Nov 24, 2010

Games as Artistic Media (Or Not) - What is Art? (Part 1)

Classificatory disputes regarding art have been going on for some time. Often, these disputes are brought in by a party that considers a certain piece to be too obscene, or not technically impressive enough, or not culturally relevant enough to be properly considered art. One such dispute is over video games, and whether or not they can properly be considered a form of art.

When I originally wrote this section of the thesis, my aim was to devise my own definition of art based on a synthesis of existing definitions, the reasoning being that I would need a solid definition of art to compare games against in order to determine whether or not they could properly be considered such. That approach had a few problems, primarily in that whatever definition I came up with would be agreeable to only a select group of people, and secondly that I could easily be accused of selecting my own definition in order to make it easy for me to prove that games are art, or that they were not art, depending on my personal agenda. Another problem I have encountered is that, as I have done more research, I've come to the belief that a fairly nebulous definition of art is the best that anyone can really do – choosing a few specific criteria is unfair, and a broader frame of reference is required.

The goal of this section of the thesis is therefore to provide a bit of background information on how art is defined by different groups. Later, I will refer back to these often divergent definitions in order to compare games against different views on what art is, or should be, rather than comparing it against only one point of view.

 For my purposes, dictionary definitions are not particularly useful. These tend to be in the vein that “art is any work in painting or music etcetera etcetera” or “art is what artists do” or “art is the creation of things that are beautiful.” While there is nothing immediately wrong with any of these definitions, they are too circular to elucidate what art is. Similarly, my own Encyclopaedia was not particularly helpful – it gave a decent short history of art from ancient to modern, but didn't really suggest any criterion for deciding what is and isn't art.  

I've examined a few textbooks, written for students studying art, hoping that I might find one that gave a good basic definition or overview of the discussion on the definition of art. I didn't exactly locate this, however one (Introducing Art) did contain a number of quotes on the subject from notable persons. A selection of these are reproduced below.1

“A work of art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament.”
-Emile Zola (late 19th century).

“The artist's work is the ordering of what in most minds is disordered.”
-I.A Richards (1924).

“People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty.”
-Tolstoy (1896).

“A work of art is an expressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it expresses is human feeling.”
-Suzanne K. Langer (1957).

“Art is the expression of the highest level of a cultural epoch.”
-Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1938).

“. . . a man-made object demanding to be experienced aesthetically.”
-Irwin Panofsky (1955).

What's intriguing about these particular definitions is that, while they are diverse and have little in common with each other, there are no glaring contradictions – that is, they are not mutually exclusive. This suggests to me that the idea of art is extremely nebulous, but that people, in general, tend to have a similar kind of impression of what the word means. If this is the case (that there are few wildly divergent definitions) it makes the job of deciding whether or not games can be called art somewhat easier because it means there will be less cases of “According to X it would be art and according to Y it would not.” It may even be possible to choose some definitions of art to disregard as being too far from the general feeling on the subject. The above quotes are themselves straightforward and fairly clear, so I won't go into detailed discussion on any of them, but rather proceed with what the book itself says.
Introducing Art  makes a number of assertions about art. It outlines a difference between fine art, applied art (or design) and craft. Fine arts are described as works which are created “in the hope that it will cause . . . a pleasurable feeling . . . or else to express ideas. A work of art, then, can be either beautiful or expressive, or both.”2 It's worth noting that it's later clarified that the beauty referred to here is more about the beauty of the idea or inspiration behind the object, as opposed to the beauty of the object itself. Therefore an object which is not beautiful at a sensory level but it appealing on a mental or emotional level is beautiful for the purposes of this definition. This is an appealing concept because it allows for works which might be considered ugly on a purely sensory level, for example gothic art, to still be considered artistic through a kind of deeper beauty.
Applied arts are works which can be either beautiful or expressive or both, and are also useful. The suggestion then is that anything which is not art for art’s sake, and has another purpose besides creating beauty or expressing ideas is at best 'applied art' not 'fine art'. Introducing Art does not go so far as to suggest that this kind of art may be of lesser value, although it is implied by the distinction in terminology (it is not 'fine'). Games are sometimes placed into this category of applied art, because games also usually seek to be successful commercially and to entertain their audience.

Craft is explained largely through example. The book gives the example of a painting of a ship, and states that it was sold in a shop with many other similar paintings. This is craft as opposed to art because (according to the assumptions of the author) it was made to make money, or at least, is made through an essentially industrial process, and does not contain a novelty of ideas. Disregarding the fact that the author has no concrete way of knowing the purpose behind the creation of any given work or what ideas inspired its creation, this suggested another criterion for fine art – originality of idea.

Introducing Art puts forward a somewhat elitist definition of what the term 'artist' means, saying that an artist is one who has “special gifts of perception, thought, imagination and skill.” The suggestion here is that art is something that can only be done by a select few, not anyone. But this seems somewhat contradictory, after all, one does not need to have these kinds of special gifts in order to create something with the goal that it either be beautiful or expressive, and it also immediately excludes many kinds of activities which might produce something that could be called art which are undertaken by large groups of people who are not specifically artists, for example, tribal music. It is true that some highly formalised types of art, such as classical music, do require specific training, however there are also an abundance of kinds of art that do not require specific, special training. It seems to me that any definition of 'artist' other than something along the lines of 'one who produces art' leads to problems.

Under the heading “What is good art?” this book says that “What counts is the sensitivity, imagination, training and skill of the artist.” The suggestion is that the quality of the work, or the effect it has on you personally, has nothing to do with whether or not a piece of art is good – in actual fact, the suggestion is that if a 'good artist' made it, it is a good piece of art. This echoes the elitism mentioned earlier. This is unfair. I firmly believe that a work of art should be judged on its own merits, and that even masters can create trash on a bad day. Furthermore, although I don't quite follow the 'death of the author' school of thought, it's foolish to think you know an artist intimately enough to make judgements about what they were thinking when they created a certain piece.
1 These quotes appear on page viii of Donald Richardson's Introducing Art. The author’s sources are not made obvious aside from the original speaker/author and the approximate time of statement/publication. These details are reproduced in my own text.
2 Introducing Art, 1.

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