‘Art Sqool’ Is a Game About Following Your Passion in an Exploitative World
Wait, shit, is this a scam?
All images courtesy Glanderco
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Julian Glander’s Art Sqool is about Froshmin, a small, round person who is going to an art school run by an artificial intelligence that is going to help Froshmin become a great artist. Or at least some kind of artist. Actually, thinking about it, the weird little robot who evaluates all of your art doesn’t make any promises about ability or skill or fame or recognition as a product of the time that Froshmin spends at Art Sqool. Wait, shit, is this a scam?
That’s the line of logic that I ran through in just the first few minutes of Art Sqool. What does it mean to be schooled in art? What does it mean to receive an arts education? What are you getting there that you can’t get anywhere else? The promise of the art school experience is that you will pass through an intense process through which you will emerge as a professional who has some kind of ability to enter a job market in a more expanded capacity. And, you know, that’s the promise of all higher education at this point: the things you will get here, whether those things are skills or simply the name of a certain school on the top of your diploma, will help you out there.
The key difference among school, art school, and Art Sqool is that the latter doesn’t make promises it can’t keep. Assignments are arbitrary and quite literally random, chosen from a pool of different things you can do. You always have something to do. You’re always busy. Sometimes you’re drawing a scream, and sometimes you’re attempting to paint up something that would make people angry if they saw it in a museum. And when you’re done, a computer reads it, ranks in a way that seems profoundly arbitrary, and then gives you the next task you’re supposed to complete.
Some of the skills you might gain from this mode of education are practical. Art Sqool’s art creation tools are basically MS Paint plus a little more, so it’s worthwhile to take even ten minutes and really figure out the kind of fidelity you can get out of this system. The more you work with it, the better you get, and theoretically, I guess you could get your entire art education by scribbling on the page with black ink the basic brush tool.
The real “skill ups” are about traveling out onto the campus, though. Art Sqool is comprised of a few floating islands, some big and some small, each with their own unique shape and size and series of objects. One is a park with some big modern art sculptures. Another is a low morass of pink lumps and brackish water. While you might expect that the real benefit of Art Sqool is the assignments, it is basically critical to go out into the pastel world of the campus to find new tools and additional colors of paint that allow you to make your projects even more peculiar or special.
I think one way of thinking about Art Sqool is as an insightful critique of the arts education. It’s a cynical critique that sees art schools as a big private grift that ask you to do a bunch of arbitrary assignments in a classroom setting that are graded purely by magic. And then, to make matters worse, if you actually want to get better and develop new abilities, you’ll have a better chance of just going out and finding them instead of actually having them delivered through instruction. All of this is built on the enthusiasm of Froshmin, whose intro is one of the best-directed and cutest things I have seen in the past little while.
Another way of reading Art Sqool is that it truly is about adventure and betterment. You can half-ass the assignments, game the AI that evaluates them, and slide through the game to complete them all. You can find a couple skills, maybe one or two colors, and then make do with what you can. You rumble around every corner of the map, turning up new brushes all the time, and you fully exploit that free range to do whatever you want. In this reading, having to make your own way isn’t a glitch; it’s a feature. Froshmin’s enthusiasm is not fuel for the eternal combustion of capital extraction from student bodies, it’s the coal that keeps the train of life running. Beep beep.
Whatever your chosen interpretation, Art Sqool manages deftly to present us with one of the problems of contemporary civil society: you’re going to be eaten alive, and you need to recognize it. The whole world is Art Sqool, and we’re all Froshmin. We’re brought into systems we don’t quite understand and told that we need to be entrepreneurs of our own fate, and anyone who doesn’t get these facts immediately is being taken for a ride down a one-way track to exploitation.
It’s a common rhetorical move to suggest that anyone who is going down that track made a choice to go there. The purpose of articles on business sites about a 30-year-old with millions of dollars in savings and five rental properties is meant to grind home the fact that if that isn’t you, then you’re a failure. If you’re trapped in the horror of debt or an educational hole, these articles seem to say, then you did something wrong.
But Froshmin’s education at Art Sqool, and the myriad ways of reading that education, should temper our reactions here. If you get swept up in the debt-creating, emotion-annihilating, discipline-generating systems that Art Sqool is an allegory for, you’re not a fool. We’re all Froshmin. We’re all making tactical decisions about how to take advantage of, or be taken advantage of, by our circumstances every single day. Sometimes that’s the effect of choices we make, but more often than not it’s simply the effect of a ball of debt and limited mobility rolling downhill from decades before we were born.
The power of Art Sqool is that it so cleanly presents this paradox of thinking for us. Froshmin’s trapped and makes the best or worst of it, and it’s unclear what the “right” way of being in Art Sqool is. That ambivalence can be frustrating, but I personally find it very empowering. It’s not often that a game presents a social problem as well as Art Sqool does.
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