Zoilus by Carl Wilson

To be of use

April 21st, 2010

The dust-up on Roger Ebert’s site about his statement that “video games can never be art” is bizarre - you really wonder why Ebert was driven to go out, blind, on this particular limb. (My favourite riposte so far came from Michael Kupperman on Twitter: ” ‘Art will never be art’ - a caveman.”) This is a topic that’s come up on Zoilus before, less as a “whether” than a “when” (though I managed to betray some of my own ignorance at the time).

But what’s intriguing about it is that Ebert, though he’s not consistent or clear about it, is making his argument, unattributed, via Kant: Anything that has an instrumental purpose - a use-value - isn’t art. It may convey beauty but it lacks the basic character of aesthetic autonomy. So a quilt isn’t art if it’s placed on a bed and a vase isn’t art if it contains anything, etc.

All this of course depends on the proposition that nothing can be at once art and not-art, in different contexts or even simultaneously. (Then again, lots of Kantian aesthetic propositions, as I discuss in my book, rest on taking things for granted that ain’t necessarily so.)

Yet the “use” that Ebert’s claiming disqualifies video games is simply the fact that you can score points and “win,” even though this fact’s largely internal to the video game’s own logic and isn’t exactly a real-world “use.” Easy to imagine an interactive art installation that you could “win” that foregrounded the absurdity of that win to any relevant definition of gain or advantage. But in any case what if you just took the scoring away? That (as some of Ebert’s commentators note) is what some experimental/indie/avant-etc game designers have already done, while others are using the scoring systems as creative elements in themselves.

In that case, though, all you need is a hypothetical: Would you’d play the game whether or not it had a scoring system? Then it’s still art even if it has a scoring system. Thus a scoring system isn’t determinant to being or not being art. (And when you think about it, that’s a lucky thing for galleries, reviewers, collectors, etc!)

Which brings us back to the modern definition of art that comes down to us from Marcel Duchamp on: It’s art if the artist says it is. (Maybe even if anyone else says it is.) It’s the enunciating act that provokes the whole apparatus of art into motion.

Whether it’s good art, the other question that Ebert seems to want to ask - he keeps confusing classification and quality - is up to everybody else. Including, sure, Roger Ebert, even if his calls are less perceptive in this arena than he usually is. Thing is, something’s compelling him to make them. And that may be the best defense of game-as-art of all.

TL;DR? Okay, two-word alternate clincher: Katamari Damacy.

Monday, Apr. 26: A significant footnote!

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  2. Richard says:

    Alas, from the title you had me hoping this was a post about Bill Callahan.

    As to the topic at hand, I think Ebert is right that video games are not art, but I wasn’t happy with the “utility” aspect of the argument. That “art will never be art” remark is missing it, too, I think. Cave paintings were already art. It’s not a question of development, or of when. It’s a category error. The comparison to other games is more apt. And I certainly don’t think something’s art just because the maker says it is. What gets me is why this matters to the gamers (as Ebert wonders too in his post). Why do they care so much?

  3. Justin says:

    Ugh, that “utility negates the artistic quality” is such an ancient colonial attitude when it comes to art, as it single-handedly delegitimizes huge sections of the art pieces, mostly from indigenous and non-european cultures. Many art objects within those cultures are considered to be art precisely because of their utility, as their functionality was often traditional, ritualistic or customary in nature.

    This is like, day one post-modern/post-colonial art history/theory here. And it’s also at least 40 years old. Ebert is a good film reviewer or whatever, and it’s understandable that he wouldn’t know any more about the latest theories and ideas than the average lay person, but the average lay person also doesn’t shoot their mouth off about shit they don’t know when they have an audience of thousands and their words are being recorded and analyzed.

  4. Justin says:

    Furthermore, anybody who’s been to a contemporary gallery since, oh, the 1980s has for sure witnessed an “interactive” installation. Are these pieces, therefore, not art because of their utility?

    Bottom line is there is no thing that can be defined as not art because the definition of what art is is too ethereal, subjective and dynamic.

    It’s a frustrating and useless venture, and is ultimately pointless because it’s so dumb and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

  5. Bob says:

    Even blind out on a limb, Ebert shows he’s to be reckoned with. He’s jus’ having fun with y’all (and getting blog hits).

    And Justin, three things. 1: Just because something is interactive doesn’t mean it’s useful. B: One needn’t know “the latest theories and ideas” to have an interesting opinion. III: Much love, friend!

  6. Owen says:

    Just as a side note in Ebert’s defence, certain game developers share this exact same Kantian notion, specifically Hideo Kojima, creator of the vastly popular Metal Gear series. But both Ebert and Kojima are wrong.

    Video games certainly require the devotion of more manpower to its functional aspects, than say, the mastering of a record or the printing of a book. I can’t even count the number of times a lofty game concept has been marred by a poor frame-rate or fiddly interface. But even in its primitive stages, video games are art. Ms. Pac-Man is art, Galaga is art. Ebert says that video games don’t have their Ulysses, and he’s wrong, they have Nethack and Ancient Domains Of Mystery.

    The fact that video games rely on scores and repetitive play only indicate the comparative deficiencies of books and movies, the conclusions of which remain unchanging and inert.

  7. Richard says:

    “The fact that video games rely on scores and repetitive play only indicate the comparative deficiencies of books and movies, the conclusions of which remain unchanging and inert.”

    This is very funny.

    But your assertion that Ms. Pac-Man is art is, I think, more to the point. It is on this level that the argument should be waged. Tell me how Ms. Pac-Man is art. I played it countless times in my teens and I say it’s not art. Is chess art? Baseball? Why? Why not?

  8. Paul M says:

    Ms Pac-Man is art when it is installed in an art gallery (cue Arthur Danto).

  9. Owen says:

    Glad you got the joke. Obviously I’ll take a book over any videogame. (And a videogame over any movie).

    To me, the programming of Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga is, similar to Bach and Palestrina, a way of manipulating mathematics into stimulating, beautiful structures. That strain of math-as-beauty permeates through many genres of videogame making.

    As for chess and baseball… well. Those are competitive activities. I selected Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Nethack and ADOM as specific examples because they aren’t, say, NHL 2010, or World Of Warcraft, or Super Mario Kart.

    Single-player games are-like a movie or a book or an album-a specific relationship between creator and consumer. Competitive gaming is a whole other argument, I suppose.

  10. Matt Collins says:

    Pac-Man lives in a series of increasingly complex mazes where all he does is consume and run constantly, lest he be devoured by ghosts. Tell me how that isn’t art?
    Moreover: Ms. Pac-Man lives in more complex mazes than her male counterpart, is distracted by organic food, and is besieged by the same ghosts.
    And Pac-Man Junior moves in the most complex mazes of all and contends with those ghosts as well as a stunning variety of fleeting and ephemeral material objects that often managae to escape his grasp.

    In this way, Pac-Man is the least compromising vision of post-industrial consumer culture.

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