Throughout history across the world, one of the primary mediums implemented to convey a message to an audience is in the form of art. The definition of art is both broad yet abstract enough to encompass a vast array of formats, such as film, video games, and literature. However, art can be categorized into two major umbrellas in terms of its relationship between the work and its audience. These works of art seek to expand the definitional limits of art beyond the literal object to comprise of human relations which is then prompted by the production and reception of art.
The first major form of art is Engagement, which pursues to embrace audience involvement with the work. This approach holds the belief that art is meant for improving or intensifying a responsive or even interactive relationship. On the other hand, there is the method of Disruption. It aims to work against its audience to prevent them from slipping into an escapist pleasure or consume artwork mindlessly. This approach implies that art should be difficult, upsetting, and challenging.
The effectiveness of one approach over the other is determined by rewinding to first pinpoint what the actual purpose of art is. In a 2016 article featured in Times Higher Education, author AC Grayling described art as “a result of internal or external stimuli – the only aim should be to cause a reaction” (Grayling). Thus, these two conflicting approaches raises the question: If the purpose of art is to spark a response in others, which method fulfills that intention most effectively?
Two works of art which implements the different methods of approach is Fragile Dreams and A Modest Proposal. Released in 2009. Fragile Dreams is a role playing video game hosted on the Nintendo Wii. In the story, you are a young man named Seto who is desperately in search of another surviving person after a mysterious apocalypse, especially a bashful, silver-haired girl named Ren. Its somber color palette, sentimental story, and haunting vibe truly makes it an engaging platform.
The video game’s purpose is to comment on the haunting loneliness that pervades the world with the rise of technology causing distance between people. The despair resonating in the voices of the characters is conveyed to the audience using an Engaging approach like a video game. The plot of the game has Seto in pursuit of Ren who he catches a slight glimpse of, giving him hope that there is human life present in the planet outside of his own.
A Modest Proposal is an essay written by priest Johnathan Swift in 1729 during the famine in Ireland. The message of the essay advises that the starving Irish families can ease their pain by selling their children as food for the richer population. This satirical hyperbole mocked heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general. The primary target of Swift’s satire was to promote to the public more modern approaches to the economic issues behind the famine and progress away from traditional methods. The sardonic nature of the essay causes a disturbing effect for the audience and challenges their thinking, implementing a Disruptive approach.
With its intention of conveying a message of isolation in a futuristic society, Fragile Dream’s use of an Engaging approach has its set of both pros and cons. A positive aspect of this is that since the format itself is a video game, the audience is already compelled to be an active member in the story. Video games provide its audience utmost interaction because of its main distinction: autonomy. They are not mere spectators, but active players controlling the protagonist.
In some ways, video games can be seen as an agglomeration of multiple formats of art. The soundtrack in video games can be related to music. The visuals can be perceived as a varied format of film since the framing is from a first-person perspective; and interactivity of the mechanics all play a role in combining the most engaging elements in art to cause the audience to feel like they are making an impact in the plot. This also causes the audience to feel a personal connection with the plot since the player starts to empathize for the protagonist. For example, as Seto experiences despair from his failed attempts in finding human life on Earth, the player also reciprocates that emotion.
Consequently, the engaging atmosphere presented in video games causes more response from the youth. With the appealing approach showing more regard for involvement, it gains wider public reception. A large group of millennials today are invested in art forms such as video games, which allows its message to be more accessible. Playing video games has been proven to be a good icebreaker since it establishes a common ground within a group of people. This common ground helps in sparking conversation about the message of the game since there is a wider understanding with interactive approaches. Online gaming, especially, connects people from across the world under one common platform.
Thus, if art meant to engage its audience succeeds in reaching a wide youth population, it is also likely that it generates a larger scope for audience involvement in the purpose of art. Younger people are more likely to be involved in societal issues since it is their future which is being impacted, and implementing an art form which appeals to them is more likely to succeed in that aspiration. In the case of Fragile Dreams, the game sold over 26,055 copies in Japan during its week of release, making it the 2nd-best selling game of the week (Takana). Thus, engaging artworks holds its benefit of a wider public reception at a faster rate.
The final benefit of promoting engaging artwork is the continuous modernization of it. A greater emphasis on audience interaction and involvement promotes the hope that the work does not go obsolete in the future. As time progresses and people evolve, so does the definition of art. Art is no longer limited to the confinements of four walls in an art museum meant for bourgeoise consumption. However, art has become more of a shared experience and activity, taking the form of discussions, communal gatherings and widespread reception.
While the use of an engaging approach to promote an audience reaction has its share of benefits, it also has its downsides. The engrossing and captivating nature of such media is beneficial in capturing the audience’s attention. However, it is not guaranteed that it is promoting the message itself. In other words, the format of the work may emit a precedence of form over function.
In the case of Fragile Dreams, while the gorgeous graphics and haunting soundtrack is likely to captivate the player into the game, the message itself may not be as clear until the very end of the plot. The final battle of the game is against the man who caused the apocalypse due to an invention he created. The invention was a global telepathy machine which was meant to allow people to read each other’s thoughts to understand each other better. In this way, technology was meant to promote human connection but it ended up destroying all life on Earth, which draws parallels with society now. However, nowhere in the game does the plot clearly address the issue of human isolation until the cause of the apocalypse is revealed towards the end. Consequently, if the form and entertainment of the artwork triumphs more than the action taken from the message and the player does not beat the game, then unfortunately, it defeats the purpose.
Likewise, the use of engaging media as a platform to spark change may be futile due to its lack of a sense of urgency. When playing a video game or being captivated by a compelling film, the audience is likely to lose track of time and focus on the experience of playing the game more than the hidden messages of it. For a work like Fragile Dreams, the audience which realistically plays the video game is most likely playing simply for entertainment purposes, without any regard or pursuit for a groundbreaking message the work may or may not be presenting. For some artists, an impacting message may not even be the main intent of the work. Often, artists seek to create a work simply for aesthetic purposes, making the need for a strong public reaction unnecessary. A lot of people hold the belief that contemporary art is too eager to cause fundamental changes in politics and social issues, causing it to lose its main and simple role of aesthetic pleasure.
Additionally, another downside of artwork emphasizing engagement is the fact that it does not raise the same controversy as Disruptive media does. Engaging artwork usually gains a lot of popularity due to its appeal but can also present the issue of not disturbing them enough to want to break out of their comfort zone to actively seek change. If the message of the work is not exhibited directly enough, then it does not become a heated topic to raise conflicting opinions about. And without those differing opinions, controversy is never grown, and the message ends up losing its impact.
Art can also be disgusting in many ways. When it comes to grotesque art, or more colloquially said – disturbing art, what is unsettling is the fact that it often combines things that shouldn’t be found in one form. It often evokes shock or disgust, and even though the notion of it has changed through history. Art can also have disturbing effect if it pushes the limits of socially accepted boundaries and behaviors, leaving the audience unsettled. This sort of art often deals with taboos in the most inappropriate ways possible. On the other hand, art can be disturbing if it’s just simply creepy.
This presents the second form of Disruptive method of an artwork. This method is defined as an artwork that champions disruption and confrontation rather than active engagement as aesthetic ideals. Disruptive artworks aren’t meant to be comforting and aims to strike an unsettling feeling to its audience. It works against the audience to antagonize them rather than be passive. Its purpose is to prevent the audience from slipping into an escapist pleasure or consume an artwork mindlessly.
A lot of artists implement this approach because engaged art has become largely exempt from art criticism. Thus, we can likewise insist that antagonistic art does not exempt itself from social and ethical criticism. Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal implements this approach by striking the audience with an ethical dilemma. The moral conflict of Swift’s proposal is whether it is okay to eat babies to combat the issue of starvation. On one hand, there are millions of impoverished families that are dying from starvation in front of everyone’s eyes, which eating babies would solve. On the other hand, that solution is also seen as inhumane and unfair to the mothers who are sacrificing their children.
Benefits of the Disruptive method in art is that is more realistic. In order to convey a strong message to the audience without sugarcoating anything, it is crucial to be bold and realistic, even if it means compromising comfort. Disruptive art keeps the message as grounded and realistic as possible by being blunt. While A Modest Proposal is a satire which should not be taken literally. The message remains strong due to the gruesome reality it presents. Swift begins with the shocking lives faced in Ireland at the time by describing “beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for alms” (Swift). This shows Swift’s use of pathos to keep the audience aware of the realities faced in their country rather than letting them escape into another world which is simulated through technology.
Additionally, another upside of the use of disruptive artwork is in it the directness of its message. While engaging artwork places form over function, disruptive work places function over form. Upon barely reading the first sentence, the audience is aware that the essay Swift presents will be elaborating on the issue of famine in Ireland. The rest of the essay directly focuses on his proposal, elaborating on his argument and on Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos and logos. In contrast, in the case of Engaging artwork, the work presents us with so much graphics, music, and entertainment that it causes the risk of letting the player escape into the fun of playing a video game rather than focus on the message of the work the author intends.
Additionally, Disruptive work is successful due to it sparking its intended controversy. While at first impression, controversy may seem like negative reviews about a work, it actually has a lot of benefits. When speaking about an issue involving a moral dilemma, controversy creates a split in the audience because of opposing views. Varied opinions are important because they promote direct conversation about the topic and reveal concealed issues to an open platform for discussion.
While Engaging work may present itself with a more captivating impression, Disruptive art is more impactful in its effect. Naturally, people are more likely to think about what made them feel uncomfortable and disturbed rather than what made them feel comfortable. Swift’s essay has a lot of horrid details such as using the babies’ skin for making “admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen” (Swift), which causes it to resonate in the audience’s mind even more and cause them to be more likely in thinking about what the deeper meaning of the work is beyond the satire. If the satire is successfully deciphered and understood as not a literal work but a comment on the socioeconomic issues of the time, the effect is much greater.
Despite the unsettling nature of such work striking a haunting cord in its audience, the nature of Disruptive work also has its downsides. Foremost, a downside is that there is a high risk that the message of the work may only be understood by a certain group of people, which may cause the general public to not understand the purpose of the work. For example, A Modest Proposal implements a heavy use of extreme satire and elevated vocabulary which may not be understood by readers who do not understand satire, don’t comprehend dense readings, or simply perceive the work literally. While Disruptive work is meant to be “difficult”, that also makes it uneasy to infiltrate the deeper meaning.
Another issue which may arise with Disruptive work is that it may cause more trauma than be an actual catalyst for change. The use of difficult language and upsetting emotions to the audience may simply cause its readers to lose respect for the work and completely disregard it rather than actively try to decipher a hidden meaning behind it.
Furthermore, the Disruptive style of art can become obsolete if audience engagement is not given regard to. Since the specific worked gained a lot of attention during its time, it made a historical impact enough to be a work which is still discussed in modern classrooms. However, if the satire hadn’t been peeled away to reveal the innate message it holds, then the work would easily go obsolete. The format of essays is not as engaging to the public audience as much as other forms such film or video games, which risk the unsettling nature of Disruptive media to cause it to become outdated.
As one can imagine, Swift’s “modest” proposal stirred up a hornet’s nest of reaction. Those who took Swift seriously branded him as everything from a savage cannibal to an insane maniac. Others picked up on the irony of Swift’s A Modest Proposal and recognized that his only goal was to ridicule all the “serious” proposals of the do-nothing politicians, who only pretended to care about the hungry. This split in the reaction makes the use of Disruptive art a hit-or-miss. Since the form is much more complex than most engaging works, it is not guaranteed that the audience will understand the message of the work.
While both forms of art have its advantages and disadvantages in its purpose in causing a reaction to its audience, the style of an engaging form overall helps to fulfill that aspiration more. The captivating nature of the work keeps in regard the tools employed in the critical process that is not only limited to one confined space but can be projected to a broad range of artistic practices attempting to transgress traditional aesthetic boundaries.
However, a purely engaging work does not completely accomplish the purposes the author wishes to present. There are elements in Disruptive art which can still be implemented while keeping the audience engaged. For example, a qualified defense for a more general conception of socially-engaged art would yield the greatest benefit. A generalized conception would not only market the work to encompass a greater audience but would universalize its message to include a broader audience.
The main concern which the engaging approach presented was the aesthetics of the work enchanting the audience into a mindless state rather than for its message. However, in the complex platform of sociality, politics, ethics, aesthetics serves as a catalyst, rather than an obstacle, to the critical evaluation of art. The mindless state can easily be avoided if the entertainment of it is appropriately balanced with an impacting meaning as well.
In the case of A Fragile Dreams, instead of indulging into the realm of the video game for days, if the story of the apocalyptic future and human distance was more related to modern realities, then the engaging nature would be put to its best use. Yes, there are bad qualities in artforms which seem mindless such as video games. However, what we must do is look for where the benefits are in everything and use them to our advantage, like engaging media.
- Grayling, A.C. “Art: Whether You Love It or Hate It, the Purpose Is to Elicit a
- Response.” Times Higher Education (THE), THEunijobs, 22 May 2015.
- Tanaka, John. “Mario Tennis Tops Japanese Charts.” IGN Boards, IGN, 30 Jan. 2009.
- Swift, Jonathan. ‘A Modest Proposal.’ 1729. Literature for Composition.
- Saito, Riei. “Fragile Dreams.” 2009