuals, it simply inclines them to take more easily to a given art. The best author is not necessarily the most gifted.

Which brings us to drive. This is the decision to do something – nothing more, nothing less. This decision is not a one-time action, however – it is a constant action, in the face of any adversity. Drive is shown when an individual stumbles, but does not quit, when an individual makes time for the art, rather than muttering about “finding time.”  Drive waxes and wanes, leading to the well-known concept of “writer’s block.” Similarly, those with more drive are more likely to commit to something long enough to see it through, and, by extension, more likely to reach the fabled 10,000 hours.

But, on a more philosophical level, what is drive?

Drive can be caused by intrinsic factors.  It can be a desire to prove something. It can be the recognition that this art is a means to a desirable end, be it survival, charitable, comfort, or any other end.

Drive can also have an intrinsic source. This is less understood, because it is less understandable. This drive can be the desire to prove something to oneself. Or it can be a recognition of the value of creation – much as art can elevate the one who experiences it, it can elevate the one who creates. And then there are those who simply feel they must create – there is a primal sense of something within them that must be made real. In this latter case, the author will not be able to explain why the art must be created, only that it must. This intrinsic drive is also considered a “gift,” though it is distinct from the earlier sense of gift.

There may be many reasons why one with drive has no inclination toward professionalism. It may be a matter of temperament – art serves no master. It may be a matter of principle – art is not something to be bought and sold; it demands to be experienced. It may be a matter of personal preference – I do this to relax; I couldn’t possibly relax if my livelihood depended on it. It may be a matter of self-deprecation – I’m not good enough to do this for a living. Or it may be one of an infinite variety of reasons. Samuel Clemens (i.e. Mark Twain) argued in Tom Sawyer that the very fact of an art being a profession diminishes drive.

There are in fact many elements which work against drive. People tend to have a poor estimation of their abilities, and claim incompetence – a very tall hurdle for those with little to no gift while they work to accumulate basic experience. People can temporarily subdue the drive through consumption – vicariously enjoying the creation of others. People can be discouraged by difficulty progressing. Of they can just be having a very bad day. There are easily as many excuses to not create as there are to create.

In the end, however, there remains the fact that people are inclined to create. The experience of creation, particularly seeing the finished creation, and the impact thereof, really cannot be compared to any other experience. The greater the art, the greater the internal sense of fulfillment, especially if the quality meets or exceeds the author’s personal standards.

Video Games as Toys


The lead designer of Portal says that she makes toys. This shocks many in the gaming community, especially in the “Games are Art” movement. It shouldn’t.

A toy is not a bad thing. Dictionaries tend to define toys as “for children.” The Wikipedia article takes a more balanced, less dismissive approach.  The key phrase as follows: ” Adults use toys and play to form and strengthen social bonds, teach, remember and reinforce lessons from their youth, discover their identity, exercise their minds and bodies, explore relationships, practice skills, and decorate their living spaces.”

When you state it like that, it sounds dignified, and a downright serious intellectual activity. Because that’s exactly what it is. All men have toys, whether they’re Lego, dolls, action figures, board games, pencil and paper RPGs, electronic devices, power tools, automobiles, gardens, or whatever else.  The experience of art is in the interpretation, and it is natural and human to interpret something as a toy if that is how you use it.

There is no shame in enjoying toys.  There is no shame in publicly embracing toys. People claim that there’s something wrong with the adult who plays Dungeons & Dragons or Super Mario Bros. or hundreds of other diversions, yet no one is called a “man-child” for playing Words With Friends or Angry Birds – at worst it is considered unprofessional.

More importantly, video games, generally speaking, should be toys.  Portal was called a toy by the designer, and it is a very appropriate appellation. People enjoyed the story and jokes, but it was the toy element that truly resonated.  Even now, people toy with the idea of “What if you had a portal gun in [situation]?” This also indicates the tepid reception of Portal II in many circles. In Portal II, you got some new toys, but people felt too limited by their main toy. The narrative and writing was as strong as ever, perhaps stronger than the original, but, being less of a toy, people loved it just a little bit less.

Shadow of the Colossus is considered a milestone for the “Games are Art” crowd, as it’s achieved a solid, if delayed, reception.  Pretty much universally, the game is hailed as an example of video games being art. While I certainly concede the atmosphere and world building and all those other artistic elements, my most memorable experiences had little to do with the overarching themes or nuances.  What I remember most from the game are the epic set pieces that were the Colossus fights – puzzles combined with more traditional platformer challenges, all on such a large scale.  The one that particularly stands out is the fight against the flying colossus over the lake. To taunt the beast, grab hold, and take it down in flight as it struggles to shake you off – there really hasn’t been a similar experience in any game I’ve played.  But this experience has little to nothing to do with the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus.  Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent game because it is artistically relevant, but it is also an excellent toy. If it weren’t a good toy, it would likely have been forgotten, or at best a footnote.

Of course, video games don’t need to be toys, and they can still be good and memorable if they aren’t toys. Shadow of the Colossus needed to be a toy, because the theme was focused on the subversion of the toy. The danger, however, lies in the fact that a game that is not a toy can begin to feel like work. One of the big buzzwords right now is “gamification.” Gamification is applying the “toy” functionality/interpretation to something that is not normally considered a toy. If gamification is applying “toy” to “non-toy,” then an attempt to make a video game that is art without being toy is essentially an application of de-gamification. The key value of gamification is to provide an incentive to engage.  To what end should we attempt de-gamification? Is it a push for legitimacy? If so, it is no more meritorious than an attempt to impress the “cool kids.” As any uncool kid knows, attempts to impress the cool kids often fail miserably, and alienate the people most willing to accept you as you are.  If the “Games are Art” people can’t even learn the lessons of a Saturday Morning cartoon, how do they expect to have anything to say, much less anyone to listen to them?

There may be a reason for a non-toy video game.  Arguably, there are already several worthwhile non-toy games.  In each case, however, they likely answer the question “to what end?”  The natural function of the game is “toy.” If you remove that interpretation, you should have something compelling to put in its place.

Inflammatory Content


The focus of this topic is going to focus on the cross section of art called “media.”  This encompasses books, radio, plays, movies, television shows, video games, sculpture, etc.

By inflammatory content, I refer to certain elements that tend to evoke a strong visceral response – violence, sexuality, foul language, religion, philosophy.  Specifically, whether and when it’s appropriate to include inflammatory content.

If you’ve read my past two posts, you can likely see the direction this is headed.

This is very much a case when you apply the principles of judging art in a concrete sense.  You identify the interpretation/function that most closely identifies with the art, and apply the nobility of the function.

Warren Spector recently made news with his claim that the video games industry is “fetishizing violence.” It’s no secret that video games have a history of violence, and that there have been some particularly violent and graphic games in recent history. The question becomes “to what end?” Is the purpose of the game to revel in the violence and gore? Is the purpose of the violence to carry the narrative? Is the violence simply there to “spice up” the narrative? Mr. Spector seems to imply that we are at best “spicing it up” and at worst revelling in violence in games. In competitive first-person shooters, this is particularly prominent, rewarding the player for headshots and kill streaks.
In all honesty, there is likely an element of all three in many recent games. God of War and Mortal Kombat are particularly severe examples of revelling in violence – the point seems to be to go as over-the-top as possible. On the other hand, we have the Call of Duty Series, or the Mass Effect series. In these games, the violence is primarily to carry the plot – the violence isn’t the raison d’etre, but it is a very real element.  Even in these games, however, there’s a push to use the violence as a stylistic flourish, to emphasise the “cool” factor.

But that’s all from the design side.  I would argue, in fact, that it is the design side that fetishizes violence.  I like to imagine that gamers played God of War because the gameplay was enjoyable.  I realize that many people played Mortal Kombat for the over-the-top violence, but I also note that it’s relatively unpopular among fighting games – it’s sold more on the name and controversy.  A game may get lots of attention for its inflammatory content, but few people seek out games for that reason, and the sales numbers tend to carry it out.  Violence won’t sink video games for the same reason that storytelling won’t elevate them – the core demographic remains focused on gameplay.

So the extreme violence in games doesn’t really add much to a game’s value, and actually devalues the game as it fetishizes violence.  But violence doesn’t necessarily hurt a game.  Half Life is quite violent, but the violence is in the surface of a greater narrative, executed in a manner that enhances the overall story.

Movies work the same way.  Guns and explosions-fests are recognized as cinematic junk food – a low value entertainment, though some argue that it’s actively detrimental to agency and self-actualization – Maslow’s highest hierarchy.  The catch, however, is that much of experience, especially the act of consumption, can eb argued as detrimental to this highest hierarchy.   While this argument seems to make sense, it is absurd.  Maslow’s hierarchy is illustrated as a pyramid for that very reason – you cannot adequately fulfill the higher needs without a base of the lower needs.  While one shouldn’t become absorbed in consumption, it is equally detrimental to neglect your basic needs in the pursuit of self-actualization.  So a little junk food can be okay.  In fact, as it can serve the lower needs, it is in it’s lesser sense a good.

And, of course, this carries over into foul language, sexual content, and all those other sorts of content.  Is it in the service of the greater experience, or is the experience in the service of the content?  In pornography, the entire product is directed toward sexual gratification.  In quite a large section of media, however, sexual content is directed toward a higher purpose – generally progression of the narrative.

And we then return to that third possibility – inserting inflammatory content to “spice it up.”  Generally, this is gratuitous violence, or a gratuitous sex scene, or gratuitous foul language.  In other words, it is unnecessary, and likely detrimental.  Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate “gratuitous” from “contributory,” and there is often a difference of opinion on the matter.  However, the distinction between gratuitous and contributory is the key element in judging the value of such inflammatory insertions.  It is relatively obvious, by comparison, to determine if the inflammatory is in the service of the art, or if the art is in the service of the inflammatory.

The Value of Art


Taken by itself, my previous post seems to imply that art, and all experience, essentially, is nothing but a subjective matter.  Essentially, it seems to promote a solipsistic understanding of reality, or at least  an unsatisfying Kantian of phenomenological understanding.  Therefore, I’m going to address another important element of art – the intrinsic value.  Without intrinsic value, everything is entirely subjective.  Michael Bay’s movies (generally) cause an enjoyable experience, so they are good.  Applying hedonic calculus, we potentially reach absurdities such as Transformers 2 being objectively better than Casablanca, because more people have had an enjoyable experience from the former.  Similarly, the Big Mac is a greater artistic achievement than the Mona Lisa.

As formerly established, I am using art and author in an extremely broad sense.  “Art” is “something that is crafted,” be it a sentence, a painting, a sculpture, a tool, a house, or, any (crafted) object.  The author is the person(s) that do the crafting.

The value of the art can be measured on the basis of the function of the art.  The function is – essentially – an interpretation of the art.  The function is generally understood to be the interpretation based on the author’s intent, but this is not necessarily the case.  Art can be directed toward any function, just as it can be interpreted in any manner.  As an interpretation, some functions fit better than others.  This is usually stated as “X is a [value] Y.”  A pillow is a terrible hammer.  Breakfast is an excellent way to start the day.  A coat is a serviceable blanket.   These judgments measure the validity of the interpretation.  For art as it is more generally understood – books, films, painting, sculpture – the function is often more complex, or simply directed to a higher end than basic utility.  They are often understood in terms of catharsis, paths to self-knowledge, or analogies providing context, among many other functions.  This leads us to the second prong of determining the value of art – the nobility of the function.

“Nobility” is a loaded term, but one I feel appropriate for the discussion.  In this case, I associate “nobility” with something I believe to be uncontroversial – Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Essentially, the higher up the hierarchy, the more noble the function.  This nobility functions as a sort of “multiplier” of value.  Something that is nourishing is inherently good, but not as good as something that elevates the soul.  Something that is harmful to the body is not nearly as bad as something that harms the soul.

Applying this nobility, we have a meal set before us.  If the meal is nutritious, it is good, particularly in that one functionality.  If the meal is a still life, it is bad as a source of nutrition, but is of a higher value than the simple meal, as it engages the audience at a higher level.  Following Maslow’s hierarchy, we should not reject the lesser art, as we need nutrition to survive, and we cannot appreciate the more noble needs while the baser remain unmet.

This leads us to where the judgment gets particularly nuanced – art that affects the different hierarchies in variance between the positive and the negative.  If you skip dinner and stay up late to read a book, the experience of the art is bad for you on the baser level, but, for the sake of the argument, it is assumed that the experience of reading the book fulfills more noble needs, creating a net good.  It is acceptable, at the least, to occasionally forego the baser needs for a more noble occupation, though continued neglect of any need is itself bad.

Another example, let us consider the MMO – the Massively Multiplayer Online game.  These games generally encourage factionalism.  On the positive side, you have a kinship with your faction, fostering friendship, even a sense of family, as well as building esteem in your respect for self and others.  But factions also encourage division, and a loss of respect for others.  The value then becomes a question of the function.  If a player plays a MMO to “pwn n00bs,” it is much more likely that, though he likely builds he own self-esteem, it comes at a loss of respect for others.  If, on the other hand, one plays for the sense of camaraderie and competition, he will build up on many levels of needs, with few needs being neglected or harmed (except, of course, those pesky bottom rung needs).

But this then turns from objectivity back to subjectivity, or at least, it appears so.  We then return to the nature of “interpretation.”  You cannot judge art without interpretation, as art cannot be experienced without interpretation.  Michaelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and thousands of other works of great art can be interpreted in a base, prurient sexual manner.  According to art critics, anything vaguely rectangular, triangular, or circular is sexual in character.  A meal can be appreciated for flavor or appearance as easily as nutrition.

So we must judge art in light of a certain function, and make that function clear in our judgment.  Furthermore, it is best to judge art by its most common function (the cultural reception), or perhaps its most fitting functions.  A butane lighter is (generally) a terrible painting tool, but people assume that a terrible butane lighter is one that fails at the most fitting functions of a butane lighter – creating sparks and producing flame.  The nature of this judgment is probably best recognized among film.  Schindler’s List is a terrible feel-good movie, but it is recognized that the function of the movie is catharsis, not feel-good, so people consider it a good movie, not a bad one.

So, in conclusion, the value of art lies in comparing the function (interpretation) to the object, to determine applicability.  Then, after determining the proper function, is should then be judged on its nobility.  A filling meal is good, but not great.  A sublime feast that changes how you look at the world is great.  Junk food may be on balance bad, but entertainment designed to fulfill base desires at the expense of your faith in humanity is terrible.

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