The 8000-word profile of Jonathan Blow that appears in this month’s Atlantic Magazine reveals a game designer behaving as dissident artists have behaved for centuries: defiantly rejecting popular paradigms, brashly challenging his contemporaries, thoroughly consumed with exploring the nature and function of his art.
The article’s author, Taylor Clark, portrays Blow as a “difficult and spiky“ man absorbed in his self-expressive work, with ”no patience for coddling or bullshit," committed to producing something better, richer, deeper…and worthy of him.
For many, it’s a bit much. Artists like Blow are regarded as arrogant or overbearing because they’re spurred, at least partially, by contempt for the prevailing mediocrity they see around them - ‘mediocrity’ produced by lots of hard-working, talented people.
Dissident artists can seem bloated with certainty, dismissing opposing views as propping up the status quo. They come off as uncompromising reformists or, worse, self-absorbed zealots. Creators like Blow point at something on the distant horizon and warn us that if we don’t head in that direction, something we care about will die. Actually, it’s probably dead already. And good riddance.
Predictably, some find Blow’s truculence off-putting, but there is a bright and galvanizing upside. Vexed artists are vital to the evolution of art, and they always have been. The apostate doesn’t merely dismiss; he renounces. There is principled violence in this act. It is unavoidable.
Artist as bushwhacker
The Société des Artistes Indépendants’ motto “No jury, no awards!” was a middle finger thrust at the staid Royal Academy painters. Astruc’s ‘direct cinéma’ denounced the “tyranny of the narrative.” The Clash’s “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” was a manifesto decree that the old must be destroyed for the new to emerge. Artist as insurgent. Artist as bushwhacker. Outrage pricks the side of intent.
A few months ago I interviewed Jon Blow on my podcast and found him to be thoughtful, personable, and refreshingly self-critical. He didn’t shy away from sharing his opinions, positive or negative, but he was reluctant to paint in broad general strokes. We spoke longer than the length of the podcast indicates, and I found it a thoroughly positive experience.
I don’t know Jon Blow well enough to draw conclusions about his motivations, so I’m hesitant to do it. But I’ve worked in the arts nearly all my life, writing and staging theater, and teaching film and dramatic literature. I’ve closely observed, first-hand, the work of uncompromising creators like Andrei Serban, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Sam Shepard. I’m a working artist myself, and I believe I understand a few true things about how and why many artists behave as they do.
Jon Blow expresses contempt for mainstream games and the industry producing them (“The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie…”), because reinforcing torpid conventions is antithetical to his existence. When Blow says, ”I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity," he feels it as much as he thinks it, and the resultant indignation fuels his drive to make something better.
That’s what progressive artists do. They get worked up. They express outrage. They see great untapped potential suffocating in a toxic cloud of derivative convention. Their determination to move the art/medium/industry forward carries with it a kind of messianic zeal that some perceive as presumptuous. But it comes from a principled fervent place. An artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it.
It’s a cliche to say artists feel more than the rest of us, but they do often respond more forcefully because every creative idea they encounter is a new shred of evidence verifying or challenging their own hard-wrought aesthetic claims. For an artist driven to innovate, it’s a war of ideas and methodologies out there, and you can’t enter that fray indifferent or semi-motivated. Jon Blow is all in because he doesn’t know any other way to be.
Do video games need to be saved? Why should a guy like Jon Blow take it upon himself to do the job? If he hates games so much, why doesn’t he do something else? These are the wrong questions. Are Blow’s assertions about the current state of games valid? What can we learn from the work he produces? These are questions worth pursuing.
Blow is a theorist, but only to a point. Ultimately, he is a builder. Whatever else we might say about him, he is fully invested, literally and figuratively, in creating a game that embodies his ideas and aesthetic principles. Nobody needs to tell Jon Blow to put up or shut up. He’s on it. Let’s let him do his thing.
I have more to say about the Atlantic piece and its author’s characterization of games as “brain-dead digital toys” in my next post. I hope you’ll stick around.