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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?

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era