Art shmart – The nature of “art”, video games vs. films, and that whole Ebert thing.

Art shmart – The nature of “art”, video games vs. films, and that whole Ebert thing. By Simon Miraudo.

We interrupt the stream of barely informed movie reviews and 3D conversion news to discuss the nature of “art”, video games, and that whole Ebert thing. I’d like to preface the following article by stating that I am not exactly an avid gamer (although I once spent a solid weekend attempting to complete Final Fantasy 8). However, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to modestly throw my two cents into the argument (I’m sure if you added up all the contributions of “two cents” to this debate, we’d probably hit the million dollar mark).

Consider, if you will, the common household hairbrush.

Nothing spectacular. Just a hunk of plastic with spindly prongs and easy maneuverability. Would it be a stretch to call this a work of “art”? Sure, this particular brush is probably one in a billion, created on some cold, soul-crushing production line (not unlike that which produces sequels to Step Up). However, someone somewhere has crafted a brush of their own; lovingly, and indeed, artfully. So let’s throw brushes into the category from this point forward known as “art”.

Similarly, we can probably say that a hairdo is art. You may scoff at a bowl cut, but let’s imagine for argument’s sake a certain type of hairdo; one that has been fussed over by a visionary hairdresser and now resembles a vicious cat-fight. That too was created lovingly and artfully. Therefore, let’s chuck hairdos into the “art” pile as well. It seems “art” is hardly a discriminating category these days.

This article has nothing to do with the classification of hair-related products as “art”. Instead, I’m responding to Roger Ebert’s declaration that video games are not and never will be “art”. It’s not the first time he’s come out and said it, but in a recent article he expands on his reasons for such a hyperbolic assertion. Gamers exploded with fury. However, after reading his points, I found it hard not to agree with him. I too have never played a game “worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers [and] novelists”. I’ve never played a game that has engaged me on an emotional level in the same way that the films of Charlie Kaufman have, or the books of Dave Eggers, or the music of Sufjan Stevens.

But ultimately, I do disagree with Ebert. It doesn’t help that there is no concrete definition of “art” out there to settle the debate once and for all. That’s half the fun of the debate I suppose. At first, I considered my hairbrush analogy and concluded that if nearly everything could be considered “art”, then we have to be more judicious when it comes to choosing what should be considered “true art”. And to that point, I dismissed video games (briefly) as not being “art” at all.

Before you start attempting to figure out the difference between my designations of “art” and “true art”, don’t bother. I soon realised having two separate categories was a lost cause. “True art” implies there is a “false art”. I suppose that would include anything produced without love or passion (merely for financial gain), but that’s a rather naive stance to take. Besides, ask Chuck Klosterman or John Waters – even if something is constructed without love or passion, a reader can still derive any meaning from it they please. And in that respect, to some, “false art” might be the truest art form around.

Ebert’s intelligent and convincing article had briefly distracted me from my own mission statement: everything, from Big Brother to The White Ribbon, can be deconstructed in a meaningful way. If I deem Big Brother “evil” and The White Ribbon “important” (or vice versa), I am essentially considering them both as “art”. Anything that makes me consider its worth in society, or force me to question my own values, should surely be considered as such.

That is my interpretation of “art”, but there are two major, conflicting definitions that seem to drive the conversation on both sides of the fence.

1) That “art” is expressed through an artist.

This means that “art” is created anytime someone excels at their talent. i.e. Akira Kurosawa’s construction of Seven Samurai; David Bowie’s live rendition of Ashes to Ashes; a sportsman achieving at the highest level (clearly, I don’t know enough about sport to cite an example). Lynden Barber states on the ABC website that “gaming has never been considered art”, as it is by definition competitive. However, if one’s performance could be considered “artful”, why not the medium too? (Also, in this age of box office speculation and awards campaigning, it’s getting harder to consider film as non-competitive – but that’s an argument for another day).

2) That “art” is an indelible quality that you either “know” or you don’t.

In a manner of speaking: “art” is a matter of taste, and only the taste-makers can decide what is and what isn’t. Ebert takes this approach in his definition, and since he deems video games to not be art, then they mustn’t be.

Again, as far as taste-makers go, it’s hard to disagree with Ebert. I would assume that most critics (a determined bunch who considered themselves the bouncers guarding Club Art) would also take this stance. And in a way, they’d be right to. Critics (of which I nervously classify myself as a ‘film’ one) are supposedly educated, erudite experts in their field, and are arguably more equipped than most to decide what should be deemed as “art” – or perhaps more accurately, what should be deemed more “significant”. (Let me throw in another quick definition – anything that can be deconstructed is “art”, but critics evaluate which “art” is “significant”, or rather, worth cultural preservation and respect).

As far as I’m concerned, video games are nowhere near as “significant” as films or books or music or what have you. Saying that, the format is only in its infancy. Who’s to say that Metal Gear Solid 35 won’t affect us in the same way that Annie Hall does now (or perhaps that’s a bad comparison).

However, while I don’t consider video games “significant”, I do believe they should be referred to as “art”. After all, they are constructed by artists – professionals at the top of their game. Even if they are created for purely monetary gain, without love or passion, they can be deconstructed just like any other form of literature (the psychological readings that can be done on The Sims alone…)

The final test as to whether or not video games are “art” comes down to “knowing” whether it is or not. No doubt the bloggers and critics and tweeters will have their say over the coming weeks/months/years/rest of time. For what it’s worth, my writing 1000 words on the topic should be taken into consideration. If we’re having the debate at all, then surely the argument is over?

Discuss: Umm, the above?

9 Responses to “Art shmart – The nature of “art”, video games vs. films, and that whole Ebert thing.”

  1. Quite an interesting discussion, and quite bold. It is hard to throw my own opinion into the ring without seeming ill considered. However here I go:I believe that art can only be appreciated and deemed significant by those who experience it and perhaps have some understanding of the medium. I’m sure those born deaf would find it impossible to label music as art as they have no real experience of the medium. Therefore it seems abundantly clear to me that Ebert has probably never played a good video game in his life. Perhaps he should play Bioshock, Psyconauts or Portal.I wouldn't consider myself to be a video game buff (most of the people who have played against me would probably label me in the "noob" category. I would also not consider myself to be too hot on film or music but I know a thing or two and I appreciate it. I would say that I have played a number of games that have triggered a number of emotional responses in me that I believe were as strong as I have felt in music and film. I believe that the direct interaction with the audience (the gamer) allows for potential of a deeper emotional response. This potential is usually not achieved as many games are usually cash-cows (see the Sims 1 through to infinity), but the same could be said of the traditional art media such as god awful movies and music featuring Miley Sirus and/or J-Lo *shudders*. So it may be a bit unfair to void games as an art form because of a few bad (and greedy) eggs.Last, I am quite sure that when television was in its infancy many snobs would have turned their collective noses up at this new media as being nothing more than entertainment for the masses and certainly not art. Now film is seen as a pioneering art form that has the potential to achieve so much more than still pictures or music alone, it can combine the two. I believe in the not too distant future that interactive games will be a pioneering art form as it can combine the narrative of film, the enjoyment of achievement and the interactivity to create more compelling emotional responses. But don’t quote me on that, maybe in the future all we will be playing is pac-man remakes.Matt

  2. Clearly, Ebert's opinion post has garnered a lot of reactions from his readers. I haven't read any of the comments, but I assume that the basic premise is the same as mine: There are games that individuals would compare to the great works of great artists. He seems to want to reduce any art present in a game to being something separate to it: if the storyline is well crafted, "then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film." So why, then is a film not just a play, and a play just a dance with words, and all of them just novels? Why aren't they just… heaven forbid! Stories, told with or without "art"? Does he deny the beautiful artwork that goes into the art style? What about the soundscape? Sure, there's a play element. It's a game. No one denies that… but to say it isn't art? I like getting my definitions from etymonline.com, as it allows me to trace the original meaning, before it suffered a million semantic shifts which results in people bickering over which definition is right, and what can be labelled as what. Accordingly, "art" is something that has been made, completed, and required skill and practice to complete. I'd argue easily that even a flash game requires more skill and practice to develop than some "clever" art that appears to be ironic, like canvasses covered in blue paint. Another point I would like to bring into this, building on that definition of art: why is it necessarily the end product that is used to decide whether something is art or not? A painter is commissioned to a portrait. The same painter is then employed as a concept artist or texture artist in a game. Are they suddenly no longer creating art? Programmers generate events- looking at the demoscene illustrates this. Designers create a world, the same way a writer, sculptor or even a painter would (see Henry Jenkins on Games as Narrative Architecture). Why, then, are we listening to the opinions of non-gamers, non-developers, when they want to exclude a media form they don't like? I don't really like performed poetry. Does it now cease to be an art, because I consider it folly or noise pollution, or inferior to pop music (in the same way that classical instrumental music is unrefined because it lacks lyrics)?

  3. I believe the label of "art" to be redundant. I believe that all any argument about such a highly subjective and ultimately ephemeral definition is but a waste, because (and it sounds very zen but) anything can be everything, or vice versa.I watch a Terence Malick film and go "wow. That was amazing, and if you painstakingly examine the film you can see where all those years went." and I can say it's art, but my wife will walk away within 20 minutes or beginning, completely nonplussed (which she has, during Badlands. Great movie btw.). She could then throw on Step Up, say, and the reverse could apply.I could look at an ironic blue canvas and say "what the hell?" but stare for hours at a cool, intricate Escher painting and go "wow.".Both are highly subjective opinions, both could be and are "art".Ultimately anything anyone spent their time and effort on could very well be art. I am a VERY avid gamer, from a very young age. I guess I believe that art is something that is so well constructed that you don't even notice it is art. You finish watching Pulp Fiction and ask "where did those 3 hours go?". That's art. You play through Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, same deal. If you can get lost in a film like Children Of Men, where I have tried countlessly to watch it from a technical perspective to truly appreciate everything that went into the construction of the film, and constantly have to remind myself to be critical throughout because I keep getting lost in the enjoyment of watching, then it's art. If you're playing a game that you don't notice things like the textures, graphics, level design, voice acting, sound design, scriptwork and so forth, simply because you're too busy being lost in it all, then it's art.But to come full circle, I believe "art" to be a very redundant term. Many people have pulled meanings out of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, but even he said "I just wanted to write about what I thought a psycho would be like in the 80's upper-class."Another 2 cents cast!

  4. Art Schmart indeed! The term is entirely pointless. Art, in my opinion, comes down to individual taste. As you said Simon "Anything can be art"! If i think the design of an Alessi hairbrush crafted in an italian workshop (then mass-produced in a Taiwanese factory for sale at David Jones) has artistic merit, then it is art. What is that saying "I think, thererfore i am"? Basically this applies in relation to art. If you think something is art, then it is, to you at least. Art has become a term that cannot be pigeonholde in terms of its application in language. It does not only apply to fields such as paintings or sculpture that you find in an "art" gallery nor is it only dance, music or drama that you may see at an "arts" centre. It is also not just literature or film. Art is also seen in design (textiles, architecture and industrial design). There is also the saying in business that "there is as much art as science" involved with a particular concept. People who have done a degree in arts will try and tell you what is art and what isn't but the bottom line is it comes down to the person, how something affects them, how they see the world, what they gain from having experienced the particular subject. There is incredible artistic design involved in computer games, just as there is in the artistry in a Pixar movie. Scenes are lovingly created and painstakingly detailed. Ebert has created an argument for argument's sake. There is no right or wrong answer. Everybody has an opinion and that is what makes us individuals.

  5. I read somewhere once that if you can ask of something "but is it art?" then, by definition, it is.

  6. Oh, and the games "ICO" and "Shadow of the Colossus" are often referred to as art games.

  7. Anyone played Braid? if that game is not a work of art, i don't know what is.

  8. Braid is definitely a work of art. It's stunning to look at, the story is beautifully crafted, written and moving and the game design is utter genius.I'd rank it up with some of the best films I've seen, music I've heard and literature I've read.

  9. In your post, you made the following remark: "I too have never played a game “worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers [and] novelists”. I’ve never played a game that has engaged me on an emotional level in the same way that the films of Charlie Kaufman have, or the books of Dave Eggers, or the music of Sufjan Stevens"The issue that I have with your comments – and by extension, Ebert's – is that you attempt to "define" art (as though such a thing can be agreeably done) by comparison instead of by a merit that's independent of that comparison. While you make some effort at clearing up the distinction, it still digresses from the thrust of the topic in its attempt to address it. When you make comments like the one I quoted, you aren't making a useful observation about the games, you're making an argument that's equivalent to saying that since a painting is not like a song, then a painting is not art. You're not addressing (or in the case of Ebert, dismissing) the artistic merit of games based on the tools the game uses or based on the general intent behind game design. You're defining the inadequacy of gaming by saying that it fails to do something it doesn't try to do. The reason why this discussion is so irksome is not necessarily because the topic is bad, but because it's largely guided by the acceptance of a false premise that makes the discussion accessible to people who are assertive enough to have an opinion, but aren't curious enough to actually acquaint themselves with the medium. Ebert required a self-developed perch to stand on – regardless of his lack of experience with the subject – and the acquiescence to his framing provided it. Whatever superficial persuasiveness came from his post was mostly the product of using the relative and cultural popularity of Shakespeare and Mozart to discredit a niche he doesn't know enough about to knowledgeably comment on. If it were otherwise, I doubt he would have dedicated three separate paragraphs to condescendingly mocking games he'd only seen trailers and gameplay videos of. Ebert's sin isn't criticism, in this case. It's willful ignorance about the nature of what he's criticizing.

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