If Shit is Art, then Why Not Games?3
Matt posted in Games on May 22nd, 2008
People who don’t consider video games art should ask themselves this question. Now, certainly there is a lot of bad art out there, but this question is meant to be taken literally. People have created art that is nothing more than feces. No, I’m not talking about Chris Ofili’s controversial The Holy Virgin Mary, which was decorated with elephant dung. I’m talking about works of art that are just plain shit. Have you heard of Piero Manzoni’s merda d’artista? It’s literally cans of his excrement. Now, while some may argue that his poop isn’t art, Manzoni’s defecation is more precious than gold to at least some art collectors since the Tate Gallery spent more on his poop than if they were to buy the same amount of 24 karat gold. The Pompidou Museum in Paris as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York both paid money for Manzoni’s crap. To think – they could get the same thing from their toilets for free!
Perhaps you think there’s something special about Manzoni’s number two? Tom Friedman’s Feces on a Cube is 0.5mm of his bowel movement resting on a cube shaped pedestal. That was owned by one of the world’s most famous art collectors, Charles Saatchi. Although many people may not consider these waste products art, numerous people who are considered authorities on art do consider doo doo art. If poo can be art, what is the REAL definition of art?
Defining a word can be a difficult task, so I turned to the dictionary. A quick search on dictionary.com yields 23 results from various sources. Interestingly, most of the definitions dwell on the aspect of beauty. Here’s the first definition:
the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
I don’t think shit counts as something beautiful or appealing (at least not in our culture), so in order for this definition to work, the doody would have to be of more than ordinary significance. That’s a debate in and of itself, so let’s find a more suitable definition.
The first definition I found that I think fits fecal art is in the Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary. The definition that works well is “any of various creative forms of expression”. Now, whether you like the works of art created from waste products or not, they are intended to express something creatively. In speaking about the art their bowels produced, both were able to cogently explain what they were trying to express. Manzoni was trying to make a statement about how gullible art collectors are, since they would buy his droppings. He wrote:
“I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their shit in tins. If collectors really want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit. That is really his.”
Soon after completing his work of art, he told a friend, “I hope these cans explode in the vitrines of the collectors.”
It’s pretty clear he was trying to express his contempt to the art world by passing off something of no intrinsic artistic worth as art. This has caused his defecation to undergo a Warhol-esque transformation becoming the very thing it is meant to mock. Since Ebert mentions that Andy Warhol’s rendering of a Campbell Soup label is art, I don’t think he’d have too much of a problem accepting merda d’artista.
Similarly, Friedman was trying to express something with Feces on a Cube. He said,
“I wanted to find a material that you could present the smallest amount of and it would have the most impact.. I was really interested in minimalism then and with minimalism there’s this sense of purity, of clean forms and geometry. I really liked the juxtaposition. The cube is logical and clean. The feces is regressive and insane.”
I think that’s a creative way to express the dichotomy of order and chaos that we often face in life. Perhaps if you don’t have that dichotomy, you should try developing a game.
So although one can argue the contrary, it’s commonly accepted that these pieces of shit are art, so why not games? Games certainly meet the definition that best suits modern art. Games are a form of creative expression. Not all games attempt to express emotion, but not all films do either. Roger Ebert famously decried games as unworthy of being considered art. Ebert quotes Pauline Kael in his rebuttal to Clive Barker: “The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go.” It seems that Ebert recognizes that movies are art – it’s just many of them are no good. I would argue the same for games. If I judged the entire medium of film based on the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 4″, then perhaps I would come to a different conclusion about the validity of artistic expression through film than if I judged it based on “The Godfather”.
I don’t expect that Ebert will read this because I don’t think he’s interested in exploring the possibility that games are a new form of art, but assuming I had the opportunity, I’d like to ask him on what games he is judging the artistic merit of the entire medium. Because just like for every movie similar to “No Country for Old Men” that came out last year, there were 100 movies like “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets”. It’s the same way with video games. For every game that really pushes the medium forward artistically like “Bioshock” or “Ico”, there are 100 games like “Donkey Kong Barrel Blast”. Now, I’m not saying “National Treasure 2″ is a bad movie. I enjoyed the first one. It was really funny (although I’m not sure it was supposed to be). I’m going to see the second, but I know it is not good art. Does its existence devalue film as a medium? No. Does a kid drawing a stick figure in crayon devalue the visual arts? No. Just because you can use an artistic medium to create bad art doesn’t mean that the medium cannot be used to create great art. So, I’d really like to know what games Ebert or anyone who claims games aren’t art are basing their claims on. If they haven’t actually been playing any games or just a poor representation of them, then their opinions are meaningless.
It’s so obvious that games are art to me that I didn’t bother to write this earlier because I assumed most people felt the same way I did. With comments like Ebert’s, it’s becoming increasingly clear that isn’t the case. I read an article on gamasutra saying that arguing if we are art or not isn’t going to help us advance the medium. The author may be right. Perhaps we won’t win over Ebert, and perhaps our well thought out explanations won’t get us in the Louvre – but I’d like to try. I’d like to try with my words as well as with my work. I don’t think “Secret Agent Clank” is going to impress detractors of the medium with its artistic value, but I do hope to make games one day that push the medium forward artistically. Until then, I will argue vehemently with anyone who tries to argue the artistic value of the medium.
Now, if those who don’t think video games are art aren’t willing to try them, then let me try to argue a different way. Perhaps they could look at the credits of a video game. With current next gen titles, most of the people credited have the title “artist”. Artists create art, right? I was under that impression. So you have a team of up to 100 artists, many of which are amazingly talented and teach art or have fine art shows in their spare time, working very hard to create something which is ultimately NOT art?
Video games often contain cutscenes that are essentially films. Video game developers can use all the techniques available to filmmakers to transform a sequence of pictures into artistic expression – chiaroscuro lighting, Dutch camera angles, rack focuses, etc. So, one could recognize the cutscenes as art, but dismiss the work as a whole? That seems very inconsistent. Perhaps one could argue that a Mona Lisa on a Jigsaw puzzle wouldn’t make the actual puzzle art, but I think that’s a poor analogy. In the example I’ve given, the art isn’t an integral part of the game. That’s not the case with cutscenes (at least in most games).
Now, one thing Ebert said that was interesting was, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.” So he is debating that interactivity and the shared authorship that video games provide prevent it from being artistic expression. I would challenge him to go to a modern art museum. Plenty of modern artists have embraced interactivity in pieces displayed at numerous art museums. In fact, there is even an award presented by the Prix Ars Electronica in the category of interactive art. There have been many interactive works of art that have won awards such as Park View Hotel and n-Cha(n)t. These exhibits require input to experience the art. Fundamentally, the audience changes the work of art based on their inputs – the same as any video game. Does that prevent these interactive works from being art? I would argue no. Just like how movies are the best medium to express certain things, and books are better at expressing others, so too are interactive mediums
I think Ebert’s assertions about interactivity come from a lack of understanding about what video games are. Shared authorship is something that video game developers talk about – how can they give enough control to the player, so they can feel like they are part of the experience, but what’s on the disc is on the disc. That’s the work of art the game developers created. In that sense, it’s no more changed than a book’s words when someone imagines it differently than the author.
In my mind, it’s similar to a play. A play has shared authorship with the director and actors involved, but that doesn’t take away from the artistic value of the script that an author has written. People often re-imagine plays in different settings or put their own touch on them. That doesn’t steal the artistic worth of the author’s original work. I feel it’s a better way to experience the art. Why settle to view art from a distance when you can interact with it and truly experience it? People sometimes make changes to plays as well for various reasons. Does that take away from the original work? In high school, I was in a production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”. We changed some of the dirty jokes to make them more suitable for a conservative high school audience. Did that ruin Kaufman and Hart’s work of art? I sincerely doubt it. Did my performance? Well, maybe that did…
In the end, Ebert can debate whether a can of shit is art all he wants, but there are art critics with PhDs and years of study that will disagree with him and argue the point until they are blue in the face. Unfortunately, the video game medium hasn’t been along for long enough to have respected scholars studying it as an art form. As the Nintendo generation grows up, it will.