Thursday, November 13, 2008

Art Critics

I recently had occasion to go back and read Roger Ebert's claim that video games could never be art due to the inherent limitations in the medium, his further rebuttal to Clive Barker, and the resulting article from game designer Clint Hocking.

At the time, I thought this was a relatively new argument. Games are a new medium, after all. Today, I realize that all of this haggling over what is or isn't "art" (or "high art" or "fine art" if you prefer) is nearly a century old. At least.

Ebert's arguments essentially boil down to this:
  • I am going to make a list of criteria by which art should be judged.
  • Games cannot be judged by this criteria, due to the nature of the medium.
  • Ergo, games are not and can never be art.
Here's the thing: there was an art critic named Clement Greenberg who was highly influential in the art world in the 1930s and 40s, who basically did exactly the same thing for modern art. He wrote some highly influential essays that essentially gave a list of criteria for judging art. And for awhile, his ideas were followed almost religiously to decide what was good or bad art, and even what was and wasn't art in the first place.

Then, the so-called Postmodern movement came along and basically said "screw this, art can be more than Greenberg's one narrow slice of representation." All of a sudden, there was a trickle and then an explosion of art that looked absolutely nothing like Greenberg's ideal modern art. But the new stuff was still, clearly, art. The Postmodern charge was led by another art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

So, two artist critics already figured out the correct argument for why games can be art... about half a century ago. A few years ago we re-enacted the old debate, with Ebert playing the part of Greenberg and Hocking playing Rosenberg, but the arguments are essentially the same.

If I had known this back in 2005, I could have written an influential essay on the subject. Today, there are so many art games that I think such an essay is unnecessary. But I still find it interesting how we retread old ground without realizing.


Lewis Pulsipher said...

There's an arrogance in the video game world, as though they're doing so much that's new, when in fact the same questions and discussions and the same kinds of ideas came up in the non-video game world, or in other areas, long before video games existed. I suppose this "art" business is just another example. I understand Greg Costikyan used the term "vidiots" to describe video game fans who have no idea of "what went before". I like it.

But this is the natural way for humans to do things, ignoring anything that happened before they were born. Meh.

Clint said...

Well, I'm glad you and Lewis figured it out so you could illuminate ignorant, arrogant vidiots like me.

You're probably right, there is no value in discussing the game-native specifics of *why* games are art and *where* the artfulness in games lies, because everyone on earth is already well-versed in Rosenberg and Greenberg, and Joe from Winnipeg who likes Madden already understands the nature of artistic expression in the medium of games.

On my end, the now-concluded debate into 'this art business' was never really about whether or not games can be art, it was about understanding which aspects of our expression are unique to games and where our artistic efforts ought best be invested to further the expressive power of the medium.

But if you are both clever enough to accept the argument 'games are art because Rosenberg said so' and garner complete understanding of the entire medium from those seven words, then I suppose we should all stop thinking in order to save ourselves your fearsome wrath.

Get over yourselves.