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Digital revolution: how technology has changed what it means to be an artist

A new exhibition at the Barbican shows how the technology behind video games is turbocharging the human imagination. But is it art? (Yes.) 

Umbrellium at the Barbican.

At the Liverpool Biennial this month, I had an epiphany: the video installation is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In a world where almost everyone I know carries a video recorder around in their pocket – and where Google is trying to get us to wear them on our faces – the mere act of committing something to tape is no longer alienating enough to kick the mundane into that strange sphere we call “art”. In 1972, when Ana Mendieta made Untitled (Death of a Chicken), an art gallery was probably the only place you could see a naked woman, splattered in blood, holding some recently deceased poultry. Now we have Reddit.

At the biennial – alongside several great exhibitions, including a well-curated selection of Whistlers at the Bluecoat – there were some spectacularly dull video installations. One was even canny enough to make a feature of its dullness by asserting: “Uri Aran plays with the way endless repetition can strip the banal of its meaning.” Oh, does he now? I resent artists who make me feel like this – like I’m some great big square who doesn’t get the ineffable postmodern profundity of resting a box of raisins over a vitrine filled with snot and would probably just prefer an insipid watercolour of a bee.

Nonetheless, I maintain that the feeling of “Yeah, but I could have done that” is lethal to the enjoyment of modern and conceptual art – and without the obvious artistry evidenced by mastery of a skill such as painting, sculpture or ceramics, it is easily evoked. Artists, take note: you can’t just film an orange for seven minutes and pretend it’s a meditation on solitude.

A small cheer, then, for the Barbican’s new exhibition “Digital Revolution”, which is devoted to the effect that technology has had on art and design. There is a video installation here that is enough to make anyone a convert to the medium: Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary (pictured below). It features a triptych of video screens in a dark room, mirrored in a pool of water, which project your silhouette on to a white background. You see yourself stomp, fidget and gesticulate.

In the first screen, your silhouette disintegrates into birds and flies away; in the second, the birds peck you to nothingness. The final screen allows you to become a bird: fling open your arms and your silhouette suddenly has gigantic eagle’s wings, unfurling with a satisfying “whoomph”. The artist’s notes reference religious fervour, self-doubt and the cave paintings of Lascaux but even without any of that knowledge, the experience is memorable. It is art of this precise moment in history. First, it uses Kinect – the motion-sensing hardware developed by Microsoft that lets you pretend to ten-pin bowl or jet-ski from the comfort of your front room. Second, it uses that technology to answer a need created by another: specifically, that CGI moment in a science-fiction film when an ordinary human being suddenly sprouts wings (the X-Men movies do this well, as does Kevin Smith’s Dogma). Watching those films, surely every viewer wants to know what that might feel like? It turns out that even a small approximation is immensely satisfying. Every adult who stood in front of Milk’s triptych looked as wonderstruck as a child.

The other huge opportunity that the advance of the digital realm offers to artists is the possibility of crowd-sourcing. Elsewhere in the show, Milk has collaborated with another artist, Aaron Koblin, on The Johnny Cash Project, which offers people around the world a chance to redraw a frame of their choice from the video for the song “Ain’t No Grave”. Some are faithful replicas, others wild interpretations in a pointillist or impressionist style. The finished video, updated regularly on YouTube, is both recognisable and eerily estranged from its source material. Again, this is a work that speaks to a specific cultural moment. Technology has created the shared reference, through the mass-media power of the music video, and supplied the means to mimic it, through Photoshop and other software.

The reason I got this reviewing gig is that the exhibition also features games. There are early classics, which show how the commercial power of titles such as Pong, Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros drove innovations in hardware, alongside examples of later experimental and indie games.

A breathless pause here to deal with Roger Ebert’s question, which has haunted the medium for the past decade: can a video game be art? The answer, on this evidence, is yes. Ebert, a film critic, suggested that the interactive element of games showed there was no guiding creative intent: “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would Romeo and Juliet have been better with a different ending? . . . If you can go through ‘every emotional journey available’, doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them?”

But what many of the best games do is show their workings – they uncover the straitjacket of context within which your choices are made. My favourite title, BioShock (not on show here), is a good example, because of its unreliable narrator. The Barbican gives you a chance to play last year’s bleak indie hit Papers, Please, which forces you to act as an immigration official in a crushingly monotonous Soviet bureaucracy. Every choice leads to misery; there is no way to “win”.

Cute Circuit.

The problem with Ebert’s question was that it prompted a retrenchment. As a journalist born in the 1940s and a representative of the more established medium of film, he unwittingly pushed the button in every gamer marked: “But grown-ups don’t understand me!” And so, for several years, games manufacturers decided the best way to gain the approval of the cultural gatekeepers was to mimic cinema. The 2000s became the decade of the interminable cut scene, in which you were forced to watch mediocre mo-capped actors plank their way through utter bibble about lost home worlds and tactical assault teams before you got to the good bits (that is, shooting people in the face).

Finally, though, games are shrugging off their inferiority complex and the irony is that only now is their artistic potential being realised. While it’s true that the mega-hits – the soldier-simulations and dystopian rampage fantasies – are often immensely dumb and cliché-ridden, the same could be said of Hollywood blockbusters. At least in the game world, indie titles have an easy route to consumers, through the Steam software for PC and Mac and the Xbox and PlayStation marketplaces.

Avant-garde games have gone in two distinct directions, both driven by the urge to get away from the desire to “win” or “lose” and a desire to be more self-consciously “artistic”. Some, such as Dear Esther, Dys4ia or Gone Home, try to tell small-scale stories through a game mechanic focused on discovery; they are perhaps better described as “interactive fiction”. Others, such as Journey, Flower or Proteus, do away with any measure of progress and concentrate instead on creating a pure sensory experience.

What this exhibition delivers is a feeling of abundance, of creativity, of the potential of this palette of tools to turb0charge the human imagination. There’s more, too: a sense of connection unimaginable even 30 years ago. Inside the online game Minecraft, there are vast cities built by the mouse clicks of thousands. The indie title Fez has puzzles that are so difficult they can only be solved by an online horde comparing notes on a forum. But underneath it all, there is fragility. The Barbican’s first section, “Digital Archaeology”, reminds you that what is cheap to create is also easily discarded. In 2012, New York’s Museum of Modern Art started collecting the source code of old games, reasoning they could easily be lost for ever as the consoles needed to play them broke down or were thrown out as rubbish.

There’s the rub of artistic expression in our digital world: we can send data across the world at a keystroke, but in 100 years’ time, the highest achievements of our culture might be inaccessible to us, locked away in a digital space to which we no longer have the key. Mind you, when it comes to video installations of solitary oranges, I’m not sure that’s any great loss.

“Digital Revolution” is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, until 14 September

The Liverpool Biennial runs until 26 October at various locations across the city

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain