Jack’s been thinking.. about video games at the V & A – and jazz

In the week that the Grand Theft Auto series has been included in the Exhibition British Design 1948-2012, Columnist Jack Davies looks at the parallels in UK cultural life between video games and jazz:

It seems to take a long time for new art forms to become accepted and respected by the established cultural elite. For jazz, the process is still ongoing – in this country it is now recognised that it is an art form and deserving of funding, although still seems to be viewed as an artistic ant, at the foot of the monoliths of opera and classical music (and this is evidenced and reflected in the comparative amounts of subsidy and media coverage).

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Such views, I would hope every reader of this blog would agree, are almost beyond comprehension. I would make a provocative argument that the basis of this ignorant dismissal of an art form is based on several premises:

– Newness. It is not as old as classical music, therefore surely it cannot be as deep or rich.
– F rivolity. Although we know that the genre is diverse as music as a whole, there is an often-heard opinion that jazz is a branch of “popular music”, too entertaining to be high art.
– Accessibility. The places it gets played are not the usual trusted cultural landmarks, and any venue allowing alcohol in the auditorium surely cannot be purveying art.

Jazz is forgiven when accepted by one of the classical concert venues and presented in the classical form. Harmonic, rhythmic and conceptual sophistication all seem to be irrelevant if the players are not older, serious men in suits, or if someone in the audience is holding a beer.

I would argue that the same bigotry is currently being levelled at the gaming industry. Film is accepted as a vehicle for art: one merely needs to look at the example of Steve McQueen – a Turner prize and BAFTA winning artist and director (and incidentally a jazz fan), who has achieved both commercial success and cultural acclaim. A recent games slot on Radio 4’s Front Row was met with a salvo of disapproval from those appalled that this bastion of art on the BBC was being besieged by childish commercial nonsense.

Games are still in their cultural ascendancy, but new motion capture technology is allowing actors to apply their skills to the animations, and increased processing power is startint to provide almost baffling scope and interactive improvisation.

LA Noire, a 2011 cop thriller set in post-war America is nominally a “game”, but with its Chandler-like script and Hopper-esque beauty, this is a piece of American cultural language on a par with its literary and fine art brothers. The game is also a rare example of modern jazz musicians reaching an enormous audience – the playing of Gerard Presencer, Mark Turner, John Taylor, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard has been heard by the nearly 5 million people who have purchased the title to date. This game is not alone in its cultural and artistic significance.

Art in video games is still in its nascent stage, but it would be foolish beyond belief to discredit this enormous growth sector with the most incredible potential for realising “arts for all” (though admittedly only those able to splash out £160 on a console).

To me there are numerous parallels with the nature of the jazz. Interactivity and indeterminacy are paramount, compared to the rigid immovability of classical music and film. Cracking a smile seems to be an artistic no-no: far more acceptable is a furrowed brow as one marvels at the tortured beauty of a late Beethoven quartet, or the gloomy frames of a subtitled European art-house film. Both jazz and games are currently viewed as the culturally inferior younger brother, belying the fact that rather than reinventing the wheel, these art forms are merely an extension of the artistic continuum.

Given that a generation of children are now growing up versed in the language of circle, triangle x and square, I believe that we are merely witnessing the emergence of games as a vehicle for art. Perhaps in a hundred years time they too might be blessed with £1m per year from the Arts Council.

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