“Video games will never be art” (Ebert, 2010). When famous movie critic Roger Ebert originally made this statement on his blog back in April of 2010 it caused a huge uproar and more importantly started a very philosophical debate about the subject at hand. He received over 4,000 comments on his posting, mostly negative, and as a result of the backlash he rewrote the blog to better defend his position. But why was there such a backlash about his comment to begin with?
There are various reasons why Ebert’s statements caused such an outcry. First and foremost Roger Ebert, though a prestigious and world renowned movie reviewer, has never played a video game. The simple fact that his argument came from an ignorant point of view doomed his argument from the start. Would it be fair for someone to say that Picasso was a poor painter without ever having looked at any of his art work? The answer is obvious but it serves to provide an example for the reader to relate to.
However, there is another much more important matter that is presented by Ebert. Are video games art? Even though he may not be qualified to make that decision it opens up the debate for those who are familiar with video games to make arguments both for and against it. That being said there are many factors to consider.
During our time in Art History II we have studied and viewed various movements and eras in the history of art. If there is one thing that we need to take away from this class it is simply that art will always be taking new forms and be expressed in different ways. Historically it was not uncommon for one art style to dominate an entire period. Examples include the Gothic style, The Baroque style, and the Rococo style.
As we progressed through the years we find more and more art forms coexisting and new styles emerging much more often. More recent examples of art styles include Surrealism, Expressionism, and Pop Art. All of these styles were once considered new and unusual before becoming accepted styles. Given this information we can now begin to look at video games as a potential art form.
We need to start out with what may be the simplest yet most difficult question to answer. What is art? Defining art is perhaps the most important and difficult aspect of this argument. As we have seen throughout our journey in Art History II art can take on many forms and shapes and will continue to evolve.
There are many different definitions for art that can be found. Dictionary.com defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance” (2010). Princeton University defines art simply as “the creation of beautiful or significant things” (2010). Both of these definitions are rather plain and give us no real specific answer as to the question of what is art. Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of art, and therefore most useful for this argument, comes from philosopher Berys Gaut:
"the presence of which ordinary judgment counts toward something's being a work of art, and the absence of which counts against its being art: (1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant… ; (2) being expressive of emotion; (3) being intellectually challenging…; (4) being formally complex and coherent; (5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings; (6) exhibiting an individual point of view; (7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original); (8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill; (9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.); and (10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art" (2010).
Gaut asserts that not all parts of the definition need to be met for a subject to be considered art but rather that a large number of criteria are met. It should also be noted for the purpose of this paper that film and music are both included in Gaut’s definition of an established artistic form. Therefore we already see that Gaut has set forth examples of art forms that don’t simply revolve around painting or sculpture.
Perhaps the simplest way to see if video games fit into the description of art would be to pick a particular game and see how it fits the description as set forth by Gaut. Grant Tavinor author of the book The Art of Videogames does just that. In his example he uses a video game called Bioshock. The basic premise behind the game is that it takes place in the 1950’s and after surviving a plane crash you discover an underwater city called Rapture. The game has beautiful scenery and is done in an art deco style. The story involves you emotionally as you have to decide the fate of some of those you encounter while trying to discover the mystery surrounding the city itself.
Tavinor explains that from his perspective Bioshock fits nine out of the ten criteria as set forth by Gaut in his definition of art. The only criterion it does not meet is that it does not belong to an established art form. Should Bioshock not be considered art simply because it is not already considered an art form? That seems like a silly approach to take and when all is said and done Bioshock certainly does fit the definition of art.
Another great example in regards to recent video game is one titled Red Dead Redemption (RDR). The setting for RDR is the western United States and Mexico during the early 1900’s. Much like Bioshock the world of RDR is rendered beautifully though in RDR it is geared more towards a realistic setting. There are breathtaking vistas to be seen throughout the wild west along with some truly wonderful sunsets and night skies
In this game you are John Marsten and have been blackmailed by the United States Marshall’s Service to kill your old gang partners. As you progress you unravel more of the back story and really grow an emotional attachment to Mr. Marsten. Of course there are plenty of other things to do in the game world besides taking down the bad guys. It doesn’t shame me to say that several hours of my time in the game have been spent picking flowers. Just like Bioshock this game meets nine out of ten of Gaut’s criteria for art.
Perhaps an even more apt example for video games as art involves a game titled Assassin’s Creed II. The story in simple terms is that you play most of the game as an assassin in renaissance Italy. Walking around the unbelievably beautiful cities in Italy feels like taking a trip back in time. Part of the game involves updating your manor with beautiful pictures of the time including Ideal City by Piero Della Francesca and Battista and Federico by Battista Sforza among many others.
This leads me to my next proposition. If a print or copy of a famous work such as Ideal City is considered art then could we not also consider an exact digital copy in a game to be art also? When you look at the comparison there is no doubt that it takes much more time and skill to create a digital copy than to simply create a print.
Of course some would argue that even if you accept video games as art not all games should qualify. Should pong be considered a work of art? Many people who do think video games are art, including Grant Tavinor, would not consider pong art. If we do accept video games as art then couldn’t we just consider games such as pong to be poor art? In the accepted world of art there are plenty of examples of works that are debatable as to whether or not they fit in as art.
There are many forms of questionable art that we accept in today’s world. A New York artist names Justin Gignac actually sells garbage from the streets of New York City as art. To some people items such as this are considered art. As one commenter noted about his trash in a cube; “I bought one of these cubes… It gives the trash an air of curiosity and excitment.” Another one of his works was an exhibit titled Blindfolded Holiday Gift Wrapping. It consisted of artists who would gift wrap your presents while blindfolded.
People are not the only artists out there that straddle the line between what is art and what isn’t. In England the artists Van Snout and Bottabelli create and sell paintings for charity. What makes these artists special is that they are two miniature pigs. There artwork sells for about twenty five dollars apiece and resembles something similar to a Jackson Pollock painting, which in itself is interesting.
There are also current accepted art forms that were not always well received. Photography is a rather new invention that has only really been viewed as an art form for perhaps a hundred years or so. That is despite the fact that “modern” cameras have existed since the early 1800’s. Movies are another form of modern art that was once viewed simply as a novelty. Despite the slow start of motion pictures we now have dozens of different awards shows and thousands of critics that are geared solely to the art of film. Sure there are plenty of bad movies out there but that should not be held against film as it is still an art form.
There are countless other stories out there of strange artists doing strange things including music albums that are nothing but silence. What does this tell us about how we view art? Simply that all art is subjective. What one person may see as trash another person may see as a beautiful expression of our world. Even if people do not view video games as beautiful it is important to accept that they are beautiful and emotional to many people.
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