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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Stylistic Freedom

I've noticed an odd tendency among modern--and, in particular, young, inexperienced, and arrogant--artists to use style as a crutch.

For example: I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today, like the classy man I am, and I remarked to the first year accompanying me that, "This is how you learn to draw--by studying the masters."

She stuck her nose up at me and said, "What if I don't want to learn to draw?" and walked off.

This would have rattled me a bit more, but it's really nothing new. It's the kind of nonsense that's been plaguing the art world for decades. But it did get me thinking about style and artistic freedom. See, people seem to have gotten it into their heads that true artistic freedom is doing what you want, regardless of the opinions of others. And that's a staggeringly inaccurate idea. A more accurate ethos would be:

True artistic freedom is being able to do what you want.

Yes, I'm playing the semantics game tonight. I know it's tedious, but it really, truly does have a point, and those subtle changes make a huge difference. They make all the difference in the world. They are the thing that separates a genius from a kid that's just cribbing notes from Sailor Moon and Tim Burton.1

And I can think of few artists more deserving of the name "genius" than Pablo Picasso.

The two works above are probably among his most famous, and his most bizarre and abstract, pieces. It might even seem a little odd that I'm showing these works while loudly proclaiming my irritation with people that use particular styles as excuses for laziness. I mean, this isn't exactly traditional anatomy and perspective Picasso is using here, but he's ignoring it to make everything stylized.

But the thing with Picasso is that he wasn't limited to just that style. I mean, when he wanted to he could do pretty much anything.

Like, here's Picasso doing some work oddly similar to some stuff from the same year by Edvard Munch (notice the creepy couple in the background of the Munch painting):

And this seems strangely reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec:

And if he really wanted to he could do... this thing:

Which looks like he got bored in Art History and started doodling, but it still looks cool because it's freaking Picasso we're talking about here. He's basically predicting mid-20th century art in spiralbound notebook doodle for.

I mean, listen, this is a man who got together with Braque and invented Cubism because they were bored with being so damn good at everything else. When is the last time the product of your boredom turned out like this:

So, what is it that links all these different styles together? What is that crucial difference between my two starting statements?

I would argue that it is this:

That's a painting Picasso did in his youth. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said that he invented Cubism because he was bored with succeeding at everything else? I wasn't kidding. He was a brilliant, classically trained painter. And this is the key to understanding my point about being able to do whatever you want. Picasso didn't start out breaking the rules. He learned them, and then he started to screw with them in grand style. And no matter what he was doing, he always had a solid base to go back to. He wasn't limited to just the abstract art, and he went back to semi-realistic art repeatedly in his life. What sets him apart from the modern artist is that he could. It was all up to him.

Picasso had absolute artistic freedom, because no style lay outside his grasp.

He had already learned the highest level of realism and composition, so he could strip that order away as he chose. This is true freedom in art. It isn't the freedom to ignore instructors, or ignore criticism, or to use style as a crutch. All of that comes later, when you've learned the craft. Once you know the right side of the paintbrush, you can start using the wrong one.

And at that point, you can do anything at all.

Yup, anything at all.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1.  I feel like I'm already a generation off here, aren't I?


  1. I've seen that sort of justification myself.


    I once told one of my fellow webcomics artists that the mark of a great artist was not the ability to just sit down at an art table and bust out something worthy of Michelangelo or van Gogh. It was the determination to sit down and get things RIGHT, whether that meant having to slog through photo reference or redo perspective half-a-dozen times or to do three layouts for everything until you find the one that works.

    For a so-called "artist" to sneer at something as not being his or her "style" is proof that said artist doesn't give a damn about his or her work. Which doesn't actually bother me if the said artist is just doing art as a hobby, but if you're going to SCHOOL for art or trying to convey a message or make a living at it it's shameful.

    Whether a novelist, a game designer, or a painter, communication and self-expression are the only medium an artist works in. Why would you ever turn down the opportunity to improve your craft in that medium?

  2. Exactly! And it's my experience that people who DO know what they're doing can always tell when someone doesn't. That's regardless of style, too. I know that the abstract artists I like the most tend to have started out as distinguished classically trained artists.

    Yeah, it comes down to how completely you want to understand your medium, and if you feel comfortable just putting yourself into a little stylistic box... well, that says to me that you aren't serious about the art.

  3. This is common among first years in my department. We have a phrase, "It'll be beat out of them soon enough". I would like to think I wasn't as bad a few years ago, but I probably was. Time will teach them, or they will find a new path.


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