Art 64: The Art World, Solved, in Persona 5
Persona 5 is a silly Japanese role-playing video game where you battles monsters and go on dates with your friends. The more you meet up with your friends and work to understand their personalities, the more power your summoned ‘Personas’ have in battle.
It's no surprise that there have been five installments in the Persona series. For gamers who love character-rich stories like Game of Thrones and the be-the-best grind of Pokemon, Persona 5 is an absolute dopamine flood of a game. To win the game, all you have to do is listen to interesting people, and help them with their problems. This will allow you to be stronger. If only life was such an orderly procession and everybody was interesting all the time! Playing Persona 5 feels as fair and juicy as growing your own tomatoes and eating them off the vine. It's like having all the friends in the world, and never talking about the weather.
One of the characters that you can befriend in Persona 5, Yusuke, takes you through a storyline where the Evil Art World Deliciously Gets What is Coming to It.
Some background: Yusuke is a teenage art student who works in the studio of a famous artist, Madarame. Madarame seems like a simple old man, enjoying a respectable fame after many years of building mastery in the arts. He makes classically beautiful paintings that fill viewers with wonder and awe. Yusuke idolizes Madarame to a point, and is grateful to be a part of Madarame’s studio.
Slowly, while playing through Persona 5, the player learns that Madarame’s kindly-old-man facade is just that: a simplistic cover for a complex and evil artist. Madarame steals works from his pupils, many of whom are dead or homeless now, and also sells copies of his own paintings as originals. Madarame manages to swindle everybody - his pupils, his art patrons, and even random admirers at his shows ("I'm the Madrame who gathers a full crowd every time he opens an exhibit!" - he brags)
If you were a video game writer, and you wanted to fuse the sordid world of fake Modiglianis into a Walt Disney who abused his animators, you’d write a character like Madarame. He is a bad, evil dude. The only thing that would have made Madarame more evil would have been to turn him into a shock artist who consistently did more and more shocking things to get attention (but that would be cliche, something we are too tired to hear any more about).
Overall, in Yusuke and Madarame, Persona 5 confronts the tangled problem of art ownership: powerful artwork is created by unpowerful members of society (Yusuke), only to be blatantly stolen and shamefully re-appropriated by visible, strong members of society (Madarame).
So, what do you to do fix Madarame's evil ways? Why, you go find his allegorical figurehead inside a castle, and then beat the crap out of it, of course! This is a video game! There has to be a depressing castle.
After fighting enough monsters and stumbling through a lavish art museum palace full of gaudy paintings (think Jeff Koons' Michael and Bubbles but it’s a whole castle), you finally get to confront Madarame about his sinister art enterprises.
In his boss-at-the-end-of-the-castle form, Madarame manifests as a series of ugly paintings, to which you must deliver a severe beatdown. Once you’ve beaten up the paintings, they fall to the ground, and you get to take a shot at the artist himself.
The metaphor here struck me as alternately heavy-handed and subtle. I loved it, and then suddenly I could not stand it, then I loved it again. While I instructed my video-game minions to pummel Madarame with baseball bats and magic spells, the question the game wanted me to ask was: Are you attacking the art, or the artist? Aren’t they both the same thing at the end of the day? (arrrrrrrrrrgggghhhh, it's so good, but it's so direct!)
I feel Madarame's Boss Form could have been a lot cooler and scarier, somehow - maybe you could have been fighting a painting that was beautiful, and therefore attacking it would have felt more uncanny? This wish of mine for the boss to be more grandiose is probably missing the point: Maybe the point is that Madarame’s art sucks, his paintings are stupid because he is stupid, and he’s not an amazing person at all - he’s just some pathetic old dude, scraping by on exploitation.
So, that’s Madarame. After you and your team beat him up sufficiently, he confesses his sins and promises to not take advantage of young artists again. Yayyyyy, winners!
Persona 5’s most sophisticated arguments about art happen after you get through the Madarame storyline. Once free of Madarame, Yusuke will become your friend. Throughout several hang out sessions (okay, dates), he will take you through his thoughts on art. Yusuke will also ask you for your opinions on what to paint and for your thoughts on art (Dear Atlus: Can there just be a whole game called Yusuke’s Art Thoughts, please?)
As silly as this game seems, Yusuke’s post-Madarame thoughts and introspection are the best comments on art creation not just in Persona 5, but any game out there.
The unspoken social comment here is that many artists in the real world will never get past Madarame’s Palace: they will be forever entrapped by a gleaming-but-cruel market, full of wildly powerful people ready to leave young artists destitute without a second thought. This market does not care about the question of what real art can be. Artists stuck in this world will never graduate to the level of thought that Yusuke has. Wait a moment, yes, Yusuke is a fictional character in a video game, but I absolutely believe in the reality of both Yusuke and Madarame.
Why does Yusuke feel so real? Because he's free of pop culture's tired tortured-artist tropes that wreck the credibility of hardworking, dependable visual artists. Yusuke is organized, thoughtful, and while he has a tragic background, he doesn’t go around constantly having unprovoked nervous breakdowns (artists alone don't do this - people in general do this). He's also passionate, but doesn't get whipped around by his feelings. Yusuke is the most refreshing vision of an videogame artist I've seen since Relm in Final Fantasy 6. Like Relm, he sort of comes out of nowhere, for no reason. Isn't this like most artists you know?
At one point, Yusuke asks you:
^ This question from Yusuke stopped me dead, because it was a truly interesting question about art! (It could have been as bad as: Becky what color should I make this? Press X to choose Blue). Most likely, the team behind Yusuke's dialogue either make art themselves, or they were kind enough to listen at length to a few folks who care deeply about making great art.
True, most video games aren't interested in talking about visual art - usually, video games deploy oceans of artwork to our flatscreens without comment on the art's actual production, or what the artist hopes it means. Persona 5 touches on some kind of postmodernity here. To be reductive, Persona 5 is just a series of computer-rendered paper dolls who stress out a lot about paper-doll paintings of things that don't exist. Yet, through these paper dolls, which are art, it slowly teaches players how to think freely about art:
Speaking of things that exist but don't exist, what would a young artist do in the real world if they were confronted with Yusuke's exact same problem set? Most likely they'd be able to do nothing - without parents, money/lawyers, or a magical group of friends, they couldn't scratch a real Madarame.
Persona 5 gives us the same old art problems we have in our world, and it gives us visions of what we could have if we solved those problems. It's important to see the art world of Persona 5 as what it is: a power fantasy where evil is rooted out with magic powers, and where the artists who work the hardest are also the most just. That said, it's a somewhat useful power fantasy.
To make our world less full of Madarames, I came up with a list of things we can do without beating anyone up!
How to Solve the Art World based on lessons from Persona 5
1. Don't make life harder for young artists just because you've had success as an artist.
2. If you see someone steal someone's artwork, call them out on it. Others may not be able to do so. Try to realize the deeper reasons behind why someone might be stealing, and why nobody may be speaking up about it. The sooner we find out, the better for everyone.
3. Don't be like Pompous Male Customer. Don't assume that good art is too complex. Be generous towards what others can comprehend.
4. Give credit to artists even if you think it isn't necessary. This is how insightful voices are found and heard.
5. If you buy art just for the market value of the art and not the art itself, check yourself! Shouldn't you also be happy with how your fake Madarame.. I mean, fake Modigliani looks in addition to having it as an asset?
6. If you are an artist, ask people who are not artists for their opinion of your art.
This article is a part of Art 64: a series about the art of video games, and the art within video games!
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