The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Self Portrait as a Fused Gem: Steven Universe and 20th Century Art

I've been trying to find an angle on Steven Universe for a while now. It's basically tailor made for my blogging, but I've never quite been able to pull an argument together. This isn't because there's not enough to work with. Rather, there's almost too much to work with! It's an expansive show with a whole lot of complexity and nuance--more so than many of the ostensibly adult-oriented shows that I've covered here previously--and tackling any one subject directly has left me overwhelmed and frustrated.

Luckily, two recent episodes, Beta and Earthlings, gave me just the angle I needed to make headway:

They gave me the chance to talk about early 20th century art.

I swear, I'm not just sort of shoehorning this into Steven Universe as a way of tricking people into learning things. Yes, I have a background in art history from this time period, but my goal here isn't to just invent some thin pretext for babbling about Dadaism. It's actually totally the opposite: I think we can understand Steven Universe better, and in particular understand what's going on thematically in these two episodes, if we understand art in our world similar to the art created by Lapis Lazuli and Peridot!

Excuse me, the "Meep-Morp" created by Lapis Lazuli and Peridot.

And the major question the show is interested in answering is essentially: "what is the use of art within the context of war and trauma?"

What better way to answer that than looking at art produced after the First and Second World Wars?

I'm honestly considering writing an article just on this one gag image.




Let's take a moment though to get people not familiar with the show up to speed.

Steven Universe stars the titular character, a young boy who is part of a group called the Crystal Gems, extraterrestrial beings dedicated to defending Earth from the distant Gem empire and its capital Homeworld. Gradually through the series we discover the Earth was a former colony of Homeworld, and Steven's mother Rose Quartz led a rebellion that ultimately freed Earth from Homeworld's influence... for a while.

Now, however, Homeworld is showing a renewed interest in Earth after discovering that some of the Crystal Gems survived the cataclysmic end of the war millennia ago.

Yeah, Steven Universe is assuredly in the tradition of shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, or going back a bit further shows like Batman the Animated Series or Gargoyles, in having an extremely serious backstory while primarily being a humorous show built around an episodic, serial narrative. It's really remarkable, honestly, that I can write an entire article connecting this show to art from a pretty bleak moment in human history, while the show itself remains focused on the cute exploits of gay pastel space rocks. That takes some real skill, finding a balance like that. I told you this show was basically made for this blog!

Anyway, our principle characters in the two episodes I want to talk about are as follows:

Steven, a child with a human father and a gem mother, who sacrificed herself in order to create him, passing her gem on to him. He's increasingly having trouble grappling with his mother's legacy but is kind of the cheerful heart of the show, and he's trying to cheer up:

Amethyst, a gem created during Homeworld's attempts to quell the rebellion who emerged from the ground of her "Kindergarten" too late. She's unhappy with her body, which is smaller and weaker than it should be due to this extra long period in the ground, and in particular she's upset about being trounced repeatedly by:

Jasper, a gem from Homeworld, though we find out in this episode that she, like Amethyst, was born on Earth, in "Beta Kindergarten." Jasper is huge, angry, abusive, and is trying to find ways to oppose Steven, who she still thinks of as being Rose Quartz, after being stranded on the planet by:

Peridot, another Homeworld gem, who originally was sent to earth to activate a superweapon but was defeated and then gradually won over by Steven and eventually defected completely from Homeworld, leaving Jasper without allies. She's a huge dork, and also the star of the segment of these episodes that prompted this article, producing Meep-Morps with the help of:

Lapis Lazuli, who initially accidentally tipped Homeworld off to the fact that there were still gems on Earth, after she finally escaped the planet after centuries of being stuck in a mirror. Yeah, she was injured during the rebellion, causing her to revert to her gem form (these characters project their bodies in some way from their gems which contain their core consciousness), then the gem was damaged, then she was glued to a mirror to be some sort of scrying device for Homeworld. Then Steven freed her, she left Earth to return to Homeworld, discovered that actually Homeworld is pretty awful now, was dragged BACK to Earth by Peridot and Jasper, and eventually sacrificed herself for a while to keep Jasper stuck at the bottom of the ocean.

Look I said the show was mostly humorous but it's still got some really, really dark shit going on.

Anyway these last two are our Meep-Morpists, and the kind of Meep-Morp they're creating would, in our world, be known as ready-made art. This is something that really starts with the Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp in particular in the early 20th century, and I think despite the fact that this has been around for about a century this art is still pretty difficult for a lot of people to understand. Hell, Amethyst certainly doesn't understand it: she calls it a waste of time, and derides Lapis and Peridot for playing with junk!

There is real value in what both artists following on from Dada are working with, though, and what Lapis and Peridot are creating, and to get at that I think it makes sense to take a brief tour of the barn, er, gallery of the two gems.

One of the things we get from the outset is an exchange where Amethyst asks skeptically whether they didn't just kick a bunch of paint cans over and go, "Eh, just leave it," and Peridot responds by asserting that no, everything there is quite intentional. Key to art, or Meep-Morp, is intentionality. We can read something as art primarily because of the idea that someone has intended it to be read as art. This is something we can do with literature, for example: Wolfgang Iser says that we can make sense of literature because we're assuming that the words do all add up to some sort of coherent order (even if that assumption is more complicated than it seems on the surface).

This applies to any art--even a painting has to be "read" as an artistic utterance rather than something else, like paint cans being knocked over onto a canvas, or simple sort of documentation of a scene--but it's especially important for readymade art. Readymade art involves taking objects that already exist and declaring that they are art. So, this idea of the intention becomes the sort of sole defining factor in how we define art! We're already saying art is only possible because of the intentional declaration that a thing is art; this is just that taken to its logical extreme.

So, when Marcel Duchamp goes to defend the piece "Fountain," which is a urinal put on its end and signed under the pseudonym "R Mutt," he says:

Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

It's the selection of the object that's important here.

The first piece we really see is the huge aquarium silo, which is a kind of installation art. Installation art attempts to take the architectural space and transform it into an immersive artistic environment. If we want to find a distinguishing factor between just an aquarium and an installation art piece, we might look to first the fact that the aquarium is a deliberate transformation of a space that shouldn't be an aquarium--it's a deliberate appropriation of the architectural form of the barn and the silo in particular and a radical repurposing. We can also note the fact that Peridot for whatever reason has tossed her alien plush into the water, because, sure, why not.

These aspects of the aquarium, and the fact that we see a smaller one made out of a vacuum cleaner, make it clear that the purpose here isn't scientific but artistic. We can compare this to something like Olafur Elliason's Weather Project, which turned the architectural space of the Tate Gallery into a hazy space dominated by a looming sun. While this project is in some sense about underscoring or teaching something about the weather and the environment, it's doing so not through the creation of a specific educational institution but by taking existing architecture and an existing institution and radically reimagining it in a way that, hopefully, confronts viewers and makes them think. I certainly can't help but wonder why Peridot's (literally) prized possession is now floating in a huge tank with some fish.

The second piece is titled "Wow, Thanks." This is what I'd call an assisted readymade. If a readymade involves selecting an existing object and declaring it art, an assisted readymade takes multiple objects and combines or modifies them in some way. Here, Peridot has taken and modified a bunch of cassette tapes and a broken tablet and combined them together in an object that represents frustration with communication.

This is pretty remarkable from a character standpoint, because what we see here is Peridot becoming aware of her difficulties with communication, and reflecting on that, and exploring that through art. And Peridot describes this as art that has no purpose: "It just makes me... feel bad!" This is so so great because this is such an astute understanding of art! Art isn't necessarily about making you feel good, and it doesn't need to be positive in order for it to be meaningful!

I think what's so interesting about this piece is that producing this work, and reflecting on this work, and thinking through this work, seems to be something that brings Peridot catharsis. She's identifying this object as an object of distress, and identifying that as something that can be satisfying in itself. When Duchamp says that Fountain creates "a new thought for that object," this is the kind of thing he's talking about. But Peridot is experiencing more than new thoughts, she's experiencing new feelings, new difficult affective states.

Lapis, in the third and fourth pieces, displays objects that are drawn from her own personal history, but she doesn't have the kind of high concepts that Peridot does. Instead, she's selected objects based on the fact that they remind her of things, and the significance of those memories aren't immediately accessible to the audience. First, Lapis has selected items from their baseball game, and hung them in a mobile. Which, just a brief aside, the father of mobiles is a fellow named Alexander Calder, who was a modernist sculptor who created these beautiful sort of aquatic looking delicately balanced mobiles, very abstract works. That's sort of the tradition Lapis is working from, and I think it's interesting that she creates an object that requires a sort of careful balance and precision in order to get everything hanging properly.

Unlike Calder, though, her objects are concrete readymade materials rather than abstract shapes. Her second piece for example is just a huge mound of dirt with a leaf in the top--a leaf Steven gave to her when she was trying to decide what to do now that she is marooned on Earth but free of the mirror and of Jasper. It's clear why the moment is meaningful to her if we've seen the episode, making this a highly personal way of producing art. This is art as a kind of individually-meaningful autobiography.

This is something we've seen quite a bit of in the century since Dada hit the scene. Felix Gonzalez-Torres for example creates a portrait of his partner Ross out of candy, in the form of a 175 pound pile in the corner of the gallery space. Participants are invited to take away pieces of candy from the installation, causing the installation to slowly shrink over time.


Yeah.

What we've got there, then, is something that requires explanation of the sort of personal context, but is clearly a deeply meaningful expression of loss, albeit through a less straightforward form of representation than is conventional. Lapis's art isn't conceptually flashy like Peridot's, but that doesn't make it less meaningful.

And it doesn't make it less political, either, when you get right down to it. Gonzalez-Torres's work is obviously political in its implicit challenge to a society that, through inaction and bigotry, created the AIDS crisis, but I'd argue that Lapis's leaf piece would be no less incendiary if put in a Homeworld art gallery. If you know Homeworld had art galleries, which they almost certainly don't. A pile of dirt--raw material to be consumed--used as a pedestal for the foliage of the lost colony?! Outrageous!

Of course, I wouldn't go so far as to claim that this is a political reading that Lapis intended. I don't think it matters that much--intent matters in terms of reading something AS art, but not so much in terms of the reader's response to a work. But if we're trying to make a psychological or biographical reading of a work it's always good to remember not to impose too aggressively our understanding of an artist onto their work, and we can see that with Lapis's third piece.

As a visual piece I love this. It's a tv set with two circular mirrors on the sides reflecting the image on the screen, which is a loop of someone repeatedly saying "I just feel so trapped!"

Steven immediately identifies that as symbolic of Lapis's entrapment in a mirror for centuries. And Lapis immediately says, nope, she just really likes that show.

So, we've got this piece that's deeply uncanny, that I think would be disturbing to encounter within an actual gallery. And then we've got that contextualized by Lapis's biography. But then that is upended by Lapis's refusal of that reading, underscoring the limits of our ability to draw sort of invented biographical narratives to explain particular works. We're intrinsically limited in our ability to make claims about the minds of others, and it's often pretty presumptuous to make that attempt, so this is a good little cautionary tale about art, as well as just being a really funny gag. The gag works though because we have the same kind of reading Steven does, and because the piece is kind of weird and unsettling. It's just weird and unsettling without us being able to kind of draw a circle around it and label it just purely personal and biographical. We're not getting any help here from Lapis.

The last really complete piece is entitled "Occupied," and it's four toilets piled on top of each other, with the water in the toilets then manipulated by Lapis. So, it's a collaborative piece.

And there's basically no way this isn't at least partly a joke about Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain." There's just no way.

Amethyst responds to the art that she could see this at home (which implies some unsettling things about the toilets at the temple, actually) but that's exactly the point: the readymade IS an everyday object that's been selected and recontextualized and now we look on it with a different perspective, in a way that prompts new ideas. Peridot says this is representative of the time in which she was locked in the bathroom at the temple, so supposedly there's a narrative here, but it's still the selection of the everyday in order to create art.

It also is a performance art piece. Now, performance art doesn't necessarily mean performance in a theatrical sense, though it can mean this. Rather, we should think of performance art as the performing of an action. Think of it in the same terms that we're thinking about readymades: we're taking actions rather than objects and declaring them to be art.

Now, this piece is a photograph rather than a performance per se, but I think we can draw a parallel here to another fountain, Bruce Nauman's "Portrait of the Artist as a Fountain." In this piece we see the artist turning himself into a fountain by the simple means of squirting water out of his mouth. This is obviously kind of jokey, but the basic dynamics of performance as I'm describing it are present here, I think: the key to the art is that he's doing an action, in this case an action that normally would be performed by statuary.

This is kind of what Lapis is doing here. She's performing the act of controlling water, more so than strictly performing in a theatrical sense. She's just demonstrating the use of her powers in a context other than straightforward utility. I'm not sure what, for Lapis, the significance could be of Peridot being locked in a bathroom, so I feel like Lapis is performing an intervention here in the piece that's a little more abstract, which is pretty cool.

What I hope is clear at this point is that there's a lot about these pieces that's funny, but they're not that far out of line from modern and contemporary art, and they're often trying to grapple with some similar things. And I think this makes a lot of sense when we look at the rest of the episode. All of this comes in the context of this conflict between the "bad" gem Amethyst and the "perfect" gem Jasper. Through the whole beginning of Beta, Amethyst is distracted by her frustration with her inability to defeat Jasper, and ultimately questions what the point of Meep-Morp is in the face of the threat Jasper poses. That's kind of the question posed to art in the 20th century. In the face of the trauma and atrocities that the 20th century metes out, what point can art have?

I think the episode provides some examples in the context of who's creating the art, and for what purpose. For Lapis and Peridot, the point of art, if there is one, might be to attempt to communicate, to work through particular ideas, to testify to a particular experience or meaningful event, or simply to be expressive and find fulfillment, joy, and a grappling with trauma through that expression. 

My focus on 20th century art isn't coincidental. This is a century characterized by a radical reassessment of what art can be. And often that is a response to disaster: Dadaism is a response to the First World War, for example, as a conflict born of the rational order of science and modern enlightenment, exploding into a maelstrom of mechanized butchery. Dada responds to that by questioning, radically, the validity of any dogma or order. Fountain, in particular, was entered by Duchamp into a show in New York that had an open submission process where there was no jury committee to accept or reject artwork. The creation of Fountain may have been an attempt to secretly question how far the people who organized the show with him (yes, he trolled his own exhibition) would go with their stated commitment to accept whatever was entered. This is a radical attempt to reconsider where the boundaries are.

The way Peridot struggles with communication, self expression, and disability is important, but so is her break with Homeworld's dogma. Art here represents a new way for her to work through ideas outside the rigid structure that Jasper describes Homeworld as having. Lapis seems possibly to be working through her own trauma and her feelings about Earth through art.

To some extent, this set of episodes might be about Amethyst finding her own outlet like this.

I think the throughline here is about self-fashioning. A full quarter of this two part set is spent on Meep-Morp, and this sets up a strong contrast between, on the one hand, art as this form of self-exploration and exploration of new ideas, with something like Lapis's selection of objects acting as a way of thinking through events, while Jasper, and Peridot for that matter, have a highly deterministic sense of gems and their place in the world. Gems are fashioned externally for a purpose. They are what they are, according to the ideology of Homeworld, described first by Peridot and then by Jasper.

The ultimate confrontation in these episodes between Amethyst and Jasper is one where Amethyst finds that, yes, she really CAN'T compete with Jasper in terms of raw strength. In that sense, Jasper is absolutely right.

But gems have the ability to literally self-fashion. They're capable of fusing together into single entities, combining their powers to become stronger.

In the climax of this episode, Steven urges Amethyst to let him help, and the two agree that the "weak gems" have to stick together. At that moment, they fuse together to become the character Smokey Quartz, who delightfully uses an oversized yo-yo to fight. And they absolutely trounce Jasper.

What's notable about this to me is that the show never asserts that these lesser or bad or broken gems can through force of will succeed on the terms of the ideology of Homeworld. Instead, they reject that ideology completely, they challenge it by finding ways to exist and self-fashion that are outside the Homeworld order, rather than being automatons, carrying out Homeworld's programming.

The art of the 20th century is characterized by a radical challenge to existing beliefs, whether it be assumptions about the uses of architectural space (challenged by installation art), assumptions about what constitutes art (challenged by the readymade and performance art), the priorities of society (challenged by queer and feminist art, art about race, art about disability), and ultimately the place of individuals within rigid social orders. This is what Peridot and Lapis are doing, and this is exactly what Amethyst needs! It's telling that Peridot is inspired to collaborate with Smokey Quartz, wanting to express artistically a response to an action--fusion--that the ideology of Homeworld reviles and which Peridot herself initially found disgusting.

One of the uses of art in this context then is to show that we can be more than our origins, that we can be active participants in our own self-actualization. I don't think that living in troubled times makes this less valid. If anything I think it makes it more valid! It's precisely in the face of violence and trauma that art becomes essential for working through new ideas, and providing a space to reflect upon our selves and what we want to become.

And that space doesn't need to come from avant-garde art, though I hope the value of experimental and weird and even initially stupid-seeming art is a little clearer after reading this article. That space can be opened up by more traditional art as well.

Art, for example, like Steven Universe.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read the rough draft of this article; you can hear the podcast for this article for $3. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme, as well as my previous collections on My Little Pony and toxic masculinity in superhero media, Neighquiem for a Dream and My Superpower is Manpain.

4 comments:

  1. This is a great analysis! I picked up pretty quickly that they were using Dadaist art as a commentary on their confusion at a new situation, but totally missed that the war against homeworld could be in some ways an analogue to the world wars.
    I'd almost argue that Lapis's refusal to comment on what her piece meant besides that she really liked the show more fits in with her character arc of coming to terms with the abuse she suffered and moving past it than as a commentary on the art itself, but these interpretations both work together.

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  2. ahhhh that was some good shit

    that connection makes so much sense, i hope they return to it and explore peridot/lapis-as-artist more? i think it might just be a one off gag but god this was really cool

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  3. This analysis is highly interesting, partly because I haven't actually read up on 20th century art at all. Brings an awesome context to the episode.

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  4. I find DaDa insane, mostly cause I saw it through my sister's art history class. I think that might be the point of DaDa anyway.

    ReplyDelete

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