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Video Games As Art: A Debate That Was Settled Before Video Games Existed
Posted on Friday, September 10 2010 @ 02:32:12 PST

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp bought a urinal, wrote a name and a date on it, made no other changes whatsoever and submitted it to an art show as a piece called Fountain. It was never displayed and presumably thrown out. Now every reproduction of the piece is either owned in a private collection or on display in a museum, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern. These are art museums. They display art. ‘Modern Art’ is not a runner-up phrase. It’s not an ‘almost.’ It’s an entire period of art and it’s certified and taught the world over. There is of course a very long winded philosophical process of people coming to the consensus that a urinal is art. I certainly do not know all the names involved and you probably wouldn’t want to read it anyway but I can tell you the precedent set by Fountain easily umbrellas over most things in debate of not being art, including video games. So just know that even this early in the argument, you would be refuting the standard of some of the most esteemed art museums in the world to bother arguing any other side.

The best part is, video games would still be art even if we didn’t play them. The cartridges and CDs would constitute an entirely different art by the accepted definition. In fact, the lines of code would be art before any type of production had begun. Once again, there is a very compelling history to this debate. At the moment though how about we just look at the Oxford American Dictionary definition and assume the people responsible for crafting these definitions actually put some research into the matter beforehand.

Art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Wow, that is wide open. Easiest debate ever. Let’s look at the most important words here.

 Expression or application of human skill and imagination, Producing works with beauty or emotional power. How conveniently vague. I wonder why the incredibly educated institution of Oxford would be so hesitant to write off any possible types of art with their word choices? Here’s why: the incredibly educated institution of Oxford actually has it’s finger on the academic consensus and realizes it would be hard pressed to think of something that isn’t art.

The only actual parameters imparted in the definition are these:

Art requires human attention to be art.

Imagination comes automatically with perception. By definition all “imagination” is is the formation of things not apparent to the physical senses. The definition of “creative” follows suit so neatly that the word “imagination” is actually used in its definition. That is literally as simple as looking at a tree and recognizing it by the fabricated word and combination of phonetics we arbitrarily assigned to it. Needless to say it would be nearly impossible to observe anything without utilizing that good ol’ human imagination. As an aside, I want everyone to know I had to violently suppress the urge to type “arbortrarily” during my tree example.

Works of art must be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.

That section of the definition is absolutely subjective, bordering on meaningless. ‘Beauty’ may as well be synonymous with “things someone at some point kind of liked.” “Emotional Power” sounds like what the South American kid with the monkey from Captain Planet had. Needless to say, it is equally undefinable. However, this part of the definition does reconfirm that it requires human attention since obviously no fern is going to have a strong emotional appreciation for, o say, the hit Michael Jackson album Thriller. Great album, by the way. Check it out.

Really the debate centers on this one word, the most troublesome of the still completely agreeable definition.

Works of art must be produced.

The fog-breathing limey’s at Oxford don’t help us as much here. The troublesome definition to this argument is the one that requires manufacturing from components or raw materials. The useful definition simply states “causing to happen or come into existence.” Now, finally and really for the first time, we do have at least an attempt at setting restrictions upon what is art. It must be produced from some other tangible material. Well this attempt at restriction is easily dispatched. Dance, stand up comedy,(carrot top and galligher are unfortunately not given amnesty from this restriction) rhetoric in it’s entirety when not written down, singing, any perspective or frame that would work in a photograph or painting but is not photographed or painted. Clearly “raw material” is out and “component” is too vague to restrict anything. Video games aren’t even attacked by that requirement, but I’m not concerned solely with the easily defended video game. Now this is the objective, bare-bones philosophical root of the matter. Any more artistic use of the the word art from, O say...Roger Ebert is really a different word that means "stuff I like as opposed to stuff I don't like." Now for some troubleshooting.

Firstly, things do not have to be presented in a viewing context to be art. By this I mean frames, photographs, drawings, paintings, books, and everything else that goes in museums. The actual production of a product is not required. For example, dance. The seats at a ballet recital being empty does not make the recital less artistic. When someone views a pretty sunset they first observe the stirring beauty of the sunset and then find a point of view to capture it with. This is the imaginative license necessary to make it art. The ensuing photograph is simply an after thought in becoming more art. Words are pretty even when not written down. A bonsai tree is pretty before it’s shaped if someone comes along and thinks so. There is a current blue-collar mentality that art requires hard work, or work at all. This idea has exceptions beyond count. The only thing required is an organism with the mental capability to produce abstract thought and the physical capability to observe.

Video games boast image, plot, and script. Really, they’re almost more art than other types of art. The fact that you interact with it has no bearing whatsoever. People keep peeing in poor Marcel’s “Fountains.” That doesn’t make them less art, just like a kid playing on a public sculptures doesn't knock an artist out of text books at random. The fact that the viewer of video games has some choice in the way they interact with the game also doesn’t matter. I could go to a theater and watch the Godfather by only staring at the lower right hand corner of the screen the entire time. “Sh*t, we better take all those Academy Awards back because some ******* decided to play Call of Duty by laying prone on the ground while attempting to violently knife off the tire of a Humvee for 11 hours.” No art offers a set lens to enjoy it through. That’s just human perspective. While video games have an even less consistent lens than most mediums, it doesn’t play any relevant part in removing them from the realm of art. Sometimes I stand really close to paintings and squint, while wearing glasses I forcibly took from a stranger on the subway. In my opinion, the blue slime-smudge-thing near the top of Starry Night symbolizes Super Shredder’s role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Am I an idiot? Yes. Is Starry Night any less a piece of art because it is enjoyed in an inconsistent way? No.

One of the worst arguments in this debate is the idea that video games aren't meaningful or personal or message-laden enough to qualify. This idea should never even enter into the debate. If a video game does not touch you personally you have every right to call it "bad art" but you are obligated to say the second word in that phrase. It is still art. What people take away from art is a very intuitive process. Video games excel at defying this argument especially. You can chastise story, script, character development, shortage of dragons, graphics, game-play, excess of dragons, whatever, but at the end of the day video games are a visual presentation (as well as auditory and literary) and it's impossible to deny something as instinctively enjoyed as an image the title of art. The various responses people will have to the stimuli they observe is far too widespread for any restrictive definition to be drawn up. For example, I was personally moved to tears by the bildungsroman of Duke Nukem.

Thanks for reading.

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