Wherefore art?

There are just a few phrases that can knock gamers into an instant coma these days through force of their sheer oversaturated abuse over the past year or so.

  • “Jack Thompson is on the rampage again…”
  • “_______ is going to be a Halo/Zelda/GTA-killer!”
  • “Hot Coffee.”

But none of these phrases are more annoying and tiresome than the new poster child for posturing pseudo-intellectuals everywhere:

“Can games be art?”

Actually, the question itself isn’t so bad, but the debate surrounding it is enough to send most people into a murderous rampage. What could be a valid analysis of the legitimacy of this burgeoning medium typically degenerates into a bunch of snotty kids calling Roger Ebert names and a handful of self-proclaimed intellectuals with no actual art education stroking their chins excitedly at the chance to use a lot of very large words. It would be too easy for them to offer a simple, empirical analysis, though, so they mostly talk about how Ico was all ethereal and made them so very sad, or how Rez made their pants throb even without the Trance Vibrator.

I’m glad Electroplankton has come along to put this ridiculous debate to rest. It’s an authentic work of art, which means that games can be art, thanks. Here’s my proof, derived from six long semesters of art history.

I. It’s created by an artist.

Electroplankton’s designer and programmer, Toshio Iwai, is an award-winning fine artist who works in multimedia formats. Sound, visuals, even interactivity — the same stuff Electroplankton offers. Iwai’s other work is recognized as art by the stuffy types who make such arbitrary calls, so disregarding Electroplankton simply because it’s presented in videogame form is so narrow-minded as to be downright churlish. And no one wants to be a churl.

II. Art can be mundane.

Boo hoo, it’s a videogame, and you can buy videogames at Wal-Mart. Art could never be that gauche!

Yeah well, whatever. Marcel Duchamp poked a hole in that one almost 90 years ago when he presented “Fountain,” which was simply a discarded urinal on which he had scrawled the words “R. MUTT 1917.” Two years later he defaced a reproduction of the “Mona Lisa.” It was not medium, technique or skill that made Duchamp’s dadaist works art, but rather the creative intent behind the work.

Need a more relevant example? A few years back I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City and stumbled across a work by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy called “Every Shot, Every Episode.” The artists had dissected 20 episodes of the Starsky & Hutch TV series and indexed each scene according to one of 300 categories (“Girlfriends,” “’74 Ford Torino,” etc.), which were then recorded to a massive stack of CD-Rs and played at random for passersby.

Electroplankton’s manual offers a brief dissertation by Iwai on his inspirations and ambitions with the game, all of which are sufficiently high-minded (a synthesis of audio-visual experiences based on microscopes and Famicoms, etc. etc.) to place the game in the same genre as “Every Shot, Every Episode.” If Huggy Bear and a toilet can be art, then by all means, so can Loomiloop and Tracey.

Besides, you can’t buy Electroplankton at Wal-Mart… just Target and online. It’s classy. And if you really need the extra validation, send your copy of the game to me with an SASE and I’ll scrawl “R. MUTT 2005” on it for you.

III. Art can be mass-produced.

One might argue that the merit of works like “Fountain” and “Every Shot, Every Episode” (as well as the works of other multimedia artists like Nam Jun Paik) is due in part to the uniqueness of those works — they exist as single installations. Electroplankton, on the other hand, is a mass-manufactured consumer product churned out by the thousands, and even the original game was the collaborative creation of a team of programmers and artists working with Iwai.

The corpse of Andy Warhol laughs in your face. His works like “Marilyn” were mass-produced, frequently by people working for Warhol rather than by the artist himself. This doesn’t make his work any less valuable — any one of the countless silkscreens produced under Warhol’s supervision is worth tens of thousands of dollars and would proudly be displayed by any art museum.

IV. Art doesn’t have to resonate with you to be art.

“But videogames don’t move me.” Congratulations, you didn’t cry when Aerith died and you think Lumines is boring. Aren’t you manly? Well done. Me, I don’t really find my heart atremble when I look at pretty much any American art prior to the 20th Century, but if I were to walk up to a curator and demand he remove Whistler’s Mother from his collection I’d probably be shot on sight. Disregarding a piece of art because you don’t get it puts you in the same category as those who laughed at Monet’s “unfinished” paintings or the jarring chaos of Picasso’s first forays into cubism. These days we call them “MORANS.” (We used to call them “morons” but the Internet has knocked the collective I.Q. of humanity down a few digits and we don’ rite so good no more.)

In any case, I’ve found Electroplankton to be entrancing, so it still meets this particular proof. Sorry if you’re too thick to get it, though.

V. This is stupid, shut up already.

Well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along.

Anyway, Electroplankton fits every definition of art, so it’s art. And a game. Which means that by the Transitive Property of Have a Little Common Sense You Idiot, games can be art.

Potentially, of course. Kingdom Hearts is no more “art” than a black velvet painting of Mickey Mouse. But everyone can shut up about this whole stupid debate and get back to the basics, like how EGM is simultaneously biased against Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

As for my next trick? I’ll be sorting out the world peace thing.

35 thoughts on “Wherefore art?

  1. Of course, you could always take the fairly easy way out and use algebra.

    Stories = Art (This is assumed to be true)
    Pictures = Art (Duh)
    Music = Art (Again, duh)

    Therefore, mix all three of them together, and you have the basic movie going experience. Movies are art too, aren’t they? So, here’s the formula for a video game!

    Story + Music + Pictures = Movie + Interactivity = Video game = Art

    Therefore, Algebraically, Video games = Art.

  2. About time someone posts this. It’s what I’ve been saying all along (though not as eloquently). I work in the New Media dept of a large contemporary art museum and anyone in the New Media art scene knows who Toshio Iwai is and his work in various institutions. The game is basically a collection of a lot of his separate projects. How anyone can really debate the merrits of this being art is beyond me. It’s the epitome of New Media art.

    People can debate about Ico or Rez all they want, but Electroplankton should not be up for debate. It’s art, end of story.

  3. Thanks Jeremy. You’ve just reassured me that I’ve retained all my understanding from the art classes I had to take in college.

  4. Whenever i hear about this debate, I think of Loom, which demonstrated games can be art over 15 years ago.

  5. the communication of ideas is art.

    that is what they taught me in art history.

    there’s a huge difference in pre-Modern and Modern art, mostly thanks to the invention of the camera. once the pretense of Realism was gone and the reactionaries to non-realism died down, Impressionism was born.

    as with any new medium, it gets marked by the old pretentious elite as non-art, like Monet’s aforementioned paintings. what happens is, they die.

    (because it always gets asked: yes, conversations are an art form. there’s levels of refinement in both written and spoken speech.)

  6. I’m going to print this article out on a giant foam hand and use it to bitchslap people when they ask “Can games be art?”.

    On second thought, probably foam with a brick hidden inside.

  7. Well done Parish! I mean, jeeze, you were coherent and everything. You practically make taking a couple semesters of art sound worthwhile.

  8. Makes sense to me. I think I’m going to reduce my justification to “Anything is art in the hands of an artist,” which is a lot less empirical but seems to express something similar. I get to be vague because I didn’t study this sort of thing in school, and you’re fortunately around to do all the hard work.

  9. I don’t want to stir up this ‘art or not’ stuff but I would like to point out that Roger Ebert never said that games weren’t art. He simply said they were an inferior form.

    And tons of people raved about how he should look at ‘game x’ or ‘game y’ while completely missing his point. He said himself why he considers it so:

    “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

    The moment you do something other then watch the screen and listen YOU are effectively co-directing the game.

    It’s akin to looking at a painting of the Mona Lisa, then taking some finger paint and adding your own touches.

    Anyway, everyone seems to have ignored that, so I figured I’d throw that in.

    – Eddie

  10. The review goes up at midnight Pacific time.

    And I was careful not to state that Ebert said games aren’t art… I was remarking on the fact that his comments on games mainly resulted in a lot of angry emails and blog entries.

  11. My not-so-inner art historian considers you its new hero. Congratuations. You get to share a spot with the guy who wrote a book about depictions of Christ’s penis.

  12. In that picture of Electroplankton, is that a slime from Dragon Warrior / Quest (or at least one of its cousins)?

    Also, I don’t see how interactivity makes anything less artistic. After all, people re-mix music.

  13. Great post Jeremy. I remember reading a post on the GIA oh, six or so years ago… maybe it was on the letters page there… but it was about the same subject. Then it came up a couple years later on another gaming site… then a couple years after that a webcomic or two brought it up… then freakin’ EBERT brings it up. When will it end?
    You have done a good job explaining it as simply as possible.
    I have a degree in fine arts but insist that art must fit the most basic understanding possible. I explain it to people like this: “If someone calls it art, it is. That does not EVER mean that anyone has to like it and it definitely does not mean it has to be good.” As you put it, it’s all about intent and idea (even if the idea is no idea). People get all spun about because they generally don’t understand the difference between the words “good” and “art.”
    Again, great post and of course funny as always.

  14. As was already pointed out, the concept of art has fattened up quite a bit over the years, and will likely become even more inclusive as time goes on. It’s already frustratingly vague, because too many people want art to be too many things. Plus, there are no real authorities, only people who see themselves this way, and so the concept is allowed to morph from person to person. Prediction: the popular interpretation of the term will someday encompass anything and everything, and will thus encompass nothing, and the damn thing will finally die, and then people will have to think up other ways to intimidate and confuse others.

  15. I know you (J.Parish) didn’t say ‘Ebert thinks games aren’t art’, I’m just pointing out the fact that a lot of people (not you) blatently ignored his reasoning and instead attacked him while never hitting his point of contention.

    – Eddie

  16. Hey, and G.I. Joes are art because they are like little sculptures. Plastic? YES!

    Anyway, last time I heard Electroplankton is more like a videotoy than a videogame.

    I think toys and games may contain art (chess pieces and boards can be beautiful pieces of art) but aren’t art themselves, as a whole. It’s like, I can be moved by John Register paintings and also by the Wind Waker graphics and visual style, but not by the Wind Waker game itself. I’m crazy like that.

  17. O.K. but being or not being art is not important. Just like philosophy doesn’t give a shit about wether or not it is a science (it is not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true).

  18. Re: Eddie’s post above, I kind of wonder how Ebert would feel about recent trends in installation art, whose proponents maintain that art only succeeds when it can be actively engaged by the audience.

  19. Yeah, the whole notion of art being invalid if the audience can interact with it sort of lost its grip back when people like Calder started creating mobiles and other kinetic artforms — the whole idea was that the audience’s presence would cause the work to change. That means Ebert is only about 75 years behind, which isn’t too bad compared to a lot of people.

  20. Interacting with video games is not quite akin to fingerpainting on the Mona Lisa anyway, because the people who made the game still put limitations over exactly how much control you have in the game, so technically it’s still their ideas being put forth.

    Take the Metal Gear Solid games, for example. Technically, you have the option of killing as many people as you want, but you’re rewarded if you can resist the temptation and go through the whole game without hurting anybody. You’re not co-directing the game by having your actions affect it; you’re giving the people who made the game the ability to make statements about your actions, which adds a new layer of flexibility to the art process.

    I’d think rearranging the game’s programming would be more akin to the fingerpainting comparison, because in that case you’re making changes to a completed product.

  21. That’s an… interesting take on it. I always figured games were art by the mere fact that life imitates them. There’s so much voluntary reproduction and casual referencing done by our generation, that games have become more than just simple fandom, but an actual part of our cultural identity. Look at all the zelda tattoes, atari shirts, IRL recreations of mario levels, and you can clearly see how games have shaped our perceptions of the world. If not art, what else could have such an effect?

    I’d say all games, to a degree, are art. Most of the time, very crappy art. But the best examples are the likes of Ninja Gaiden I, and Ikaruga; games that are art due to their mechanics, as apposed to games that aim to be art solely using their story, or their aesthetics.

    Ok, sorry, I’m done now.

  22. Video games are for loosers.

    You don’t realy win anything. You don’t realy built anything for real. It’s junk food. Playing poker like an idiot at a casino can get to be more productive than drooling infront of a screen like a retard.

  23. Now, here’s a bigger question than “are games art?”… what was ‘gray’ doing here in the first place?

  24. I was going to say that in one of the new Playstation Magazines, Kojima implicitely stated that “Videogames are not art.” Perhaps they are not art in the way that there is a specific trend of though being communicated that can only be done purely as one (or two or more) creator(s) intended it to be, but rather the player is given a choice to communicate his prefferences through the medium of games, therefore the game itself is not art, but a tool for what it creates: The experiences which people percieve is the art in away, with each experience unique from the other.

  25. Since “grey” has the same IP address as the poster before him, my guess would be “trolling.” As for Kojima’s comments, I’d definitely agree that Metal Gear games aren’t art (they’re Clancy novels with gameplay)… but that doesn’t mean the medium has to share his limitations.

  26. You know, I think most of the debate probably stems from the question of how art is actually defined, which nobody really seems sure about. Is it whatever requires innovation? Is it something that indirectly makes a statement about life? Is it anything that confuses a lot of people? Does it have to have a particular odor?

  27. Hi Jeremy-

    Nice posting.

    As far as I’m not an expert on the subject, I decided to go to some qualified sources. My podcast, fatpixels radio, addressed this very issue with Professor Henry Jenkins, Director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, Professor James Gee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ernest Adams, who as written and spoken on the subject in the past.

    At least, I am not a complete dummy on the topic–I was one credit short of a minor in Art History when I matriculated from Northwestern University, which also happens to have a pretty good school of journalism…

    Not to beat a dead Dada-ist, but I invite you to check out the show, and my commentary on the site (http://fatpixelsradio.com). As my panelists suggest, the issue is never as cut and dry and proponents or opponents of the question make it out to be.


  28. By no means am I trying to invalidate this article or the games-as-art debate (I believe they very much are), but I believe that Electroplankton was a bad example. My reason being that I would never classify Electroplankton as a video game, or a toy or software, for that matter. It lacks defined goals (gameplay) and the ability to retain your creations (this would make it music creation software). What it does have is the ability to create unique sounds or variations on pre-existing sounds. This would make it either an instrument or some kind of effects device. The visual presentation surounding it is simply an interface into these functions. It’s basically some kind of tool, which means that it can’t be considered art. Is isn’t a bad thing, though; nobody’s looking down on instruments, here.

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