Life Imitates Art. But What Is Art?

Bob Dob: "Rough Night Out"
Zeitgeist: The spirit of the time. A term that is commonly used to describe trends and cultural movements — the most perplexing of human social phenomena.

It has been said that art imitates life. Oscar Wilde took this notion and flipped it, stating that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life." One need look no further west than Hollywood to see that both statements carry a certain truth, but it is Wilde's version of the statement that weighs especially heavy on Hollywood, and by export, on Western culture in general. Art clearly began by imitating life, but then art changed and grew. At some point, life began imitating art. Notable examples can be seen in the art of film — Hollywood film in particular.

Sometimes celebrities become caricatures of the roles they play, especially when they are typecast into very specific kinds of roles. But it isn't just the characters in the roles that they play that bleed over into reality; look also to their appearance. Look to the scalpel. See how Jenna Jameson, porn starlet-turned-media-icon's face has changed over the years. Look to the 45 year old movie star whose prime has past. Notice perfect teeth, busts, and hairlines cleverly stacked on top of sagging buttocks as they shuffle legs corded with varicose veins across the red carpet at an award show. Look to Joan Rivers, who Jenna appears to be becoming. In the process of projecting fantasies onto screens around the world, Hollywood has become a fantasy land, perhaps through a feedback loop of some sort. This is fine though, because fantasy sells well. If you sell fantasy for a living, you will also tend to project fantasy in your personal life. The same principle explains why car salesmen at high end dealerships don't drive 1980 station wagons. This principle can be applied to any job.

When a production is competent, we see exactly what the producers intend for us to see. It's all makeup, camera angels, and editing: movie magic. The pressure to keep up this facade off-screen (but in front of nigh ever-present cameras [especially of the paparazzi]) is high, but the illusion is kept up quite well by everyone, except for Britney Spears. These illusions effect the perception of reality of the moviegoer (the media consumer).

So: right now in Hollywood, life appears to be imitating the art that is produced in an effort to bring moviegoers to 'fantasy' lands where, among other things, everyone is attractive. Physical attractiveness the unifying element of all Hollywood movies. Genre & theme may vary from one marquee line to the next, but everyone looks good. Everyone looks ready for the camera. Hip-hop music can be said to have a similar effect, in that currently it seems like life is imitating art.

The commercialization of hip-hop involved framing and exporting certain slices of urban life to markets that had limited or a complete lack of exposure to it. Now it seems to me that the prevalent lifestyle (and if nothing else, the style — the fashion) of predominantly black youth in urban communities is based on themes presented in hip hop music. But aren't the themes that inspire this art drawn from real life? Not necessarily. Rappers — especially popular ones — are primarily entertainers and may never have known the lifestyle they portray in their songs. I won't bore you with all the details but the information is out there. Some rappers have even been quoted saying things such as that the rap game is "like the WWF." Here, again, life imitates art when the art is among dominant media, as movies are, and as hip-hop music is. The end effect isn't terribly unlike a magnification of the stories the news publishes about kids killing each other when performing professional wrestling moves.

Preface for the remainder of this post: I support freedom of speech, and I do not see violence in games as a problem. Many of the games I play are violent, and I do not necessarily believe, as some believe, that violent games are inherently dangerous to society. Not all violent games glorify violence just as not all violent movies or music glorify violence. The role that violence in the media plays in influencing real life violence is unclear.

What happens to life when the art is a video game that makes more than $500 million in its first week in stores, making it the biggest entertainment launch of all time?

Well, one thing it does is it heavily underscores the growth of the video game industry. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) forecasts continued growth through 2008 for the industry — up to $17.9 billion. One imagines the growth of the games industry has had an effect on the movie industry in some way. I do not intend to speculate too much on what this growth will mean for box office sales and what seems to be the decline of the movie industry, but for comparison's sake: Iron Man, the second-best non-sequel movie opening ever (behind Spiderman), made $200 million — $300 million less than Grand Theft Auto, in this first week of sales.

The sales of Grand Theft Auto IV, the growth of the games industry in recent years, the related increase in production cost and quality of games, and the decline of box office sales all seem to suggest that the games industry is becoming more similar to Hollywood, and perhaps even culturally dominant over film. In addition to this potential dominance is the position that many have taken in recent years that says that games are art, not unlike movies. In an interesting example of art-imitating-art, the most recent four Grand Theft Auto games have taken on the style of and contained similar plots to the most memorable crime-themed movies and television shows. The question we must ask in the near future will be, does life imitate game art as it appears to do with movies?

Are interactivity and the sense of reward that comes from completing a task — important aspects of games that are not present in movies and music — especially dangerous for people who would change reality to better reflect the fantasies experienced on-screen? The violent crimes that have happened around the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV — are they directly related to the violent content of the game, or is it happenstance?


Noah said...

I currently think, as stated in the article, that violence in games does not negatively influence society at large. Certain individuals are more impressionable than others though, and for these individuals, violent games can seed social ills. That being said, it should not be up to the society to restrict or limit the amount of violence that developers may put in their games.

Unknown said...

I agree completely. I do not believe that guns should be easy to get access to or that "everyone should have a gun," but I do think that there should be no limit to free expression of ideas. Well, I played GTA Liberty City (it's really GTA6 right?), and aside from some cool physics and better graphics, it plays almost exactly like GTA3. I don't understand why people keep buying into the games, but I guess there was a lot that I didn't see. GTA was either too restrictive to me (the missions) or too free (just running as many people over and killing cops). I always liked the taxi cab missions because it seemed like a balance.

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