Are Videogames Art? I Couldn’t Care Less

Originally published 26th August, 2009 @ http://voorface.posterous.com/2618370

Videogames are outselling movies and have been for a while. With Nintendo’s marketing of the Wii and the DS, videogames are now considered, despite spurious controversies over violence, a universal form of entertainment. Now that videogames are more popular and more lucrative than their entertainment competitors, there is even more demand for videogames to be thought of – like film, painting, sculpture, music – as Art.

Why do gamers want videogames to be called Art? Videogames as we understand them today are around 40 years old. Films are over a hundred. Art was invented in the 18th century. If we look at the timeline of film, we can see that it went from a novelty, to crass entertainment, to being explored as a form of Art in no time at all. It is cinema history that people have in mind when they talk about videogames as Art. Music doesn’t have the same trajectory. It starts being considered as Art at the invention of Art. This music is classical music. Folk music doesn’t count because it is the music of the lower classes. Pop and jazz had the same position in the 20th century. Too popular, too poor; not Art. We now consider pop music and jazz to be Art. Well, some of it. The Beatles are called Art, Miles Davis is called Art. Is Britney Spears Art? No, probably not. Not unless an artist uses her image to make Art, like Andy Warhol did to Marilyn Monroe. This has already happened to videogames in the art world, where videogames are used as a medium by people like Cory Arcangel, so aren’t videogames already Art? No. The definition of Art is what ever the artist calls Art equals Art. This is not a new idea. In fact, it is older than videogames. What gamers want is Citizen Kane. They want popular prestige. They have a romantic view of Art that is stuck in the 19th century. Art as a higher calling. Art as the fullest expression of life. They want videogames to be entered into the pantheon.

But why do they want this? If they really knew what Art was, would they want videogames to be Art? Do they want the inflated prices and exclusivity of the Art market? I doubt it. They think that Art doesn’t have to be about that, that it’s not just about the market. They’re wrong. Art is inseparable from the market because it was created for the market. Before the invention of Art, the cultural activities that are now associated with it – painting, sculpture etc – were not considered separate from what is now called “crafts”; pottery, embroidery etc. The creation of Art made painting and sculpture special. Objects made more valuable merely because they were created by a “genius”. A replacement of religion reserved for the ruling classes. Art still, give or take, occupies that position today. Despite many museums and galleries being free and open to the public, the attendence is still predominantly middle class. The only people who can afford to buy Art are rich.

Even though videogames and the computers that play them are expensive, they are no where near as expensive as works of Art. Again we see the affinity with film. Hollywood blockbusters cost obscene amounts of money and the big videogame developers are catching them up in terms of budget, but the end product is (while being overpriced) affordable*. Although videogames have become more populist since the Wii, it is still a mostly middle class world. Indie games, by being cheaper or even free, broaden things, but of course are still limited to the most privileged group of the world; those than can afford computers.

There are some ways that the Art world is similar to the videogame industry. Both are largely misunderstood by the general public and both have been the subject of tabloid trolling. Unlike Hollywood, the Art and videogame businesses have been – and still sometimes are – incorrectly described as “recession-proof”.

Despite this, the videogame industry is in much the same position as the film industry. High profile films and games are expensive to make and are easily pirated. There are games that are as formulaic and trite as any Hollywood blockbuster and there are games as self indulgent and obtuse as any arty flick.

Being in an industry similar in structure to the movie industry, gamers feel that videogames should be treated with the same respect that “classic” films are. This is what they mean by “art”. They are using the term “art” to loosely refer to artistic practices, as in the old, pre-capitalist sense of the word, but they’re keeping the silly ideas about importance, prestige and genius that exist in the modern definition of Art. The problem is the concept of genius is as stupid as the concept of Art as a higher calling. Gamers should avoid making the mistakes of aficionados of other media, pushing pop music/jazz/film/etc into “art” and finding it an empty room.

Look at comics. In the past, comics were demonised in the exact same way as videogames are now. Called juvenile, a waste of time and potential and accused of corrupting people the ruling classes consider inferior like the working class or children. In the 80’s a number of comic artists wanted to change that reputation. The comic that represents that effort is Watchmen. This comic was an attempt to make people realize that comics can be “art” and “art” in this instance means “Citizen Kane”. It wanted to show that comics aren’t limited to being only about “kid’s stuff”. What it spawned was less sophisticated. Instead of making people open to the idea that comics can be limitless in their potential for expression, it ended up being the daddy to a load of copycats, each more goonishly “grim” and “dark” than the last.

It’s obvious that gamers don’t mean “Art” when they say they want videogames to be treated as Art. But the other, wishy-washy definition is no better. Thankfully, videogames will never be Art. They’re just too popular. I don’t doubt that videogames will continue to be used as media in Art works, but just as comics are not Art, just as anything that is not called Art by an artist is not Art, so videogames will remain not-Art.

Videogames reaching for the Serious Business prestige of Citizen Kane is more worrying. Have you seen that film? Did you think it was that great? Did you wonder why it is constantly described by such a large amount of people as “the best film of all time”? The reason it has so much prestige is because it was crowned king and the king is unquestionable. Needless to say, this kind of attitude does not encourage creativity. The canon selection is arbitrary and not a good judge of quality. Surely F For Fake is a better film than Citizen Kane? But that’s the point. With canons, it is not up for discussion. The winners are decided from on high by our cultural leaders and we must accept their superiority. The prestige that gamers want for videogames comes with this stifling attitude. Better let the canonisers believe that videogames are beneath them and leave the rest of us to enjoy their creativity and potential.

Originally published 26th August, 2009 @ http://voorface.posterous.com/2618370

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3 thoughts on “Are Videogames Art? I Couldn’t Care Less

  1. Videogames should be taken as a certain art form because it does require an artist skill to create a visually pleasing world and level to captivate the player and have them feel like they just escaped to a different realm. The videogame industry also has inflated pricing for rarity and highly sought after games like art (same way when it might not be even good fine art, personal opinion obv.). A movie can take you to a different place and be beautiful, have an amazing soundtrack, also have a character in the film that can speak to you depending how they are portrayed… videogames can and do have that same effect and last just as long or even more so (60+ hours of gameplay). Just because there are a few crass, immature titles out there, it shouldn’t speak for the majority. It is all personal opinion and taste, but I do know that I definitely have to respect someone as an artist when they create a world that you can get lost in because it’s beauty.

    …Not easy to accomplish that at all.
    I also believe anything which requires creativity and art skill should never be commented as “…this kind of attitude does not encourage creativity.” when it requires someone that has to have an art background to create anything visual. Why can’t it be art? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone is an art critic… no one is wrong if that’s what they like. Great post and good read!

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I don’t deny that videogames are “a certain art form” or that it takes artistic skill to make them. Not at all. The point I was trying to make is that when people have to ask if something is art, then they mean the Western concept of art created during the Enlightenment. I capitalised the word “Art” when I was referring to this definition for clarity. The point is that upper case “a” Art isn’t about artisan skills or talent or whatever, it’s mainly about money. That’s not to say that nothing good can come out of the Art world, but I think it’s incorrect for people to think an entire medium like videogames can (or should) “graduate” into the world of Art. The discussion about whether videogames were Art or not was based on an incorrect and outdated idea of Art. I’m not saying videogames should be excluded from Art because I think they’re unworthy (I don’t), I’m saying that because Art is only what an artist calls Art then it doesn’t make sense to call an entire medium “Art”.

    When I said “…this kind of attitude does not encourage creativity.” I was referring to the unquestioning veneration of “classics” like Citizen Kane.

    I don’t think that someone needs to have training in art or be knowledgeable about art to create something visual.

    Perhaps I should clarify; I like videogames. A lot. That’s why I wrote this post, to stop people getting mystical about some holy grail of acceptance and also to understand what the word Art came to mean after the 18th century. A videogame can be Art; if an artist calls it Art. That’s all it takes. Nothing special. But videogames as a whole are a medium, not a piece of work.

    I think it’s probably obvious that I disagree with you when you say “no one is wrong if that’s what they like”.

    Thanks again for the comment. I’m surprised you found this place so quickly!

  3. I understand it all better with what you said now. It just came across as the famous videogames are no good argument for a quick second there hehe. I do agree on the Art (Capital A) comment you said, it really does have to go more with sustaining a medium and not necessarily a labor of love… most the time at least. Agree to disagree is what makes this world great! Nothing wrong with that.
    Hehe just looking for more intelligent videogame fans out there and found your blog!

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