For Dale: The Art Thing Revisited

You should check out DaleCooper’s most recent rant on the topic for background. He is specifically responding to Roger Ebert’s (by now infamous) opinion that video games simply aren’t art.

By the way, I’m not going to make a larger working definition for “art.” I don’t think it matters. I’m not a hippy-dippy fuzzy-thinker who thinks you can call anything “art, maaan.” But everything that I have to say here would apply to any serious definition of the term. I’m not willing to engage in hair splitting between different ideas about what art is. Y’all can work it out for yourselves, please.

Ebert’s reasoning that the presence of player choice renders games artless is shallow on its face. This attitude would classify Andy Warhol as just a clever graphic designer. It’s revealing that Ebert dismissively references Warhol in the article linked above. Warhol’s art required the viewer to have some familiarity with the cultural icons that he repackaged and recontextualized (a word that I despise but can’t seem to find a replacement for). It also required some familiarity with the conventions of art itself. Without the participation of the viewer, the can of soup really was just a can of soup.

I discard the idea that player agency has anything to do with whether games are art, because it’s a dead end. I don’t think there’s any useful way to think about art that precludes the participation of an audience. More importantly, as Dale points out, it also reveals Ebert’s lack of experience with most modern videogames — which are usually as crushingly linear and predictable as a Mike Myers vehicle.

For Chrissake, this is something that we started deciding on long ago. If Ebert wants to argue that any work that requires the viewer to participate in its outcome isn’t art… he’s going to have to go back and argue with the surrealists, the absurdists, the expressionists, the existentialists, the modernists, the post-modernists, etc. The dynamic interaction between artist and audience is a fundamental obsession of much of 20th century thought.

So, putting that aside… can games be art? The debate is a good one, and I think there’s still plenty to be had here. I think they can. But I also think that they aren’t.

Sure, they are all art in the sense that they are all artifacts made by people, and they all “express something.” So in that sense, most of today’s video games are art in the same way that The Love Guru is art. Entertaining but highly disposable.

I think that Ebert (and Dale [and I]) are probably talking about something more when we use the word “art.”

So far, I don’t think any game has really earned the “serious art” label to the same degree that the Very Serious Filmmakers that Ebert enjoys have. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I think it’s only a matter of time.

SweatyB points out in the comments on Dale’s blog that it’s unfair to apply the measure of an established art form like film to a fledging art form like games. New art forms need time to mature and develop conventions. To this I would add:

The development of film and the development of video games both suffer from technological dependence… each generation is made to look obsolete by the next generation. This is more true of video games that depend entirely on the advance of computer graphics technology. It’s difficult to make a permanent mark when your art looks terribly dated within a few months. Eventually filmmakers developed enough tools and the viewing culture developed enough literacy that this limitation was mostly overcome. The language of film and our understanding of it has developed enough that today most culturally literate people can jump easily between Jurassic Park, The Birds, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Star Wars without being too bothered by the accompanying radical shifts in film technology.

Typical of me – I both agree and disagree with SweatyB. Ebert really is missing the point, and risking looking like a cantankerous old biddy in hindsight when the great Game Revolution comes. But I also think that the people creating video games need to take him seriously. Because he is currently basically correct, and the relationship between critic and artist is one that helps an art form mature. To date, people making games haven’t much delivered on everything this medium promises.

Sidetrack: Imagine we brought a 19th century theater critic forward in time in order to visit one of our fabulous cinemaplexes to view a random sampling of just whatever happened to be playing that week. Would our time-traveling critic be justified in going back to the 19th century with the idea that film couldn’t be art?

The games-as-art argument landscape really is bleak right now. I have played many games that had glimmers of real artistry. But I’m not sure if I know of any that I would call “art” in any meaningful sense.

AND NOW I WOULD LIKE TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT SEVERAL TIMES IN RAPID SUCCESSION

Can a game that most people would recognize as “good art” be fun to play?

How would film, television, and popular music have developed if early practitioners had been focused on being artistic instead of being entertaining?

To what extent does this obsession among game fans reveal an inferiority complex about their favorite hobby?

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5 Responses to “For Dale: The Art Thing Revisited”

  1. This is why your dumb ass shoulda bought a 360, MCP – so you could play BioShock and experience the state of the art for yourself.

    Also, so me an’ you an’ Sweaty could hop in a Banshee together and rain terror down on the many troubled pedestrians of Liberty City. Tsk tsk.

  2. Because it’s hard for the console-free to talk knowledgeably on the idea of video games qua art piece I will instead direct you to the new book by Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics, (which just won the Eisner) for a discussion on exactly the topic of your last sentence…but on comic books and how much of the drive to treat comic books as a big boy art is rooted in the low self-esteem of its fans when faced with critics from the rear garde.

    Fanboys Unite!

  3. I’m not sure if I’d qualify any current video games as capital-A art yet, but I’d posit that games have at times managed to interpret and evaluate culture and human nature like art is supposed to do. There’s still a lot of room for growth, but the potential is there.

  4. Jimpanzee – I think the impulse to defend is behind a lot of it. I’ll cop to that myself. Lots of smart people play games, and it’s tempting to try to find ways of justifying the colossal waste of time that represents.

    I also think there’s an element of frustration with the quality of the artistic elements of most games – and lots of people who both like games and would also like to see them mature a little bit.

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