Any consumption of art is an act of exclusion. When you wander the aisles of a bookstore, scroll your Netflix queue or open Spotify, you are presented with a sea of choices and you narrow it down based on internal criteria. You could spend your entire life devoted to consuming art and you’d still never scratch the surface. Being an informed art consumer has always required a considerable amount of dedication, but what does that dedication look like in a time when the territory of art is expanding?
Our modern world provides vast options. It’s not just the prodigious abundance of artists and genres that exists; we also have forms of art that no past generations could have ever conceived of, let alone experience. Even relatively new mediums like film and photography feel ancient in comparison to digital mediums and the new forms of storytelling that computers and the internet now provide.
The medium that brought us Pac-Man now offers characters with backstories, motivations and morality. Within the span of a generation, video games have evolved from mere distractions to long-form, narrative-based interactive works. Are they art? As someone who doesn’t consume the medium, I don’t feel qualified to answer, but something tells me that the more appropriate question is, “When exactly did video games become art?”
My personal consumption of art probably qualifies me as old-fashioned and stodgy. I love books. Physical books. I have a tablet and I’ve started reading my first digital book (Mark Twain’s Following the Equator), but my bed remains a repository for a pile of bound paper. I still own DVDs and I prefer slow-paced, character-based dramas to loud and CGI-enhanced (though there are always exceptions). My music library is all digital now, but I have rarely ever bought one song on its own. I believe firmly in the album experience and I like artists who care more about tracklists than singles.
As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t play video games. I’m not opposed to them, I just find them personally unengaging and I usually lose interest well before I have any hope of completing my objective. This is probably the result of my parents refusing to have any console system in the house more advanced than an Atari, no matter how much we kids begged. I don’t know if that was the “right” choice, but it had definite dividends for my reading habits.
Am I better off without video games? Many would say yes, but I’m slower to make that judgment.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS GENERATION?
A reoccurring refrain among older pundits is that kids don’t read, an odd recrimination considering that YA fiction is one of the strongest arms of the publishing industry. The best selling series of all time is Harry Potter, and while a healthy percentage of adults read those books, too, I don’t know a single person currently in their 20s who didn’t read them*. Kids do read, it’s just that they also do a whole host of other things, too.
Films and TV were books’ first competitors, but the 20th century is one long history of alternative leisure pastimes. By the 21st century, the fledgling internet was just one of a plethora of activities and distractions available to us. Ask someone in their late 20s to early 30 and they’ll have vague memories of what their life was like before the internet became ubiquitous, but let’s not kid ourselves: We weren’t all sitting around fastidiously studying and reading for our personal edification. We were watching absolute crap television like Knight Rider and Saved by the Bell and trying to save the princess.
Before that, it was Happy Days and a bouncing white ball on a black screen.
There isn’t something fundamentally wrong with this young generation that wasn’t already present in their forebears. They just have overwhelming choices in what they consume, so many choices that it’s sometimes hard to grasp just how diverse their experiences have become. A kid today has the same kind of peer pressure to be knowledgeable about his generation’s pop culture as all of us had, but there’s also an assumption put on him by adults that he will consume older pop culture, too (because, of course, our art was better).
Today, sounding artistically informed not only requires familiarity with two or three centuries of literature, but also with the past five decades of pop music, films of the 70s and 80s, television in the 90s and 00s, comic books (superheroes and other) from, at the very least, Frank Miller’s run on Batman, and video games going back to 8-bit. There should also be thorough knowledge of internet memes and viral videos. Compare that to the know-it-all hipsters in High Fidelity and John Cusack seems like a pussy.
If I exclude certain forms of art from my diet (and by necessity I do), it’s merely because I don’t have a taste for them, not because I believe they lack merit. My personal disinterest in gaming says nothing about the medium’s ascension to art. It wasn’t too long ago that comic books were considered frivolous entertainment, but now graphic novels have won a Pulitzer Prize and numerous Hugo Awards. I don’t have to be a consumer of these art forms to recognize there is admirable work being done. In an ideal world, I’d have the time to appreciate the finest examples of every art form. Also, whiskey would pour out of faucets. Nothing’s ideal.
I know some critics might stop me and incredulously ask, “Are you suggesting we throw out our art standards?” Quite the contrary. Art is the most important non-essential element in our lives. So important, in fact, that it honestly crosses over to being essential. A life without art cannot possibly be considered life. A life without good art is shallow. We should still care about the quality of the art we consume, but we mustn’t assume that medium dictates worth.
Generational scolds who look down on a younger generation for their artistic diets are failing to understand that the buffet before these kids is practically limitless. To compare their consumption with that of a previous generation is comparing apples to Apple. In an hour online, a kid can find more information than a student in the 80s would be able to access sitting all day in a library. With shorter attention spans, kids might not be adapted to our world, but they are adapting to the world that’s being created around them every day.
Does that mean that the kids are alright and we should just get off their backs and let them be? Well, mostly no, but a little yes. Every generation needs to be challenged and pushed and forced to work hard when they don’t want to. Kids shouldn’t be coddled or neglected, and just because a child doesn’t like something immediately doesn’t mean they should be allowed to abandon it. But, this young generation also needs to be judged by different, ever-evolving standards.
That’s right, being an adult doesn’t mean you get to stop caring about new things. I know you were secretly relieved when you didn’t have to keep up with all the latest fads, but the world didn’t stop changing when you did and that evolution is speeding up exponentially. Each generation finds new ways to express themselves, and while it’s comforting to think that the art we loved will always be relevant, the youth culture has always been the harbingers of the art to come.
As a writer, no one is more invested in seeing the written word maintain its prominence in the culture than me, but I’m also a consumer with a large appetite for diverse flavors of art. New art forms don’t threaten what I do, they build upon and expand it. I hope in a hundred years we are still reading novels and listening to albums, but if we’re not, that doesn’t mean art has died. It’s just evolved.
*Well, I never read them, but I’m also not currently in my 20s, so let’s not quibble.