A Brief History of Non-Linear Art: Darshana Jayemanne
Darshana Jayemanne is an Australian graduate student at Melbourne's School of Culture and Communication. On April 24th, 2012, Darshana Jayemanne posted an insightful Kill Screen piece that draws on the history of non-linear art to refute recent attacks on today's non-linear forms, most notably video games.
One trigger for Darshana Jayemanne's April 24th, 2012 article seems to have been an April 16th, 2010 piece by the world's most influential film critic, Roger Ebert, entitled "Video Games Can Never Be Art."
In that provocative 2010 blogpost, Roger Ebert argued that "no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." According to Mr. Ebert, art is not simply arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions or the attempt to express ideas. For Mr. Ebert what makes art "Art" is that it passes through an artist's "soul or vision" and engenders a profound (we'll know it when we see it?) emotional response.
The flaws in Mr. Ebert's definition of art - and in his argument against video games as art - are numerous. To start with, Mr. Ebert talks about art as something that must be experienced (as a matter of "taste") but Mr. Ebert has apparently never actually played the video games he uses as examples (apparently passively watching a Ted Talk about gaming is enough for Mr. Ebert). And the irony of a movie critic lambasting any other form for it's commercialism is too rich to ignore: Tell us more about the crassness of a discipline that prizes "Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management" Mr. Ebert.
Other scholars have identified the futility of applying a narrow set of aesthetic standards to video games and transmedia storytelling.
For example, Dr. Henry Jenkins has written persuasively about the aesthetics of games and how Old World critics might entirely miss the artistry in game design: “Spatial stories are not badly constructed stories; rather, they are stories which respond to alternative aesthetic principles, privileging spatial exploration over plot development."
And, a March 26th, 2012 blogpost, by a former student of Prof. Jenkins, Geoffrey Long, makes the argument that the unique aesthetic principles of each platform must be appreciated by anyone attempting to criticize a work of transmedia storytelling: "Being well-versed in just one medium does not qualify you to criticize in another."
What makes Darshana Jayemanne's article a must-read for anyone interested in gaming and cross-platform storytelling is the way Mr. Jayemanne connects today's non-linear storytelling to prior works of art. As Dr. Christy Dena observed, when she enthusiastically endorsed Darshana Jayemanne's article: "Darshana has written an important article about the many ways 'artworks organize the temporal and spatial experience'."
The history of non-linear art (from the Sphinx to Rabelais, Blake and Jackson Pollock) is something that many of us with a background in traditional narrative filmmaking have never really confronted in our own work - but 21st century filmmakers may need to spend more time thinking about how these traditions can be reflected in our own work.