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Why Games Are Not Art

Art is overrated. I present a very brief art-history lesson, and describe why video games hoping to achieve the status of art is a low-ball goal.

Tom Newman, Blogger

April 8, 2009

10 Min Read

A Very Brief History of Modern Art

Before the mid-1800's art was much more of a technique than a creative process.  An artist's primary job was to render nature in the most realistic way possible, usually for practical purposes, such as portraits.  Artists at that time were commissioned much the same way a contractor is today, and were judged by the accuracy of their renderings.  By the mid to late 1800's, photography had become more widespread, and that loosened the restrictions on what it meant to be an artist.  Although there were prior movements, it was really the impressionists like Degas and Monet who broke the mold of strict realism by exaggerating the lighting and color of images seen in nature, while still being pleasing to the eye.  Post-impressionists, like Van Gogh, took it one step further by exaggerating the form as well, and more importantly broke the expectation of realism wide open, which was fully exploited by the cubists, like Picasso, who were breaking down images in nature to their most basic geometric components.  Up until that point, however, artists were still basically rendering nature.

Redefining Art in the Early 1900's

Marcel Duchamp is considered by many to be the father of 20th century art, and was also a gamer. He added movement and repetition to cubism with works like "Nude Descending a Staircase No.2", and was all the rage in the high-art community until he took a urinal from a bathroom, signed it, named it "Fountain", and tried to display it at one of his exhibits in a prestegious New York gallery.  The gallery claimed the piece was not art, and this sparked a heated international debate that is almost 100 years old and is still going on today.

To put some of this in context, it should be stated that Marcel Duchamp saw his world much the same way Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) see our world today.  He valued no authority, and saw the high-art community as a bunch of pretentious morons. He believed that art is whatever you want it to be, and does not have to have meaning.  In his studio he nailed a bicycle wheel to a chair, and enjoyed looking at it.  Over time the question was asked "why isn't this art"? This changed the definition of art completely.  As a hobby, Duchamp studied math and physics, and that interest inspired metal and glass sculptures, some motorized. The most famous one was named The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, which was consistant with his perverse sense of humor.  A few years later, Marcel Duchamp quit the art world to play chess full time.  He became obsessed to the point that it nearly ended his marriage (70 years before World of Warcraft). He became a chess master and represented France in many international tournaments, and went on to write a weekly newspaper column about chess.  If he were around today, there is no doubt he would be working in the game industry.

Around the same time of Duchamp, there was an art movement in Europe (of which Duchamp was also affiliated with) called dada that was doing much the same thing.  Dada was the anti-art.  A true believer in dada-ism was anti-dada.  They believed that art had absolutely no meaning beyond aesthetic value, required no formal skill or technique to create, and applied this philosophy to not only visual art, but also to music and poetry; all of which up until that time had to follow a strict structure.  This is very important, as all forms of abstract art, pop art, free form poetry, exparamental/random music and repetitive music can trace their formal origins back to dada.

Dada and Game Design

Like Duchamp, many dada-ists also played chess, but more importantly they designed their own games.  Coming from the philosophy that art, poetry, and music could be randomly generated, they designed many games that would end with a finished work of art.  These games were used both at parties and as a way for established artists to collaborate, and ironically the rules of the games were strict, where as the rules for the art were nonexistant.  This is the first parallell between academic art history and game design.  Many of these game rules were published in a book called Surrealist Games (surrealism split from dada-ism due to a fight over politics between Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara, and (off-topic aside) Salvador Dali was not a real surrealist, at best he was the Wii Sports of the surrealists, and is considered to have borrowed his style from lesser known Yves Tanguy).

What dada-ism inadvertently established was a clear division between the definition of art, and that of a game.  They gave the game more respect.  In the post dada art world, art can be anything, but a game has to have rules or structure, and an implied instruction.  You can have a bowel movement on a wooden board, coat it in varnish and rightfully call it "art".  A game is a lot more complicated.

What's All the Fuss About Being Art Anyway?

I have never understood the passion people have for wanting games to be defined as art.  Having a pretty clear, if not stubborn understanding of what art is, this just makes no sense.  It's like a surgeon aspiring to be a nurse, a cross-country truck driver aspiring to deliver pizzas, or a famous actor wanting to get into a gorilla suit and stand outside a used car lot waving a sign to attract customers.  It's selling yourself short, and the inspiration behind this long-winded blog.

On past posts on this site I have heard some pretty far-out arguments for why games should be defined as art.  One poster argued that a rule-set is art because conveying the instructions to the player successfully is a form of expression.  That may be true, but for the sake of language, if that were the established definition, than everything could be defined as art.  A textbook could be considered a work of art.  A city planner could be an artist for the ability to lay out the roads in a manner that expresses to the drivers which direction to go.  Even my dental hygenest could be an artist for properly giving me the correct instructions on where to spit.  If you want to call all of that art, that's fine, but if you want to communicate using language in the most effective manner, I would be more specific.

A good example of what I'm talking about would be in the world of architecture.  An architect is more than an artist.  Someone going to school for architecture has to take many of the same classes a fine-art major would have to, and obtain much of the same technical knowledge.  In addidion to that, an architect also has to study physics, math, engineering, and other sciences most artists are ignorant to, so if you call an archatect an artist, that could be taken as an insult.  Architecture does have parrallels to the art world, many art museums have architecture wings, and architects are highly respected in the art world, but there is a difference.

Videogames are the same.  There are artists that design the graphics, charachters, box-art, writers (whom some consider artists) creating the narrative, art directors, creative directors; a whole team of bonafide artists working on something that contains a ton of actual art, art that no one can argue about weather it's art or not.  Many of these people learned their skill in art school while taking art classes.  What they are doing is an artform (which can be said about pretty much anything that requires skill), but the end result - the videogame, is so much more than just art.

Art Does Not Mean Integrity or Legitimacy

We live in a world where many people over 50 see videogames as nothing more than kid's toys, and there are lawyers and politicians looking to use videogames as a scapegoat for the ills of society.  Every game that caters exclusively to the entertainment interests of adults is looked at under a magnifying glass for what it could possibly do to minors the game was never intended for.  Videogames have become much more than games, by infusing a narrative style typically found in books and movies to motivate the player beyond the natural human spirit of competition.  What becomes very frustrating for the artists, is that they do not have the same freedom to create as they would if they were telling the same story in a book or movie.  This not only is the fault of society for not yet recognizing videogames as a legitimate creative medium, but also the fault of the publishers for placing these self-imposed content restrictions.

There are other restrictions that occur naturally just out of working with a large group, and these obvious compromises parallell movies and books exactly.  When writing a book, the author has no buffer between what they write and what the reader reads.  Of course there are editors and publishers who have their say, and can even ghost-write whole sections if they wish, but it is very easy to self-publish your uncensored words, for good or for bad.  Not all writing is considered art (literature), it typically takes a work of outstanding skill and meaning that has no potential for commercial success.  Most of the books on any best-seller list would not be considered literature.  Bookstores define this by having a literature section that is seperate from all the rest of the fiction, sci-fi, romance, mystery; etc. sections.  

Movies are more closely tied to traditional art as being in essence a form of photography, but most movies are not considered art.  The film industry views the term "art-film" as a nice way of saying it's not going to make any money.  Many of the AAA movies have even stricter restrictions than videogames.  The industry has been around for decades and has a very cookie-cutter way of doing things, taltented directors with outstanding resumes often do not get final say in what the final product looks like.  A studio can re-film an entire ending with no permission from the original writer or director, and this happens all the time.  Videogames at least are evolving, and one of the market's demands is for innovation in technology, which encourages the creative freedom game designers do have.  I believe some of the most creative people alive today are in the videogame industry, there is much more talent here than in the film and publishing industry.

If Not Art, Than What?

I believe the legitimacy of the videogame industry has already started, and there is no need to classify it as anything else.  Most people don't stop playing games when they get older, which means that every year we have a more mature audience, and we now have congressmen who are in the age bracket to have gotten an Atari2600 as a child.  Most importantly, the industry as a whole is now recognized as a commercially viable one.  Here in the USA, commercial viability out-legitimizes artistic integrity any day of the week.

My overall point is that anyone can be an artist, and anyone can create art.  It is a much simpler skill than the added layer of complexity it takes to create a videogame.

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