Monday, July 19, 2010
Art art Art
Apparently, Roger Ebert recently declared that “Video games can never be art.” After making him “an object of scorn and incredulity for members of the gaming press, not to mention the Great Unpunctuated out there on the boards,” as a friend of mine put it, this categorical statement also provoked an interesting response from “Game innovator Kellee Santiago” which provoked Ebert, in turn to offer a more careful and considered effort to clarify his position:
I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say “never,” because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.
I find the conversation interesting and thought provoking, though—full disclosure—I’m more or less totally apathetic towards video games themselves; having once been an avid gamer in the days when Starcraft hadn’t yet become the Korean national sport, video games are sort of an addiction I’ve kicked and, all things considered, am as fearful as an ex-smoker of revisiting. I’m also some combination of uninterested in the question and un-persuaded by Ebert’s argument, which is probably telling in its own way. But if these kinds of conversations tend to do more to reveal our own underlying preconceptions and beliefs than actually lead to any effective resolution, then maybe that, in and of itself, is a kind of useful mirror held up to reality. If you’re interested in the actual debate, you should really view Santiago’s video response to Ebert; though I think she’s hampered by adopting his critical orientation, it’s still a nicely put together presentation of the state-of-the-art of game design, which she frames as being still at a “cave-painting” stage of development, full of a potential that has yet to fully blossom. But I’m more interested in the rhetoric Ebert uses to argue with her (in a post, by the way, which has received well over four thousand comments).
After carefully finding fault—in turn—with each of the definitions of “art” which Santiago puts forward as ways of including video games under the rubric, he gets to his own argument:
Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art…My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. 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.
…These three are just a small selection of games, she says, “that crossed that boundary into artistic expression.” IMHO, that boundary remains resolutely uncrossed…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. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: “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 hope that trimming his words down a bit helps demonstrate the appeal to authority at the core of this argument, the extent to which his argument is essentially this:
1. None of her definitions of Art—which would include video games—are good enough. This is true because I know it to be so.
2. Here’s my definition of Art: the difference between good art and bad art is that I know it to be so.
3. The games she selects as good are not good, because I know it to be so.
Now, that’s a bit of an injustice to Ebert, but only a bit. And I wonder if it’s possible to discuss whether or not something is “art” without making the argument, ultimately, into a contest between the authority to arbitrarily decide which arbitrary definition will be the one that obtains. I suspect it isn’t.
A friend to whom I often send one-sentence email queries and receive, in return, carefully thought out and insightful analysis, sent me the following:
…this vein of curmudgeonism reveals him as some kind of modernist; he seems convinced that the dispersed expressive touches in videogames will never match the formal concentration of poetry, which is probably true. Videogames are unconvincing as that kind of art. I would find it at least a little embarrassing to claim that my favorite games, even the winningly pretentious ones, are expressive or moving like film is. They start to look more credible next to some kinds of minimalism, in roughly the same category as sculptures that are about modifying the space of display and conceptual pieces that expose or distort the ecology of spectatorship. The core artistry in game-design lies in building complex interactions out of relatively simple rules and behaviors, in establishing spaces that carry some kind of genre-specific decorum. When they are a vehicle for narrative, the story itself becomes secondary to the way that it conditions the gameplay. Besides which, Benjamin would tell us that the question of whether videogames count as art defers the question of how they have already changed the arts just by existing (and, since the name’s been dropped, the ebay sweatshop economy of World of Warcraft is a pretty shocking literalization of Benjamin’s insight that the conditions of aesthetic appreciation mimic the conditions of labor).
That’s a lot smarter than I would have been able to come up with, but I think the difference between a reading like that and the fairly fruitless debate Ebert and Santiago were having illustrates the extent to which marshalling arguments that video games (or whatever) are or aren’t “Art” just underscores the essentially arbitrary nature of that distinction, making the argument from authority the unavoidable destination. Comparing video game to sculpture, by contrast, lets us think through how different “Art” is from “Art,” letting us put into play all the interesting ways that the various objets we’ve all decided to acknowledge as art are radically different from each other in practice. And that difference, it seems to me, is actually interesting, even useful. The manner in which one experiences a film is just so different from how one experiences a novel, a sculpture, a painting, something it’s almost shocking to see Ebert fail to recognize. There’s something totally bizarre, in fact, about seeing him place screen-captured stills of various video games next to a still of George Melies’ 1902 A Voyage to the Moon; what on earth would lead a film critic to imagine that a still could in any way represent what was interesting about a moving picture? By the same token, when he places a series of youtube clips of A Voyage to the Moon next to you tube clips of video games, what on earth would lead him to think that it was a useful comparison to place a viewing of a medium meant to be viewed side-by-side with a viewing of a medium meant to be played? If you strip the experience of playing a game from it—if you simply render it into a movie—you sort of remove its reason for existing. You don’t take pictures of sculptures and think you’ve captured their essence; why would we imagine that a youtube clip of a video game tells us anything useful about what it is (much less can be)?
To give the last word to someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, Austin Grossman—a video game designer and novelist (and Berkelyan apparently, though I’ve never met him) happens to have just written this:
I think a great deal of aesthetic confusion arises from the fact that the form is still deeply, hopelessly invested in competing with or besting cinema — the idea that video games would be the successor, the completion, the fulfillment of film; that it would make the plane of the movie or television screen porous, and you the gamer would find yourself in the place of a film’s protagonist. This is a fantasy by which the medium is still judged, even though it’s hopelessly poor at delivering the satisfactions we’re most sensitized to, the experiences of narrative and psychologically sophisticated characterization that the film and the novel have accomplished at such a high level. And it’s a confusion that makes the voice of the interactive medium, if there truly is one, harder to hear.
…I would rather call it “art half-accomplished.” It fails a lot, and when it succeeds, it does so in ways we only partly sense and don’t even have an aesthetic language to describe. (Some developers banish the term “fun” from their vocabularies entirely, in order to force the development of more specific, substantive, useful critical terms). The sense of fulfillment, of a real aesthetic experience unalloyed by a feeling of falseness, is still fleeting and anecdotal. It shows up when it isn’t expected, often emerging from an unplanned coming-together of various game elements. It’s usually off the narrative point, a subtler note in a bombastic storyline that keeps crashing along without anyone — designer or player — much caring about it. I played Zork with less attention to solving puzzles than with letting the space of an underground empire grow in my imagination, stretching out from under my ordinary white house. Doom (1993) was a brilliant accomplishment, and I played dozens of hours, but the thing I remember with the most feeling is being able to look out a window at the lush, tropical surface of Mars.
Aaron, thanks for this post. The idea that media are collapsible is an oddity of this debate, and one propagated by both sides. For instance, see this Lore Sjöberg post from five years ago (when Ebert’s argument first appeared), where he points out that the presence of artistic cutscenes doesn’t mean that the game—the part you actually play—is art, or at least literature/cinema:
If a video game contains cut scenes or canned dialogue that is of literary merit, does that mean the video game is of literary merit? If so, the task of elevating games to literature is pretty simple; just write a standard first-person shooter, but between every level you have to read a chapter of Anna Karenina.
Let’s say we accept the notion that Final Fantasy VII contains a great, worthy storyline. I’m not arguing this, I’m just postulating it for the sake of a thought experiment here. Can you seriously claim that forty hours of wandering around getting jumped by Elfadunks and Garudas is contributing to that story? The gaming aspect of FFVII is a means to get to the story. Arguing that the game is literature because it lets you get to the story is like arguing that unwrapping a CD and peeling off the little protective label is music.
Sjöberg’s point touches on what I find interesting in this debate: you inevitably end up talking about, not just what art is, but what games are. Look at what Ebert says in his response to Santiago about the game Braid, in which you manipulate time (and which I think is just about irrefutably art, in that the actual game mechanics contain thought-provoking, interpretable material):
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.
What Ebert is doing here is critiquing Braid as a game, not as art. He does the same with the next game Santiago mentions, Flower:
Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?
Why should Ebert care whether the game is scored, or winnable? Children play games with no score or winner almost every day of their lives. I can’t quite figure it, but I have to think that it has to do with the same genre distinction that throws Ebert (and others) at the film/video game distinction—he is simply not a good enough critic to accommodate an expanded definition of Play.
Funny chess should enter into it, as that domain supports both Game and Art, the latter in the form of chess problems, not merely clever hard-to-solve puzzles but a rigorous discipline with established aesthetic criteria and an articulated thematic apparatus behind it.
Is there a point at which a set of tools or rules can become in themselves an artwork? Are paintbrushes, or the sestina as form, aside from any particular sestinas, art? Is Esperanto art?
Is the raw downloadable footage of The Tracey Fragments a movie? When an infinite number of arrangements are possible, is there a “work” of art here?
I like to think of games as media, but I am not sure if the distinction is important anymore.
PS:I also think of <i>Finnegans Wake</a> as media rather than artifact.
I had no idea Ebert has been on this as long as he has. Five years and that’s the best he can come up with? Weird. And thanks for the link.
As for your sense that “he is simply not a good enough critic to accommodate an expanded definition of Play,” I agree, with this inversion: “because he refuses to accommodate an expanded definition of Play, he becomes a worse critic.”
It does feel like he’s retreating to a certain kind of formalism so that he can resist the way, for example, a thing like chess sustains both definitions of Art and Game; his position requires them to be mutually exclusive, and so a certain very rigorously (or hard-headedly) formalist definition of art lets him exclude game.
For me, the FW as media claim usefully demonstrates how inseperable the activity of reading is from the objet itself. FW makes not a damn bit of sense until you learn to read it, and that’s a process that involves the opposite of passive ingestion; one must actively “play” with Joyce to make the book work.
If “art” means everything, then it means nothing.
Several RPGs (Syberia, Gabriel Knight I, Zork Nemesis, Myst) are undeniably art.
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art