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Tag Archives: Art
In the years since I first wrote about Roger Ebert’s disdain for video games, he’s been in the back of my mind each time I’ve picked up a controller. He believed, and argued quite strenuously, that video games could never be art. At the height of the firestorm of controversy he unleashed with this statement, Ebert went so far as to declare that no game could ever achieve the same level of artistic transcendence as the great films and novels and paintings from around the world, all of which stood head and shoulders above such a hopelessly shallow medium.
It’s a ludicrous, haughty, even arrogant proclamation. And yet, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, in the years since his death, I’ve tried to at least understand where Ebert was coming from. He is a giant in the world of criticism and a smart and generally open-minded critic at that, even if he has a particular view of what’s required to create “great art.” That makes his critiques, however frustrating, worth unpacking, even if they’re not necessarily worth accepting.
“Video games can never be art.” – Roger Ebert
I spent a long time trying to figure out how to judge art. I came to the conclusion, admittedly a bit of a cop out, that judging art is an individual, subjective process. Certainly critics, laymen, and others can reach a general consensus about what does or does not qualify as quality, but in the end, each person has to judge for themselves.
That said, Roger Ebert is dead wrong.
It takes a certain amount of bravado, even for a celebrated film critic, to declare that an entire medium can never reach the pinnacle of artistic merit. It’s easy to point to Ebert’s age and believe that he mistakes the old days of fun if story-bare games like Pacman and Donkey Kong for the immersive, in depth, and often narrative world of video games that exists today. But I think that lets Ebert off too easily. At base, anything that tells a story can not only be art; it can be high art, and Ebert ought to know that.
Anything that uses carefully crafted visuals to evoke a particular sense or emotion can be high art. Anything that envelops the audience in a character, in a world, and transposes their experiences into a grand fictional adventure can be high art. In the same way that a great novel crafts a compelling narrative, in the same way that great visual art compels with color and composition, in the same way that a celebrated film brings the viewer into another world, a great video game can reach those same artistic heights. In fact, video games are uniquely positioned to do all three.
Which brings us to Braid, the 2009 game from Jonathan Blow. Blow is the yin to Ebert’s yang, a man who believes wholeheartedly that video games can be art, but who is relentless in his critiques of the industry as it stands today for failing to live up to its potential. Braid is Blow’s biggest salvo in this fight, and his example to the world of what a video game can be.
The Guggenheim, Lee Ufan, and The Question of What Makes Great Art
“Art” is just something different – something hard to characterize or categorize. Even the law makes exceptions for it. Under typical contract law, the parties to the contract can have a “satisfaction clause.” This means that that the performing party has not legally fulfilled their obligation until the other party is satisfied with their work. There’s a catch, though. This “satisfaction” is tested objectively. That is to say, if the average person would be satisfied with the work, then the “satisfaction clause” has been fulfilled. This is true even if the actual person who made the contract is incredibly disappointed with the work performed.
There is, however, one big exception – contracts to create art. When it comes to paintings, portraits, and sculptures, the person who commissioned the work can reject each attempt until they receive something that fits their own personalized expectations. The reasoning behind the exception is that art is something so individual, so specific to the person seeking it, that the law cannot impose the same sort of generalized expectations that govern the typical sort of agreement for goods or services. As recognized even in the legal world, art is something apart.
Which begs the question – how do we reach any sort of consensus as to what makes great art, when art itself is so inherently subjective? From the curator deciding on the next exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the little girl picking out her Lisa Frank pencil box, everyone approaches expressive imagery with their own taste in what they find pleasant, moving, or appealing. In the face of such a wide diversity of not only perspectives on art, but of schools, movements, and varieties of art, how do we decide what deserves uniform praise, and what is merely one man’s preference?