This question is asked more and more around me. Whether or not video games are art is a point often brought up in both Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation and the excellent video column from the same site, Extra Credits. I had no clear intention to actually give a final answer to this question when I began this first post. At first, I just wanted to take the question apart to, as it were, see what it is made of. After doing that I did come to the answer: “Are video games are? Definitely maybe. Or perhaps certainly probably. It depends.”
Before we go any further, I really need to point out that I am not an artist. I don’t create art. I am not an art expert; I am not an art dealer. I’m just somehow interested and curious about the matter. Any inaccuracy one may find in this post will be welcome, as long as it is somehow constructive.
Art and entertainment
So, before jumping to conclusions, let’s carefully consider the question. It reminds me, first of all, of a line in Federico Fellini’s 8½, when, running after the main character, movie director Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, a critic asks, “Is cinema art or entertainment?” My first reaction to that question is: how is art not entertainment.
That last question may seem rhetorical in tone. I really don’t mean it that way. I ask it that way as sneaky entrapment to those who like to accuse someone asking this of being philistine by bringing up the very possibility that art and entertainment are the exact same thing. Phrased differently, “How is art not entertainment” could mean, “Art is just a form of entertainment.” Some would pounce on that sentence to accuse the one saying it (in this case me) of being a philistine. If that is what you thought, I’m on to you.*
What I really meant was, “In what way is art not entertainment?” There is a part of entertainment in art. People are willing to pay to enjoy it. Some pay to own works of art, but if you pay to go to a museum, or to go to the symphony or to a rock concert, chances are that one of the many roles of that act is to relieve you of some amount of boredom. That is one way to define entertainment. I’m not denying that art is much more than that. I’m actually stating it outright: art is much more than that. But some works of art, particularly works of art that are structured around a narrative, certainly comprise elements of both.
A designer friend of mine once asked me, “Do you know what the difference is between art and design.” I gave the correct answer without an instant of hesitation: “No, I don’t know.” He told me it was that design adds an aesthetic to something that already has a practical purpose and that art has no reason to be other than itself. For example, if your computer is beautiful and sleek, it’s design. If you keep it on a shelf long after it’s become obsolete because it’s just so beautiful, it’s art. (I have an Mac G4 cube I keep that way.) Another example, if a urinal is well designed, it has a simple aesthetic that doesn’t clash with its purpose. If a urinal is in a museum under the name, “Fountain,” chances are it would be in bad taste to actually go ahead and use it.
Why do I bring that up? In part because according to the definition I just gave, design and art are exclusive from one another. Even if they use the same techniques and tools, one cannot be both one and the other. Note that this definition is not absolute. You may choose to consider that design is subsection of art, but that wouldn’t really change much: there would still be a dichotomy, just not the same one. In that case, some works of art would clearly be in the subsection “design” and some would not.
When it comes to art and entertainment, I would argue that there is, on the contrary, a gigantic overlap. If one takes films like the aforementioned 8½ or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there will be, I hope, little objection to their being called works of art. So here, I’m asking: is their artistic aspect and their entertainment aspect parallel? Or are the two different aspects of one thing? Or, if I were to put in a corny, proverbial way, two sides of one coin?
Not a definition of art
So, are video games art? If any of you at this stage are thinking, “Wait a second, you’ve given examples of works of art, and you’ve defined design and entertainment but not art! You sneaky weasel! Why have you not defined art yet?” Then, I defer to your good judgement. I don’t think that any definition of art can be made both wide enough to accommodate all instances of art in the world and at the same time narrow enough to actually keep any sort of relevance.
So where does this leave me? This time I’ll defer to Freud and psychoanalysis in general, where one of the main elements that contribute to classifying a neurosis as pathological is its lack of social acceptability. If you are particularly vain and insecure, it may be a form of neurosis, but it may not be pathological. If you have a strong compulsion to take off all of your clothes in all of public places, it is.
The aspect of that definition that relies on context fits my point about art. What art is, too, depends on context. Would Andy Warhol’s cans of soup have been art in the nineteenth century? How about during the Italian fifteenth century renaissance? Let’s take another example and say that Kazimir Malevich‘s Black Square fell in a time machine and fall into fifteenth century Italy then someone finds the painting and claims it as his own. Would his contemporaries be impressed? Would they consider it art? It’s unlikely that it would have been considered so outside of its context. This is an example — however crude may it be — of how art is dependent on context and on social acceptance. In some cases, art may even depend on social rejection. When Duchamp made a urinal into a work of art in 1917, part of artistic gesture was that it was scandalous. Nowadays, scandal is in many ways integrated into the concept of artistic merit. When an artist tries to be scandalous, we consider that it’s part of what artist are and we let it to the more conservative groups to be offended by saying that any deviation from the most conventional definition of how one should lead one’s life in “not art.” In any of those cases, the constant is a strong link to a social context.