By Dennis Scimeca
When I first read Roger Ebert’s comments on video games and art I knew what he meant, but only because I have an education that touched in large part upon the arts. The word “art” has many meanings, and they all depend on context. The context in which Ebert was using the word was that of High or Sublime art, this being the purest form of art aesthetically, but according to Ebert, “Hardly any movies are art,” either. He said that on April 17, 2010.
This definition of Sublime art was the main thrust of Professor Brian Moriarty’s GDC panel “An Apology for Roger Ebert,” which was more explanation than apology. Professor Moriarty has been in the video game industry for 30 years, but his formal education is in English. It had never even occurred to him to compare video games to the treasures of world literature, or music, or painting, etc.
“Why are some people in this industry so anxious about wrapping themselves in the mantle of great art?” Moriarty reflected on the fact that in 25 centuries’ worth of philosophy and aesthetics regarding art, not once have games been considered as such. Moriarty also reflected on the sticky question of what art even is anymore, using the example of a piece of driftwood on the beach. When you first find it, is it art? If you put it on your mantle, is it art then? If you sign it and submit it to a museum, is that when it becomes art?
I get what Moriarty is saying, just like I got what Ebert was saying, but there a meaningful chink in the Professor’s armor. “We can all clearly say what a video game is,” he said, the implication being that we cannot clearly say what art is and therefore a clear line of distinction between the two is to be drawn. But what about the work of developers like Jason Rohrer? Some people call his work games. I don’t necessarily agree. Is Heavy Rain a video game? Even David Cage doesn’t know. The line is not so clearly drawn anymore.
Where Moriarty’s argument became quite compelling was in his discussion of “kitsch” art. The term comes from the mid-19th century, to describe a kind of art based on knockoffs of real masterpieces that were commissioned by the wealthy. The newly-formed middle class wanted some pictures on their walls, as well, so they hired artists to make them paintings which looked like “proper” art, but wasn’t.
Kitsch art is not bad art, but a unique aesthetic category. It depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with simple emotions. It is not rich in relationships between those depicted objects or themes. Kitsch art is popular art, and most popular art is kitsch. And video games are certainly pop art if nothing else. Want to know more? Of course you do, unless you're Roger Ebert. Keep reading.
I think the issue here is that no one is claiming video games are Sublime art. When Cliff Bleszinski said during his GDC panel that video games were art, and he wasn’t going to have the conversation anymore, I don’t think this is what he meant. When I interviewed Ken Levine last year and he said that he absolutely felt video games were art, I don’t think that’s what he meant, either. The only people who really think about Sublime art are academics, and serious art critics or enthusiasts, or intellectuals, the kinds of people who have the time and inclination to sit around and think about these things.
For everyone else, “art” is something personal, an individual assessment of aesthetic value, and I don’t think they really care about what Schopenhauer (who Professor Moriarty liberally quoted) has to say on the subject. When Roger Ebert made his statements about video games and art, he was speaking to a concept that most people have likely never even been exposed to, much less thought deeply about, and that was the root of all the arguing that followed.
It was pointless arguing, and while I enjoyed Professor Moriarty’s lecture, and while there was clearly an audience for it at GDC – a third of the two-third capacity crowd gave him a standing ovation when he finished – I’ve become rather bored with the debate as a whole. The results of that discussion have nothing to do with how we make better video games, and in the end I think we’d all rather be playing them than thinking about what they are, or aren’t.