I mulled over some things to say in response to Roger Ebert’s much-loathed first post about video games and how they are not art, and didn’t open my mouth at the time. Now he’s posted his reflective apology, and I’m finally compelled to logic this out (well, not really), with ground rules.
I never had an art teacher, from elementary to private to college, who didn’t try and tell me the definition of art. I never believed them. And fuck the dictionary! I maintain the definition of art is subjective. I know, I know. Academically that doesn’t go over well because you simply can’t base an area of study on something that abstract. That’s another blog, though. The work of Caravaggio, John Lee Hooker’s guitar licks, the Chrysler building, the Coen brothers’ Fargo, the intricacy of a mechanical watch- these things are art.
They are beautiful (and even in the dark terror of Francis Bacon’s work, there is a beauty- i.e., I don’t mean “pretty”). I appreciate the skill (or sometimes simply the raw talent) that went into them. They elicit, however subtle, some emotion, even if it’s only enough to interrupt my thoughts for a second. I’m happy that they exist, and though I may not be consciously aware, I find the world a better place because of them.
That’s my definition. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it shouldn’t. Some people hate Fargo.
So…..where does that leave video games? I say they can certainly be. By my own definition, I think it depends on the game. There is an obvious visual-art aspect. 8-bit pixel sprites have inspired plenty of actual art themselves, images and characters have become widely recognized; culturally, games have a clear impact. These are criteria that other “accepted” art forms meet. So why the disparity?
Ebert’s original argument was more or less based in the idea that in creating art, the artist has the largest measure of control over the viewer (or listener, or reader, etc.), and because the basic appeal of video games comes from the viewer interacting and making decisions which alter the “experience”, it cannot be art.
This is absolutely untrue.
For example: if I paint something, ideally it would evoke the emotion I wish to convey to everyone who sees it. In theory, the better painter I am, the more “control” I have over the reaction. But it doesn’t work that way. The artist can attempt to do this; it’s what we strive for. But as each viewer is an individual, with their own lifetime of cultural experiences and emotional patterns and personal history, every viewer will see the work differently.
And now that I’ve explained that, you’re probably thinking, “Well, duh. Different people are different, of course!” Well, of course. I’ll be damned, though, if the discussion of ‘art’ erases that from the mind. But I digress.
Of course games can be art. There are visual and audial elements (which, thinking of The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker, can be breathtaking). They can often evoke emotions (they don’t always, no. But the potential is there). They can inspire us. They can teach us how to think in a way we hadn’t thought before. They can have an impact on us. They can have meaning. That’s art.
However, I also believe that art is what we make it, as viewers. We can take something from it: a sense of appreciation, a thought, inspiration, something. This improves us as people. We grow. Without that, a thing is purposeless and art is not purposeless. Thus it depends as much on the viewer as the creator or the critic.
Video games, like other mediums, can be art. That doesn’t mean they all are. As I said, it depends on the game. I might consider Metal Gear Solid to be art, but Wii Sports? Not so much. Yet again, by my own definition, this is an entirely moot point, even outside of the fact that I’ve contradicted myself several times. That’s why I’m a painter and not a professional debater. Certainly, though, I’m far from denouncing video games as an art form, and I deeply appreciate that Roger has given this some thought as well.