20 May 2011

The Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

Being an expert in one thing does not automatically make one an expert in other things.  Most of us are aware of this.  Apparently Roger Ebert is not one of those people.  The article entitled "Video Games Can Never Be Art" has been brought to my attention more than once over the past year.  Most recently, it appeared on a Facebook friend's profile, who specifically asked me to comment.* 
And comment I did.

Ebert's first mistake is this: "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.  To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear."  (No, I don't know why he said poets twice.)

I don't think Ebert ever played Myst...

What field?  If he means the video game field, that is a lie.  If he means the art world, that is also inaccurate.  If he means the Movie Critic Field, he may be correct, because a person in that field has no reason to say it.  I doubt any person in the molecular biology field has said it either.

Too ugly.  Not art.

It seems that in this article, Ebert imposes the arbitrary and unnecessary limit of Mastery on Art; i.e., it has to be exceptional to earn the title. Anyone who has become immersed in one of the Final Fantasy Games (my brother cried when Sephiroth killed Aeris) knows video games have the ability to be emotional, engaging, beautiful... and become art if their creators intended Art, or the players perceive it to contain artistic merit. 
Ever played Myst? Riven? Those are the epitome of Art in a video game! 

Ebert quotes from classical greats, "Plato, via Aristotle, believed art should be defined as the imitation of nature. Seneca and Cicero essentially agreed."  The concept that art needs to imitate life has been outdated since... I don't know, the Art Deco movement? Before? Dali's/Picasso's works deviate from a mirror of this world, yet most consider them master artists.  (Ebert also cites Wikipedia, which anyone who has attended college in the last decade can tell you is never admissible in an academic argument.)  He goes on to ask, "Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision."  
And he doesn't think video games accomplish that very goal?


This involved zero artistic talent or human imagination.

I've said before and repeated ad nauseum: "Art is that which is created, and perceived to be as such."**
I don't like the signed urinal in MoMA, but there it is - an artistic creation. I don't like most installation art, due to its great deviation from the norm (and I can't put it in my house), but it is still art. 

My FB friend mentioned to me that relying on my definition of art is difficult, as "art" doesn't really mean anything.  I'm inclined to agree the word "art" doesn't have much of a meaning.

Nuts and bolts are typically not considered Art, but all it takes is someone to find a bunch of them, fill a bucket, sign it, and stick it a modern art museum and TA DA!  Art! 

This is a box. Kind of.  (Richard Serra, 1969)

I look at the word "Art" as I view the words "Matter" (applies to most things) and the word "Things" (also nebulous). "Art" as a word is only slightly more specific... though not much. That's why those in the art world have categories such as Classical Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Photographic Art, Installation Art, Graffiti Art, Sculpture (Classical or Modern), various artistic movements (Hudson River School, Art Nouveau, whatever shit Andy Warhol repackaged, etc).

 Yves Klein, Monochrome rose sans titre (MP 55), 1955

You may think, "So art can be anything!"  Of course it can.  Think of it from a photographer's perspective.  A good photographer sees beauty in the mundane, and captures it, creating Art.  The dew drop on a leaf wasn't art until the photographer "created" it.  Video games are creations, and any one who has played a Final Fantasy game was either wowed by the story or by the graphics.  To say that the incredible combination of the two wasn't Art is ludicrous.

Ebert's article was written by someone who has little experience in the professional art world outside of cinema (either in a museum, or as an appraiser, or an artist), so the entire article is a nice uninformed opinion with pretty pictures. 
I won't try to be a movie expert, and he should leave Art alone.

*I am not a gamer.  I play games seldom and sporadically.
**For proof, click link. 
Title is from Rudyard Kipling (thank you, Alex, for the reference):
When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"


  1. The first game to cross my mind when I started reading this was Myst. I loved that world. I kept a notebook and drew maps. I revisited some parts electively just because they were pretty and the sounds were hauntingly intoxicating.

    Some places in the Halo universe were also beautiful, although Myst was the first game to make me catch my breath.

  2. Heavy Rain is a beautiful story and made very well. I have been playing the past few nights and I consider it art. Bioshock, Mass Effect, many of the Final Fantasy games are all art in my eyes.

  3. I was obsessed with Myst (and then Riven) as well. I had a notebook, and hunted for the background noise online.

    Mass Effect II has some great scenes - thanks for reminding me of that!

  4. The Smithsonian disagrees with Mr. Ebert: http://www.americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/

    He did apologize for expressing this opinion: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/07/okay_kids_play_on_my_lawn.html

  5. Guerrilla,
    Thanks so much for taking time to post that link to Ebert's revised opinion. I regret I had not seen it, and was working from his two previously published opinions.

  6. I just checked, and Ebert still believes they aren't Art, though he feels bad for expressing this opinion publicly. So he hasn't changed his opinion at all - he just admits that it is uninformed.

    Quote: "I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so."

  7. Video games look better than movies these days and Psychonauts is more artistic than anything I've seen in theaters this century.

  8. Thank you for this excellent article. I love Myst exactly for the "art", for images that take you to imaginary landscapes. Myst was really special. Many talented artists worked on these games. People like Ebert like to put thinks in boxes and define them as such and such. Boundaries are meant to be broken. This world is changing and art forms are changing as well.