the question of art

Image license: CC BY SA 3.0, Cropped from Source

I was once told that there is nothing as boring as a discussion about the question what is art. While I basically agree, I feel that some remarks are needed for my article about underground games to come, and that I would need to explain some of my views regarding the topic to be graspable – so I decided to create a own article for it for those who can stand to read this stuff. For the following post, I will mainly go along the critic of video games as art as cited on the „Video Games as an art form“ article on the Wikipedia.

A center of the debate are Roger Eberts statements who vocally declined the idea that games might be art within our lifetime; in his answer to Kellee Santiago (who claimed that football, chess, or mahjjong can never be art since they are a collections of rules rather than a expression of thoughts, emotions, or ideas – but more elaborated video games could be art in a early stage of development) he admits that it is impossible to find a bulletproof art definition; he then claims that the important difference would be the possibility to win a game (stating that games that can not be won are in fact movies – he neither justifies the idea further, nor does he acknowledge that there are games that offer neither a score or a possibility to be won or can even finished) and goes on to devalue the games that were used by Santiago as examples for artistic games.

There are several flaws in the reasoning of both sides: Ebert answered on Santiagos argument that compared current games to „rudimentary“ cave paintings that he – and painters – regard those as a high form of art (a point on which I do agree), but he was blind towards the option that the same could be said for video games that use their catalogue of options to express feelings or ideas, or try to use them to capture principles or aspects of the world that their creators perceive.

Ebert also stated that he usually thinks of art as the work of one artist – but this is neither true for most paintings (that were often created by whole workshops – nearly all known masters had assistants, helpers, or trainees who worked on the now famous pictures), music (were the artistic process is often divided between a composer, arrangers, and musicians), movies (where many people with different tasks are involved) and often times not even for literature or poetry, where the connection between the piece and the artists is usually considered the strongest. The overwhelming amount of what we consider art is the result of collective work, but nobody would claim that Ingmar Bergmans Seventh Seal, Caravaggios Paintings, a song performed by a rock band or a symphony performed by an orchestra aren’t art for this reason.

Both sides agreed that chess (or other competitive games) is no art; chess is often brought up in the debate, either by the one side who claims that chess isn’t art so video games can’t be art, or by the other side who claims that chess is not art but video games are somehow different. Given the prominence of the figure, I think it is worth to take a closer look to this – mainly because I believe that chess is indeed art on various layers – the first one being the idea of the game itself, as expressed in the fundamental set of rules. Just like a composer who creates a score or a choreographer who invents a dance needs a core-thought that is rendered into a „piece“, rules are a way to cast abstract thoughts into a game that might later evoke emotions and express ideas to both the players and a possible audience; the central themes of a game are likely to be already present on this layer, but often times they are present in a abstract, opaque form – the rules need the playing of the game as a medium to take effect and to crystallize into a graspable piece, but so does every piece of music, every movie, and every form of literature (a book that isn’t read and thus converted into a story within the mind of a reader is a mere bunch of paper). Thus the rules of chess (or mahjong, or football) are – as any other thought that exceeds the rudimentary – art on an ideal layer.

The second layer is the game as an object (this object might be digital – an object within an abstract room) – even a person with a strictly limited understanding of art would probably agree that the Charlemagne, the Lewis chessmen or the figures of Hrdlicka are clearly a work of art. But the same is true for the more minimal, clear forms: Be it the Bauhaus-Chess, the german Bundesform, or the Staunton set that eventually became the standard for chess sets. All of those are a expression of ideas, and will evoke thoughts and emotions when being seen or used – why should they be judged in a different manner than other sculptures? They are a form of applied art, and so is every other existing game on the material layer.

When chess (or any other game) is played, the player(s) create a synthesis between the ideal, abstract idea and the material world (often by using the material objects needed to play) – when doing so, they „cast“ the idea into reality and are thus involved at the process of realizing the piece – just as a musician who uses an instrument to play a score. While doing so the result will be influenced by the players emotions, thoughts, and ideals but also re-bounce onto these. The combination of rules, material, and execution will also communicate to and affect a possible audience (and cause excitement, hope, boredom…). The central themes of the game as defined by the core thoughts is interpreted into a individual story that unfolds in the act of playing – this is art, just as two jamming musicians or two debating philosophers produce art (who also use a set of rules – language and logic – to set their ideas and thoughts in competition). It might be interesting to note that while the core idea and the material game can be easily reproduced and thus process no aura as described by Walter Benjamin, this synthesized game experience is always a unique one that can not be reproduced in any way. In lack of a better word I would describe this as art on a process-related layer.

Even if you reject one of these „layers“ – if you reject them all, your argumentation is likely to nuke the case for other forms of art that you – and nearly everybody else – naturally considers as „valid“ forms of art.

But the – in my eyes central – mistake done by both Santiago and Ebert (but especially Ebert) is the assumption that there is a certain quality needed for something to be considered as „art“ and that the term „art“ suggests the appreciation of quality in return. Are modern paintings, jazz, comics, erotic texts and pictures, or terrorist attacks art? All of this (and much more) was discussed in the least 100, 150 years – and if one takes a neutral stance towards it, there is nearly no other option but to confirm that all of this is indeed art. The question if a piece of art is good, and what the qualities of it are is an entirely other one.

A argument that I didn’t directly read but that was indicated by Roger Ebert is the non definite form of video gaming; as the games usually rely on the input of the player, there is no certainly set story or content. The same is – however – surely true for every improvised art or any play that embeds the audience – both things are commonly regarded as art. And even art that is considered „traditional“ is dependent of the recipients interpretation – two people can read the same book, but – depending on their mindset, attention, and comprehension – they might get fully different stories out of it. There are concepts of literature and – in some cases ancient – examples for texts that are – like games – dynamic.

Other arguments that are brought up include that artistic values are not inherent to the game but are brought from the „truly“ artistic elements that are included within a game; accepting this argumentation would also exclude movies and plays that are usually also a amalgam from different artistic elements (mainly story-writing, set building, music and stage play). Also, I would regard any form of art as an attempt to realize thoughts that are existent in an ideal sphere into reality by using the form of art as an medium – this core-idea can never be inherent to some sort of art, but ultimately makes the difference between art and kitsch – if we wouldn’t accept that forms of art need to be fertilized by other forms of art, the only true form of art that could remain would be the abstract idea – but given that nearly no form of art is able to exist in an isolated room, you don’t even need to go along with me so far.

Then there is the comparison of video games to a playground, stating that a playground can not be art – but fail to give any reason for this assumption. Why should a playground be less an work of art than an landscape garden, a building or a painting? Because the target audience are children? If so, what are the implications for the works of Astrid Lindgren or Michael Ende? Would anybody doubt that „Peter and the Wolf“ – a piece made for the musical education of children – is art?

One source cited on the Wikipedia states that games serve a physical need; even if one would accept this, the longing for aesthetic and transcendence was defined by Maslow as inherent to the human condition – if a inherent need would disqualify video games as art, the inherent longing for art/transcendence would according to this logic disqualify art as art. And if Maslow would be wrong and there is no inherent desire for art – why should humans do art at all? Not even talking about the highly subjective distinction between psychology and physics and the rather bolt take to put the need to play on the latter side of the spectrum.

Another point is the market orientation of both big productions and independent games, leading to the production of kitsch. While I agree that market orientation tends to create bad and shallow art, the same is true – again – for music, movies, literature, and visual arts. Also there are countless examples for non commercial games – nearly all of the games reviewed for this blog are. The same is true for the idea that games are mainly programmed to serve the needs of the players that are regarded as customers – this is a problem inherent to capitalism and market orientation, not to video games.

After all, I see hardly room for any valid argument that disregards games as an form of art without colliding with a common understanding of art, even if you don’t share the very broad art definition that I propound. A problem of video gaming that I see is, however, that they are widely presented and perceived as a mere product that serves mainly for simple entertainment – this might be due to their establishment falls mainly into a time were the unrestrained free market was already established as a irrefutable dogma. Video games, and their creation are deeply touched by the neoliberal capitalist utilization logic – even more so than movies, their slightly elder sibling. This might be – beneath conservative bigotry – a reason for some peoples impulse to reject the medium as art. My hope is that – by emphasizing the art aspect – it could be possible to create more awareness for the potentials of the medium, and the problems that are limiting it in the current state. By making ourselves aware that games are not only a simple pastime but a medium that always carries a message and that players are no consumers but participants in an process to create art we might discover and expand unique paths of expressions rather than reproducing proven, accepted, and thus merchantable concepts over and over.

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