High Modernity in the visual arts was defined by a sort of crisis of confidence. Previously painting, and then especially the realism and mobility enabled by oil painting techniques and portable canvases, were a privileged form of representation. The spread of photography and more advanced printing and reproductive technologies began to rip these cultural functions out of paintings’ grasp. Painting as a discipline had to respond to this crisis on two fronts. Painters had to wonder, in this situation, why paint now? The culture of the circulation and reception of painting, collectors, critics, museums and (to a lesser extent) the general public, had to wonder, what is valuable about a painting now? Despite the aloof posture many artists took towards the market (and the issue of where such large sums of money were coming from), both questions were settled on the same basic idea.
Art in the early 20th century was made and understood as a representation of the creativity and internal psychological landscape of the male genius painter. Similarly, the market value of a painting, and its place in the historical narrative became secured by provenance and authenticity, that its origin could be traced to a specific time and place and creator. This is how the value of canvases that could not be read as representing anything of the material world, much less valuable objects, refined architecture, royal families or historical events, could be ascertained. The self-conscious evacuation of representation from painting also led to the imperative towards flatness, wall-size scale. Artists were trying to feel out what it was only painting offered by taking out what was offered by other forms. Representation and recording of events had become the realm of the camera, portability and home enjoyment of these images could be found in magazines, which reached a much larger audience.
Insecurity progresses into insular reductionism and then there also emerges a sort of sadistic undercurrent to these attempts at ultimate medium reductionism, an undercurrent also undeniably white, western and male. Noël Burch, in his essay The Sadeian Aesthetic: A Critical View discusses the “self-centred sadistic impulse” he associates with modernism, a decidedly different form of pleasure than the hedonism associated with mass/low culture, but a form of pleasure nevertheless, though often veiled in language of objectivity, formalism, or failing that, (male) genius. He identifies antagonism or indifference expressed towards audience pleasure in his examples of the boredom or discomfort elicited by experimental music or auteur films, alongside painting which shunned ornamentation and representation. Burch describes these works as all united by their stance as “art for art’s sake with a vengeance,” and emerging in their most advanced form alongside the peak of renewed interest in the Marquis de Sade during the 1950s.
However, even leading up to this, the influence of the egotism and individuality of a male genius artist being the bill of goods a work of art was offering served to mask garden variety misogyny with a noble mission of formal innovation supposedly beyond ideology. At the same time women and people of color were gradually entering art schools, to depict the real circumstances or struggles of their experience was suddenly too figurative, too representative, not in line with the new canon. Burch himself notes that it “took too many years for me to think that it might be significant that the eyeball slit by Buñuel’s razor on that moonlit terrace in Un Chien Andalou belonged to a woman.” This is a convenient metaphor for the concealed sadistic hierarchy of high modernist art, a “covenant” between the “megalomaniac power” of the avant-garde artist and the ideal audience member, “flattered to share the austere tastes of an elite.”
Sade’s egotism is identified as characteristic of the emergence of the concept of the (male) individual that marked the enlightenment era, the stupefying boredom of his perfunctory orgies, where people become swappable components ascribed to a particular position and action as much as they are in Ford’s auto factories or a DotA 2 team comp represents the pinnacle of totalizing rationality. The manifestation of similar egoistic impulses in American writing and visual art during the postwar period was funded and instrumentalized by the CIA as part of their culture war against collective politics and aesthetics worldwide. Indifference to subjectivity, pleasure, content… the high modernist form simply accumulates and repeats the white male genius’ right to power.
Burch writes that an alternate, “philistine” mode of attention most associated with popular culture “is anti-modernist, being predicated on unthinking identification and suspension of disbelief, those bad objects of modernism.” This may seem to clash with a modernist interpretation of videogames but only if what is said about concepts like “immersion” or “empathy” are taken at face value; aside from some puffed up, tech-utopian claims, these concepts have not really been proven in how people actually interact with videogames. Videogames, even the more photorealist or mass culturally oriented ones, are never experienced as seamlessly entering a subjectivity or identifying with a role within the narrative. This is important, because while the movie, for example, continues to play as the viewer becomes absorbed in the emotions of a weeping melodrama actress or pursued victim of a thriller, in videogames, a degree of, if not skill or meaningful agency, some form of “right action” is required to keep going unless the game is fully accessible through autoplay (or Let’s Play), leaving the player at play always a step outside this full surrender.
The ideal and assumed videogame players instead have to look at any situation with calculation and cultivation (of a sort) as the privileged, central figure even above the avatar they may control at any particular moment, figuring out where to go, what to do, what they are afforded. “The modernist writer or film-maker (or artist) is forcing us to identify with his artistic genius as against his characters (or any content at all).” Likewise, while the player may feel affection or pity for the plight of game characters, what is important to game design orthodoxy is that they are properly reverse-engineering and appreciating the rules of the game, which is the authored space of the genius designer (within reason, players that break into the explicit rules of the space via cheats and speedrunning strats are rarely framed as the ideal cooperative player).
So how do videogames ride the high modernist cycle of insecurity to insularity to sadism? There are several obvious reasons why videogames as a form are always having a crisis of insecurity, through which its proponents of course puff themselves up and make increasingly ridiculous claims, throwing the value of the form into question even more when these promises do not play out, and the process is repeated. Commercial videogames were born in an environment where money and resources flowed in via a confluence of the military industrial complex (not only was Spacewar! A futuristic combat simulator, it was made during offtime in computer laboratories vital to simulating combat scenarios in the new form of warfare that emerged post World Wars) and the “Californian Ideology,” a meeting of “free-wheeling hippies and entrepreneurial yuppies.” This is the tech wing of the neoliberal order, combining worship of free market libertarianism with technological determinism, resulting in the belief that an environment enabling flowing venture capital and rugged individualist tech entrepreneurs will inevitably lead to technological solutions to all of our problems and improvements on all facets of our lives (for those who can afford it, generally). You only need to look at the news cycle surrounding the unholy trinity of Google, Facebook and Amazon this year to see that the original 1995(!) article coining the “California Ideology” term has been completely vindicated and declare a principled “YEAH FUCKIN RIGHT!!!”
Regardless, videogames were born into a culture of hype and their creators have conducted themselves exceedingly well towards that end, and will continue to even as it becomes increasingly deranged and unfashionable. On the commercial side of things, videogames’ potential must constantly be renewed with claims of improved technology, new experiences, better graphics, more hours… Simultaneously the attention of gamers must always be drawn forward as history (sparing a manicured corporate canon) is allowed to fall into the sea behind them. Yes, a few select “classic” titles can be drawn on to lend cultural persistence and a sense of history to the form, but the broken promises of the hype cycle must be forgotten for it to continue to function.
In some cases this consumer-oriented approach is sufficient to sell a few videogames, get a few investors, but other goals demand other forms of cultural persuasion and power, and not being able to draw on several of these sources of power can lead to insecurity, especially since being too commercially successful or too popular can be downright suspicious to certain areas of the arts and the academy. Examining the claims made by some forms of games scholarship, or, alternately, by the US Military, they seem desperate to find ways that playing videogames are essentially beneficial or positive, often for problems that already have low tech solutions which have been gutted by neoliberal cuts on healthcare, public infrastructure, services and social safety nets which encourage rich cultural life.
It is generally academics and developers with aspirations of raising the profile of the form, not commercially or through some sort of social good use, but as an element of (high)culture, who draw on high modernist tropes, half a century too late. Insecurity turns to insularity as disciplinary border work identifies not only the supposed core uniqueness videogames offer, but contaminated or improper uses and interpretations, “tainted” by cinema or narrative, or not making proper use of the form, too much text, not enough agency, not enough goals, not taking advantage of the argued universal human desire to understand increasingly challenging systems, which videogames can of course uniquely satisfy.
A lot of high modernist videogames are not only extremely insular in terms of their goals, burrowing into the perfection of a single mechanic or abstracted system, ideally positioning the variations to communicate a metaphor somehow better than a piece of writing or visual art could, but they also often use an austere style of simple polygonal shapes or oversize, chunky pixel icons. This latter style may seem like retro tribute, but the fact is historically, videogames did not really look anything like the curated minimalist palette of a pippin barr game or similar. The way these videogames look are both a way of abstracting representation and rejecting the desire for the lush, the pleasing, the decorative, draining the visual space of the game to draw attention only towards the genius designer’s imposition of rules and systems on the player. They call back to an idealized historical moment that represents "what vidoegames were about" before more unscrupulous takes on the form leaked in, which is of course a total misrepresentation.
Similar to Burch’s epiphany that it -must- be significant that Buñuel’s avant-garde cinema metaphorically slices the eye of a woman, it must also be significant that many of these early “high modernist” videogames, riding a new push for increased cultural legitimacy of videogames along with the formation of game studies as a discipline, focused on pure systems and the unique allowances of the videogame form, also derive their mechanical “poignancy” simulating miserable relationships with a generic representation of a woman.