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Mass Effect 3 and Art as Dialectic

Two weeks ago today, one of the most anticipated video games of the year, Bioware’s Mass Effect 3, was released. Planned as a trilogy from the getgo, the Mass Effect series has engendered considerable investment from fans, and expectations were understandably high for the final installment. Unfortunately, while the majority of the game was excellent, the ending left much to be desired.

For my purposes here the details are unimportant – you can find plenty of information with a Google search – but the responses to the ending are fascinating. Gamers have responded with an enormous campaign for the developers to alter or expand the ending. The gaming press and quite a few others gamers have responded in turn.

These rejoinders (at least, the serious ones) have largely appealed to authorial fiat and the sanctity of the finished product. They fall prey, in other words, to a fundamentally modernistic conception of art that is and always has been absurd.

Historically, art was created in one of two ways: for a community by members of the community, or for a specific audience who commissioned the art. Folk art falls into the former category; it usually went uncompensated but was integral to culture. The latter was the source of most of the great works of art that have come down to us from any time before the 18th century. Michelangelo worked on commission. Bach was a salaried musician. They were responsible to deliver art in line with the desires of those paying the bill.

In the modern and postmodern eras, this changed. The artist took on an increasingly religious role in society. Poets and prosaists were the engine of the Enlightenment; painters and musicians joined them as the prophets of postmodernity. The individual’s vision, once subject to dialogue with the audience, is now sacrosanct. In light of the extreme individualism of modernity and its mutations, this is hardly a surprise. It is, however, a tragedy.

Whether commissioned or communal, premodern art was always directed at an audience. If the community hated a new song, the musician wasn’t going to play it again. If the Pope had issues with the ceiling fresco, Michelangelo repainted. Art was understood to be collaborative, and if artists sometimes chafed under the constraints of working for others, they at least understood that they did not operate in a vacuum.

By contrast, the modern artist needs please no one but himself. In some circles, pleasing too many people is a sure sign of being a sell-out; crowd-pleasing art might be profitable, but it is hardly respectable. The artist must be true to herself, caring nothing for the approval of the masses, seeking always to push the boundaries of acceptability, refusing to compromise her vision for any reason.

I am of course all in favor of artistic integrity, and no fan of the sort of crass commercialism that appeals to the lowest common denominators of sex and violence just to make a quick buck. Mobs make poor judges.

But to reject that sort of pandering does not demand we bow down to the god of self, either. Removed from the constraint of an audience, art quickly degenerates into the sorts of absurdities that have characterized literature and painting especially for the past half century. Artists make poor masters.

The problem with Bioware and its supporters’ response to criticism – that is, to assert the alleged sanctity of the ending of Mass Effect 3 as written – is that it embraces this (post)modern ideal of artistic vision as untouchable and unimpeachable. This is in no small part due to the inversion of artist and audience; Bioware seems to have forgotten that it is, in some sense, working on commission. Its sales – if not of this game, then of future games – will be impacted by an ending that seems to have met its makers’ goals of provoking controversy, but at the cost of leaving its audience profoundly dissatisfied. The fans are right when they feel a sense that they have been robbed, but they and Bioware are both victims of an approach that suffocates art under the weight of solitary vision.

For art to succeed, it must be subject to criticism. Neither the self-adulation of the modern era or the often ham-handed control of the old patronage system will do. Art is at its best in the dialectic between creator and audience, not in an all-controlling monologue by either.

Nowhere is this more true than in interactive art, of which video games are currently the prime example, and of which Mass Effect 3 could have been an astounding triumph. Here, as in no other medium, the consumer can be a co-creator of the artistic experience. The artist, in this case, paints the broad strokes and offers the consumer possibilities as to how the particulars are defined. A perfect opportunity for the dialectic if ever there was one, and it is on this point that Bioware still has an opportunity to deliver.

Regardless of what happens in the case of Mass Effect 3, hope is on the horizon for art more broadly. It is increasingly difficult to finance art of any sort on the 20th century model of creator/producer-distributor/buyer. Any endeavor, from producing a video game to recording an album, requires heavy financing up front and has a low guarantee of commercial success. This reality has driven much of the commercialization of the arts in the 20th century, as the artists behind movies, music, games, and books have all found they needed the resources of publishers to get them out the door. The story is changing, however.

The advent of the internet has created many new challenges for the arts, but it also offers a solution to the separation of artist from audience. The future, it seems, is not the author-publisher-consumer model, but the crowd-patronage model pioneered by Kickstarter. People pay for art they want to see before it happens for a reward when it happens. The artist makes the proposal and is responsible for delivering his vision, but only if there is an interested audience, and with considerable opportunity for feedback from that audience during the process. Crowd-patronage is the best thing that could happen to art; the dialectic is back. Hopefully, it is here to stay.


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