Mechanical Dances

Games and art

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In 2014 on the website Polygon (polygon.org), Eric Zimmerman wrote an opinion piece on videogames and art. He argued that the question of whether videogames can be art ‘is simply the wrong question.”  You can read this thoughtful piece here:  http://www.polygon.com/2014/9/10/6101639/games-art.

There are two sides in the debate, but most in the games community are on one side: namely, that videogames can attain the heights of art, perhaps already have. Those outside the games community—famously the film critic Roger Ebert, but many others— are usually the ones who want to deny games this elevated status. Zimmerman is addressing the games community and shows (quite convincingly, I think) that the argument for games as art depends on misconceptions about the nature and status of art today.

It is a misconception to think that art today can be an absolute category. Rather, as Zimmerman says, “art becomes art when it participates in the practices of art.”  In other words, the art community decides what is art and who is an artist. As I have argued, our media culture consists of a large number of diverse communities of practice—communities whose memberships may grow, shrink, and intersect constantly. By this standard the art community is still relatively well-defined today. It includes some artists who make videogames or game-like art, but the vast majority of videogame designers and makers are not part of the art community.  The terms “art” and “artist,” on the other hand, are applied very broadly today, far beyond the borders of the art community. The reason for that is the breakdown of the categories of “high”and “popular” culture in the second half of the twentieth century, and the rise of popular modernism, which I have discussed in earlier posts.

When Zimmerman claims that art is “no longer the highest classification by which all culture should be valued,” he is  pointing out something that should be obvious today. There is no single classification or hierarchy to which our media culture subscribes today. The formerly elite arts and popular entertainments are all now special interests, each with a community of practitioners and audience. Each art and entertainment may have many subcommunities, and any and all of these can overlap, sharing audience and practitioners. But, the point is that if elite arts are special interests, they are no more special than any others. No one form of expression has an importance that unarguably transcends its community. This is what the plenitude means for art and indeed other forms of culture today. Each community is still free to define its art as central, and many do, but they cannot compel general cultural assent, as the elites of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries were able to do.

Art in the now classic modernist sense does not preserve or elevate culture as a whole, because there is no whole, no unified culture to preserve.  This is something that creators of popular media forms such as videogames should be happy about. Videogames do not have to compete with traditional art for cultural status. There is no universally agreed upon scale in which painting or poetry or for that matter film is more important, more central than videogames. But of course the reverse is true as well—videogames are not more important that painting, poetry or film. Those kinds of judgments of relative value can only be made from within particular communities. Unfortunately many in the videogame community are heirs to the tradition of popular modernism. And popular modernists want to break into the club of elite culture rather than break down its walls. They want their favorite media form (videogames, rock music, hip-hop) to be acknowledged as part of art as a special cultural category.

That’s why Zimmerman’s article is so refreshing. He is encouraging videogame makers to enjoy and celebrate the particular qualities of their media form, rather than trying to insert it in the category of elite art, a category that I would argue simply belongs to another community.

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