Video games as an art form - Thoughts on a recurring debate and the elusive nature of art
As a game scholar and as a gamer, sooner or later one comes upon an uncomfortable question: are video games art? As video games started gaining popularity, they have become the center of a polarized debate focused on this enquiry.
I could try to dissect the arguments of Kellee Santiago, Hideo Kojima, Michael Samyn, Celia Pearce, Roger Ebert, Bryan Moriarty, Diana Poulsen, Grant Tavinor or any of the several others who argued for or against the status of the video game as an art form, and then proceed to express my own opinion on the matter; but (1) why should anyone care about my opinion and (2) even if someone did, it would only add to the confusion. After all, that is exactly what everyone has been doing, either adding their own definition of art, picking one of the many available that suited their needs, or just avoiding to offer one altogether by tacitly resorting to their authority in the field and then proceeding to examine one or more video games in the light of their personal view. And even though the odds appear to be in favor of a 'yes' to video games as an art form, no one seems to have provided a substantial answer.
This has happened before with many other media and even techniques or styles within a medium. Similar debates have been held, for example, about photography, film and video. 1 Although their artistic potential was initially denied, with time new discourses have emerged that now include these media within the artistic landscape and their former outcast status has become an anecdote for the history books. Given the general lack of prudence with which generations of art experts have ignored or plainly rejected the new media of their time, one could be tempted to jump to the conclusion that the same case applies to video games. But this alone does not suffice in order to start playing Pac-Man at every contemporary art museum. 2 In any case, the purpose of this text is not to argue for the status of the video game as an art form, but to address the question that this incapacity to arrive at a mutual understanding actually poses: what is art in the first place?
If we had a consensual definition the discussion would be already over, but the obscurity of the term renders any debate around it pointless. This is mainly evidenced in the aforementioned pattern: over the decades, specialists have consistently failed to determine if they were in the presence of an art form or not every time a new medium has emerged; and not because their analyses remained inconclusive, but because they were convinced that they had arrived at a definitive negative answer. Hardly would anyone hesitate nowadays to include film, photography or video within the range of accepted art forms. The fact that art historians, aestheticians, curators and critics felt authorized to make declarations against the potential of those media to be art forms should at least make us wonder about the workings of the field.
In the end, the question about the nature of art remains mostly hidden behind a smoke screen of arguments about specific media and their uses. Something appears to make us refrain from asking what art is, as if, by doing it, one would be embarrassingly exposing their own ignorance. Or maybe we just assume that we know what it is because we believe to have experienced it – let us call this the subjective approach. But this would imply that art is some kind of revealed truth, an extremely problematic notion that serves more personal interests than serious academic discussions. Alternatively, some give the impression to be contented by circular answers: art is what you find in the art world – museums, galleries, biennales, etc. – art is what artists do, and artists are those who exhibit their work in the art world – let us label this the circumstantial approach. These ways of thinking are fallacious and hinder any real progress towards a useful definition of art.
The Search for Life and the Search for Art
Allow me to compare art to life as an object of study. Biology studies life, but there is no ultimately satisfying definition of it. Nevertheless, biology studies the observable traits of life and possesses a descriptive understanding 3 of it. Following this logic, one could argue that art historians, aestheticians, curators and critics have paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos and countless other objects to study. These objects are the observable traits of art and studying them ultimately means studying art. But this assertion would be false: there certainly are rich and illuminating analyses of all of these objects, but labeling them as art is something else entirely. Even though a comprehensive definition of life is still lacking, the evidence for living organisms is overwhelming. We also know that there is painting, photography, sculpture, video and many other media. But the problem is that it is not on the grounds of evidence that specialists determine if a medium is an art form or not.
Additionally, the current understanding of life lets scientists state what life is not. We know fire, rocks, tables and cars are not life. The limits of what life is and what is not are well enough defined that you will most surely not find a reasonable biologist doing research on lamps. But it is not at all clear what the limits of art are. Most art theorists can agree upon that art must be a human, cultural product and everything that does not meet that requirement cannot be art. But within the vast variety of objects that fit into this category, the limits of what is art and what is not are ill-defined. Is a bed art? Is an action art? Is an idea art? To all of these questions the answer appears to be yes and no. Not every bed is art, as well as not every painting is art. But some are 4. In this sense, almost every human-made thing – even the very action of making it – has the potential to be art. But how do we notice the difference between an artistic bed and a normal one? Is there a method to find out?
The answer to these questions is most commonly an argument from authority: a curator or art historian or critic considered a particular work art, so he or she puts it in a museum or gallery or includes it in a book conceding it the status ex cathedra. Granted, the arguments have to be compelling enough to convince at least some colleagues in order not to become a laughingstock. But, while the methods of biology are available to anyone (as exemplified here 5 and here) 6 the authority in the study of art seems to be restricted to the exceptional subjectivities that guard the gates to the art world. That is the problem with the subjective approach: There is not even a descriptive understanding of art at hand, yet some people seem to know quite precisely what art is and what is not.
Furthermore, the understanding of life does not limit itself to life as we know it, but it necessarily has to remain open in order to include potential forms of life that remain unknown to us. After all, we only have one sample of life (as it is on earth) and it would be impossible to find extraterrestrial life if we constrained our understanding to the forms with which we are familiar. Even if we had two or more samples of life, the definition would still remain open, because we simply do not know how many other samples are there to be found. This is certainly not the case with art, since, to many, the comparison of a new medium or technique to currently accepted art forms (the available samples) seems to be a completely acceptable way of making their point – either for or against the medium or technique in question. That is the main problem with the circumstantial approach. It favors conservative views because it gives scholars a very limited set of tools which are constrained to the contingency. Then scholars, critics, and specialists of all kinds either try to fit the new object into existing theoretical frameworks – tailored for other media – or simply disregard it because it does not fit the established conceptions. 7
These two approaches (the subjective and the circumstantial) are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, work at their best when combined: art is a subjective experience and I have the authority to determine what is art and what not because I studied art history/critique/in an art school and work at/for a/an museum/art publication/university.
Conclusion: A world without (the word) 'art'
Do not get me wrong, I do not mean to question the expertise and formation of any authorities inside of the art world, but I do want to question the idea of art, as I believe they are inclined to do as well. All things considered, if the pattern mentioned at the beginning of this text indicates something, it is just a matter of time until video games become an undisputed part of the art world.
Nevertheless, that would not solve the real problem. Say the video game is unanimously accepted as an art form. Someday, a new medium or technique will emerge, claim its artistic status, and we will have to witness the same unnecessary debate all over again. Which leads me to my last question: why do we keep using the term ‘art’? It is curious that we hold on to such a problematic word and even engage in vehement discussions around it.
Let us imagine for a moment a society that does not have the word ‘art’ or any equivalent. This society still has painting, sculpture, comic books, video games, installations, video, film, music and so on. It also has institutions destined to preserve and exhibit works created with these media. It has critics and scholars who study their formal characteristics and frame them in the social context in which they emerged. However, instead of labeling a select number of works as art, it just defines these works in a descriptive way and people discuss ideas and emotions conveyed to each of them by those works. I do not see how they would be missing out on any information about the world. They would probably just lack a dubious title of nobility.
I am not proposing the suppression of the word ‘art’, but I do believe that we should put it under the microscope and reconsider how it is shaping our culture. Asking if we need such a word is a part of this process, because otherwise we are engaging with the problem the wrong way around by giving the use of the term for granted and trying to fill it with a definition. And, bearing in mind that one of the primary functions of the art world is to preserve valuable cultural products, this is not just a theoretical issue. The process through which we select and categorize these objects is highly influenced by this ambiguous concept.
Steven Pinker wrote in his essay “Science is not your enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” that
“[a]rt, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections?” 8
I believe that the art world should be curious. Art historians, aestheticians, curators and critics should in fact be eager to get acquainted with the scientific discoveries regarding cognition, perception and emotion. The impact in aesthetics and cultural studies from a consilience with science could be unprecedented and we could reach a much clearer understanding of what we call art.
However we obtain it, until we possess that understanding the term will remain vague and I will refrain from participating in discussions like the one that motivated this text. I will simply enjoy and analyze painting as painting, film as film, photography as photography, and video games as video games.
Literature and Media
Hitt, Jack: Guess what's cooking in the garage. The next big breakthrough in synthetic biology just might come from an amateur scientist. In: Popular Science.com. 31.05.2012. <http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-05/guess-whats-cooking-garage> [10.05.2012]
Martin, Brett: Should Videogames be Viewed as Art? In: Clarke, A.; Mitchell, G. (Hg.): Videogames and Art. Bristol, UK; intellect 2007. S.201-210.
Kracauer, Siegfried: A Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York; Oxford University Press 1960.
McKay, Chris P: What Is Life—and How Do We Search for It in Other Worlds? in: PLoS Biol 2(9): e302. 2004. <http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0020302> [10.03.2016].
Pinker, Steven: Science Is Not Your Enemy. An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians. New Republic. 7.8.2013. <https://newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities> [10.03.2016].
Reyburn, Scott: Tracey Emin’s Bed Sells for Record $778,900 in London. Bloomberg.com 18.10.2013. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-10-17/tracey-emin-s-bed-sells-for-record-778-900-in-london> [10.03.2016].
Winston, Joel: Amateur scientists build Lego-style synthetic BioBricks in public lab. Wired.co.uk. 24.09.2012. <http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-09/24/synthetic-biology> [10.03.2016].
- Brett Martin mentioned in his essay Should Video Games be Art? published in the book Video Games and Art (2007) two specific examples related to photography and video: the case of Rejlander’s photomontage The Ways of Life and Nam June Paik’s works with video. A good example of the discussion on film as art is found in Siegfried Kracauer’s book Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960).
- It is in fact possible to play video games in some institutions. The ZKM in Karlsruhe now hosts the exhibition ZKM_Gameplay which includes classic Atari and Nintendo games as well as more recent PS3 and Xbox 360 titles. The Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted in 2012 the exhibition The Art of Video Games which featured 80 titles ranging from Combat (1977) to Little Big Planet 2 (2011). The MoMA has added 14 video games in 2012 to their Applied Design exhibition.
- McKay: What Is Life. 2004.
- Reyburn: Tracey Emin’s Bed Sells for Record $778,900 in London. 2013. [10.03.2016]
- Winston: Amateur scientists build Lego-style synthetic BioBricks in public lab . 2012. <http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-09/24/synthetic-biology> [10.03.2016]
- Hitt: Guess what's cooking in the garage. 2012. <http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-05/guess-whats-cooking-garage> [10.05.2012]
- This is probably the reason why the first academics to study video games, like Janet Murray or Brenda Laurel, approached the medium as a storytelling device and tended to overlook its interactive nature.
- Pinker: Science Is Not Your Enemy. 2013. <https://newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities> [10.03.2016].