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Games as art?
April 16, 2010 11:03 PM   Subscribe


 
She begins by saying video games "already ARE art." Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.

Not to mention poets.
posted by Horizontally a Champion at 11:10 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, of course he can make that argument, with such horrible examples. Where's The Longest Journey, or Grim Fandango?

Anyone that can play Grim Fandango all the way through and claim that it is not art is mentally deficient, in my estimation, so prejudiced against games as being artistic expression that there is no evidence that could possibly change his or her mind.
posted by Malor at 11:12 PM on April 16, 2010 [21 favorites]


Arguing about whether a thing is art tells us more about you than the thing.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:14 PM on April 16, 2010 [37 favorites]


Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.

Uhh yeah, movies don't have any of that.

Even with clarification his argument seems to be that games aren't art because he doesn't want to play them, and they are primitive and lame.

Ok, you have proved you don't like them, not that they aren't art.

The fact is the genre is too broad to define as art or not, there is no definition without a game that hits the criteria.

Now she shows stills from early silent films such as George Melies' "A Voyage to the Moon" (1902), which were "equally simplistic." Obviously, I'm hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema, but Melies seems to me vastly more advanced than her three modern video games. He has limited technical resources, but superior artistry and imagination.


It isn't the love of cinema that is the handicap, it is the inability to see the artistry and imagination necessary for gaming. He would see it eventually if he had as much time to devote to gaming as to movies.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:15 PM on April 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Ah, Malor, Grim Fandango instantly came to my mind when I read the post. Too bad Ebert is a Mac guy, I would mail him a copy in an instant.
posted by hellojed at 11:18 PM on April 16, 2010


Nothing is more annoying then people trying to define "art."
posted by delmoi at 11:18 PM on April 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


As much respect as I have for RE this article is more a refutation of Kellee Santiago's argument for games as art than an authentic argument against games as art.

I quote RE: "One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game."

I respond: Nethack.
posted by vapidave at 11:23 PM on April 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think it would help if he actually, y'know, played a game. Then again, maybe Ebert is just stuck in his preconceptions and will be till the day he dies.
posted by fearthehat at 11:25 PM on April 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

It sounds like Ebert is making a category error here. He's saying that playing a game isn't art, which I would agree with. The question is whether or not creating the game, the game itself is an artifact of artistic expression.

Because it's obviously possible to create a game that can't be won. Maybe Ebert would say that's not really a game, but then the question would be "Can an interactive experience be art"? Is interactive art a possibility. Seems odd to say no.

But if that is the case, all you're doing is shuffling definitions. Shrinking the "games" bubble in the Venn diagram until it doesn't overlap the "art" bubble. But what's the point of that? It's not a real argument, it's just a meaningless fight about semantics.
posted by delmoi at 11:25 PM on April 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, is it just me or has TED gone down hill? The first TED talks I heard were pretty interesting, but lately it seems to be a sequence of intellectual wank material, the stuff that makes dumb people feel smart, like a Tom Friedman article.
posted by delmoi at 11:27 PM on April 16, 2010 [24 favorites]


Who is Tom Friedman?
posted by vapidave at 11:36 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is such a frustrating and stupid argument. You see all that crap on Etsy all the time, and nobody argues that that isn't art... some of it's quite good, in fact. You see little figurines and little dioramas and such, and people praise the artistic skill of the maker. Yeah, they're kinda amateur, but everyone agrees it's art.

Yet, somehow, if you take the exact same thing you made in real life, model it in a computer, animate it, and create an environment for it to interact with, suddenly it's not art? A simple still picture can be art, but a whole interactive level full of pictures, even if they're from the same artist, drawn the same way, can't be?

That's just so ludicrous that I want to whack Ebert with a Nerf bat.

Computer games are not at cave-drawing levels. They're at least as good as most 'professional' art you buy in galleries. No, there haven't been any transcendent greats yet, things so good they change the culture, but they'll hold up to pretty much any routine art show that doesn't have recognized masters on display.
posted by Malor at 11:38 PM on April 16, 2010 [12 favorites]


I've said it a thousand times: you can critique something you know and love -- a bad album if you're a music lover, a bad movie if you're Ebert -- but you cannot properly critique something you just don't get. Numerous attempts have left us with such insightful gems as "rap isn't music", "heavy metal is just noise", "comics are for children", and the granddaddy of them all: "this isn't art".

Without a strong, intuitive understanding of what makes games great, it's no surprise that Ebert would conclude that they're not great; the real question is why anyone should respect his opinion on the matter. That blog post reads like Andy Rooney talking about why he doesn't trust soup.
posted by vorfeed at 11:44 PM on April 16, 2010 [19 favorites]


Her next example is a game named "Braid"... You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game.

He clearly hasn't played Braid.

Malor: No, there haven't been any transcendent greats yet

Tetris must go pretty darned close.
posted by robcorr at 11:44 PM on April 16, 2010 [9 favorites]


I think the difference is that you're not allowed to handle or play with The Art.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:47 PM on April 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


That was me making a joke waaaaaaaaaaay to slowly above. Sorry. Carry on.
posted by vapidave at 11:48 PM on April 16, 2010


Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

Wait, what? This makes zero sense from a person who devoted his life to watching movies and NOT simply enjoying himself, but writing partly for the enjoyment of others. This article is full of backward, ignorant arguments. It's always strange (and maybe good?) to read something shitty by someone who has written some great things. This is hard to wrap my head around.

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game.

This seems to me like saying "One obvious difference between novels (not art) and paintings (art) is you can finish a novel." Seemingly all his arguments are short sighted and completely stuck in his own context.
posted by Corduroy at 11:48 PM on April 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


I wish folks would stop shitting on cave art. When you see the photos of it, it looks rather simplistic, but when you put it in context, christ! Go back in time 30,000 years, hike yourself up to a cave, carry your source of light with you, and shimmy your way back into a cave – in some cases, 500 meters back into a cave. Now, by only the light of your flickering torch, draw some animals you've seen in the distance with ochre and charcoal on a non-smooth wall and invent art. Hopefully you didn't let your torch go out, after all, it would be nice to get out of the cave, too.

Apologies for the derail. Cave art is much cooler than TED.
posted by barnacles at 11:48 PM on April 16, 2010 [35 favorites]


... Because if art moves around or behaves non-linearly, reviewers and tastemakers can't pin it down, label it, review it, and kill it.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:49 PM on April 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


robcorr: He clearly hasn't played Braid."

Well, he described the writing as fortune cookie quality. That must mean he's familiar with the game, at least. 'Cos as much as I loved Braid, I will not back down from calling the writing shitty – like a first year composition class that the TA has been afraid to grade.
posted by barnacles at 11:51 PM on April 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Round and round we go.

I respect Ebert for challenging the community to prove it. I made the same case to my kids for 20 years.

While I have to admit, Santiago's case is rather weak, I don't respect Ebert for being so closed minded as to the possibility. I kept digging because it didn't occur to me that a platform as powerful as interactivity can never be used to tell emotional stories.

Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

Sigh. As terrible as this sounds, Roger, speak for yourself. I have already experienced it in the form of Rohrer and "Everyday"
posted by victors at 11:53 PM on April 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Actually - and here I go into the abyss - I don't think video games are art. Not... really. Maybe in a way I'll get to later. I don't mean any value judgments. I don't know why video game makers would want to be artists really, so they could be paid less? I think games and art are different sorts of things, and we relate to them on different levels. Art is something created with the intention of inspiring particular attitudes in the beholder. Games are meant to be an enjoyable activity.

They get confused for several reasons, especially when video games are concerned. The big overlap is that video games can & often do contain art. In the same way a building does. The popular way to do this is to make game-playing the mechanism by which the player advances through a story. Final Fantasy games, Bioshock, Dragon Age, Portal, tons of examples here. But also you have graphics, music, etc. and each of these can be affecting as well.

A rarer mechanism by which games become art is by causing the player to question her relationship to the game: "what did I just do?" Shadow of the Colossus, for example, or several indie games the names of which escape me at the moment. (One where you were a suicide bomber? I forget) But this is basically a performance art element, which is the sort of thing you can attach to anything. So it isn't really inherent to the game.

I am not sure I have the tools to explain what I am after here but maybe someone with a better education in this area can pick up on it.

Now for where games are art, and where art is expressed in the act of playing the game:

I think most people who've played video games know that there's a mindstate they get into while playing, sort of a meditative busy-ness of clicking or pressing buttons, plus of course being happier when things go right or frustrated when they don't. Often this state is pretty similar, plus or minus speed and frustration, really. But I don't believe, when you're not taking in graphics or dialogue, that there's a great deal of difference in the mindstate induced by playing Dragon Age, or Civilization, or Dwarf Fortress, or Starcraft, or River Raid – and these are very different video games! You click here adjust there go go go frequently even in games where you don't strictly have to.

And I think changing that mindstate intentionally is the point where games can be art. But that very rarely seems to change, especially with expressive intent on the part of the designer.

I think Tetris approaches this.

As a basis of comparing mindstates, isn't playing a video game a different-feeling experience from playing a computer version of a board game? Who plays chess the same way they play Starcraft or even Civilization? Don't you think there's some room to play with the way the experience feels? But game designers don't really do that because they're too busy working in cutscenes because they want to be artists.
posted by furiousthought at 12:05 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ebert and nerds: the honeymoon is over.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:07 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets

How often, this canard? Robert Pinsky's a poet of renown, and he not only wrote a video game, but his share of criticism on the subject.

I think the problem with this late resurrection of "Games As Art?" is that neither side has left the areas circumscribed by pop art and pop games. Hours are wasted dissecting the camera angles of the latest Grand Theft Auto bloodletting; or on the magical dispute of whether a cinematic budget entails cinematic capacity; or deconstructing WoW play mechanics to the brittle skeleton of addiction. The focus is warped by luster, economics, currency, hot theory. Is it important? Is it on the news? Is it soluble to a basic postmodern aqua regias? Term-paper worthy? TED talk?

Meanwhile games continue to give us things that are relatively alien and un-repetitive, things that require no explanation nor apology. Merely imagination.

But that's no fun. Making art is hard, private work, not crossfire punditry. So I think until the end of time it will be dilettante versus dilettante, circling the last tar pit on the edge of never, the sad diorama of arguments already extinct. It's settled. There is no reason to prop the spectacle up for another unmerry go round. But they will.

Like Yeats said of Augusta Gregory, back when there was still some tittering over the idea of the mere folktale as high art for a world of towering realisms:

I praise but in brief words the noble writing of these books, for words that praise a book wherein something is done supremely well, will remain in the ears of a later generation, like the foolish sound of church bells from the tower of a church when every pew is full.
posted by kid ichorous at 12:12 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Well, of course he can make that argument, with such horrible examples. Where's The Longest Journey, or Grim Fandango?

It doesn't seem fair that some works get included in the debate and others dismissed as "horrible examples". Not every sketch is a masterpiece, of course. So what makes certain games art and others not-art? I agree that the aesthetics, story lines, overall playing experience make games like Earthbound, Katamari, and Grim Fandango much more artful and compelling than say Quake and Doom, but is something art merely because it has artistic qualities?

Are we arguing that video games deserve to be stuffed in museums between sound art installations and minimalist sculptures? Or just that the medium can potentially create something that is considered high art and not just an entertaining diversion?

I usually find it pointless to debate but with so many egos invested outside of just BFA thesis papers I am really interested to know what the objective is in declaring This Thing is Art.
posted by Juicy Avenger at 12:13 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you don't think that the creation and arrangement of a set of rules is art, you're choosing to be blind. A game designer carefully balancing a set of rules is no less an act of art than a poet searching painfully for the right word or a sculptor working meticulously to get a facial feature just right.

I barely even know how to argue the point; it seems so self-evident to me that it is inconceivable that you could give it any serious, honest thought (and it is clear to me, based on Ebert's writings, that he has not given this particular topic serious, honest thought) and come to the conclusion that this is not art.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:13 AM on April 17, 2010 [8 favorites]


And that goes for board games, such as chess, every bit as much as it does for video games. The creation of games is an act of art; the outcome is art. There is more elegance in the average modern boardgame than in the vast majority of modern films.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:15 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I respect Ebert for challenging the community to prove it.

Not me. I wish ET for the 2600 upon him in spades. The horror. The horror.
posted by kid ichorous at 12:15 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think Ebert's bigest block is with the word 'game'; if it is competitive it can't also be art. However there are many competitive artist, and many prizes awarded, including money. Games just keep the score internally. There are also games where it is possible to ignore the competition and the score and strive for something else ("I want to get my avatar's traits all to 100, though I can end the game with some at 70"), that is seeking a different aesthetic form the competitive one.

The second problem he has is wanting to keep everything linear, and that is the biggest divergence these games have from the older narrative art forms. His snark at "Braid", shows this. It doesn't have the same rule as chess; taking back a move is within the rules here and, yes, how one deals with the importunity to go backwards does (or can) teach us something about how we deal with our RL pasts.

So, to please Ebert we should stop calling them games, I guess. Maybe then he will see the possibility of the 'player' becoming a collaborator within the artistic creation. Surely, in spite of statement that a dance reflects the choreographer, he (of all people) must understand that the dancer always changes the arrangement, and that the actor effects the performance. In games it is the writer that has to deal with the talents of the performer (though as it's part of the design, the writer never knows it), and not the director.
posted by Some1 at 12:19 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


I agree that the aesthetics, story lines, overall playing experience make games like Earthbound, Katamari, and Grim Fandango much more artful and compelling than say Quake and Doom, but is something art merely because it has artistic qualities?

As a programmer, I see an artistic merit behind the technology of many games, including early FPSes like Doom, which used really interesting methods of "faking" 3D. It's kind of like when Renaissance artists discovered the vanishing point and perspective.

In that sense, games have long been past the "cave drawing" phase.
posted by hellojed at 12:20 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I tried to make art that pretended to be a video game (obnoxious audio warning) recently (one plays it with a joystick, but it isn't much of a "game" really).
posted by idiopath at 12:21 AM on April 17, 2010


Riven (subtitled The Sequel to Myst).

Mr. Ebert, you are wrong. That is all.
posted by polymodus at 12:22 AM on April 17, 2010


Would Ebert respect a critic of film who had never sat and watched a movie?

It's very strange, his position. Strange and weird and honestly kind of sad.
posted by effugas at 12:25 AM on April 17, 2010 [10 favorites]


As a child I read his original ninja turtles movie review. His disregard for the comic and cartoon made me distrust him for about a decade.

Looking at it now, this is the only record I can find of Ebert actually trying to play a video game. He only "succeeded in penetrating to the second" level.

Now I spent my childhood with a pawn shop copy of the game. He could have made it to the awful dam level with the electric coral stopping you from disarming bombs. That was psychic trauma, yes.

But depending on how he defines level, he very well could have wandered the overworld map, stumbled across a manhole, and slowly murdered the turtles one by one. Probably by a mosquito or one of the foot clan that just hop up and down and tossed pellets.

The unresponsive controls, floaty jumping, the sheer pointless of using anyone other than Donatello. That cannot represent two decades of an entire medium.

It's the early 90s, so picture him not as a prolific writer but as a smirky, tubby, near self-parody of a syndicated television personality. Then picture a nintendo control in his hand. He's Raphael but doesn't know that. He just sees green blocks that kinda reesemble a turtle spinning its fists. Then imagine five minutes later when he tosses the controller across the room and forsakes games forever.

His post surgery writing has slowly won me over. What baffles me is that he lovedfinal fantasy the spirits within which is arguably equal to or less than the plot and style of the games.

So really we need to set this guy down in front of some high quality machinima but call it cyberfilms.
posted by beardlace at 12:26 AM on April 17, 2010 [12 favorites]


Whether computer games are art isn't even a good question. The real question is whether computer/video games can be subject to serious critique. Extant games don't hold up well because they are optimized for mass appeal. Who knows what will happen in the future, with computers growing even more powerful and capable of doing all sorts of cool things we barely fathom today.
posted by polymodus at 12:28 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't get it. How can something not be art when it is something made up of a bunch of component parts that are art? Take Heavy Rain, for example, or most modern RPGs. You have writing (art, found in movies), voice acting (art, found in cartoons), architectural design (art, found in meatspace), graphical design (art, found in cartoons, paintings, and other visual art forms)... the list could go on. Is it that interfaces through which you interact with the art makes it non-art, since non-art things (like other software) also use that interface? 'Cause you could say the same thing about, say, DVD menus.

Or is it that he does not get that someone MAKES games, and those people are artists-- the PLAYERS are not expected to be artists in the same way that no audience ever is?
posted by NoraReed at 12:32 AM on April 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


The only way I could experience joy or ecstasy from her games would be through profit participation.

Hmmm. I could turn this around on him and say the same about "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," (not really, but I know a couple of people who hate that film) but does this statement really support his argument?

And that "one person is required for art" thing is just, so... wrong, considering the medium in which he has spent his life examining, it almost made my head explode.

I could get behind his argument more if this was 1987 and the biggest game to play was Super Mario Brothers, but I've had too many beautiful moments inside a video game to ever argue that again.

Thinking about those beautiful moments in games though, perhaps they are not directly art prima facie, but a device that may give the player an opportunity to create or experience a dynamic, unique, and truly artistic moment. (YMMV)

It could be that video games are some sort of doppelganger of art, with each player experiencing the art in completely different manner. Its a weird area. It's not like many people seeing the exact same painting, or reading the same verse, but it's dynamic(to differing degrees) on both sides, the environment and the player. Were the 'happenings' considered art in itself, outside of it's participants or supporters? There is a link between them in there somewhere, concerning experience in itself as an art form, but my mind is too close to sleep to fully flesh it out.
posted by chambers at 12:34 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


AHHHHH! Talking about whether or not videogames are art is like debating whether or not miracle fruit is food. No, really.

As much as I respect Ebert, he seems to be entrenched in the worst sort of "art" appreciation ever, which is the kind that goes "well I don't know what art is, but I'll know it when I see it". Which is to say, it denaturalizes art into something Grand and solid and unmoving.

It's the same way that I see grammar Nazis disapproving of slang, of the usages of new words that sprout up in our rapidly quickening communities. There are portmanteaus and neologisms and fresh phrases being born every day like cultures in petridishes across the internet and the world. and for someone to stand and say "there's correct grammar, there's incorrect grammar" is to be astoundingly ignorant about the world and how language works, how language is changed by people.

Art always works the same way, it's this fluid boundary that galleries and museums and institutions have tried to change for decades and centuries, and have succeeded more or less. More importantly, the institution of art discourse has succeeded in making you believe that Art is a solid thing, a bounded space guarded by Michelangelo on that side and Leonardo on this side, has always been full of masterpieces. Think Cezanne and Manet were painterly geniuses? Well, not many thought so at the time.

The kicker is when he writes: . Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

See, that's the thing. Art isn't a matter of taste. Art is taste itself. Art is, loosely speaking, a bunch of actions/creations/things by some people that has been designated as art. The same way that language is a bunch of words and a bunch of grammar rules that a bunch of people have agreed on. For Ebert to come along and say simultaneously that "art is a matter of taste" and to also say "this isn't art" is the laziest form of criticism ever.
posted by suedehead at 12:40 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]




There's a term in game design called "aesthetic completion". What it means is that the artistry, the story telling, the world illusion, the game designers' expression, etc. have been compactly and concisely implemented given the available technology at hand. To me, it seems to be a pretty concrete definition of artwork.

At the very least, games are a work of entertainment. It's not so far-fetched to lump arts and entertainment in a category.
posted by polymodus at 12:46 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think art, whether low or high, has the ability to pull you out of the state you were in and put you in a different place, to affect you on an emotional level.

Music can do this, film can do this, literature, storytelling, photos, painting, and, yes, a game can do this. The particular media which takes you there will vary from person to person. I don't doubt some may find a Kinkade print something to get lost in, while they bore me after a couple of minutes...whereas I can stare at "Wheatfields with Crows" for hours at a time and never lose my fascination.

I don't play a ton of games, but playing HL2 I found myself an occupant of that world, though it was tentative at times. That, to me, says that games can be art as I define it.

I used to worry about Art when younger and the difference between Art and craft but am not so sure it matters much if it matters at all. And I don't think you can argue that a good game isn't a fine example of craft, at the very least.
posted by maxwelton at 12:49 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The question of whether or not video games are art is pointless. It doesn't matter. Will I somehow be less enthralled by the beauty of "Braid" because it's not art? Will I be less caught up in the story of BioShock if it's not art? Will I laugh less loudly at the humor of "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness" if it's not art?

Of course not.

Ebert is definitely right on one point:We should just enjoy our games. The best response to the declaration of "video games are not art" is a swift "So what?"
posted by DWRoelands at 12:50 AM on April 17, 2010


Who is Tom Friedman?

Thomas Friedman Clogged My Toilet
posted by homunculus at 12:50 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


A friend of mine recently described video games as having a set of extremely high barriers to entry, which impede their appreciation for many people. Aside from the cost of setting yourself up with the equipment, which obviously isn't going to be an issue for someone like Ebert, there's the fact that a lot of games take for granted that you've played, well, a lot of games.

Left stick moves the character, right stick moves the camera, R1 is weak attack and R2 is strong attack, L1 is block and L2 is parry, and circle is roll; simple rules for the combat in Demon's Souls, but the game throws a lot at the player, pretty quickly, and is mercilessly unforgiving. No-one who isn't already an experienced gamer will get through the first few hours of it. In fact, if you die a lot, the game makes itself harder.

Triangle to go to the menu. Select the four-pack of juice. Now use the juice on the garbage chute, and presto! the blockage has been removed and you can go down to the ground floor and get that shiny object that was just out of reach before. This is a pretty straightforward example from Silent Hill, but many adventure games rely on absurd leaps of logic to solve bizarre puzzles. If you've played other adventure games you'll be familiar with the sort of intuitive jumps you'll have to make, or at the very least you'll be resigned to trying every damn object on everything else.

I could go on, and cite dozens of examples from basically every game I've played recently, but the point is that most video games expect the player to be an experienced gamer, to whom the basics are already second nature, ready to absorb the specifics of the game in front of them. You can't truly appreciate the mechanics of Braid if you're not good enough to get past the first couple of worlds; you can't finish the hard modes of bosses in World of Warcraft without knowing their move-set and your own intimately, and being online with at least nine other people with the same knowledge; you can't see the way Half-Life 2 blends narrative with level design if you can't get past the physics puzzles, or get killed by that bloody helicopter.

Not to mention that, even completely discounting this, video games are at least as self-referential a medium as film, and there's a whole language that's built up to describe them.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this; it's early and I haven't yet had my coffee. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, how does Ebert expect anyone to respect his views on video games when he clearly doesn't speak the language and, well, he sucks?

Fucking n00bs, X is crouch! Crouch now! *boom*
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 12:50 AM on April 17, 2010 [16 favorites]


I quote RE: "One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game."

Shadow of the Colossus utterly refutes this argument. I hope someone shows Mr Ebert this game, or a summary of it anyway, but I fear he is too fixated on his opinion for it to penetrate.
posted by rodgerd at 12:52 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The comparison with cave painting doesn't make a whole lot of sense. She wants us to give games a break because it's a new medium? But it's not, they've been around for thousands of years, it's only games on computers that are new. If it is art, it's very slow to advance if it's still in such a primitive form.

But what if you included great works of art, music or literature in a game? Would that make the game art? I don't think so, because you can experience the art apart from the game. The parts of the game that couldn't be removed are the game mechanics, and no-one claims that those rise to the level of art. At best, a game is a way of experiencing art, but a good game has to be concerned primarily about mastery and fun for the player, so experiencing the art is always subordinated to having fun mastering the game mechanics.

This is obvious once you consider that there is another way of engaging with art that is completely interactive, immersive and involves fun and mastery, it's called "being an actual artist". For an artist, interactivity, immersion and mastery elements are all directed toward the art itself, but as a game player, all those elements are directed at the game mechanic, and any art is there as decoration, not to be experienced for it's own sake. This is basically the difference between writing a song and playing guitar hero.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:55 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also I have decided Shakespeare's plays are not art. In principle. Because I've never really taken a liking to plays.
posted by polymodus at 12:57 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't get it. How can something not be art when it is something made up of a bunch of component parts that are art? Take Heavy Rain, for example, or most modern RPGs. You have writing (art, found in movies), voice acting (art, found in cartoons), architectural design (art, found in meatspace), graphical design (art, found in cartoons, paintings, and other visual art forms)... the list could go on. Is it that interfaces through which you interact with the art makes it non-art, since non-art things (like other software) also use that interface?

Because the video game is the mechanism by which you get from one part of the art to the next. Instead of turning the page in the book, you press up down up down a b. The book itself is not the art form. But people don't really give a lot of thought to changing the way the book works. That's usually standardized.

If you don't think that the creation and arrangement of a set of rules is art, you're choosing to be blind. A game designer carefully balancing a set of rules is no less an act of art than a poet searching painfully for the right word or a sculptor working meticulously to get a facial feature just right.

No. It's not expressive, or it very very rarely succeeds at it at all. If it were, two different games would make you feel as different as two different songs would. Or whatever other piece of art you may like. That's not a quality judgment, nor does it say that balancing a set of rules is more trivial than making a poem. What you react to, to the extent there is an emotional reaction (assuming you're not a programmer with a particular relationship to the system, which colors things – everyone sees art in the things they love the most) is the symbols or the art attached to the rules.

Shadow of the Colossus utterly refutes this argument.

Of course you win Shadow of the Colossus. You defeat all the giants, and finish the story, which has an unhappy ending. You don't win Pac-Man, Centipede, etc.
posted by furiousthought at 12:59 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Of course you win Shadow of the Colossus.

You complete Shadow of the Colossus. You don't win it, at least as you'd understand winning the game from either its initial premise, or the normal context of winning a game.
posted by rodgerd at 1:02 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


God, I wish he wouldn't have brought this back up. I've got mad Ebert love, but this cranky-old-man nonsense position he's taken on this matter tempers it pretty hard. The notion that games aren't art is just wrong, full stop. There's too many beautiful games with too many beautiful moments to list. His comparisons to chess and football and the like are specious at best - a large block of games have narrative elements that chess and football do not. Other games allow the player to direct the shape and flow of these narrative elements in acts of collaborative fiction that the formats Ebert holds above gaming cannot approach. This foolishness is just embarrassing, really, to hear from a man that I otherwise respect a great deal.

I mean, seriously: The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. How stubborn and tedious can you get? I'm sorry, Ebert. You need to let this one drop if you're not even willing to properly investigate the medium.
posted by EatTheWeak at 1:05 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Citing the goal aspect of games a a point against it being art, what about this:

If "winning" is defined reaching the end of the narrative after which the piece "ends," like in a game, then I've also won every movie I've ever seen all the way through, every paining or sculpture I've examined, or every book or poem I finished.
posted by chambers at 1:08 AM on April 17, 2010 [10 favorites]


One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game.

Ebert! You can win at art too!
posted by kid ichorous at 1:09 AM on April 17, 2010


See: writing a sestina.
posted by kid ichorous at 1:10 AM on April 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


Sadly, Montfort's Twisty Little Passages no longer seems to be able to be up in full online, but there's a wonderful section that explains gaming in the tradition of the poetic riddle. The riddle required not only the poet's navigation of a complex verse form, but the listener's ability to follow and unwind its logical skein. There is no computer intermediary, true, but this is interactive art with baked-in success condition for both writer and reader.
posted by kid ichorous at 1:17 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love eberts reviews and rely on him for film advice. But he has always had a blind side of sorts. His expectations of a film flavor his reviews. His expectations of video games are flavored by one bad experience, and in his own words he has never tried to actually involve himself in the medium since then, relying only on reviews and wikipedia articles from others.

Most recently he reviewed Kick Ass from the expectation of a romantic super hero comedy and called it a one star morally disturbing film. I think if he had considered it in the genre of other films he loved, that is being braced for the violence, he would have enjoyed it. Like for instance, Old Boy, Pulp Fiction, Grindhouse etc.

Occasionally he has been willing to revisit films and review them after the initial impression has worn off, (or in the case of massive backlash like for 'knowing') I wish he would give video games the same chance.
posted by darkfred at 1:18 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


All the world's a game,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven levels ...

(and so on)
posted by philip-random at 1:20 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


(I talk about games, specifically Shadow of the Colossus and Braid here. There might be spoilers.)


We keep having this debate because too many proponents of the medium of video gaming are too concerned with perceived legitimacy.

It is a pointless debate, because someone who doesn't have sufficient experience of interacting with games that's necessary to appreciate how Shadow of the Colossus can hijack the player's anticipation of things to do in order to make him complicit in the protagonist's sins isn't going to take anything from watching gameplay footage, except the idea that there's a little guy fighting a giant, and the palette is very bleak, and it takes way too long for anything of substance to happen—the camera's all over the place, the guy's sort of clambering around in a way that's desperate, sure, but all-in-all this isn't exactly noteworthy cinema. Of course it isn't! The drama and difficulty of that fight is completely lost to someone who hasn't actually played it, and understands how the catharsis of actually overcoming each of these challenges is wrapped up with the guilt of actually feeling personally responsible for the creature's death. The game's not without its flaws, but it does convey a remarkable experience; no synopsis, video footage, or wordy explanation can recreate that experience. It is something you have to play.

This is why Ms. Santiago's talk fails to convince Mr. Ebert: she lists games and various reasons they're compelling or successful, and he shoots them down as unconvincing. Take Braid, for example:
Her next example is a game named "Braid" (above). This is a game "that explores our own relationship with our past...you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there's one key difference...you can't die." You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.
While I resent the attempt to hamstring the game's primary conceit by examining it in an inappropriate context, I can't blame him for doing it. Well, no, actually I can—complaining that Braid uses time inappropriately because it would defeat the point in Chess is a bit like arguing that Pleasantville's use of monochrome-vs.-color is unsophisticated since Rocky can also tell a story without using such formal tricks. I'd think that someone who understands that, just as the appropriate lighting for an action movie can differ from the appropriate lighting for a romantic comedy, it should follow that appropriate rules governing interaction in a competitive two-player game can differ from those in a single-player meditation on causality and inevitability.

But again, Ebert doesn't actually play games. Even if he did, he lacks the breadth of exposure to understand why a certain approach to interaction design is sophisticated, effective, clumsy, or detractive to the player's experience. He claims that "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." I would argue that if such a game exists, Ebert himself would be incapable of recognizing it as such: no art is objectively great; it is great because of its context in the field of all art that has come before and since. He has no basis for comparison within the field, and so he will forever try to compare apples to oranges, when he's actually comparing oranges to tennis shoes.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 1:25 AM on April 17, 2010 [11 favorites]


I think Ebert starts getting into sticky situations when he tries to make value judgements between video games and art. When he says that there are no great games that can be compared to great poetry. It's like saying that there are no great spoons that can be compared to great hammers.

The great hurdle for me in categorizing games as art is the gulf between how we perceive both mediums. With most art: sculpture, literature, painting, music. We take something which is a static linear concept and we recreate it to a degree in our heads, to the point where it appears to us (if it's good) to be spontaneous, made on the moment, alive, vital, life-like, etc. Art is a passive medium which we, by paying attention, generating arguments, letting it interact with our aesthetic sense, turn it into something which seems interactive.

Games however are already interactive. They already can be life-like. They develop in a non-linear life-like fashion. The trick, as in art, of turning a stone into something living doesn't happen in our heads. To me this makes games of a decidedly different category than art. It's not even comparing cars to airplanes, it's comparing trains to train tracks.
posted by Omon Ra at 1:32 AM on April 17, 2010


And another thing: video games as a medium have been dominated by the Japanese (two out of three games consoles are Japanese, and Japanese companies make many games for the Xbox too) and Western gaming culture as a whole has been heavily influenced by Japanese culture, including some often very literal translations and rushed dubbing. To criticise the language used in a Western video game, particularly one which wears its influences on its sleeves, (okay, it's Braid, which I thought was sorta trite) without acknowledging this influence is shallow and amateurish.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:33 AM on April 17, 2010


delmoi: “Nothing is more annoying then people trying to define ‘art.’”

'Strue. And the worst bit of it is that it's actually so easy to define art. Art is just stuff that human beings make. That's all.
posted by koeselitz at 1:44 AM on April 17, 2010


A game designer carefully balancing a set of rules is no less an act of art than a poet searching painfully for the right word or a sculptor working meticulously to get a facial feature just right.

...or a bear looking in the woods for the best place to poo? Art can't be defined as "something you have to think hard about." You're not really defining art, you're talking about craft. While there are many talented craftspeople working on each video game, video games fall short as art. There are often gorgeous and evocative visuals, well-crafted sounds, well-written music, etc... but the result of those things coming together is at best an immersive experience that lacks resonance in any way that matters. Has a video game ever subtly made you consider the nature of experience or existence? Has a video game ever touched you emotionally on a deep level? Has a video game ever changed your life? (other than by addicting you to repetitive reward systems, in turn causing you to drop social engagements)

Most of the games held up as the pinnacles of video game art are graphics engines that someone found a gameplay paradigm for, which someone designed weapons for, which someone made characters to hold, which someone sandwiched into a story. Even those that seem especially clever or creative are sure to fall short for the simple reason that the user's pleasure is the ultimate goal. An artist can't pander in this way and make art, and yet the very reason there are game designers is to ensure a pleasurable experience. This is not what writers, film directors, and other artists do. Game design is craft, pure and simple, and it belongs in the realm of low culture.

So I guess I agree with Ebert in spirit. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good game now and then, though.
posted by gonna get a dog at 1:46 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Has a video game ever subtly made you consider the nature of experience or existence? Yes.

Has a video game ever touched you emotionally on a deep level? Yes.

Has a video game ever changed your life? Yes.


Also, it not a problem that most extant games are not art.

Game design is craft, pure and simple, and it belongs in the realm of low culture.
You're confusing the way things are done now, with the way things could be.

Also your use of the phrase "low culture" nauseates me, but that's not relevant to this discussion.
posted by polymodus at 1:53 AM on April 17, 2010 [10 favorites]


Even those that seem especially clever or creative are sure to fall short for the simple reason that the user's pleasure is the ultimate goal.

I already cited Shakespeare's plays above.
posted by polymodus at 1:57 AM on April 17, 2010


I already pointed to Riven as a counterexample.

Vectorpark has been another groundbreaking work (google it; it was around back in 1997) that wouldn't be at all intellectually out of place projected on a wall inside the MoMA in NYC, perhaps next to the Helvetica exhibit.
posted by polymodus at 2:00 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I admit, however, to having the same perspective as Ebert in some ways. Now, I'm not an old dude like Ebert, and I grew up with video games, so I can actually talk about them and what they're like. But it seems to me that video games aren't as easy a medium to use to communicate as books or films because there is interaction going on. Oddly, enlisting the viewer into the game, allowing them to participate, muddies the message, and makes it more difficult to be direct with a message or theme. I will confess to having loved the old Dragon Warrior games for the original NES console, for example; they are awesome, and I loved playing them, but even they had to enlist the viewer in a story and have her or him 'play' a character. There will therefore always be something artificial about video games for me, where books, films, and paintings are not; video games by necessity interact with the viewer, so that, on some level, they have to simulate a world that pushes back.

I mean: books are simulated speech. They may seem like many things, but in the end, they all boil down to this: a convenient way for someone to tell us a story or present something to us without having to stand there saying it all to us at length. Pictures are, in a way, simulated sight – or a convenient way of showing something to someone else without having to carry them to it or it to them. Film extends this ability. All the arts that I can think of that have lasted any amount of time have to engage the senses in their passive state, generally; even theater, which in the past was the most direct and personal of the arts (since what people make is made with their bodies) involves only a vanishing amount of interaction with the audience. Games, uniquely, are pretty much defined by their interaction with the audience.

That's why I say that it's a lot harder for a game to say something than for a book or a movie. A game doesn't speak to the viewer or show the viewer stuff - a game has to pull the viewer in and give them something to do. If it tries to show while it's engaging like that, it's all too easy for the game to seem trite or forced; we've all played games, I imagine, where you were led from thing to thing by some helpful, annoying sprite that condescendingly told you "see, here is the x, and here is the y," or had a game that introduced artificial choices that weren't exactly what we wanted.

But I don't say that means it's impossible for video games to reach the level of books or films; only that it has its own special obstacles. Frankly, video games are so new that it's no wonder that they haven't attained the heights of literature and such. It's been, what - thirty years? That's nothing. Books have been around for thousands of years; they've had a lot of time to develop and grow. A friend of mine once pointed out that film might actually be a well-developed medium in a thousand years; then, we'll be able to talk about films the way we talk about books, and talk about "the classics" and actually mean the same thing. Maybe in that time video games will also be able to flourish and thrive, and build their own literature.
posted by koeselitz at 2:01 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


impossible for video games to reach the level of books or films

The insight is that computer programs are more powerful and expressive than any fixed medium, be it a canvas or a film reel. The problem becomes ability of creators and their audience to grasp complexity: the creators are very limited in being able to specify what they want out of a complex, real-time system, and second, the audience in their ability process concurrent events without suffering from information overload.

More total man-hours and science and technological innovation went into the creation of a game so simple and stupid as Tetris compared to a painting like the Mona Lisa.
posted by polymodus at 2:12 AM on April 17, 2010


Has a video game ever subtly made you consider the nature of experience or existence?

I still sometimes wonder what can change the nature of a man.

Has a video game ever touched you emotionally on a deep level?

The Longest Journey made me cry. And I sure wish I could spend some TV nights over at Fiona's, although I think I'd pass on the jungle visions.

Grim Fandango's ending was one of the most bittersweet fictional experiences I've had.

On a lower level, Fatal Frame 3 was terrifying. It gave me screaming nightmares, to the point that I had to stop playing. I just couldn't handle it. I haven't reacted to a movie like that since The Asphyx, when I was very young.

Heavy Rain has many parents speaking in somewhat awestruck tones; I didn't react that strongly to the central themes in it myself, not being a father, but it seems to have had a hell of an impact on people who are. Even in absolute terms, it's a pretty good story, certainly up to the standards of a good detective novel. It uses its unique narrative form in a powerful way that I can't describe without horrible spoilers, and will likely catch you flatfooted at the climax.

Has a video game ever changed your life?

No, but I don't think any movies or books have, either, not directly. The worldviews are more complete in books, and they've had a stronger effect, but I can't think of any that were actually transformative, rather than incremental. Books nudge much harder, but a good video game can do some of the same thing.

I suspect that, if you're a parent, especially a father, you might learn more about yourself from Heavy Rain than you would from most books, even ones that are widely considered classics.
posted by Malor at 2:17 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fatal Frame 3 was terrifying. It gave me screaming nightmares, to the point that I had to stop playing.

I love the Fatal Frame games, but I have to watch while my other half plays; if I have the controller I'm just too close to the game and the ghosts will get me. The particular point in number 3 that got me was when [spoiler] they stop just turning up in the otherworldly mansion and start manifesting in their house...
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:24 AM on April 17, 2010


Has a video game ever subtly made you consider the nature of experience or existence?

Emily Short's Galatea (play online, or download) is a interrogation of the medium framed around the Pygmalion myth. You can question her as a work of interactive art, a proxied personhood, a numinous force, a computer game, the subject of a Turing Test... and she can occasionally reverse circumstances and interrogate you. The characterization is vivid if eerie. The prose is crisp and at turns beautiful.

I think Short's debut game offers better foundations for the exploration of "play" as art than Ebert's sophistry or any TED lecture I can recall. Why is this not salient?

(One possible reason: it didn't make a hundred million dollars.)

Other suggested works of interactive fiction.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:27 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Author Adam Cadre on Galatea
posted by kid ichorous at 2:34 AM on April 17, 2010


Has a soap opera ever subtly made you consider the nature of experience or existence? Yes.
Has a soap opera ever touched you emotionally on a deep level? Yes.
Has a soap opera ever changed your life? Yes.


This makes Neighbours, East Enders and Days of our Lives art.

Art is just stuff that human beings make. That's all.


This morning, I made a very fine turd. However, it isn't art until I put it in cans and sell it in an art gallery.

Seriously, I'm kind of agnostic on the issue of whether a video game can be art. It isn't enough that the creation involves aesthetic skills. So does the work of a monumental mason, but we don't have galleries that display grave markers -- even though the very, very occasional piece of work might fall into that category.

If we're allowed to define art something we can personally define for ourselves, then there's no reason whatsoever that that immersive crap that I took this morning can't also be defined as a work of art -- when it's actually a trite, matter-of-fact action that everyone can win at.

I think art is something that we collectively define as being art, and we do so largely by reference to its relationship to everything that's come before or since. For a videogame to be art, it would have to have been created by a game creator that we collectively agreed was an artist -- somebody whose body of work transcends the genre and stands in relation to stuff that's happened before or since. That doesn't mean its limited to the efforts of a single individual though, either in vision or execution.

But then I think Thomas Kincade is a painter. He's not an artist. If you believe Thomas Kincade is an artist, I can see why you'd insist on the same status for video games.

I find the arguments for Tetris as art most compelling in this thread. It's something that's permeated our global psyche. It's an immersive experience that's abstract, and so allows us to impose our own meanings on the experience.

Having said that though, I'm not sure why, if we accept Tetris as art, we shouldn't also accept hula hoop and yoyo?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:02 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think Koeselitz nailed it. Videogames are interactive, and interactivity is not a statement. Art is a statement: the artist says "There. This is what I'm talking about". Kid Ichorous's list of interactive fiction intrigues me, for all it reminds me of some of the less palatable shores of SF fandom, but synthesising an interactive artwork is something that art itself has never really succeeded at - if you ever get to Ars Electronica or its many siblings, you'll see a lot of cleverness and much beauty, but with very few exceptions I can't remember anything that stuck. Those exceptions are characterised by the technology and invention facilitating interaction with another human - and of course, many games do that. But I know of none where that interaction is an explicit or implied exploration of the aesthetics of being human. Bladerunner the movie does that. Bladerunner the videogame cannot.

I used to be a gamer. I used to be a games reviewer, in fact, for a UK newspaper. I burned out, because I was trying to write the reviews as I would a book review, and by God that doesn't work. Now, if you take a mechanistic approach to game reviewing, it doesn't work because there is so little variation in game mechanics (caveat: this was more than a decade ago and I understand that things have changed. But not that much - I share an office with a gaming title, drink with the staff and have instant access to all the new stuff, three desks away. And many of the people I work with directly are extremely keen gamers. I'm exposed. But I am no longer a gamer).

So I tried to approach the task from the point of view of how the games made me feel, what aesthetic and emotional responses they evoked. This is a recipe for unhappiness and bad copy. If the games of today have a better call on expanding our understanding of being human through artistic statement, this isn't being reflected in the reviews - and that will be the answer to Ebert.

I think another aspect is the team genesis of modern games. Most art is a singular creation: where it isn't, as in cinema, the stuff that works as art is the product of an auteur. I don't see that, commonly, in gaming: where it does happen, as with Sid Meier, I think there is the best chance of breakthrough.

Gaming is culture, of that there is no doubt, and culture manifests through art. But we're not there yet, as we're not with the Internet creating new genres of art (though not for want of trying - anyone here remember PMC-Moo?). It took cinema a couple of decades to get going as an art form, and that had theatre to build on: it was also part of the huge intellectual revolution of the early 20th century. Anyone see any intellectual revolution going on at the moment? It is impossible to watch Eisenstein and not know that something new and unique has happened.

When gaming makes a statement that cannot be made any other way, that upsets people who then take up their keyboards and make statements in response in the same genre, then we'll have art.

Not there yet.
posted by Devonian at 4:18 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

Games can't be art because you can win a game. If you cannot win, it is not a game.

That is possibly the most annoying argument I have ever heard.
posted by knapah at 4:32 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Most art is a singular creation: where it isn't, as in cinema, the stuff that works as art is the product of an auteur. I don't see that, commonly, in gaming

These days in corporate gaming you find that in Japanese games more than Western, but you're ignoring the vast swathe of indie games produced by individuals and small teams; video games aren't just the big-name titles you see on the shelf at Gamestation!
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:36 AM on April 17, 2010


Frankly I'm glad games apparently can't be art, because art seems to come with an awful lot of tedious baggage.
posted by lucidium at 4:57 AM on April 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


so if video games are are, does that mean kre-plunk is art too?

on the other hand, can you find a game as artistic as This unbeliveable movie?
posted by marienbad at 4:57 AM on April 17, 2010


ker-plunk. stupid lousy fingers
posted by marienbad at 4:57 AM on April 17, 2010


are art. jeez, new hands please
posted by marienbad at 5:00 AM on April 17, 2010


4/14 ebert published a one-star review of KICK-ASS.

must have a bug up his ass about the effects of simulated violence on kids this week or something.
posted by Hammond Rye at 5:09 AM on April 17, 2010


The book itself is not the art form. But people don't really give a lot of thought to changing the way the book works. That's usually standardized.

Book artists do. There are some amazing high-end bookbinders out there. Just sayin'.
posted by Leon at 5:20 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is an art to making video games. So video games are art

I don't get this debate. I'm going for a degree at an art school and I still don't get it. Who the fuck makes rules to determine art's "entry level"? Didn't we go through this 90 years ago with a urinal in a gallery? Marcel Duchamp frowns upon all of you.

Any rulebook you make about art can address whether art is GOOD or BAD. That's all it can do.

We had a debate in one of my classes about whether American Beauty was art, or whether it was too generic and commercialized to be art. And I really disliked American Beauty. Thought it was derivative and sensationalist and overpolished. But that doesn't make it art. It just makes it art of a lesser grade than all the movies that aren't all those bad things.

This is what makes performance art a valid art form, ja? People are allowed to do anything they want and call it art. But that doesn't necessarily make what they're doing interesting enough to appeal to people. So that's bad art unless it interests somebody. But then perhaps their art isn't having as much an effect on the crowd as somebody else's performance. So then we have art of varying quality. But it's all art.

I agree with Ebert in one way. Video games are not like movies, or like books. They are far more powerful, or at the very least far more practical.

Books and movies are completed experiences. For all we say we "dive into a book" we will always remain separate from it. We cannot change the book. It proceeds along without us. It is an experience that has already been created for us.

Video games, on the other hand, more closely resemble architecture as an art form. When you design a video game, you are designing a space that players occupy. But you're doing more than that, because you also create the rules, the physics, and so you completely control the environment you create.

A video game could indeed be nothing more than an architecture simulator. It could also be a movie. Or it could be an animated book. It all takes the same programming language and the same set of skills. It's flexible.

Now, most game designers aren't advantaging themselves of these opportunities. They make linear games without much ambiguity. But that doesn't demean the art form. It just demeans their creations. Think of the world of gaming as Disneyworld. Lots of architecture goes into Disneyworld; all the buildings, however, are designed not for you to live in but as a linear experience that you pay money for. Disneyworld's an incredible place, but I wouldn't point to it and go, "See? Look at this trashy place? Proof that architecture will never be an art form!"

People mention Jason Rohrer every five seconds on threads like this. They're right to do so. Passage was the first game that I consciously saw as a set of rules rather than a linear experience. I find that the people who get the most out of the games are the people who get alienated from how videogamelike the game is. If you're willing to actually spend five minutes opening treasure chests and call it a fun time, then when Passage ends you hate it.

But Passage gives you its gameplay. Then it lets you free. You are constrained by the rules. You can't beat it. You can get points but they won't help you. You can marry but your spouse will die. You can't move back the pixels. Soon the world will be a hazy afterthought for your grave. It succeeds not because of the gameplay, but because of the architecture of the world you're placed inside.

That's not to say Passage is the Citizen Kane of video games. (What a nonsense phrase!) We haven't seen the Citizen Kane of video games. We've seen some games hit upon some great truths — Shadow of the Colossus does some beautiful things, as does Katamari Damacy on the other end of the spectrum — but the fact that the games we've seen are still recognizable as games means that we haven't seen that profound mediumdefining statement.

I intend to make such a statement once I've got the chance. I think I've figured out some ways to take advantage of the medium to make something that's really incredible. It's just a matter of looking at your work as architecture and not as a limited piece like a movie.

Imagine, for a start, a game that places you through a movie's three-act structure. Movie structures are fairly well-defined. Take a basic series of events/possible happenings, but give them the ability to subtly change from game to game, and make the computer improvise, John Zorn did with his early programmable music or like Terry Riley did with In C. Simple controls that let the player control certain aspects of the "film" as it unfolds — but, because that movie structure's in place, they can't just move around willy-nilly. They are somewhat constrained. And the plot grows murky and ambiguous, and the player's forced to make choices within this world, and every choice leads to tragedy and happiness in equal parts. There's no "right" choice. Then once you finish the game, it's gone. You'll never get the same game again. If it's made well enough that the player bonds with the people on screen, then every time you play the game you'd be left with uncertainty; you'd think over your choices and wonder if you could have made them better, but you'll never know for good.

Something like that would technically count as a video game, but it would have an artistic vision behind it provoking the constraints. As the artist I could design generators that would manufacture just the right kind of conflicted scenario. But I don't manually finish the piece: That's left to the gamers who step in and become an active moving part of the artwork.

There are two fundamental factors in game design: Physics and choice. You control the physics; the player controls the choice. So the designer's job is to create with his physics a world that says something. It's not impossible. It's just a weird skewered way to look at how gaming works that conflicts sharply with this idea that games should hold you by the hand and show you a series of pictures (but only if you play along).

So Ebert's right in saying that we haven't seen gaming's masterpiece. It's still at least a decade away. Even our best minds, even Jenova Chen and Jonathan Blow, think of games as games, with defined endings that don't change. They're still creating buildings rather than worlds, where a game might be beautiful within its intended purpose but doesn't try and push past the limits we see all around us. Jason Rohrer's been making progress with his latest project, but he's deliberately removing his artistic control in the process. So I doubt it's going to move me like Passage did.

He's wrong, though, when he says gaming isn't art. Maybe it's all been bad art to date, but it's art. Final Fantasy IV made me cry as a kid, for all it was terribly translated. I lost myself in its characters. Going back to it I see a lot of flaws I never noticed at the age of 8, but isn't that how it always goes? I'm sure an 8-year-old playing Shadow of the Colossus is getting similarly lost, probably deeper in his experience than I ever got in mine. That means the art form is progressing.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:27 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


A personal epiphany occurred to me spurred by vapidave's comment about Nethack not being winnable.

Nethack is, in my mind, a perfect example of computer game art. As is Dwarf fortress. The epiphany was that I realized people are focused on the visual aspect of art. They don't do this for music, or poetry, or all the other forms of art. But look at Nethack, the art is not in the visuals, it's not in the "story", its in the game. The game mechanics transcend the game itself, making it something more than what it should be. Like most other forms of art, it's a bit inexpressible but I'm at least clear in my own mind about what computer game art is now.

On my own personal barometer I don't count the Civ series as art, but SimCity seems to have a bit of this. Likewise I don't consider Halo art, but Half-Life and Duke Nukem seem to have something about them. It's okay to disagree with me, I've never really consider Warhol's stuff art either :p

If I'm right, I think video game art will be judged as art on how the game play transcends just playing a game. Just as musical art transcends just being music, or as [insert art form] art transcends just being [basic genre of the art form].
posted by forforf at 5:36 AM on April 17, 2010


I just played through Galatea once. I don't know if I can again. It would be disturbing. It would be like forcing a friend to play-act a painfully awkward situation immediately after actually being in one. Maybe I'm just a sucker, but I got more than a little emotionally attached by the end, despite the difficulty of piecing out the conversation. It took all of ten minutes, but they're the most emotional ten minutes I've had in the last few days. I had a similar feeling playing it, in fact, that I had when I was looking at van Dyck's portraits, a sort of eerie realism and familiarity, an improvement over nature, if you will.

Not to belabor the point, but Shadow of the Colossus did the same thing to me at some point. Out of curiosity I went back to the clearing where you fought the first Colossus. And there was a pile of stones. A corpse. That you made. I almost teared up. I think I've invested more intellectual energy into figuring out the what and why of SotC than I have of any movie I've seen (save maybe Primer). I think calling a game like Shadow of the Colossus "approaching art" or some equivocation thereof is frankly an insult to Fumito Ueda. ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and the upcoming Last Guardian seem as much a series of artistic expressions as Gerhard Richter's photo-paintings. They have clear themes and subjects, but also copious self-criticism and subversion of the medium.

I guess I'm probably just saying the same thing as Rory Marinich in the end, though. It's very, very hard to find any good art in video games. But it's ridiculous to say that you can't find any at all.
posted by cthuljew at 5:51 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ebert should take a walk through the Chelsea gallery district to see the kind of nonsensical cannibalistic vomit that passes for art these days. But I don't begrudge the man an incendiary column designed with only one thing in mind: to poke the hornet's nest, whether he believes the things he writes, or not. If there is one ambitious and talented game designer who takes Ebert's words as a challenge, then everyone will win.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 5:52 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Like many others here I have little to no interest in debates about whether something is art or not. However I am artist, not well-known or anything but I went to art school, worked at art centres, exhibited in art galleries etc. etc. My partner and I created a couple of game-modification artworks that we designed specifically to be shown in art galleries in museums. We grew up with games and we've always thought that were was lot of potential in exploring games as an avenue of artistic expression.

The games we've created have been featured in galleries, museums and festivals all over the world. Juries of our artist peers have awarded us grants to create video game artworks. We've had our works reviewed in art publications, newspapers, magazines and on television. We've done artist residencies and workshops centred around games and art. We've worked with curators who specialize in games and interactive art, and there's no shortage of artists for these curators to focus on.

This not to say that we're great artists that make great games, or that every mass-market game should be recognized as art. But our experience would seem to confirm that we've been recognized as artists and that we have many peers who are artists and making games. It doesn't really matter if some old-fart film critic briefly glanced at games and doesn't get it.
posted by skullbee at 5:53 AM on April 17, 2010


But it seems to me that video games aren't as easy a medium to use to communicate as books or films because there is interaction going on.

This seems really short sighted and overly simplistic as it faults video games for not being more like books or films. Perhaps video games enhanced and stretched the idea of art?

I haven't played many video games. I'm so old school the only one on my computer is Halo, which I really enjoyed. But it was the team play of the multiplayer game Blood Gulch that really sold me on the artistic capabilities of video games. It's a marvelously designed level, pitting two teams against the other, each physical area with strategic pluses and minuses seemingly designed to produce feelings of enjoyment not only from playing the game once but multiple times as you learn all the secrets of the level and playing for either team.

I might not have realized this if it wasn't for the modding of the levels, after playing it so much. The level, as it shipped, with various weapons, ground and aircraft, was pretty damn good. But unlike a book or movie, individuals were able to go into the code and change what was there to produce different game play. Getting rid of the Banshees (flying craft) was brilliant and obvious as it got rid of a supremely powerfully weapon that enabled those with no skill to triumph in the game. Further modding got rid of all long distance weapons and ground vehicles, reducing the game to a deadly cat and mouse where only through individual or team work could one achieve that sheer feeling of enjoyment. Like a painting or book, the game and the mods challenged the individual, you can't just sit there and expect the art to do the work for you, you have to put the time in to discover the joys of the work.

Modding was by no means perfect or a guarantee of quality. Putting tanks into such an enclosed space reduced the game to boring tank duels, where it was too easy to completely destroy the other team with very little effort. Another mod, The Island, completely changed the physical level, putting it on a larger, open aired island. But it quickly became obvious that with teams scattered all over the island, game play suffered due to the inability to see and coordinate what you were doing. It was like the Thomas Kinkade of Halo, pretty to look at and impressive for it's technical skill, but ultimately useless and not worthy of much thought.

Still, I think Ebert has some points in that video games need to go further. They've done a great job of reproducing reality. You can move about in a video game world like the real thing, complete with physics, lighting, sound etc. I want to see the video game equivalent of "The Fifer", where painting realized it didn't have to duplicate reality literally, it could drop out the background, get a bit looser with the brush strokes, basically manipulate reality for emotional, visual or mental effects. I think video games already do that to a large degree, but I'd love to see the abstract art equivalent of video games, where reality becomes just another palette.

If anyone knows of such a game, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:09 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I was thinking about this too, forforf, and I arrived at a similar conclusion, but via a different method. Many, perhaps most games, really are just craft items. The recent Modern Warfare series, or Bad Company, or probably even the Bioware games after the Baldur's Gate engine, would all be examples. They're primarily about 'the play experience', and the world is bent in whatever way it needs to be in order to fit that experience.

But then you get teams that are reaching higher, that are trying for more, that are reaching for something a little outside their grasp. They have a vision of the world, and they're bending the technology as hard as they can to get there. Many, MANY of the early computer games were most emphatically art, because they were reaching so far with such limited tools, trying to make something truly new and different, that had never existed in the world before.

There haven't been many recent AAA games I'd consider to be in that category; as the money has increased, the big companies go for predictable rehashes of what has come before. Grand Theft Auto 4 might just barely, barely qualify, but I can't think of any others offhand. They're all just slick, prepackaged experiences with no real soul to them. For the most part, they are not art.

But then you sometimes see the people who are reaching farther, who are trying to make something truly come alive, to live and breathe. Mafia 1 was like that. Deus Ex was like that. Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, No One Lives Forever, Grim Fandango, Longest Journey.... particularly those last two. There's soul in those games, a real beauty and elegance.

But, you know? Most games really are crap, in an artistic sense. One of last year's best was Batman: Arkham Asylum, and while that was wonderful fun, with a good plot, mechanics, and excellent pacing, it was craft, not art. They didn't really do anything new at all. They weren't grasping after something new, they were just regurgitating everything that has come before. They did a near-perfect job, and it's a truly fun experience, but it's just the same old ideas in a shiny new box. It's master-level craftsmanship, but that's all.
posted by Malor at 6:09 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Imagine, for a start, a game that places you through a movie's three-act structure.

You're basically describing Heavy Rain here, aren't you?
posted by EarBucket at 6:12 AM on April 17, 2010


We've had this conversation before. I think the real problem here is the framing of the argument, because while it's moronic to say that video games aren't art -- the opening of "Flower" that Santiago shows us is clearly art, just look at it, and I'm sure that Ebert would have no issue at all saying so if he saw it in the context of an animated film -- it seems to me that "art," as a term, is being used here to imply a value judgment, which to my way of thinking, anyway, is a mistake. Beowulf the epic narrative poem is art, and Beowulf the kinda schlocky motion-capture epic is art, too, right? I think so. Reign in Blood, The Catcher in the Rye, the video for "Telephone," "Party in the USA," "Mad Men," "Two and a Half Men," Suspiria, The Searchers, Saw V, the works of Ezra Pound, the collected novels of Dan Brown -- art. A Maserati is a car, just like a Pinto. What makes art so special? Nothing. So I say, let's dispense with that aspect of the argument, and say to video game developers: Yeah, your work is art. Because it is, of course. Now let's also throw away the idea that calling a thing art has anything to do with its value as a work of art, as Santiago seems to be doing herself when she cites the cave paintings. Deciding that "Braid" or "Flower" belongs in the same category as The Godfather or 2001 does not make those games achievements that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those films. What now?

If I may make a suggestion, I think the video gaming industry -- if it would like to be viewed as artistically legitimate in the same way that less interactive media (at its best) is -- may want to adopt new models for itself. Like Ebert, I thought Santiago was very charming and fun to hear speaking, but I got a chill when I understood that her definition of art came from wikipedia, and her amplification upon what wikipedia -- fucking wikipedia! -- had to say about art came from Robert McKee, who isn't exactly John Gardner when it comes to having something to say about constructing a worthwhile narrative. Aim higher, you guys!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:21 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


You're basically describing Heavy Rain here, aren't you?

I haven't played Heavy Rain. It's on my summer list.

But no. Heavy Rain is predefined. If I start Heavy Rain, it'll play out the same way that it's payed out for everybody else that ever played it. I might make different choices, but all the choices are scripted. Which limits the art form, because it means that if I finish, I can play again and consciously pick different choices, and slowly explore the game's entirety.

I think improvisation is a necessary component for games striving to be art. The game has to be able to ensure that what I see is different from what everybody else has seen.

And the reason for that is that, as I said, the medium of gaming is about choice. For me to be affected by a game, I have to be making original, sincere choices. If a game remains set in stone, then my choices become false, because I know I have the luxury of returning to a given moment and trying again.

A game needs to vary itself enough that every time I play, I'm forced to actually engage it rather than simply going through a routine. Otherwise it's limited like Passage is limited.

The first time I played Passage I simply walked in a line, and was heartbroken. The next time I walked backwards, stared past the ledge, and refused to move — but realized that my refusing to play wouldn't give me any victory, and that I'd rather walk forward than stand still. Which then got me thinking about nihilism and existentialism and moved me. But now I play Passage through and there's something missing. I know the ending. My choices are artificial. I have nothing further to gain from the experience.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:26 AM on April 17, 2010


Roger Ebert is simply ignorant about video games. He's a wonderful and admirable man but he is an old man and has not played video games and has not really sought to understand them. That's fine really, I don't imagine that so much would be gained by the attempt and he certainly seems to make good use of his time. But, pontificating about the merits of braid based on a casual description makes about as much sense as reading a couple sentences about Cries and Whispers and saying "Fading to red instead of black doesn't make a bunch of hens clucking about their feelings art".
posted by I Foody at 6:59 AM on April 17, 2010


I can't disagree with what you're asking for at all, Rory, although I think ti's at least a decade away, maybe more.

What I don't get is why you seem to have this requirement to call a game art, when no other medium can even vaguely approach that. Novels, movies, and paintings offer no choice whatsoever, and you seem to be very dismissive of games because they offer limited choice. They're based on existing art forms, and are doing something new in addition, but somehow don't qualify as art because they don't do enough of it? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

That's an interesting goal to shoot for. In a way, you could say that most strategy games do that, and I think Chris Crawford did an early game that more directly resembled what you want... it simulated a social gathering with semi-random characters, and you were trying to accomplish a specific goal. But it was very unsatisfying to interact with, all symbols and gesture icons, instead of anything resembling natural conversation.
posted by Malor at 7:02 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rory Marinich: Also, I think there's something fundamentally wrong about saying that Rohrer is "removing his artistic control" from Sleep is Death. In fact, I think that his artifice and his art in that game are about exactly how the two players control the details of the game. The art of Sleep is Death is that it's a game that allows people to do in a controlled and properly challenging environment what is normally only available to a professional game designer. Of course, if you meant in the simple sense of "he didn't write the narrative or place the trees", then sure. But if that means that you won't be moved by it, I think even you with your liberal view of games are selling short what games can be. Although I'm far more familiar with go then chess, I'm sure the following metaphor holds: in chess, there will be situations that arise out of completely regular rules that incite anger and anxiety and joy and triumph. The rules of chess don't lead to those emotions. Rather, the actions of the two players do. Sleep is Death will work the same way. The rules of the game are the art — the limits placed on the GM, the limits placed on the PC — rather than any of the incidental visual or narrative circumstances. Maybe I'm misinterpreting your tone, but it seems to me that you're stuck thinking that a game where the original designer didn't write the content (or the seed for the content) is somehow less impressive as a game. I argue the exact opposite. If a player can imbue the game with meanings that are important to them, but still experience it in the exact way that the designer/artist intends them to, that is truly successful game-as-art.
posted by cthuljew at 7:09 AM on April 17, 2010


Zelda is art.
posted by milarepa at 7:10 AM on April 17, 2010


I don't think Ebert would be willing to pass judgment on a film solely from watching a trailer. I get that he's dabbled in games once or twice and found it not to his liking, but then he needs to quit commenting on them. A movie should be seen, a book should be read, a game should be played; before you attempt to dissect it and classify it's art-ness.
posted by graventy at 7:23 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would not want to have to defend a statement like, "video games can never be art." And neither does Ebert since he quickly backtracks on account of the word "never". Personally, I think a bigger problem lies with "art," a deeper problem lies with "be" and the whole form of statements like "x can never be y" asserts the unprovable. I don't think enough of Ebert's amended statement and the following arguments to mention it further. Instead, I would throw down this challenge. First, "what do people use art for?" Then "What do people use video games for?" Last "what uses of video games are common to the uses of art?" and "what uses of video games are not common to the uses of art?" and "why?"
posted by wobh at 7:27 AM on April 17, 2010


There haven't been many recent AAA games I'd consider to be in that category

I'd place Metal Gear Solid 4 there. It reflects on its own history as a series, on interactivity, on video game structure, and has a damn good go about two thirds of the way through at trying to make the player as exhausted as the protagonist. The very last bit of interactivity, for example, before it hoofs off into about 90 minutes of epilogue, is absolutely brutal and absolutely beautiful, capturing the essence of the whole game series in what is superficially a cut-down version of Street Fighter. It's also hooray silly fun and Kojima indulging himself with insanely long cutscenes, and I could have played an entire twenty-hour game based on mechanics the game spends just an hour on in its second act, and I bet a good third of the people who try it will hate it because Kojima left basically nothing on the cutting room floor.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 7:44 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


If it were, two different games would make you feel as different as two different songs would.

You pose this as a false hypothetical? You've been playing the wrong games.
posted by roystgnr at 7:45 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Any human endeavor can involve creativity, and thus is open to being defined as art. What is recognized as art is ultimately determined by social consensus, and if enough people (and enough important people) value something as a medium of expression, then that is simply the established reality dissenters must negotiate. As a critic you are free to completely dismiss the artistic merits of Renoir, Picasso, or a turd in a birdbath, but at the end of the day, the consensus wins. *

And in that (boringly tautological) sense alone Ebert is right: Video games aren't art, simply because there is not yet a critical mass of people who have established video games as capital A Art. When authors of art history books start discussing specific video games like they discuss individual sculptures and paintings, then video games will fall under the consensus. When individual video games are critiqued and discussed and esteemed by intellectuals in the same uncontroversial manner as movies, then they will fall under the consensus.

And Ebert has no crow-eating to worry about because he will be long dead before video games ever do fall under such a social consensus. But his prejudicial rationalizations about why they won't ever fall under that consensus are almost painfully spurious and wrong. Video games, unlike chess, involve artistic visuals and narrative, and so are fundamentally similar to movies. They are simply interactive, as well. But contrary to Ebert this gives the art form a whole additional dimension to expand in. If chess isn't popularly considered art because creative strategy lacks the emotional impact of visuals or narrative, that certainly doesn't entail that strategy detracts from (much less negates) the impact of visuals or narrative.

Eliding the fundamental visual and narrative experiences of video games, and equating them with a wholly strategy-based experience like chess, is a crass kind of disingenuousness, but a necessary kind to make an inherently unsupportable argument, based in nothing but snobbish conservatism and geezerly prejudice.


*And even apart from the consensus, individual tastes have their final say. If the Garbage Pail Kids Movie piques your emotions and imagination more than Hamlet, the tantrums and sneers of the snootiest snoot don't change the reality of the situation: that particular work of art is more valuable to you. There is no cosmic arbiter to dictate that one work of art is factually superior to the other. There are only individual tastes and cultural agreements. Remember critics: the ability to articulate a taste is not the same as proving it like a theorem.
posted by dgaicun at 8:17 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


When gaming makes a statement that cannot be made any other way, that upsets people who then take up their keyboards and make statements in response in the same genre, then we'll have art.

I'll buy that, which isn't to say it hasn't already happened.

I was 12 when Pong hit the world. I remember playing a demo of it at a hockey tournament, kids lining up for half an hour for two minutes of fun. But games didn't grow up quickly enough for me. By the time I was thirteen-fourteen, the games I was caring about were sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll and gaming was still ... Pong (more or less).

Jump ahead two decades and somebody's forcing me to sit down and play a game called Myst. This was my first inkling that a game could be art, a whole new FORM. That is, the environment was immersive; here was a seductive mystery that sought to suck me into a strange and beautiful environment toward an end that was not entirely clear, kind of like listening to a long and complex piece of music, except my decisions were influencing its ebb and flow. This was definitely a WOW moment.

Now, almost another twenty years down the line and I guess I'm still waiting for more WOW. I'm not saying this new FORM (which makes a statement that cannot be made any other way, that upsets people who then take up their keyboards and make statements in response in the same genre) isn't already out there. I am saying, it hasn't crossed my path; certainly not in a way that's made me stop and deeply question the direction my path is going.

That is, I do see lots and lots and lots of people having endless fun with games, winning, losing, just mucking about like kids in a funhouse. What I don't see is these games making people cry (except perhaps in frustration); I don't see them undermining orthodoxies, challenging us to care more for each other, challenging us to love and live with more passion and conviction ... sometimes just challenging us to continue living.

But here's hoping. Because gaming is definitely fun.
posted by philip-random at 8:36 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Art is a statement: the artist says "There. This is what I'm talking about".

Actually, that's a peculiarly modern conception of art we developed over the past couple of centuries. I think the fundamental divide that the "are video games art?" debate reveals has little to do with video games as a specific medium, but rather with a fundamental argument in creative expression that's being going on for some time now: is art an object or an experience; or can it be both?

This is a particularly active argument in my field (music), where a temporal experience (playing/listening to music) was re-conceived as an object (a work of music).* This conceptual shift profoundly affected the kind of art made in the medium, and is really the root of the divide between "art" and "vernacular" music, as thinking has been, very broadly speaking, that art music is a fully-conceived object created by a composer, and vernacular music is much more utilitarian, being used for things like celebrating or dancing, etc., and can appear in many forms (lots of versions of Happy Birthday, only one Beethoven's Fifth).

Movies, like a lot of the traditional "fine arts," are a fixed medium. The object is created and presented to a viewer, who passively watches the film with no participation. This is known as an aesthetic experience and is the prevailing contemporary conception of how "real art" is supposed to be experienced: passively, and attempting to absorb whatever experience in viewing/listening that the creator intended. Video games, on the other hand, are open-ended art, because it requires a player to complete the experience. Unlike music, where the object vs. experience debate is really starting to heat up, video games can only be experience because you have to participate for the thing to occur.

In short, I think Ebert is committing a fallacy of composition in not acknowledging that experiences can be art as much as objects can be. One has to acknowledge that art can be verb as well as noun before it's possible to consider that video games can be art, let alone whether or not they are. (And yes, watching a movie is an experience, so I suppose it would be more precise to say that art objects engender passive, primarily aesthetic experiences while art experiences engender active, multi-dimensional experiences.)

* - For a terrific summary of this conceptual shift and its implications I recommend either this book or the first section of this book.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:45 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find it hard to believe he really said something this dumb:

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

Because I can easily blindly assert that there is no film that has been made that can stand up to the greatest works of literature -- and I think this would be correct; there isn't a movie out there that can approach the depth and nuance that a great novel or poem can -- and therefore by his own method of analysis movies cannot be art.

This is also really dumb:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game.

Because you can "win" art by discovering a hidden but intended interpretation of it. You win Blade Runner by realizing that Deckard is a replicant; you win The Sixth Sense by realizing before you are told that Wossname is a ghost. The only thing missing is a big YOU WIN sign, but that's only missing because the movie can't sense your victory.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:46 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Malor: Actually, I kind of stole Ebert's approach to movie criticism when I started thinking about art criticism. The way that he looks at what a movie's trying to be, and then what it could have been, so that he can be fair in his reviews to the audience of the film and to the people who made the film? That's kind of how I look at art.

I mean, I love books, and movies, and music, and I make all three. And with each one I try to be aware of what my limits are so that I can shape something within them. Games' potentials excite me more; I don't think that a game's better than a book just because of that potential, and books will always have something games don't, but I'm excited to work with games because there're so many options and so few real limits. I kind of suspect we'll stop calling video games "video games" after a while; the term seems so limiting. The instant a wave of developers come along with things that aren't really games I bet we'll adopt a more open terminology.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:57 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because our definitions of art are purely subjective and individual - particularly today - Mr. Ebert can only lose this argument. It doesn't mean that, perhaps, fewer games ASPIRE to art status. And perhaps more should.
posted by The3rdMan at 9:14 AM on April 17, 2010


> I think video games already do that to a large degree, but I'd love to see the abstract art equivalent of video games, where reality becomes just another palette.

Brandon, I suspect you should see Action Half-Life's 5AM map. I haven't played it, not being into the multiplayer deathmatch scene, but reading about this surreal, strange mod, and watching video of it being played… yeah, reality's just another tool for this experience to use.

You should probably also play Psychonauts, if you haven't already; the Milkman Conspiracy level is an… experience.
posted by egypturnash at 9:15 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


It seems like as soon as you start to try honestly arguing that something isn't art, you've proved that it's probably art.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:28 AM on April 17, 2010


I've said it before, and others have made the point here, but I really don't understand the view that the addition of interactivity to something that would otherwise be considered art makes it not art. Even the most non-linear games out there like Oblivion or Fallout 3 contain such a depth of worldbuilding (including a good deal of in-game literature!) that it's hard for me to take that argument seriously.

I'm actually really tired of this debate, and it saddens me that Ebert is revisiting it without actually reconsidering his position. But I will add what may be my final comment on the matter, and say that Persona 4 is yet another great example of what games can do, and how they can make you feel.

A little background on the game for those who don't know about it (will get into mild spoilers here, may get to a larger one later, I'll warn beforehand): You're a city boy who moves in with your uncle in a sleepy town, when a string of mysterious murders and kidnappings occur. What follows is a masterful blend of social simulation and JRPG as you seek to solve the case. You go through a whole school year making friends, studying, and battling impressively designed monsters of the subconscious. Each dungeon is based off the hidden dark side of the kidnapped character you're trying to save, from the tough guy's gay bathhouse fantasies to a disturbed suspect's videogame escapism.

There are also over a dozen "social links," people you meet and befriend in the town. Examples include the quiet girl struggling with the obligations on inheriting her family's small town business, a girl trying to come to terms with her deadbeat father's illness, a young stepmother trying to love the child she's become unexpectedly saddled with, etc. As you get to know them better, your social link levels up, and you're able to summon stronger monsters to help you in your quest.

(Major spoiler here, skip to next paragraph if you intend on playing game) One of the most emotionally affecting parts of the game surrounds your young cousin Nanako. Every night when you return from school or monster fighting, she's there to greet you with a warm hello or friendly chat. When she becomes the kidnapper's latest victim, her absence is like a gaping wound. You come home, and there is no warm greeting, just a grim reminder of the stakes involved.

Overall, the game is a treatise on community, obligation and friendship. It can really breed empathy in the player, knowing that everyone you meet, even the tough guy or cold bitch at school, is fighting their own hidden battles. I first played it six months ago, and it rarely got far out of my mind. I'm playing through it again right now, and the feeling I'm having is something I've never felt in a videogame before. It feels like I'm coming home.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:35 AM on April 17, 2010


Videogames are interactive, and interactivity is not a statement.

Bioshock is a statement about chioce, free will, and the lack/meaninglessness of both in video games. Were it non-interactive, the sledgehammer impact of some of the key moments in the making of this statement would be lessened; it derives its ability to engage you in the question of whether or not you are making choices by handing you the controls and making you distinguish between the low-level moment-to-moment choices of your specific movement and actions and higher-level choices about why you're making them.

Bioshock is very much art; it uses interactivity itself as a medium to make its statement.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:36 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bioshock is very much art; it uses interactivity itself as a medium to make its statement.

Agreed. I've read so much commentary on Bioshock, and I've rarely seen my initial reaction expressed. In (almost) every first person shooter, it feels like you against the world, you may be part of an army, but you're the one doing all the crazy dangerous crap that wins the war. It's something that always sort of niggled at me, but I could never express it until I got to that turning point of a scene in Bioshock. The superhuman deeds one accomplishes in an FPS were finally reconciled with a game's reality, not only in terms of the story and free will, but as a comment on the genre itself.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:41 AM on April 17, 2010


malor said we haven't seen games "so good they change the culture..."

One word (or is it two?): Pac-Man
posted by symbioid at 9:45 AM on April 17, 2010


This makes me want to make video games so bad.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 9:46 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The arguments above for bringing games into the canonical fold of "art" seem to be 1) They can be aesthetically pleasing. 2) They can be emotionally and intellectually engaging.

#2 is also one of the arguments posited above for excluding games from the category of art, as art is conventionally seen as an object, a work, a piece that stands alone and with which people can have their own experience. Novels in which the reader can choose her own endings are always YA fiction, never great literature, for example.

And for those who maintain that they receive similar epiphanies from games as they do from art, I fully believe this. However, a late night rooftop conversation with a friend can also provide a rollercoaster ride of emotional and intellectual insights, but we do not call it art.

It is true that game designers are smart and creative and games involve significant elements of what we call visual art and cinematic art.

Ebert is perhaps wrong to label something as "not art," because that has been a suckers game since Duchamp. But, then, he is paid to be provocative.

I sympathize with his position, though, perhaps because I am also not a gamer. I have spent my spare hours in the more traditional arts. And it seems to me that what gamers experience while playing a complex computer/video game is fundamentally different than what museum-goers or jazz drummers experience. But I could be wrong, and would limit my pontificating on this point to a random blue-screened Internet conversation site.
posted by kozad at 9:54 AM on April 17, 2010


So Ebert's right in saying that we haven't seen gaming's masterpiece. It's still at least a decade away.
+--------------+
|DWARF FORTRESS|
+--------------+

posted by JHarris at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ebert is just being willfully obtuse at this point.

how can he even make a judgement if he hasn't played a game? It's absurd.
posted by empath at 10:14 AM on April 17, 2010


When gaming makes a statement that cannot be made any other way, that upsets people who then take up their keyboards and make statements in response in the same genre, then we'll have art.

Not there yet.


You obviously have no idea what you're talking about.
posted by empath at 10:16 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


One problem with video-game-as-art is that it's an art form that is difficult to fully appreciate without 1) some specific hardware/software combination that may or may not be available a few years from now, 2) oodles of contiguous free time and 3) a good training in game mechanics that can only be obtained through serious gaming sessions. I wish I could express some informed opinion about games, but while I can spend two hours now and then on a movie or read novels in the subway, I don't have the 10 hours necessary to complete Bioshock, let alone the weeks of full-time gaming necessary to enjoy whatever great games are being released now. I wish I could (lots of impressive visuals), but unfortunately it's not going to happen.

This is tangential to the debate, but it seems to me that one of the problem of games is that the art, if there's one, is basically in the experience, and that experience is less easy to share than with other art forms. Will people in the near future be able to enjoy Bioshock and experience it the way we can casually and routinely enjoy novels, music, movies and paintings created decades ago?
posted by elgilito at 10:18 AM on April 17, 2010


"Dwarf Fortress" - masterpiece.

Hmmm?

Reminds me that, at the time that they initially hit the scene, the general consensus about the Beatles was, "Neat band, pity about the name."
posted by philip-random at 10:23 AM on April 17, 2010


I am immediately suspicious of any debate about whether a specific object or procedure is or is not art. I want to strap the participants in a chair and insist that they define "art" in a way that makes sense -- in a way that all participants can agree with. If they can't, they need to immediately shut up. Who wants to try first?

It's fine for someone to say "I define art as follows, and via that definition, this object is not art." That's a clear, rational, debatable stance. I can respond to it by saying, "Well, I don't share your definition," "I understand your definition, but I think that you're wrong in the way you apply your definition to this specific object" or "I agree with you."

But people want to go further than this. They want to say something universal. I understand the impulse. One's reaction to art FEELS universal because it's such a profound feeling. But there's no way to make a coherent, universal statement about something ill defined.

Ebert might as well be saying, "There's a category called Snerb, and video games don't fit into it." Worse, everyone has his own (well defined or vague) definition of art, so when Ebert attempts a universal statement, he winds up making a million statements, because each reader is going to interpret his statement differently. If you feel like responding to Ebert by saying, "He's wrong, because art is...," then you and he just don't share the same definition. You are talking apples and oranges, and there's no real conversation going on at all.

So such debates necessarily fall back on either "I say art means THIS" (and why should we care?) or "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it, and come ON -- you do too!" I have some sympathy for that second sort of statement, which is what Ebert does for the most part, because, again, when you are moved be a piece of art, it's unfathomable that other people aren't just as moved. If they say they are, they must be lying. It really feels that way. But it's an illusion. To me, you're a martian if you don't think "King Lear" is so good you'd like to read it twice a day. Well, there are a lot of martians out there!

Having said all that, I share Ebert's feelings, if not his (faulty) logic. I'll try to explain why without veering into absolutes or universals.

To ME, there's a specific, profound experience that I can only get from an object that is under tight control. By which I mean that it's fixed and I can't change it. (Or it changes on its own, according to strict rules, over which I have no control.) I can react to it, but I can't change it.

That's not the only requirement the object must have to satisfy me. Its specific construction must somehow be pleasing or moving to me, but here I'm going to focus on the fact that I can't make alterations -- that the object is something that is presented to me as complete. It's a complete act of communication FROM someone else TO me. I can, perhaps, talk back, but that will be a second act, distinct from the first. And here I'm talking about the first: the presentation of some sort of finished aesthetic object to me.

Why don't I want the power to alter it? Well, I might. It's fun to play with stuff. It's fun to tinker. That's a DIFFERENT kind of experience. But the problem is that when I alter stuff, I blunder. That's natural. That's part of the fun of tinkering. But I WILL necessarily tarnish the aesthetics. (Of course, the original artist may blunder, too, but he has the advantage of way more time an expertise than I do, so if he blunders, it will probably be less obvious than when I do it.)

There's a certain kind of PURE feeling that I can only get from an object that's been labored over by an artist. Any tinkering form me will almost necessarily ruin or dent the purity. I think it's really easy to see this with complex works that many of us think of as "great." I don't want to tinker with Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Or, maybe I do, but I also want it to exist in the pure form of the original. When I'm tinkering with it, that's a distinct activity. It may be fun, BUT IT'S NOT GOING TO MOVE ME IN THE PROFOUND WAY THAT I'M MOVED WHEN I LISTEN TO THE ORIGINAL.

Here I am going to make a deeply personal statement, which I won't attempt to prove or make universal: though I enjoy playing, I am MORE moved by experiencing a complete object. If you're the other way around, or if you like both sorts of experiences equally, you are just different from me. (Not better or worse.)

Let me make clear that I like participating. I love games. I play them all the time. I like improv events, etc. It's just that for me, there's a CLEAR ranking. Games and other participatory events are really good fast-food restaurants; Completed works are meals cooked by master chefs in five-star restaurants.

Of course, I mean all things being equal. A great game is better than a shoddy completed work. But I can't imagine -- for me -- any game ever being as good as the best of DaVinci, Mozart, Shakespeare or Jane Austen. And there's a specific reason that I can't imagine it: it's because, as I've said above, games give too much real-time control to someone who hasn't spent days, weeks or years refining his input: me.

And if you try to construct a game in which no matter what happens, a state of "beauty" (for lack of a better word) is always kept intact, then surely the game will be limited AS A GAME. For a game to be fun to play, surely you need to give enough leeway to the player that he MAY screw up the aesthetics. I can sort of imagine it just so happening that a single play of a game becomes something perfect and beautiful: the player just happens to be "on fire" that day, and so his contributions continually enhance the game and never blemish it. And I would happily call such an occurrence "art." But it's chancy. I would certainly say that I have a much greater CHANCE of experiencing so-called art if all control is taken out of my hands.

I am not a sports fan, but I do think that watching a great athlete -- say a Micheal Jordan -- play is art. After all, what's the difference between that and watching Ian Holm perform "King Lear"? So I can see how a well-crafted game plus an expert player could be (or at least approach) art. And I think that would be worth Ebert's consideration. I would like to at least ask him what he thinks of great sports performances.

But that is certainly not the average gaming experience. Most games are not played by masters. They are not played by people who have spent years honing their experiences on that particular game. And for those who do think of games as art, it's worth considering why, for them, that's not important? I can't think of any other "great" art we allow amateurs to co-create. (We do, but we distinguish community theatre from the Royal Shakespeare Company.) When we go to the MET, we expect everyone in the orchestra to have years of training and experiences. We don't want Disney to hire an "animator" who has only learned to dabble in Adobe Flash. We don't even tend to value amateur night at the comedy club as highly as we value seeing George Carlin or Bill Cosby. Why not? What makes games different?

I think there's another important thing to talk about here: some people care more about "purity" than others. To me, this is a KEY element in the way people react to art, but, strangely, it's rarely discussed. To some people (and I'm one of them), it's really important that ALL aspects of a work come together to create a seamless object. Anything -- even a tiny speck -- that doesn't work towards unity is a blemish. And sometimes tiny blemishes can ruin the experience for me.

People like me are continually accused of being nit-pickers. If you don't care as much about the aesthetics of unity -- if that's not a major part of the core experience for you -- then you're not poised to understand me. You're going to think I'm a picky asshole who refuses to "suspend his disbelief." I understand that. It's taken me years to understand the other mindset. But I now do (or think I do), and I don't think it's superior or inferior to mine. It's just different.

We can even see these two mindsets in play with standard, controlled, narrative art. Let's say you see a movie and, halfway through it, there's a gratuitous moment (an explosion, a special effect, a sex scene, whatever) that is amazingly cool. I mean it's STUNNING! Are you likely to enjoy it or hate it? Will you be somewhere in between? Will you feel like, "well, yes, technically this doesn't belong. It doesn't move the story foreword or anything, but DAMN it's cool!!!!"?

Because of the way I am built, I used to think "damn that was cool" people were philistines. Just as much as they probably thought (or think) that I am some kind of pedantic, elitist, killjoy stickler for going on and on about how this or that is gratuitous. I imagine it must feel to them that I am lying -- that whether or not something is gratuitous is an academic concern -- and SURELY I must have been impressed by the fucking awesome explosion!

But I'm not lying. It comes down to whether you feel more like a work is a series of somewhat related events and sensations or whether you feel like it's a unified whole. I realize that different works can be different. But I do think people tend to be more "moment" people or "whole thing" people, and I'm a whole thing person.

When I see a movie, my mind can't stop itself from relating everything to the whole. That's how I'm built. So, naturally, I am going to see something like a video game -- something where, while I'm playing it, I'm likely to add in some gratuitous moments -- as less-than art. Those moments are, of course, what makes the game fun to play. Or at least what makes it fun is that such moments MIGHT happen. It's the risk! But, to me, it's just not as profound as unity.

(Improv theatre is similar. What makes it fun is the idea that the aesthetics MIGHT be great or they might be fully or partly ruined. It's the risk! That risk is fun, but you give up something with it. You give up that assuredness of purity that you know you'll get when you see "The Godfather" or [insert your favorite work here.] The question is, how much does it matter to you? Which is more fun to you, the purity or the risk? Or is it one or the other, depending on your mood?)

I wish people would get over this debate, because I think there's something much more interesting to talk about. If we accept the fact that completed works and improvised (with player input) works are different creatures -- without worrying about which is better -- it becomes really interesting to talk about hybrids. (Of course, all computer games are hybrids. If a game is totally controlled by the user, then it just becomes playing around in Photoshop or something. But I'm talking about degree here.)

Let's say you start with a totally controlled, finished work and very gradually open up parts of it. Would would happen? What sort of effects and feelings would you generate? Let's say you take an established narrative work, such as "Romeo and Juliet." Are there any parts of it you could make participatory without marring it? Which parts? Is there a point at which, if you opened up more and more parts to play, it would become so marred that it would be chaos/noise? When?
posted by grumblebee at 10:44 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Let's say you start with a totally controlled, finished work and very gradually open up parts of it. Would would happen? What sort of effects and feelings would you generate?

Gameplay is not narrative.

Let's start from the other direction.

Imagine you have a game like Heavy Rain, and you gradually remove interaction from it. At what point does it become art?
posted by empath at 10:51 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I mean, really, the ultimate rejoinder to this is that the entire art form of film-making is contained within games. We call them cut scenes. Usually we skip them.
posted by empath at 10:53 AM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


At what point does it become art?

I really like "the other direction," too, but I would stay away from "at what point does it become art?" It's much more meaningful and useful to discuss whether or not we think such an un-gamed game would be enjoyable (what would we have to do to it to make it so?) or not. By injecting art into it, you just re-open the ill-defined kettle of worms.

Frankly, when someone says "that thing you like isn't art," I think the best move is to just agree. "You're right. Anyway, can we not talk about what makes it fun, moving and exciting?" The "art" discussion a trap until we can agree on what "art" means.
posted by grumblebee at 10:56 AM on April 17, 2010


Most games are not played by masters. They are not played by people who have spent years honing their experiences on that particular game. And for those who do think of games as art, it's worth considering why, for them, that's not important? I can't think of any other "great" art we allow amateurs to co-create.

You're looking at this incredibly wrong. The art of games is not what's on the screen, but what is felt by the player. The feeling of agency, exploration, learning, etc. Games are not interactive movies, and if you try to make them that, then you fundamentally don't understand them.
posted by empath at 10:56 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I mean, really, the ultimate rejoinder to this is that the entire art form of film-making is contained within games. We call them cut scenes. Usually we skip them.

I don't get how that's the ultimate rejoinder. What's interesting is WHY you skip them. I doubt it's because you hate movies. Isn't because that's either they are BAD movies or because you're not interested in watching a movie right then. As much as I love "King Lear," I am not interested in reading it when I feel like eating pie. That says nothing about "King Lear" or pie. Unless it says that people are in the mood for different things at different times.

I feel comfortable -- for me -- ranking "King Lear" as higher or better than even the best pie. But in a particular mood, I will still choose pie over "King Lear"?

Is that the "ultimate rejoinder" that pie is better than "King Lear"?
posted by grumblebee at 10:59 AM on April 17, 2010


You're looking at this incredibly wrong.

No, I'm looking at it the way I look at it. Show me the accepted, certified, peer-reviewed ranking system that specifies how people should interact with things.

You and Ebert are more similar than you are different. You both think it's possible to make definitive, universal statements about subjective matters. I fundamentally disagree.
posted by grumblebee at 11:02 AM on April 17, 2010


grumblebee: “You and Ebert are more similar than you are different. You both think it's possible to make definitive, universal statements about subjective matters. I fundamentally disagree.”

I have no horse in this race, but: 'subjective matters'? If art is really subjective, then most of how it exists in the world doesn't make any damned sense. Principally, if art is a subjective matter, then the people who seem to believe that it's worth sharing are delusional. To say that it's 'a subjective matter' is to say that all that matters in the equation is the experience of the artist - and, knowing that you're deeply involved with art yourself, I wonder if you really believe that.

I know that it seems threatening when people try to uncover something universal about art, but I think that's the price we pay when we put it out there. Criticism can sting, but it's part of the human reaction to it. A man as open to the subjective view as Nietzsche himself taught that what people now seem to like to call "absolutism" is a natural condition of human life. It's all right to embrace that condition a bit - it won't negate what art is.

Or, to put it another way: people are always going to try to sort out their reactions to what art means by making universal statements. The funny thing about language is that it's impossible to use it without making universal statements. So universal statements are natural to our reaction to art. That's something I think we have to become comfortable with.
posted by koeselitz at 11:12 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Instead of arguing over whether video games are art or not, can't we just break down the concept of video games?

I would argue, like Santiago and Ebert, that football and chess are games, not art (although you could say a player's performance is artful). Football and chess are systems of rules and goals. So too are Battle Chess for the computer and Madden 2010. The attendant textures, animation, sound, writing, UX, and haptic feedback might all be art; the systems of rules are not. Videogames are just games + art.

OK, now let me counter that argument by citing 1) Braid, 2) Passage, 3)Flower, and 4)the delicious balance.

1) Ebert's right that the writing in Braid is terrible. However, the theme of the game neatly echoes the gameplay mechanic of being able to reverse time to undo mistakes and make progress. So that's kind of cool. That's artful.

2) Passage is about the passage through life. Whether you marry or not affects where your avatar can travel in the game, which I think is an artful way of showing the positives and negatives of marriage. There may be other examples like this but I only played it a couple times.

3) I've never played Flower and I don't know anything about it beyond what I saw in Santiago's presentation, so I won't talk about it. Ebert should follow my example.

4)The delicious balance is not a game. It's the system of rules, objectives, constraints, goals, and limits that make up a truly great game. Chess and football balance two opposing forces in such a brilliant way! They create tension and reward creativity. There are multiple, equally valid strategies. There's definitely an art to that design. The same goes for Mario Kart 64, in my opinion. That game was always a blast. My friends and I once played Koopa Beach 29 times in a row. So much fun.

I don't think anyone can prove Ebert wrong, because art is in the end a subjective matter of taste. Instead, I think Ebert's opinion on this matter will soon become simply irrelevant. He doesn't think videogames can be a medium for real art? That's fine. Many college professors still don't consider film a valid medium for art either.

Finally I want to say that I like Ebert's writing. He's generally pretty good to read, and even in this article he makes a lot of good points.
posted by boghead at 11:15 AM on April 17, 2010


koeselitz: there are levels of "subjectivity", in the sense that most people use the word. There is the radical subjectivity of solipsism, where only the artist would appreciate subjective art; there is also the subjectivity of cultural discourse: where time, place, education of the viewer, cultural context, fashion, etc. are all quite changeable and the appreciation of a piece of art is determined by these fluid things. Art is not like math, where we can have proofs and definite answers, and it is foolish to pretend it is.
posted by idiopath at 11:24 AM on April 17, 2010


Now I spent my childhood with a pawn shop copy of the game. He could have made it to the awful dam level with the electric coral stopping you from disarming bombs. That was psychic trauma, yes.

Seriously. I don't even know what came after that level. I'm still convinced it was impossible to beat.
posted by rbf1138 at 11:26 AM on April 17, 2010


I hate these debates. The category "Art" is a bullshit bourgeois distinction rooted in nothing more substantial than commerce and social status.
posted by notyou at 11:30 AM on April 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


notyou: you have a good point. But does that make an artist a professional bullshitter?
posted by idiopath at 11:40 AM on April 17, 2010


When gaming makes a statement that cannot be made any other way, that upsets people who then take up their keyboards and make statements in response in the same genre, then we'll have art

Deus Ex, a "shoot-em-up" in which shooting-em-up is often an ethical mistake? Portal, a "first person shooter" where you can't shoot anyone and a "puzzle game" where the puzzles aren't the real game? Bioshock, an "interactive" game that deconstructs the lack of real interactivity in many games?

But wait, since when did art require statements? Is the ability to evoke an emotional response alone enough of a statement? I hope so, and if so then even bad video games often qualify. If not, then a lot of music, painting, and sculpture must only count as "art" due to some sort of grandfather clause.
posted by roystgnr at 11:48 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have no horse in this race, but: 'subjective matters'? If art is really subjective, then most of how it exists in the world doesn't make any damned sense. Principally, if art is a subjective matter, then the people who seem to believe that it's worth sharing are delusional. To say that it's 'a subjective matter' is to say that all that matters in the equation is the experience of the artist - and, knowing that you're deeply involved with art yourself, I wonder if you really believe that.

I completely believe it.

What I believe is that there are TRENDS. I believe that many artists are following traditions (using tools, techniques, etc.) that have been honed over centuries. And what that honing has achieved is a guarantee that if the artist does certain things (well), a large number of people will enjoy his work.

It is not clear that they all will enjoy it in the same way, but it is clear that they will enjoy it. It is also clear that this large number of people won't include everyone. I think we can say with CLOSE to scientific certainty that there is NOTHING an artist can do that will appeal to every person on Earth. You can take the works of art that are most generally considered great (Beethoven Symphonies or whatever) and you will find people who genuinely don't like them.

A UNIVERSAL/NON-SUBJECTIVE theory of art MUST account for those people. Because if we don't, our theory is flawed. Let's say you posit that "The Magic Flute" is better than "Bye Bye Birdy?" How do you account for the guy who says, "No it's not. Not to me"? If you ignore him, you're not making a universal statement. If you assume he's lying, you're taking an easy (unconfirmed) way out. What if you scan his brain and realize for sure that he's not lying. He genuinely prefers "Bye Bye Birdy" to "The Magic Flute." How are you going to incorporate that into your theory?

You could say, "Well, he WOULD prefer the Mozart opera if he has better educated," but then you're saying that if we mold people to prefer certain works, they will prefer those works. That's a much weaker claim than anything really objective or universal. And then you're stuck explaining why we SHOULD mold people that way? So that they'll enjoy the better works? At this point, you're reasoning in circles.

It's fine if you want to define great art as "works that move large numbers of people." By doing so, you can verge on saying some non-subjective things (what aspects of those works cause all those people to be moved?), but if you're intellectually honest, you should be very clear that you're operating under that definition.

Most artists and critics I know ignore the people who don't share their views. That's may be useful while creating, but it's a huge hole in any sort of aesthetic theory. It means the theory is NOT universal. It means that it's infused with subjectivity. Subjectivity needn't mean that everyone thinks about the subject differently. There can be trends to subjectivity. Which flavor of ice cream you like is totally subjective, but there are still many people who like chocolate.

Scientists do (and should) theorize about why so many people like chocolate, but I can't imagine a scientist saying, "here's why EVERYONE likes chocolate" or "here's why chocolate just IS better than vanilla." Yet people in the arts do this all the time. They make definitive claims that work A simply IS superior than work B, and they rarely explain the framework they're using to make that claim. Usually, they say they can't produce a framework, or they produce one that is itself full of subjective claims (such as my claim that unified works are superior). So in the end, it boils do to "BECAUSE IT'S TRUE!"

I do realize that many of us have strong convictions that we can't prove. But what's the point of discussing them? If you feel -- as I do -- that "King Lear" is objectively better than "Gilligan's Island" but can't say why, what's the point of discussion beyond just making impassioned pronouncements? Why should anyone care about my impassioned pronouncements, unless it's because I'm shouting the loudest. As profound as my feeling about "Lear" vs. "Gilligan" is, I am comfortable saying it's subjective. I do think that MOST other people, given certain sorts of educations and experiences, are more likely to come agree with me that "Lear" is better. But I think they'll agree for subjective reasons. I can't see how you could ever show that it's writ in cosmic law that "Lear" is better.

It is true, of course, that all humans have similar brains. So we tend to react in similar ways to similar stimuli. But -- from what we know so far -- such assured responses are to pretty basic stimuli. Yes, almost everyone is going to react similarly to being stabbed or to having their genitals stimulated (though even on this basic, biological level, we start to see some pretty profound differences), but most art is SO many levels more complex than this. To make universal claims about something as complex as a novel or piece of music, you have to account for all sorts of differences in cultural, educational and life-experience baggage. You have to account for differences in personality.

If there are some statements we'll one day be able to make that are objective -- or close to objective -- about aesthetics, I'm betting they will be pretty basic: they will involve how we respond to different sounds, colors or shapes. I can't swallow that we'll ever be able to prove that The Mona Lisa is better than a panel from Spiderman. What does it even mean to say that it's "better."


To say that it's 'a subjective matter' is to say that all that matters in the equation is the experience of the artist


I DO think it's subjective, and yet I don't get that statement. I don't care about the experience of the artist, except when I'm the artist.

It's really very simple. I watch "The Godfather" and I have certain reactions to it that I value greatly. What does that have to do with objectivity or the artist? Why would I not care or not find meaning in these super powerful feeling I get when I watch the movie? The fact that I get those feeling says nothing about whether aesthetics is objective or subjective.

and, knowing that you're deeply involved with art yourself, I wonder if you really believe that.

I am deeply involved in art because I HAVE to be. That is how most artists I know (and have read interviews with) feel. I don't even enjoy making art all that much. It's just some sort of weird impulse that comes over me, and if I don't respond to it, something gets pent up and I start feeling like I'm about to explode.

I am sure that not everyone creates art for that reason. But my reason for creating it -- as with my reason for consuming it -- has nothing to do with objectivity or subjectivity. Both have to do with powerful feelings which are undeniably powerful to ME whether anyone else feels them or not. When I make art, I HOPE that other people feel moved by what I create, but whether they do or not, I'm still going to create it.
posted by grumblebee at 11:53 AM on April 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


But does that make an artist a professional bullshitter?

Starting at about 2:47, Bea Arthur accuses Mel Brooks of just that.
posted by COBRA! at 11:55 AM on April 17, 2010


Oh, Lord.
Attention, over-educated, stodgy old white dudes:
Just because something is entertaining, engaging, fun to watch, listen to, or--God forbid--something other than what fits the traditional definition--does not mean it is not "art".
For reference, please look up any of the following:
Charles Baudelaire, William Burroughs, Ornette Coleman, Chuck Berry, The Fucking Beatles, etc., etc..
posted by kaiseki at 12:01 PM on April 17, 2010


For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist.

The fact that a film critic could write that shows how lucidly he's thinking about this particular subject.
posted by one_bean at 12:08 PM on April 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think this question is just a way of avoiding a more important one: Are MMORPGs art, or are they life styles?
posted by Some1 at 12:11 PM on April 17, 2010


one_bean: "The fact that a film critic could write that shows how lucidly he's thinking about this particular subject."

eh, he just drank the "auteur theory" koolade.

kaiseki: "Just because something is entertaining, engaging, fun to watch, listen to..."

This brings up the one way I sympathize with Ebert: more and more, people seem to take for granted that art should pander to them. Video games are an example where it is very hard to find examples that are not primarily pandering to the audience.

Yes you can pander and still make art, but more and more I hear people evaluating art as if the sole standard for appreciating art is how effectively it flatters and fails to challenge an audience.
posted by idiopath at 12:16 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it's totally natural, when reading something like what Ebert wrote ("your favorite band sucks"), to react by getting defensive. But it's worth asking yourself if there's ANY part of you that is responding as someone who is angered by a feeling that Ebert is saying that something you like is inferior to what he likes. It's totally natural to react that way, but if you do, I'd say you're playing into his game.

Knowingly or not, he's herding people into a playground-style war which always ends in "is not" "is SO," though usually in the guise of more sophisticated arguments. They're not really more sophisticated. They just sound that way.

The problem with the knee-jerk reactions is that they ignore the real meat.

What is art?

What is a game?

How do the two differ?

How are they they same?

Is there ANYTHING we can say about art or games that is universal?

Is there any meaningful way to rank one over the other?

Are there particularly useful frameworks for thinking/talking about art and games?

Are our assumptions about art and games based on biology or culture? Or a mixture?

Is there any meaningful way to rank art/games so that saying that a particular work (or kind of work) is better than another is a more meaningful statement than "I personally like it more"?

Even if it's all subjective, is there value in preserving certain subjective frameworks? In other words, are cannons useful, even if they are based on arbitrary criterion?

How do we deal with outliers -- the people who insist that they don't like The Beatles or Rembrandt or whatever? How do we fit them into our aesthetic theories?

All of these, in my opinion, are way more interesting questions than whether or not video games are better or worse than other sorts of human constructions. Don't get lured into pissing matches!
posted by grumblebee at 12:23 PM on April 17, 2010


I've got a lot of respect for Ebert, but I do wish he'd notice that he just sounds silly making pronouncements about the success or failure of games as art when he hasn't played them. I don't think we have to wonder how seriously he'd take a book critic insisting that film can't be art on the basis of what the critic imagines it would be like to watch one based on what he or she's heard and read about them.
posted by Zed at 12:40 PM on April 17, 2010


I don't think anyone can prove Ebert wrong, because art is in the end a subjective matter of taste.

Of course they can prove him wrong. I think that I've proven him wrong. On this very site. The last time this issue came up. I just haven't had the time to copy and paste it into this thread, because obviously it didn't take the first time.

Video games can so obviously be art.
posted by JHarris at 1:57 PM on April 17, 2010


I also submit that, if you want to look for art in games, looking for it in the output of the big game studios makes about as much sense as looking for it from Michael Bay.
posted by JHarris at 2:03 PM on April 17, 2010


I don't think anyone can prove Ebert wrong, because art is in the end a subjective matter of taste.

I've always gone by the dictum that art (note the lower case "a") is in the eye/soul of the beholder. That is, until an audience (even of one) "gets" that indescribable magic that's at the heart of the THING in question (a movie, a poem, a picture of some rotting fruit, perhaps a game) it remains just that THING. Not bad, not unworthy, not something its creator should be ashamed of; just not art.

And if someone doesn't "get" something that you do (or visa-versa), well that's what cafes are for (or internet discussions): for arguing about it.
posted by philip-random at 2:07 PM on April 17, 2010


Ebert is throwing stones from a glass house. Maybe games have not had their Citizen Kane, but movies have not had their Michelangelo or Shakespeare or DaVinci or Beethoven. Therefore movies are not art. Yet.

Give movies and games another 1000 years to develop and we can have this conversation for reals.
posted by straight at 2:38 PM on April 17, 2010


Is that the "ultimate rejoinder" that pie is better than "King Lear"?

Forget what I said about skipping them, the point I was making was that films are contained within games as cut scenes.

Imagine if in GTA IV, your character walks into a movie theater, and sits down and watches a movie. And then the game actually shows you the entire movie. Let's say Citizen Kane from beginning to end.

I think we all agree that Citizen Kane is art.

You're playing the game, and watching Citizen Kane.

The movie ends, you get up, and go on playing the rest of the game. So, you're going to argue that nothing that happened in the game prior to that was art, not the creation of the world, the voicing of the characters, the design of the simulation, the recontextualization of the film, the selection of songs on the sound track -- none of that was art?

Which is the more emotionally and meaningful experience to the player? Playing the game or watching the film within the game?
posted by empath at 2:45 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Video games can so obviously be art.

Video games can so obvioulsy be something no two people necessarily agree on the definition of?
posted by grumblebee at 2:56 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is Art? I have thought about this before. I would agree with this:

She says the most articulate definition of art she's found is the one in Wikipedia: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions."

I have said it myself kinda the same way: "Art is the creation of artifacts designed mainly with the function of evoking emotions".

This statement does not define how such an artifact is successful or not. I could suggest: A successful Art-Work engages the audient in an individual subjective manner which might simply be described as 'Capturing the Imagination'. An unsuccessful Art-Work is still Art: it attempts this and fails, and is like a car with a dead battery: a non-functional failure at what it was designed to do, but is still accurately described as a 'Car'.

So, any person who looks at an experimental painting that they do not like, and then says: "This is Not Art" is just being ignorant in my personal view. Really, they oughtta just say: "This is Bad Art", then we could maybe have a discussion about subjective interpretation or something. If you substitute 'conceptual art' or 'performance art', then we see ignorance spew forth in full glory, but then again for fringe genres sometimes teasing the mass audience is part of the game. Also, ignorance is not about lack of education, ignorance is more about having very strong judgments about something which has not been examined or considered closely.

My definition of what is or isn't Art starts to get a bit more fuzzy when we look at composite art-genres such as design or architecture. In these genres, the value of aesthetic appeal drifts from being the primary function of an artifact to being a shared function, and it starts to get very tempting make the big 'A' in Art into a little 'a' in art (even though the car with the dead battery is probably that Pininfarina on display at MoMA). It also starts to get tempting to make questionable value judgments here, something along the lines of "pure Art is better then applied arts".

Many people would say that established genres like literature, painting or written music has relatively more profundity than newer genres, and I could be tempted to agree, but I don't really feel very comfortable agreeing. This argument about purity also starts to smush into that dreary 20th-Century argument about high-culture verses low-culture, which by the beginning of the 21st Century sees most intelligent people conceding that the war is over and that things like pop music, graphic novels, and even television can be described with the word Art, just like classic Cinema. The problem with the appreciation of newer genres is that most people are more comfortable using the A-word only with specific examples of work that they like, which tends to go against my previous interpretation, and implies that newer genres are in a transitional stage, a sort of probation.

As to the question "Are Video Games Art?", I could say that this question is still in transition. Video Games are currently a composite art-genre. I could easily see our contemporary Video games appreciated as classic Art in the future.
posted by ovvl at 3:02 PM on April 17, 2010


Imagine if in GTA IV, your character walks into a movie theater, and sits down and watches a movie.

This isn't an imaginary proposition. You can do this, in The Darkness, with To Kill a Mockingbird.
posted by graventy at 3:18 PM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Art is a dynamic appreciation. It does not inhere in a thing, it occurs when you experience a thing.

I think grokking this makes the whole debate a lot simpler.

I still love Ebert, he's just wrong in this instance.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Art is the creation of artifacts designed mainly with the function of evoking emotions".

Interesting. Stated this way, the intention is what makes it art.

This statement does not define how such an artifact is successful or not.

Whereas I wonder, why not remove a stage and just make "success" the thing that defines it as art? In other words, art is not something I call "Art", it's something I attempt and, if it succeeds, if my intentions are communicated to the beholder (any beholder), it qualifies.

This puts the ball in the beholders' court. Let the guy who "got" it have it out with the guy who didn't, kind of like we're doing here visa vis vid-games. Leave the so-called artist out of it. He/She should be working on his next "artifact" anyway.
posted by philip-random at 4:17 PM on April 17, 2010


Movies, like a lot of the traditional "fine arts," are a fixed medium.

I think it's very illuminating to think about the ones that aren't, though. Plays are probably the most example; no, it's not the audience that gets to make those choices, but the director and cast can completely remake a playusing the unimpeachable Shakespeare as an example, you see such variety and so much difference from production to production - probably the most radical I've seen is De Niro's Shylock which, yes, I know is presented as a film, but De Niro is working firmly in the tradition of plays recasting the same work in different ways, and De Niro's Shylock is a most remarkably tragic, sympathetic, and poignant take on the character.

And you know what? Every director, every actor who tackles Shakespeare wants to do the same thing. I've seen lesbian Titus Andronicus, Maori language Othello, Kurosawa's transliterations. There's huge variety there.

Music used to be the same, until we started fixing on "original artists" meaning people who write and perform their own songs being the only "real musicians" and started sneering at "cover bands". A little more open-mindedness survives in opera, classical and jazz. Which leads me to...

I don't want to tinker with Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Or, maybe I do, but I also want it to exist in the pure form of the original. When I'm tinkering with it, that's a distinct activity. It may be fun, BUT IT'S NOT GOING TO MOVE ME IN THE PROFOUND WAY THAT I'M MOVED WHEN I LISTEN TO THE ORIGINAL.

You've never heard the original. You've never heard the man's gala performance - only performances seperated by hundred of years and evolutions in instruments, staging, and architecture. The performance of the Ninth is as mutable as my experience of picking my way through a reasonaly open video game.

Books may have authoritative versions. Movies. Written poetry. Sculpture. But anything which is performed, and performed many times over the years, changes. People argue over whether Gary Moore or Nightwish do a better version of "Over the Hills". People squabble over the great Wagnerian basses, the best sopranos, and who has the finest rendition of "Hallelujah".

Attention, over-educated, stodgy old white dudes:

"Dead white males" and the spinoffs may or may not be as racist and sexist as "dumb black women", but it's certainly in the same ballpark, as well as making me think the speaker is too thick to come up with anything more substantive than bigoted cliches.
posted by rodgerd at 4:37 PM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting. Stated this way, the intention is what makes it art.

I don't think that's an unreasonable distinction. The same person can write jingles with no more intent than to sell some soup on Monday and spent Saturday trying to craft their own Hellelujah.
posted by rodgerd at 4:40 PM on April 17, 2010


"Dead white males" and the spinoffs may or may not be as racist and sexist as "dumb black women", but it's certainly in the same ballpark, as well as making me think the speaker is too thick to come up with anything more substantive than bigoted cliches.

hahaha fucking wow
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:30 PM on April 17, 2010


Video games can so obvioulsy be something no two people necessarily agree on the definition of?

Most people agree that some things are art. Often they are things that, when they were new, people were less decided about. Opera was once popular culture, you know. Shakespeare appealed to the low as well as the high.

There are two ways that I consider video games to be obviously art, the way that will probably satisfy most people but I'm not as happy with, and the way I consider them to be art but will probably take the culture some time before they reach that conclusion.

The first way is as a collage of other forms of art. Movies can obviously be art, but are just formed from other types taken together. Thus they can be art in the sense that they are made of art. They also have the sense that they are greater than the sum of the whole. Video games are art in exactly the same way, although you have to enlarge your perspective a little. This is the way Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and Grim Fandango are art. I'm less happy with this idea because it's evolutionary. Those games are not obviously new types of art. You could probably make a movie out of a playthrough, maybe even using actual footage from them, and that would just about be as much art. Something would be lost, but it is nothing super important. This is because for all their strengths, these games are linear. They are forms of storytelling, which is a pre-existing art form.

The other way is art in game design. It is the piecing together, not just of a world, but of a system of reality that has never been seen before. This form of game-as-art is interactive to the core. This form of art touches the sphere of God. It might be based upon our reality (as with SimCity), it might draw from our reality (as with M.U.L.E.), it might diverge from it (Dwarf Fortress), or it might even attempt something incredible and alien. I consider this last point to actually be impossible, but it is possible to still range far afield when creating your universe, so far that people may not consciously see the connection.

I said universe there. I use that word in a much deeper sense than the debased use bandied about by movie and comic fans. A video game can present an other universe that actually has alien rules, perhaps even a system of logic foreign to us. That can be art. A kind of art impossible anywhere else.
posted by JHarris at 6:31 PM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Live musical performance is almost always interactive on some level, especially in smaller clubs, with less famous artists, or even DJs.
posted by empath at 7:57 PM on April 17, 2010


Movies can obviously be art

You like to bandy about "obviously," and I'm glad you feel so confident, but what's obvious to you is not obvious to me. I don't have a low opinion of movies. I'm actually obsessed with them. They are, to me, one of the most sublime things in the world. But I don't call them art, because I don't know what "art" means. Nor do I call the Shakespeare plays I direct "art," for the same reason.

Okay, I'll be honest: I do sometimes use the word, because it works well in casual conversation. "I'm going to the art museum" is pithier than "I'm going to a place where paintings are on display." But when I say it, I am very aware that I'm using a sort of verbal shorthand, and that the term is inexact and has no agreed-upon meaning. People get the point that I'm going to see a bunch of man-made objects and that they will probably include paintings and sculptures, but if someone paused for a minute and said, "Why do you call it an art museum?" I would probably have to rely on some lame, circular response like, "Because there's art there."

I try to never call myself an artist, because I have no idea what artists or supposed to do. I direct plays, and I have a pretty firm grasp of what that entails, having done it for twenty years. But art? What the fuck is that?

I think it's basically a term of approval. Art is the stuff that's better (more beautiful, more meaningful, more moving) than the stuff that isn't art. "Better" is a weird word, too, because two people may not agree that A is better than B. One of them might think B is better than A. How is one of them wrong and one of them right? I can't even answer that given an extreme example. If someone says, "The jingle from T-mobile phones is better than Mozart's Symphonies," I don't know what it means to say that he's wrong. I really don't. Wrong in what way?

I can come up with a personal definition of art, and via that definition, I can call him wrong. Fine. But he's not cosmically wrong. He's wrong to anyone who agrees to define art the way I define it. And why should anyone agree to that. I'm not dictator of the world.

I can take a pole and show him that 99% of people disagree with him. Okay, but I STILL don't understand how he's wrong, unless you CHOOSE to define what's best as meaning "what most people like best." I don't think there's anything wrong with thinking that way. But it's an arbitrary choice. I don't think there's anything wrong with NOT thinking that way.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we all agree that they T-mobile guy IS wrong. Okay, he's wrong. So what? He STILL prefers the jingle to "Don Giovanni." I guess we have a label for him now: wrong. What have we gained? Now that he knows he's wrong, is he going to magically stop liking the jingle?

Think of your favorite work in the world. I don't know what it is, of course, but say it's "Citizen Kane." Now imagine someone conclusively proved to you that it was terrible. That it wasn't art. That it wasn't even good entertainment. But they didn't change your feelings about it. When you watch it now, even knowing that it's "bad," you still feel everything you felt back when you knew it was good. Let's say they proved to you that you were the only person in the whole world who liked it. So what? Are you "wrong"? In what sense? Wrong is a very strange word to apply here. You have the reaction you have. You may be eccentric. But WRONG?

But I don't begrudge people the word "art" in casual conversation. I do, however, wish people like Ebert wouldn't use it in serious writing. He uses it like so many of you do, without acknowledging that WE DON'T HAVE A SHARED DEFINITION. He starts with a premise of "art exists and we all know what it is," and then he moves on from that to explain that video games aren't art. WHOA! Let's go back to that first assumptions. It's not at all true that we have any sort of consensus about what art is, or if the word is even useful. Until we do, it's intellectually mistaken or dishonest to build on top of it.

This would be SO obvious in other conversations. But the word "art" makes people all misty eyed and their ability to think critically and logically flies out the window. Imaging I said: "Let me explain why so and so is a great president. It's because he has the same qualities that George W. Bush had." At least half the people in the country would say, "Hold on! You're acting like we all agree on what makes a great president, and we clearly don't."

These art discussions also put me in mind of when people talk about "attractive" celebrities as if we all had the same standards of beauty. "You know, she's gorgeous like Julie Roberts." Um. I don't think Julia Roberts is attractive. Sorry.

People really, really, really want to make universal statements about art. But I dare you to try and say something both rational and universal about it. Usually, people either do it irrationally ("I know it when I see it, and I insist that you agree with me about it, and if you don't, you're wrong.") or they say things like, "If it's all subjective, it's meaningless?" or "If it's all subjective, why should artists bother?"

Those are laments or complaints. They are not evidence that art IS objectively definable. And it's not my job to explain to you why "art" subjective and not objective. You and I both know that people's opinions differ. So if you're going to make the claim that it's objective (or partly so) -- that "obviously" movies or video games are art -- then the burden of proof is on you.
posted by grumblebee at 9:27 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Art is the stuff that's better (more beautiful, more meaningful, more moving) than the stuff that isn't art.

almost no one who thinks seriously about art agrees with this, i don't think.
posted by empath at 10:02 PM on April 17, 2010


Sam Fisher's intriguing sexuality: Check most of the dialog in Pandora Tomorrow, particularly the lead up to the embassy mission and some bits of the Israel mission. What really makes Fisher challenge traditional gender is his use of stealth. Usually, masculinity implies the taking of more space through force, but for Sam to be effective, he must do the opposite, and become invisible. His actions are not that of a traditional masculine role; Fisher seeks to blend in, to 'pass' in the most significant way. Fisher's impressive masculinity is purposed to blending in.

Consider also Solid Snake. In Metal Gear Solid 4, he and his companion...

...oh, wait, were we just talking about whether or not videogames are "art"? I was about to talk about gender and choice in stealth-action videogames because it's pretty interesting, especially when I get to Samus Aran, but if we're only talking about the value of videogames as an "art" I guess I'll just wait until we're ready to have a thought provoking discussion. I was ready to talk about male bulges but I guess I'll wait until we figure out if viddygames is art.

If you think something isn't going to illuminate your life, it wont.
posted by fuq at 10:19 PM on April 17, 2010


There's the general definition of art that refers to anything consisting of creative work. Of course video games and countless other things are in this category. People often confuse general art with fine art, which is art for the sake of itself. Very few video games are fine art. But then again, very few movies are fine art.
posted by aesacus at 10:32 PM on April 17, 2010


grumblebee: You like to bandy about "obviously," and I'm glad you feel so confident, but what's obvious to you is not obvious to me. I don't have a low opinion of movies. I'm actually obsessed with them. They are, to me, one of the most sublime things in the world. But I don't call them art, because I don't know what "art" means. Nor do I call the Shakespeare plays I direct "art," for the same reason.

Living up to your handle I see. Although I do feel confident. Okay then, let's say obvious to those of us who venture to think anything actually is art.

You're standoffish about the term because you appear to work with it directly, and that's fine. Most people don't consider what the word "art" means, they don't have a precise definition, but they have an intuitive sense of it. It is still a useful term to have around even if one cannot pin it down exactly. If you want me to specify in words what I mean that video games can obviously be art, it is this: whatever sense someone gets out of art, that means art to them, a video game can provide that too. And there may be some things, maybe things none of us even knows yet, that video games can do as art that other, currently-recognized forms of art cannot.

As long as we're talking terms that are hard to pin down that most of us use anyway, let's talk about "video game." The field that I consider to be "video games" is actually wider than just stuff like God of War and Pac-Man. There is a huge possibility space out of there of interactive electronic entertainment that has barely been explored. That is what I consider "video games" to be; I don't say "interactive electronic entertainment" too often because it makes me sound like a putz. (It's bad enough to say "computer games" roughly half the time.) Ebert may actually be constrained by the term "video game." A video game does not obviously have a way to win or lose. Some of them, like Electroplankton, don't even measure success at all.
posted by JHarris at 1:12 AM on April 18, 2010


I don't know much about art but I know what I like and I'd play this in my rumpus room.
posted by mazola at 8:22 AM on April 18, 2010


Most people don't consider what the word "art" means, they don't have a precise definition, but they have an intuitive sense of it.

And I except this. There are many words that can be useful even with (or even because they have) fuzzy meanings: "love" comes to mind.

The only time I don't accept fuzzy terms are in articles like Ebert's. It's not rigorous to say X is not Y without defining Y -- or X, for that matter, as you point out.
posted by grumblebee at 9:09 AM on April 18, 2010


If you think something isn't going to illuminate your life, it wont.

Oh, I don't know. I can think of any number of moments in my life when something that I expected to be mundane at best, or maybe just good ended up astonishing me. And this, to me, is exactly what vid-games need to pull off if they wish someday to be taken seriously as art (and not just by those who grew up playing them 9 hours a day as kids).

Art is the unexpected, isn't it?
posted by philip-random at 9:16 AM on April 18, 2010


Art is the unexpected, isn't it?

I have a similar, personal requirement. For something to become "Art" for me, it must contain mystery. And the REALLY hard trick to pull off is that it must contain this mystery without leaving me feeling unsatisfied.

So it can't answer all it's questions, but, at the same time, it can't feel like a Mystery novel in which you never find out whodunnit. This is such a staggeringly hard feat to pull off, and works that do it successfully, according to my pantheon, get to live in a special Olympus that other works can only glance from below. Those other works may be fun, entertaining and well-wrought, but they don't get the Grumblebee Seal of Art, because they don't have that perfect balance of a-feeling-of-completeness vs. a-feeling-of-open-endedness-or-mystery.

To me, this painting perfectly captures what I'm looking for, though in a non-subtle way:

http://designingquests.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/de-chirico-melancholy-and-mystery-of-a-street.jpg

I suspect the end-moment of the final-episode of "The Sopranos" was shooting for this, and I respect the attempt, but there was something off-balance about it, and, to me, it felt more unsatisfying than mysterious.

Harold Pinter does it brilliantly in almost all of his works. David Mamet, a similar playwright stylistically, almost always fails to do it. Mamet likes to dot all his i's and cross all his t's. He's tidy. And I think Mamet is a master craftsman. But to me, Pinter is something beyond that. As I've said here, I'm leery of the word "artist," but if I'm going to waste it on a 20th-Century playwright, I'm going to waste it on Pinter.

So via my definition, a video game will have to achieve this balance before I let it into the museum. It's interesting to think about how it might do this. I don't think it makes sense for a video game to do it with narrative. In other words, if a video game contains a story -- or something story-like -- I don't think it will work to just not reveal the end of the story. Who wants to play a game in which you can never possibly get to the last level, because "it must always remain a mystery"?

It needs to somehow be something about the mechanics of the game itself. Something that makes you, as a player, always yearn to do just a little more SOMETHING but that something is always JUST out of your reach. Beyond that vague description, I can't imagine how this would work while still being satisfying, but I'm definitely not going to say it's impossible. I can't imagine a large number of games achieving it, but if one or two did, that would be astounding and memorable. (Maybe complex, abstract-strategy games like chess do it, because one's always trying and failing to play the perfect chess game. But, in theory, there's nothing stopping you from playing it, so the game feels complete -- complete but just beyond your grasp.)

Stories and art objects that reach satisfying, tied up conclusions can be very comforting. Life so rarely works that way, so I think we have a great need for such "simple" pleasures. They are the comfort-foods of entertainment. But for a work to really transport me, it must take pains to never quite resolve itself. It must haunt me for the rest of my life, as my brain tries, in vain, to answer its questions.
posted by grumblebee at 10:12 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


christ, what an asshole.
posted by geekhorde at 1:45 PM on April 18, 2010


For me, Ico achieved exactly the feeling you describe, Grumblebee. Fumito Ueda was heavily influenced by De Chirico's paintings, and his games are awash with a feeling of mystery and desolation which permeates their every aspect. The universes they create and the stories they tell are sparse and wordless, but strongly emotional experiences.

Ico is short game by many standards, but the universe it created and the experience of playing it has stayed with me, vividly, for years after playing it. The characters and world are barely explained, but seem to have a definite sense of place and history, and after playing it I was left with dozens of questions about the history and mythology of the place and people in it. Like you say, art can haunt you, often with questions you don't even really want answering, you just want to stay in its world a little longer, and the questions are the only way.

As an aside, some of the game design choices made in his games are, to me, clearly artistic in nature. A good example is the "hang on" button in Shadow Of The Colossus. As a bit of user interface design along the usual principles of entertainment and ease of use, it's a terrible decision. At first I was a little glum that the fluid, intuitive control scheme of Ico had apparently been a lucky one-off, but after a few horribly frustrating battles in Shadow left me with a cramped hand from having to tightly grip the controller for the best part of an hour, I'm sure that while the control scheme isn't as easy, it is exactly what Ueda wanted.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:00 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Now I totally don't enjoy Tetris because it wasn't written by Baudelaire, thanks a bunch Ebert.

My subjective criteria for art is very basic: it must be beautiful. Even while terrifying it must fill me with a sense of beauty. If I look at something that I am told is art and it doesn't awe me in at least some small way, then in my estimation it is no longer art. And if I look at something that I am not told is art and it sings in my blood, it becomes art. Many video games fulfill this criteria, whilst I am left completely limp by a great number of films, sculptures, pieces of music, pieces of literature.

Of course, this is a nonsense argument on every level. The continued infantalization of computer games, computer gaming, and computer gamers serves zero purpose, and is merely a violent death-twitch the likes of which we saw with the introduction of film, television, rock and roll, and on and on like a tired horse.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:07 PM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Of course, this is a nonsense argument on every level.

I would argue that it's the only meaningful kind of argument -- or at least the only meaningful kind of statement. I've yet to hear a single coherent statement about why the Sistine Chapel IS art, but I totally buy that it's art TO YOU (if you say it is). And I totally buy that it's art to me, because I'm me, and I know how I feel when I look at it.

And I don't even think that's a useless statement to put into a conversation. It's not AS useful as a universal statement about why the chapel is art, but as great as it would be to be able to make one, we just can't -- or at least I don't believe we can.

What I can do is this: I can try my best to enunciate WHY I respond to the chapel in the way I that I do. This will mean analyzing properties of the work itself and also aspects of my own makeup, my education, and my culture. I may then be able to suggest that IF you are similar to me in ways A, B and C -- or if you'd be interested in doing some work to make yourself more like me in those ways -- you will probably love the Sistine Chapel.

I say this to people all the time about Shakespeare when they ask me, "What's so fucking great about him, anyway?" I tell them that if they don't have certain structures in their head, they will probably be lost if they pick up a copy of "Macbeth." But, I also tell them (with some confidence), if they read these books, watch these videos and memorize these words, they will ALMOST definitely have a profound experience if they THEN read "Macbeth." I can't guarantee it, because there's also a complex issue of one's specific personality meshing with the personality of the work, but it's a good bet. It's worth the risk.

To me, that's way more useful than just proclaiming that "Macbeth" IS great Art -- with the implication that if you don't see it as such, you are soulless or stupid.
posted by grumblebee at 3:27 PM on April 18, 2010


You make a fine point but there is an inherent futility in "My Art vs. Your Art" discussions because they are always going to be pared down to "Well, that's your opinion" or "I suppose we shall agree to disagree." This isn't any sort of sensible outcome as far as I am concerned and is merely the inevitable result of a lot of bloviation to no purpose. You can't lay out proofs for formulae for art so it will always be a matter of individual predilections.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:12 PM on April 18, 2010


I don't like definitions that have to do with the viewers because the viewers themselves can change -- like grumblebee said, they could do some homework and then finally grok Macbeth. Is a thing art only when you can recognise it, when it resonates with you? If we landed on Mars, would we recognise Martian art?

I think art is that which has been intentionally created in order to express something. Effectively communicating that something is an entirely different matter (which depends on the artist's skill, the audience's background, etc.). I think you can make art just for yourself, so it doesn't matter if it's all just sound and fury to everyone else -- the meaning and intent behind the gesture is what makes it art.
posted by emeiji at 9:43 PM on April 18, 2010


art is expression, parsing it beyond that is pointless and self indulgent.
posted by andywolf at 10:57 PM on April 18, 2010


art is expression, parsing it beyond that is pointless and self indulgent.

If your definition of expression includes understanding, I agree. Otherwise, I must submit that if anything, art is communication of a heartfelt FEELING.

We already have words for pretty much everything else.
posted by philip-random at 11:14 PM on April 18, 2010


Well, I'll just restate my argument that I made in the last train-wreck of this discussion in which people simultaneously argued that "art" is irrelevant while expressing offense that games can be compared to the works of David Foster Wallace.

Critics, designers, and players are having the same kinds of conversations about games that they do about movies and other forms of media. And that is extremely cool, and those people don't need to wait for Ebert's opinion.

It also needs to be said that cinema took off as art once the people playing around with cameras recognized that they were not photographers, or dramatic directors, but something else entirely.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:06 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


It also needs to be said that cinema took off as art once the people playing around with cameras recognized that they were not photographers, or dramatic directors, but something else entirely.

This is a big part of why FMV "games" were so universally terrible.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:49 AM on April 19, 2010


On a second thought. Ebert appears to have a bit of a double-standard going on here when he says that Braid or games about Oklahoma City don't live up to the same narrative and artistic standard as the novel or documentary cinema.

Guess what, cinema doesn't either. I'll never see an adaptation of Count of Monte Cristo that lives up to my love of the novel, because there's no market that's going to move forward with a 12-hour adaptation, and the result would be shit if it did. Jackson's Lord of the Rings is only tolerable because he discards Tolkien's occasionally strained perspective in favor of a prologue and cut-away shots. Earthsea struck me as a bad idea because novels in which characters sit in a boat or temple contemplating their existence make for bad drama.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:18 AM on April 19, 2010


I never though someone who could write a shitty movie called Valley of the Dolls could be a well regarded critic and writer.
posted by stormpooper at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2010


The Dolls movie Ebert co-wrote was BEYOND The Valley Of The Dolls and it's only shitty if you don't understand how truly, beautifully, spectacularly BEYOND it really is.

WARNING: that second link is not suitable for Republicans.
posted by philip-random at 9:11 AM on April 19, 2010


grumblebee: “I've yet to hear a single coherent statement about why the Sistine Chapel IS art, but I totally buy that it's art TO YOU (if you say it is). And I totally buy that it's art to me, because I'm me, and I know how I feel when I look at it.”

We can, I think, make coherent and absolute statements about art at this level, if only because I really don't think it's as complicated as most people want to make it. The Sistine Chapel is art, simply because it is an object (in some sense) made by a human being to be shared with human beings. It honestly doesn't go beyond that for me, and I think it's true that the idea that there is some immanent, absolute category of art which encompasses quality and beauty and all that is a relic of romanticism that has never been very useful.

But - and this is the reason I balked at your comment before - I object to the idea that the value and meaning of art is only and always in the eye of the individual beholder. Maybe that's because I don't really understand what you mean, but my difficulty with this (and I'll admit it's a huge difficulty to me) is that it seems to annihilate any possibility of art in common.

turgid dahlia: “You make a fine point but there is an inherent futility in "My Art vs. Your Art" discussions because they are always going to be pared down to "Well, that's your opinion" or "I suppose we shall agree to disagree." This isn't any sort of sensible outcome as far as I am concerned and is merely the inevitable result of a lot of bloviation to no purpose. You can't lay out proofs for formulae for art so it will always be a matter of individual predilections.”

See, this is what I mean: if we reduce all discussions of art to "that's your opinion," then apparently all discussions of art are simply pointless. And that may be fine for artists, particularly artists who'd like to silence discussion of their work and its value. But it's troubling to me, because I like discussions about art - to me, discussions serve the same function as art, at least on a certain level. Heck, one could say that discussions are art.

In other words: I disagree vehemently that art is merely subjective. Many people may well protest that subjectivity isn't mere, but it takes our modern individualist mind to feel that way; and even if one believes that the individual really is the supreme arbiter of all things, one might note that discussion and relation with other human beings is far and away the most pleasurable and fulfilling pursuit available to us. Cutting us all off by saying that "art is whatever you want it to be" and "there's no arguing taste" seems like a sort of hiding behind a self-satisfied mask; arguing about art may be scary because it exposes our own hopes and fears, and it might sometimes seem pointless because we're often unable to bring people around to our own views, but I honestly don't think it should be silenced. And if you say that art is purely subjective, then you're silencing whatever conversation about it might happen.
posted by koeselitz at 9:47 AM on April 19, 2010


(And since I think that art we share, art that we have in common, is the most meaningful, I object strongly to the denial of the very possibility that art can be shared.)
posted by koeselitz at 9:49 AM on April 19, 2010


In other words -

grumblebee: “To me, that's way more useful than just proclaiming that "Macbeth" IS great Art -- with the implication that if you don't see it as such, you are soulless or stupid.”

Have you seriously never gotten anything of value to yourself from a conversation about art? Have you never discovered hidden greatness in something you thought you knew? I appreciate the problem of pretentiousness that insists that its unexplained feelings are of higher quality than anyone else's - this is what it is, pretentiousness. But has no friend ever told you that you should give something a try, explained why, and opened its doors to you?

You're flatly denying that that can happen. Do you really believe this?
posted by koeselitz at 9:53 AM on April 19, 2010


koes: See, this is what I mean: if we reduce all discussions of art to "that's your opinion," then apparently all discussions of art are simply pointless.

The problem with this position is it negates the possibility that one's opinion can change. I didn't like punk rock at first. But after much discussion, argument, experience I came to realize I was WRONG and didn't so much change my mind, as opened it.

Or, as you put it here:

Have you seriously never gotten anything of value to yourself from a conversation about art?

Which brings us to:

I disagree vehemently that art is merely subjective.

I probably would too, if I approached it that way. As noted above my belief is that, "... if anything, art is communication of a heartfelt FEELING." What I like about this is it speaks to art as an experience (conjured by the creator, felt by the beholder) as opposed to a "thing" (made by someone who's an Artist, it says so on his CV).
posted by philip-random at 10:27 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ico is short game by many standards, but the universe it created and the experience of playing it has stayed with me, vividly, for years after playing it.

This commentary on Ico was excellent, and I wish I could favorite more than once. I didn't buy a PS2 until several years after they came out, and it probably took me another year to get to Ico, and I was still just blown away by that experience. It was really special, and I think it will remain special and wonderful long after its technology seems quaint, rather than just outdated. In my opinion, that's a work with real lasting value and merit, something unique and transcendent that simply could not be achieved in any other format.

Maybe it's not videogaming's Casablanca, but maybe it is. We probably won't know for another twenty years.
posted by Malor at 10:52 AM on April 19, 2010


koeselitz: See, this is what I mean: if we reduce all discussions of art to "that's your opinion," then apparently all discussions of art are simply pointless. And that may be fine for artists, particularly artists who'd like to silence discussion of their work and its value. But it's troubling to me, because I like discussions about art - to me, discussions serve the same function as art, at least on a certain level. Heck, one could say that discussions are art.

It's my impression that as a general rule that artists are much less twitchy when it comes to criticism than their fans. A large part of it is because artists generally understand their work as sausage, and can likely point out all the bits of gristle that managed managed to slip through.

Of course, artists tend not to have as many illusions about art as transcendental experience rather than art as technique and practice. Not only do the same conversations happen for games and cinema, but the same conversations happen for commercial and fine art.

Which is another reason why I think that Ebert, et. al. and game designers are coming from two radially different perspectives. Game designers are coming from a perspective that's already embraced graphic and industrial design while Ebert wants the privilege of drawing lines in the sand around what he finds passionately meaningful. There seems to be two entirely different ideas about what art literacy means: appreciation of the created beauty around you vs. appreciation of great works.

As a note on the whole subjectivity/objectivity debate. There is a third option of intersubjective. You and I may not have the exact same understanding of what "punk rock" means, but by engaging in discourse, we can usually come to an overlapping consensus.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:03 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Phillip-random--my mistake.

This is all I remember about the movie: "After revealing he has female breasts and trying to seduce Lance, who spurns him, Z-Man goes on a murderous rampage: he beheads Lance with a sword (while the Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare is heard on the soundtrack), stabs his servant Otto (Henry Rowland) to death, and shoots Casey and Roxanne, killing them."

I'll never get the vision of Z-Man's overly fake boobs out of my head.
posted by stormpooper at 11:12 AM on April 19, 2010


We can, I think, make coherent and absolute statements about art at this level, if only because I really don't think it's as complicated as most people want to make it. The Sistine Chapel is art, simply because it is an object (in some sense) made by a human being to be shared with human beings. It honestly doesn't go beyond that for me [Emphasis added.]

What you've just done is said WE can make definitive statements about art as long as we agree to use YOUR definition. Ok. But we won't. We will continue to do what we've always done: each person will use whatever definition he wants.

I also doubt your definition would satisfy most people: art ... is an object (in some sense) made by a human being to be shared with human beings. By that definition, a chair, a stop sign and a toilet plunger are all art. I'm not going to say they're NOT art, and I know there are all sorts of exhibitions of found object. But I suspect most people want a definition of art that somehow makes a distinction between utilitarian objects and aesthetic objects. And most people want to go beyond that, making some sort of distinction between, say, an idle doodle made while waiting for a telephone call and The Mona Lisa. It's fine if you want to call it all art, but, again, that's YOUR definition.

my difficulty with this (and I'll admit it's a huge difficulty to me) is that it seems to annihilate any possibility of art in common.


I disagree vehemently that art is merely subjective .... one might note that discussion and relation with other human beings is far and away the most pleasurable and fulfilling pursuit available to us. Cutting us all off by saying that "art is whatever you want it to be" and "there's no arguing taste" seems like a sort of hiding behind a self-satisfied mask; ... you're silencing whatever conversation about it might happen.


I'm sorry, but I'm looking through your post for some sort of argument as to HOW art is objective (or partly so). I don't see it. What I do see is you saying, "but if it's subjective, that's really bad, because..." It sounds like you're saying, "I WANT it to be objective" or "even if it IS subjective, don't go around saying that it is!"

Claiming that IF art is subjective, then discussion is annihilated is not an argument against it beings subjective. It's just a lament.

I guess I feel similar to those arguments to someone who says, "But if I don't have a million dollars, I can't buy all the stuff I want to buy!"

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. Maybe you can point me to some aspect of a REAL and SPECIFIC work of art that affects all people the same way. Honestly, this stuff is testable! The results might not be conclusive, but they'd be pretty darn suggestive. Show 500 people the same painting. Make sure those people have various ages and backgrounds, and give them a detailed questionnaire afterwards. I will change my mind if you can show my that they have common ground.

Most of us "artists" do this in informal ways. I've been directing plays for 20 years and I've yet to see uniformity in audience members*. Take the most beloved works imaginable -- "The Wizard of Oz", "Hamlet," "Citizen Kane... -- and you'll find people who don't like them or don't respond to them. Like I said earlier, there are TRENDS. You can certainly say that MANY people like "The Wizard of Oz," and you may be able to talk about why they do, but there are no universals -- or even close ones -- that I've ever seen.

*What I do see all the time is artists showing their works, getting GENERALLY positive feedback, and saying, "Wow! Everyone likes my work." It's common for us to think of the majority voice as "everyone," especially if the minority keeps fairly quiet, but, of course, the majority ISN'T everyone.

To me, "The Shining" is the scariest movie ever made. Why? Because it's the only movie that continually scares the shit out of me. If you want to discuss it, I can even tell you theories about why it has that effect on me. I know many other people who feel that way about it. So it's easy for me to say "it IS a scary movie." However, I also know people who think it's silly. I can't reasonably say, "You're wrong. It's scary," because THEY'RE NOT SCARED BY IT. So what we're left with is a movie that's scary to some people and not to others. Subjective.

Have you never discovered hidden greatness in something you thought you knew? ... has no friend ever told you that you should give something a try, explained why, and opened its doors to you? You're flatly denying that that can happen. Do you really believe this?

Of course that has happened. Not only am I not denying it. I wrote a post, upthread, which you quoted, in which I explained my confidence that I could get a lot of people to like "Macbeth" if I could expose them to certain things before they read it.

I think you and I may mean something different by "subjective." Maybe I have you wrong, but it sounds like, to you, "subjective" means something trapped inside one person's head that can't influence or be influenced by anything anyone else says.

That's not what I mean. Of course we can influence each other. And that's exactly why I think discussions about art are worthwhile. I just don't think there are any guarantees that we'll succeed. And I don't think the words "right" and "wrong" make sense in this context.

There's a weird (to me) view that some people have (I think it comes from the world of school: exams, science, etc) where if there can't be labeled right and wrongs, it's impossible to discuss anything. That's wrong. If you're confused about how that's wrong, we can discuss it. It's possible to have stimulating discussions of art while admitting that its effect is subjective -- and those discussions needn't just be touchy feely round-robins in which everyone talks about how it made them cry or whatever.

Let me ask you a couple of questions. I'm not trying to trap you. I'm trying to clarify your position, because maybe we have more common ground than we think we do:

1) Do you feel that there are any high-level objective aspects to art? By high-level, I mean more complex than, say, "everyone has a startle reflex when they hear a loud noise." Are there any kinds of stories, dramatic moments, genres, melodies, etc. that you claim have the same affect on EVERYONE? If so, can you give an example?

2) If not, are you talking about trends? Are you saying that MOST people will laugh when they watch "Seinfeld" (or whatever)? If so, are you comfortable calling THAT objective? ("Seinfeld is objectively funny, because 8 out of 10 people laugh when they watch it.")

Let's say there's some movie that makes 95% of all people terrified. Are you comfortable saying "it IS a scary movie?" (I'm comfortable saying that in casual conversation, but I'm assuming here that we're talking about something more rigorous than that. I'm assuming we're talking about the sorts of claims professional writers, like Ebert, can reasonably put in serious essays.)

If, to you, a movie that scares 99% of people "is" scary, what do you do, mentally, with the 5% that isn't scared? Do you just pretend like they don't exist? Do you assume they are lying? Let's dispense with that possibility. Say you hook them up to an MRI and discover that they really aren't scared. Do you say that the movie IS scary and those people are wrong when they say it's not? How can they be wrong? They really DON'T feel scared.

I am trying to take your claim -- or what I think you're claiming -- that we CAN make some universal claims about the way art affects people out of the realm of theory and academia. I can't accept it unless I can connect it to REAL people and their actual FEELINGS and SENSATIONS. What works make all people feel the same way?

The reason I want to move this away from scholarly discussion, is because in academia, there's a long-standing tool for claiming that art is objective: just doing it. In other words, there are "accepted schools of thought." They wax and wane and overtake each other, but while they hold court, they simply ARE the way people talk about art. Certain people, anyway. At lot of that sort of talk is a kind of intellectual game. It may be a really fun or useful one. But it's a game. All the players agree to certain assumptions (e.g. such and such is in the cannon) and, by so agreeing, they can make grand statements based on a few unproven axioms.

That's fine if you want to play that game. I'd just rather talk about actual sensations.
posted by grumblebee at 11:14 AM on April 19, 2010


Grumblebee, its nonsensical to limit your definition of art to what you like personally.

There is such a thing as 'bad art' and 'art which i don't like, but which other people do'.
posted by empath at 1:01 PM on April 19, 2010


There is such a thing as 'bad art'

And I say it's nonsensical to just make proclamations.

I hear that you're saying there is such a thing as "bad art."

Based on what?
posted by grumblebee at 1:03 PM on April 19, 2010


the 'bad' part of that is subjective. The art part of it, much less so.
posted by empath at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2010


Also, I don't limit my definition of art to what I like personally. Rather, I choose not to use the word art or to define it. I use it in casual conversation, as a shorthand way of indicating "stuff in a museum" or "stuff hanging on my wall," but I would never claim that this or that work is Art.

I honestly don't know what good or bad art is. I don't know what those terms mean.

I know that there's some stuff that supremely moves me. That same stuff leaves some other people cold. I know there's some stuff that moves a great many people that I find uninteresting.

I'm not trying to be obstinate. It just really seems to me like the word "art" is one of those words that makes less and less sense, the more you try to pin it down or define it. Which is fine. Some words like that (e.g. "love") are great to have in our vocabularies. But I object to it when people use them in scholarly or intellectual arguments and build on top of them as if they were well defined and agreed-upon terms.

None the people in this thread who are arguing that there IS such a thing as art or that it has certain objective properties have come forward with anything other than personal definitions or complaints that it's "nonsense to say there's no such thing as art" or "but, if there's no art, then we're in a terrible state."

I really respect both those sentiments, but surely no one thinks those are counter arguments to what I'm saying. A counter argument would be...

a. THIS is what art is. [Followed by a definition we could all agree on.]
b. Here is a work (or part of one) that EVERYONE will react to the same way. [Followed by a link to that work.]
c. Even if we don't all agree on what exactly art is, what objects are art, or how we react to art, nevertheless, it makes sense to say that art exists, because... ?
posted by grumblebee at 1:21 PM on April 19, 2010


the 'bad' part of that is subjective. The art part of it, much less so.

Again, based on what?

I take it you're argument isn't "because it is."
posted by grumblebee at 1:24 PM on April 19, 2010


I take it YOUR argument...
posted by grumblebee at 1:25 PM on April 19, 2010


I'll elaborate a bit.

It's possible to construct an objective definition of art, in as much as it's possible to construct an objective definition of any term.

Let's use 'life' as an example. There are plenty of fringe cases where reasonable people can disagree about whether the term 'life' encompasses them -- for example viruses, prions, etc. However, it's possible to construct a more detailed definition of 'life' which would settle the matter in every case -- if you accept that definition. It doesn't require that everyone everywhere needs to agree with your definition -- only that its agreed upon for the sake of discussion.

Art is the same way. There are plenty of grey areas where reasonable people can disagree, which is because different people have different internal ideas of what the word means. But if you're going to have a serious discussion about art which includes those edge cases, one absolutely must start by constructing a definition which attempts to either include or exclude them. You can't just say, different people use different definitions, therefore all conversation about the topic is pointless.

You start by defining your terms, and then you work out the consequences. And if someone has a different opinion, then they can construct their own definition. The point is that anybody should be able to put forth a coherent, consistent, rational opinion about what is art based upon any definition that they personally use, and it should be subject to argument.

I suppose that 'whatever i like is art' is a coherent definition, but it also essentially means that you've disqualified yourself from discussion because you can't express any sort of justification for it or hope to persuade anyone else.
posted by empath at 1:27 PM on April 19, 2010


As a specific example with regards to art, i'd put forward Scott McCloud's 'understanding comics'. You can argue with his definitions of 'art' and 'comics', which is fine but that doesn't make them entire subjective. He defines a broad category, and for the vast majority of items that might fall into them, it's not really a subjective call whether it belongs or not. The existence of gray areas doesn't make the entire category gray.
posted by empath at 1:32 PM on April 19, 2010


Okay, that does make some sense to me. Here is my response to a few points:

Let's use 'life' as an example. There are plenty of fringe cases where reasonable people can disagree about whether the term 'life' encompasses them -- for example viruses, prions, etc.

The difference, as I see it, is that the overwhelming majority of people I've met are in agreement that people, dogs, horses and butterflies are examples of life. I've never met anyone who has seriously argued that giraffes aren't a lifeform. Yes, there are some fringe cases, but the majority of examples aren't debated.

But if we take the most accepted parts of the cannon -- "King Lear," "Mozart Operas," etc. -- you'll find intelligent people who INSIST that they aren't art.

I also think that there are certain traits that most people agree are part of what makes something a life form. For instance, most people think life forms must consume energy and reproduce. There's no such strong agreement about art.

Even that most basic definition -- "art is a form of human communication" -- is disputed by some people. I, for instance, am not comfortable making a distinction between a beautiful painting and a beautiful piece of driftwood. Some people feel I'm insane (or missing the point) if I think of a sunset and a Picasso as being in the same category, but others agree with me.

When someone says "life," I feel like I have a ballpark idea of what they are talking about. And if I ask them for a definition, I usually can't break it too many times. I might be able to say, "What about viruses?" "What about robots?" But, in general, I won't be able to come up with too many fringe cases.

But when someone says "art" and defines it, I can generally come up with all sorts of objects that break the definition -- not just objects that I like; objects that other people like (or are moved by or feel are important).

There must be some point at which a word ceases to be useful. Blerg is obviously not useful. What about the phrase "good government"? I would claim that's an almost nonsensical utterance, because it means too many things to too many people. To me, "art" falls in the same category.

Saying, "buy me some art" is like saying "buy me some pretty clothes." The phrase "pretty clothes" doesn't make sense unless you know what I like.

"But if you're going to have a serious discussion about art ... [you] must start by constructing a definition ..."

I couldn't agree more.

But I'm not seeing people do that. Specifically, most people in this thread, most scholars and most writers, like Ebert, are NOT defining art. They are acting as if we already have a definition that we agree on.

And when people here (and elsewhere) HAVE defined art, I've never seen a general consensus to accept that definition -- even for the sake of the argument.

Here, we are having an debate about whether or not video games are art. To me, the FIRST thing we need to do is to say "whoa!" and define both video games and art. And if we don't all agree on definitions, we need to keep discussing them BEFORE we move on to whether the former objects are a members of the latter category.

Is X an example of Y? Sorry, but we haven't clearly defined X. Sorry, but we haven't clearly defined Y. But before we do that, let's debate whether or not X is a Y. That's nuts.
posted by grumblebee at 1:56 PM on April 19, 2010


As a specific example with regards to art, i'd put forward Scott McCloud's 'understanding comics'. You can argue with his definitions of 'art' and 'comics', which is fine but that doesn't make them entire subjective. He defines a broad category, and for the vast majority of items that might fall into them, it's not really a subjective call whether it belongs or not. The existence of gray areas doesn't make the entire category gray.

Okay, I can see here that if we're not careful, we're going to get really muddled up with two similar but distinct claims:

You can argue with his definitions of 'art' and 'comics', which is fine but that doesn't make them entire subjective.

Of course his DEFINITIONS are subjective. He came up with them! If I say, "let's call all red and green things smoons," that's subjective. There's no sense in which red and green things ARE smoons. It's not writ in stone.

What's OBJECTIVE is that, IF you accept my (arbitrary) definition and IF you accept that that object over there is red, you must also accept that it's a smoon. (Unless you reject some really basic tenets of logic.)

We then need to have a meta-discussion about whether or not smoon is a useful category. There are an infinite number of categories we could make. Why that one? And, bingo, we're back in subjective land, unless we can prove that either people necessarily WILL come up with that category (because they're hardwired to do so) or because it's useful (in some concrete way we can explain) to use it.

Let's say I posit that all art must tell a story. Fred starts arguing that I'm making a subjective claim, and that he can think of all kinds of examples of art that don't tell stories. I say, yes, but for the sake of this discussion, let's just agree that all art must tell a story. We can change our definition later, but for now, is it okay with you if we run with the story one? Fred agrees.

Still, that DEFINITION is subjective (or arbitrary, if you prefer that word). It is not the case that art MUST (in some cosmic-law sense) tell a story.

So we now look at a Mondrian painting and ask if it tells a story. (Let's say) we agree that it doesn't. Therefor it's not art.

Totally sound logic. And it's not subjective. It's totally objective, given our starting definition and our agreement about that particular painting.

SO WHAT?

Fred, who has been feeling antsy the whole time, says, "Yes, but how does it help us to think of all art as narrative?"

At which point I am lost.

I could explain why it's useful to think of this or that as being life forms. If we do, we can develop all sorts of medicines and know what to look for when we visit other planets. But how does it help us to decide that "all art must tell a story" or "all art must be a human communication" or whatever?

Ultimately, the best I can can come up with is either "Well, look: we need SOME kind of criteria for deciding what to put in a museum" or "Because I really like stories!"

I can't see how any arbitrary definition of art -- even if once you agree to it, you can make certain objective statements -- is especially useful or should be privileged. And I haven't heard of any that strike me as inevitable ("people WILL think of art as containing stories, even if they try not to" Not true. Not all people).

Remember, I am responding in this thread to people saying things like "Obviously video games are art," as if we've already come to an agreement about what art is and are just trying to decide whether or not video games (also ill defined) have the prerequisites to fit into that category.

To me, that's like saying, let's decide whether or not the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri have three eyes or nine? Don't we need some agreement about Alpha Centauri before we can debate that? We can, of course, say, "Alpha Centauri as defined in the sci-fi novel 'Visit to Alpha Centuri'" and then we can, objectively, say, "Oh. In that novel, the inhabitants had nine eyes." But someone is going to come along and say, "But why should I read that novel? Why are you arbitrarily choosing its description of that star system? What will I gain by doing so?"

I think the main drives behind what we define as art are (1) personal preference and (2) tradition. And I see nothing wrong with that.

And I totally disagree that accepting that means we have nothing to discuss. Preferences are based in psychology, and particularly in the 21st Century, we're starting to be able to say some fascinating things about psychology. Tradition is based in history, and we can say some remarkable things about that, too.
posted by grumblebee at 2:23 PM on April 19, 2010


grumblebee: Here, we are having an debate about whether or not video games are art. To me, the FIRST thing we need to do is to say "whoa!" and define both video games and art. And if we don't all agree on definitions, we need to keep discussing them BEFORE we move on to whether the former objects are a members of the latter category.

I guess I don't see that a universal consensus is desirable or necessary. Either you engage in the aesthetic conversations about color and form, narrative and conflict, theme-and-variations and development in games or you don't. You participate in communities that look at games as just another form of media that uses some of the same kinds of aesthetics we get from music, cinema, and literature, or you don't.

A week ago I had a meeting with a typeface designer who's doing a show next month. And it occurs to me that Ebert would probably snort and say that a typeface isn't art either because you can use it to spell "love" or "fuck." But Ebert's opinion doesn't matter, because next month, we'll be viewing it as art in a gallery, teaching it as art to students, and having conversations about the designs we see. Impressionists, photographers, and cinematographers didn't wait for a universal consensus regarding art to make it, show it, or talk about it. They just did it.

And the great news is, in our contemporary culture of peer-to-peer markets and communication, we are no longer dependent on the King of France, the curators (who arguably are more progressive than Ebert on this issue), or the plutocratic mechanisms of media distribution to form those communities.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:22 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess I don't see that a universal consensus is desirable or necessary.

Agreed.

Except when making claims like "X is not art." Then you do NEED agreement about what art is, or the claim your claim has no meaning.

Because it's so hard to mine meaning out of something ill-defined, I suspect most people interpret Ebert's statement as meaning something in the cloud of "video games are inferior objects" or "you're stupid if you like video games." That may not be his intended message, but even in this thread, many are reacting as if he said that -- and I don't blame them.

Let's say he took a stab at defining art. Suppose he said something like, "I define art as linear narrative" or "I define art as man-made objects constructed using traditional media, such as paint or clay" or some other statement like that.*

And then, let's say he'd said, "And, given that definition, video games aren't art."

Well, then, he'd have said something tangible. We could respond by saying, Yeah, you're right. That gels with what I understand art to be, so I guess video games aren't art. Or we could say Well, I agree with you about art, but I think video games DO possess qualities that meet your criteria. Or we could say, I reject your definition of art!

But most people -- like Ebert -- fail to define art clearly. I agree with you that that's fine in most cases. In fact, I think trying to define art is futile, as I've said above. But if you're not going to define it, it's pretty dumb to then make bold claims that some particular object is (or is not) a member of a category you refuse to (or can't) define.

When people DO define art, they tend to use subjective language, like, "Art is that which fills you with awe." I have a lot more time for those sorts of definitions, but they are useless in rigorous debates or written arguments. It would be stupid to define art that way and then say, "So you see, video games aren't art, because they don't fill people will awe." Because someone will say -- as many have in this thread -- "Oh yes they do! They fill ME with awe."

* Of course Ebert didn't define art in such a nuts-and-bolts way! No one does, because it's too easy to come up with counter-examples, even from amongst the works you like. I generally DO like narrative art, but even if I was into defining art best, I would never say something like "all art is narrative," because I'm a fan of Jackson Pollack (amongst other non-narrative artists).

But if you're NOT going to define art in a tangible way, then you get further and further from being able to say that certain objects are or aren't art. The more vague your language becomes, the more fuzzy the boarders of your definition becomes. Once you start saying things like "art is aesthetic communication," you'd better be careful about what you claim isn't art. It's pretty hard to prove that something isn't aesthetic or isn't communication.

For some reason, commentators really, really want to use loose definitions of art while, at the same time, keep tight control over what is art and what isn't art. That's pretty absurd.

posted by grumblebee at 5:56 PM on April 19, 2010


I don't think he was clear in this essay, but I think in the previous essay on the topic he's more clear. At least as I understand him, games are not art because art involves a singular designed experience by one or more artists expressed to the audience. Because games can be won or lost, they don't have that singular designed experience around which someone like Ebert can build an interpretation. I think where he falls short on this is that sculpture and architecture are often constructed around multiple possible perspectives, and there is experimental art, theater, and storytelling that's interactive and incorporates the dynamic actions of the audience. It's not clear as to whether David Baker's experimental jazz compositions that improvise around audience ringtones fit into this.

Complicating this is that there also appears to be a quality dimension in this as well. In that Ebert fully admits that not all cinema is art, and that cinema doesn't need to be art in order to be enjoyable. So there's two dimensions there, and I think it's reasonable to suspect that he's drawing an arbitrary line in the sand to rationalize what he doesn't like.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:29 PM on April 19, 2010


When people DO define art, they tend to use subjective language, like, "Art is that which fills you with awe." I have a lot more time for those sorts of definitions, but they are useless in rigorous debates or written arguments.

So maybe the issue is with those rigorous debates and/or written arguments; with the pro critics and academics, those highly schooled types who, on some level or other (subconscious more often than not), feel compelled to justify all that schooling by trying to impose debate and argument on something that's beyond both.

Why it's like loading mercury with a pitchfork.
posted by philip-random at 6:30 PM on April 19, 2010


Yeah, I think that's on the mark, philip-random. And what's sad to me is that people get in this binary mode, because they've been trained to think in a particular tradition. So, based on the rules of that tradition, they conclude that if you can't define art, there's no point in, say, Film Studies or English Lit classes.

People have, in this thread, said that "if art is subjective," we can't discuss it. And yet there are rigorous studies going on of all kinds of subjective processes. One of which is happiness.

Our scholarly system has a long tradition of taxonimizing, so if you can't say this is art and this isn't, then what are you supposed to talk about?

To me, that's a very unfortunate sort of tunnel vision, but it's a very common one, and I can see how people steeped in various intellectual traditions feel that it's the only option.
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 PM on April 19, 2010


I think that a possibly useful way of thinking about art is to treat it not as a property of an object or a performance or what-have-you, but rather as a way of observing and reacting to these things, in contrast to other ways of observing and reacting (like, say, trying to decide if something is functional for a given purpose). So things like driftwood that haven't been made by people can be treated as art; things that have been made by people without any deliberate aesthetic goal such as factories can be treated as art, and so on and so forth. Basically the observer makes the decision to react to a thing or event as art, rather than art being intrinsically part of the thing or event.
posted by Dim Siawns at 5:14 AM on April 20, 2010


I like it, Dim Siawns. Though I'm not sure what it means to react to something as art. Does that mean putting it in a museum or hanging in on your wall? Does it mean giving it some sort of special attention? What sort?
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 AM on April 20, 2010


I think specifying what an 'art reaction' is is pretty much up to the individual. Maybe you might ask if something evokes emotion in you unbidden, you might compare it to a set of aesthetic standards, something along those lines. It could even be entirely self-referential; I'm going to compare this thing to other things I have experienced as art in the past: does it make me feel something? Think something? Am I entertained by it?
posted by Dim Siawns at 8:20 AM on April 20, 2010


If art reaction is up to the individual, then what is the purpose of the word "art"? Why not just talk about one's reaction to a painting or video game or play. What does the word art add?
posted by grumblebee at 8:30 AM on April 20, 2010


Maybe not much. Maybe, on the other hand, if the ways in which you react to many different things have a certain amount in common, or can be interesting when misapplied (how good a meal does King Lear make?), then "art" is as good an umbrella as any to bunch all these different ways of reacting under. As I say, it's just a possibly useful way of looking at art, not one that I think ought to be universal.
posted by Dim Siawns at 8:56 AM on April 20, 2010


I think your idea of art sounds like the way many people (outside of academia) talk about it. Art, to them, is a set of objects (and sometimes rituals) that evoke some sort of (generally profound) reaction. (Believers in the Intentional Fallacy will say that the objects were fashioned to provoke some sort of (generally profound) reaction.

It's quite possibly useful to say "there are certain objects that affect me (in some meaningful way), and I choose to call those objects art," but since the set of objects can, from person-to-person, be made up of any arbitrary members, and since the effects those objects have can arbitrarily differ from person to person, I don't see how "art" is useful in communication.

You either wind up saying "art is stuff that affects people in some way," which is pretty lame and impossible to build upon, or you say "art is this very specific thing when affects people in these specific ways," in which case you get all sorts of people saying "sez you!" "prove it!"
posted by grumblebee at 9:21 AM on April 20, 2010


I think you're right in that it doesn't allow much discussion of art as a category, but it leaves a lot of room to discuss more specific things that you treat as art.
posted by Dim Siawns at 9:33 AM on April 20, 2010


It's my impression that the "academic" discussions of art are far less interested in beanplating the definition of art than what we have here. Art education and studies is very much about the techniques, the movements, the debates, the history, the overall process, the professional practices. Along the way, people may debate alternate and overlapping meanings of "what is art?" But at the end of the day, you're making something.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2010


KirkJobSluder, I think that's true. Except in those nagging discussions that come up repeatedly -- as with Ebert's piece -- in which someone makes a bold claim that X is or is not art.

I know Ebert isn't an academic, but he is, in that piece at least, playing the role of an intellectual. For my money, intellectuals need to be intellectually rigorous.
posted by grumblebee at 11:33 AM on April 20, 2010


You either wind up saying "art is stuff that affects people in some way," which is pretty lame and impossible to build upon, or you say "art is this very specific thing when affects people in these specific ways," in which case you get all sorts of people saying "sez you!" "prove it!"

I think most definitions of art aren't about the effect it has on the viewer, no matter how much you keep trying to say it is.

If I put paint on a canvas with some intent to impart meaning or feeling, it's art, no matter what you think of it. 'Art' isn't a quality judgement.
posted by empath at 3:18 PM on April 20, 2010


'Art' isn't a quality judgement.

If this was a democracy, I'd vote otherwise.

That is, when I create a certain something, I hope it's good enough to be art but I don't deem it so until it's had a certain "magic" effect on some other human I've never met. Call this notion contrary to the teachings of the academy but I split that pop stand decades ago.
posted by philip-random at 3:32 PM on April 20, 2010


IMO, if it doesn't have the intended effect, it's just not good art, and that's a subjective call. But even drawing a stick figure is 'art'. Even if you want to qualify it as 'folk art' or 'outsider art'.
posted by empath at 3:40 PM on April 20, 2010


A nice rebuttal from ign.
posted by misha at 8:50 PM on April 20, 2010


I think most definitions of art aren't about the effect it has on the viewer, no matter how much you keep trying to say it is.

1. I never claimed that most definitions about art are about the effect it has on the viewer.

2. I don't believe in defining art at all. I don't believe the word is meaningful.
posted by grumblebee at 9:49 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just played Flower for the first time. I was speechless. Then, after the first level, I burst into tears and went to find a hug.

"Not art". Pah!
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:39 PM on April 22, 2010


God is this one still going?

Right - Brian Eno time. I warned you fuckers, I really did.

Games are art the same way telephones are conversations.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:26 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


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