The other day, a reporter asked me whether video games are art, and thus the waves of Roger Ebert's lately weakly retracted opinion to the contrary crash lap upon our shores. If Roger Ebert can offer a strong opinion just for the heck of it, so can we! So let's dive in.
Here's my take: Good art is shocking, interesting and true.
Shocking: It takes you out of your normal mode of thinking. It forces consideration and reflection.
Interesting: It draws you in. You find yourself unable or unwilling to ignore it.
True: It accords with a proper understanding of the human condition. It pierces the shell of your biases and immaturities, allowing you to come upon thoughts that are neither lies nor myths but rather subtle and profound insights.
Are video games capable of being shocking, interesting, and true?
To answer, let's use these razors a bit and see how they cut.
Cage's 4'33" may be art, but it is not good art.
It's not shocking. It was once shocking for about a quarter-hour, I suppose, but with 30 minutes' reflection it can be seen as an unimaginative extension of Duchamp's toilet. Forever after, the only reasonable thing to say (other than yawning) is "It's been done." Shock value in art is difficult to achieve. The standard is this: On repeated experiences, do I become troubled? Reflective? Moved? Does it feel different each time? Too many artists (Far too many! Please become sheep farmers or recluses or lawyers, please, please, just go away!!) seem to think that any lazily considered move that does not fit within the contemporary norms of un-PhD'd folk must therefore meet the standard of artistic shock. It's easy to shock the housewife in Peoria. Put crucifixes in urine, shit in cans, and buildings in cellophane. But you see, shocking her is not enough. You have to shock me. Good luck with that. "But - it's GREAT BIG cellophane!!" Uh-huh. Yep. Great. Thank you so much for coming. Next, please.
Speaking of yawning, 4'33" is not interesting. Silence is not interesting, nore are its equally overused siblings, noise and abstraction. Silence and noise and theoretical shapings are not interesting, they are BORING. Music, the repeating art, is interesting when it establishes expectations and then satisfies them in an unexpected way. Silence and noise don't do that. In visual arts, mere abstraction confronts the viewer with a closed door. Thus: Mondrian is BORING. Rothko is BORING. Intellectual art similarly drives the person away. If I have to read seven books on art theory and history to grasp the significance, it is not good art, it is BORING. Deconstructions, destructions, critiques, ready-mades, and reductions are not bad because they are too easy ("My kid could have drawn that!") but because they offer, on reflection, no good reason to pay attention. What's a "good reason"? It comes down to my humanity which, I must report, I am not at all ready to surrender. I am a human being. In this dull, dull, dull world of office buildings and "Click here to win!" banners, I need to encounter things that massage my aesthetic sensibilities and keep them alive. I am concerned about the engagement quality of art not because I am a petulant sensation-seeker but because I need art that lives in my world with me. My world is a battle between steel, silicon, and blood. If art does not have blood in it, does not engage me in my human needs, and that right quickly, it merely contributes to the oppressions that the rest of experience imposes.
Finally, 4'33" is not True. I am a Christian and a Catholic one at that (cf. "blood," above). At various times I've been a capitalist, a progressive, an atheist, a militarist, an internationalist, an anarchist, and God knows what else. Like you, I have mulled many approaches to life (with the frequent help of art), and like you, I have molded these thoughts into a trash heap of stances that I take, more or less, as my "position." It's an ugly and disordered pile, yes. But it's mine, and dearly earned. It has changed over the years, but lately it has become pretty stable. Maybe I'm just old, I don't know. I keep kicking it and throwing stuff at it, just as I've always done, but there's a core to it that I (shock of shocks!) am comfortable calling The Truth. The Way It Is. Just the Facts. Saying this opens an easy and devastating move for those of you who don't believe in truth-with-a-capital: You can just say that the guy is an old-school Universalist and Absolutist whose views have been long discredited; Derrida said so, so did [insert names of 100 Frenchmen here], so, toss the essay. Hold, however, for one moment, so I can confess to you that my junk-heap is consciously post-ironic, post-deconstruction, post-critical. After destruction comes renewal, and I'm with the renewers. Well, whatever. This, my pile, such as it is, gives me a perspective on art, and having a perspective is essential to the act of aesthetic judgment. The junk-heap of Things You Have Decided Are True, whatever they may be, forms a standard that protects you from art that is mere ideology, sugary myth, or outright lie. Speaking of which: In my junk heap of stances, there's a big old couch in the middle, one of those comfy 100-ton things, that says "The Universe is not silent. It is filled with a voice of sentient love." From this perspective, I sense that silence is not true. In the same way, Duchamp's toilet is "not true," does not accord with my truthpile. Human artistic endeavor, including the institutions that frame it, does not amount to a toilet. Furthermore, those institutions cannot turn a toilet into art or silence into music. That just ain't the way it is. Thus, gg 4'33". You can have some respect or appreciation for art that does nothing more than attack or praise your comfy old couch, but mere attacks and lauds are not enough. The art must resonate with the couch, enlighten your understanding of it, grasp it and help you grasp it. Otherwise its not art, its just entertainment (or less).
Very well, 4'33" is not good art. What is? Take Richard III. Not a deep play at all, but when staged in a way that respects the author's intentions (Yes, authors have intentions, and we can know them through the work itself), it's good art. It's shocking - encountering the depravity of Richard in his pitiable body always takes you out of your comfort zone. It's interesting - Shakespeare wrote for *everybody.* The groundlings liked his plays, so did the Queen, so did the other playwrights. Art can and should appeal to lots of people at the same time and in a similar way. That, by the way, is the standard for democratic art; I'm amazed at the flippancy with which contemporary art is described as democratic even when its offerings are impenetrable (BORING! Admit it!) to other thinkers, let alone the guy on his way home from work. Finally, Richard III is true. We know all too well that narcissists crave thrones and will manipulate our sympathies to get them. Moreover, there's a pattern of such broken people, empowered, doing awful things. It all accords with my Truthpile. As much as I might dislike being reminded of it, some people that I feel sorry for can be dangerous to things I care about. It's a fact of human life that I ignore at my peril.
Given all that: Can a video game be art? You bet. Consider Fable.
Shocking: These days, we normally think of Evil as something rather noble. Evil acts, it is said, are merely misunderstood acts. The skills of moral discernment have fallen into disuse (or are in no more use than they ever were, I suppose). In the public sphere, even acts of profound wickedness are massaged into the acts of crazed minds - not minds under the influence of a Deceiver. The whole idea of thinking in such terms is considered childish and impolite by many otherwise reasonable folk. Thus there's great confusion (not debate - confusion) about what's good and what's evil. You see this in most games. Play the "evil" side and you're really just a dark hero. Not so in Fable. Play as an evil character there and you get the actual experience of being a monster. You murder the innocent, oppress the weak, steal from the poor, and scare little kids. As a result, people shriek when they see you. They hate you. They disrespect you. They curse your name. They seek to keep you from their company; they shun you; they make you alone. They would kill you if they could, and the person who drove the lance into your heart would be hailed as a redeemer. This treatment of evil - as an utterly pathetic and ignoble choice - is, in contemporary contexts, quite shocking. It may be shocking for other times as well; evil is said to have a glamor. Perhaps the reminder of what evil amounts to always has shock value. In any case, Fable is shocking, and not cheaply so.
Interesting: Fable is a fun game.
True: Somewhere in my pile is a huge stack of histories according to which there have been many evil acts, and, on a thorough review, there really hasn't been anything noble or heroic about those acts. They are typically sophomoric outrages perpetrated by lazy thinkers (mine certainly were are). Those who commit bad deeds are not secretly brilliant, unfairly marginalized victims of society's oppressions. Villains like to think of themselves this way, as did Shakespeare's Richard, but the record shows that your typical villain is just an emotional toddler with weapons and a theory. The villain's lack of self-control and compassion rightly earn ostracism and imprisonment. We do well to control such people if we can, run away if we have to. Thus the treatment of evil in Fable accords well with my Truthpile.
Putting it all together: Yes, video games are capable of being art.
That's my answer to Roger Ebert! What's yours?