The Value of Art
May 06, 2014
A letter written as part of the Republic of Bloggers to the artists at the Sandbox/Fair events in Edinburgh. The letter is crossposted here from the Sandbox site. Replies from anyone at the event – or anyone reading this letter afterwards – are welcome.
Dear artists of the University of Edinburgh, University of Leeds, and the St. Lucas School of Art, as well as staff and guests of the Talbot Rice Gallery,
Please accept my apologies for not being able to attend this event in person, but alas my wife will be going into labour any moment now and that has placed rather stringent restrictions upon my activities! I would like, however, to express my thanks at bring invited to talk to you on the topic of games as art, a subject dear to my heart and one that Edinburgh has graciously extended its welcome to me previously. That I am able to do so on this occasion within an art gallery is an especial point of pride, and helps bring into focus the importance that galleries possess in maintaining and exploring the values of art.
Although a game designer by profession, having worked on over forty games over the course of my career, I am now liable to additionally describe myself as 'a philosopher by vocation'. Even when I was studying astrophysics, my interest was in the questions that the sciences brought into focus more than the experimental practices. Yet I never anticipated being thrown feet first into philosophy, and much less philosophy of art which is a long way from my earlier interests!
Before I can discuss the role of games in the context of art, it may be prudent to touch upon why it might matter whether games can be artworks – and this question in turn hinges upon why art is worth talking about. There are many serious matters in urgent need of attention in our world – is it frivolous, then, to indulge in discussions about the status and boundaries of art? My view is that free discourse about art is a luxury that we in the United Kingdom (and other, not dissimilar nations) both can afford and equally cannot afford to lose. It is the question of the value of art that I want to address before we can explore the value of games as an artform.
Why is art valuable?
Oscar Wilde famously claimed that “all art is quite useless”, and when asked to expand upon this he wrote (in a letter to Bernulf Clegg): “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.” Later in the same letter he added: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.”
Many critics of Wilde’s remark have engaged with this claim by demonstrating how art can be useful, which indeed it can be in a whole host of ways. But Wilde’s point should not be understood as denigrating art but as attempting to draw a line between art and purportedly ‘useful’ activities such as engineering, or medicine, or transport, or even entertainment – thus defining ‘art’ in opposition to the kind of values that organise such fields. The whole concept of 'utility', now the guiding principle of the national and corporate bureaucracies all around us, came to the fore in the Victorian era that was Wilde’s own time. Placing art in opposition to that kind of functional practicality gives art an important kind of power, the capacity to reveal a world beyond utility – a world we lose sight of all too often in the need to justify everything via claims to usefulness.
The grim vacuity of ‘utility’ as the sole value against which all other things must be judged was the nub of Einstein’s complaint that we had lost sight of our purposes. He wrote in 1948: “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age and it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity, that technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal, and that the attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.” Art is a chaotic, indefinable bulwark against our obsession with means, precisely because (as Wilde remarked) it is not for any specific purpose beyond its own experience, even though the experience of art can and does change us, and thus art does paradoxically acquire a certain kind of usefulness, one quite beyond the reach of our unruly mega-bureaucracies.
This way of defending art as valuable has the distinct benefit of not requiring a specific definition of ‘art’ – which is exceptionally convenient, since no such definition can adequately take into account both the array of practices that can lay claim to producing or entailing ‘art’ and simultaneously the nebulous universality that would allow us to call, say, a 40,000 year old cave painting ‘art’ without any access to the specifics of the practice that created it. We instinctively recognise certain artefacts as ‘art’. Speaking solely for myself, I instinctively recognize games as ‘art’. So why do so many people have difficulty similarly recognising games as art?
Why are games art?
I began to discover that I had been tasked with defending games as art in the wake of the now infamous announcement by film critic Roger Ebert that games ‘could not’ be art. But Ebert’s Fence, as I have called it, which attempts to make a demarcation between games and art is not solely a problem created by outsiders looking in. A shocking number of supposedly well-informed gamers have enforced this boundary by, for instance, refusing to accept that the British-made Dear Esther is a game. “Art yes, game no”, this knee-jerk response states – while failing to notice that this attitude is precisely that which attempts to deny to games their artistic status. “You must be either a game or art”, the fence demands, “you cannot be both.” Sadly, many of those who claim to passionately defend games have become the greatest obstruction to recognising games as artworks!
What eternally destroyed this dichotomy between games and art for me was Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of representation, a model from philosophy of art that explores how we imagine. Walton suggests that what has often held us back in understanding ‘art’ has been our failure to recognise the role of fiction in all representational artworks, as well as many other things we do not consider as art. He suggests that the way we encounter a representation (including an artwork) is by playing an imaginary game with it – one parallel to (but more sophisticated than) a child’s game of make-believe. We see sunflowers in Van Gogh’s remarkable painting because the bold brushstrokes prescribe a fictional world containing sunflowers, and our experience of the painting comes via the game we play with it that allows us to enter this world.
As a game designer, I could immediately see that this model completely flattens Ebert’s Fence since there can be no question of the artistic status of games if all artworks already entail games (namely, the games of make-believe we play as we experience them). The attempt to prise games away from art (or vice versa) then has to deny that the free imaginings of children constitute a game, despite this being precisely the word that is naturally deployed to describe such an activity! I developed this argument in my first book of philosophy, Imaginary Games, which would go on to be the first part of a trilogy on the role of imagination – in art and games, in science and religion, and in ethics and life. The last of these books, Chaos Ethics, will be out later this year.
However, let us not be too hasty in attributing artistic status to games! That games are art does not make all games into great artworks – nor even all great games into great artworks. The films of, say, Akira Kurasawa, are widely and justifiably celebrated as great artworks, but this does not make all feature films into great artworks. We have all seen terrible movies, after all. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (made in Scotland, I might add!) is a great game that I would hesitate to defend as a masterly work of art, and not only because it operates primarily as a juvenile kind of wish fulfilment. The ambiguity surrounding both art and play is never entirely eliminated, and the personal experience that is central to the value of art creates considerable space for debate.
What are the boundaries of games-as-art?
The enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reconciled the conflict between the apparent subjectivity of taste and the stridency of objective claims to beauty by suggesting that in aesthetics our subjective judgements are ones that we treat as if they have objective validity. So if I view, say, Pac-man as a masterwork my judgement also entails the expectation that others also have to view it that way. This helps explain why arguments about art – and, for that matter, games – can get so heated! Like our moral judgements, our aesthetic values can have a normative force that we expect others to conform to.
But in dealing with the idea of games as artworks we must also defuse the problem that our enjoyment of games causes us to valorise what we adore about those experiences independently of any artistic values entailed. Indeed, that is precisely why self-appointed defenders of games had to exclude Dear Esther as a game: it is a game that intentionally avoids the obviously rewarding aspects of challenge-oriented play. That alone is enough for some to brand it ‘not a game’ – and for me to single it out as a game of particular artistic value.
What I find especially fascinating in the question ‘what is a game?’ are the parallels with discussions in the art world over ‘what is art?’ Monroe Beardsley, for instance, flatly refused to accept that Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ – such as the urinal signed by Duchamp and gallery-displayed in 1917 as “Fountain” – could possibly qualify as ‘art’. I suspect that Beardsley’s principled rejection of this work did more to validate modern art as worthy of valorisation than anything said in its favour! Similarly, I view Ebert’s rejection of games as art to be the harbinger of an era no longer able to deny games artistic status, and for this I am immeasurably grateful to Ebert for deciding to talk about the artistic status of games, even in the negative. This watershed was long overdue.
Now, however, the problem faced by us brave few fools interested in the aesthetics of play is how to establish what is worthy of valorisation (or even denunciation!) in the context of games as art. It has been easy for me to support the artgames of Belgian developer, Tale of Tales, to give a simple example, because their work builds upon practices well-established as art against those practices that are well-established as games. These in turn inspired games whose footing is further from traditional artistic practice, such as thatgamecompany's Journey (featured – in a particularly novel way – as part of this exhibition [as pictured above]), which owes an acknowledged debt to Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest but still feels unashamedly like a videogame for all its uniqueness. There is a vector of artistic expression at work here that is worthy of praise.
The task I am hinting at here is infinite and in need of support – I hope and trust that a few of those I am speaking to today, or who read this afterwards, will think it worthwhile to identify strands of practice in game design – art movements, specific aesthetics, communities of players or creators – that are worth valorising not just as games or as art but as games-as-art. The artist may resent the comfortable advantage of the critic who, after all, avoids taking the personal risks an artist must accept, but it usually falls to the critic – or to the gallery – to create and sustain the discourse that rings true with authentically artistic values. Those values are open to perpetual dispute – but the need to recognise aesthetic values is not. It is integral to our existence as imaginative beings.
Life, I am inclined to suggest, should be played, and as such we should strive both to play it well and to encourage others willing to go beyond the stifling demands of consumer conformity and ‘usefulness’ to play at living well. Be unique, create wondrous things, let your imaginative powers take you far from the inevitabilities! Make new worlds from old practices, and make anew the worlds of our oldest and greatest practices, including those we praise as ‘art’. This is the value of art, even if it is also why that value is always necessarily in flux.
With unlimited love,
No-one has replied yet.
I want to create art, and I do that by placing a paper bag on the ground.
When I read about Kendall Walton, I instantly thought of what I read over at Psychology of Games where, to be able to understand something, you will try to put in in a context; to create a story. Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider shows this by the following clip (90 sec long):
What I find interesting about these what-is-art/game discussions is what I feel that what people really trying to define is "what good art". To me, my paper bag is art because I said so, but I would never claim that it's good art.
When people say "That's not a game", what they really mean is probably "That's not how I play games". It' a exclusive way of seeing things, and by being exclusive, you actually prevent innovation in that area.
If someone says it's a game, it's a game. Try to learn from that perspective. To understand it. Sure, you can question it but only to get an understanding. Perhaps you realize that it's not how you play a game, and then can be dismissive, but at least you learned a new perspective.
Posted by: Rickard Elimää | May 11, 2014 at 02:59 PM
My work recently has focused on an idea related to what you say here: that it is aesthetic values that are in play when people tackle the questions of 'what is a game' or 'what is art', and like you I instinctively feel they are assigning their ontological categories on aesthetic grounds.
This opens up a fascinating door for me, since I can then identify aesthetic positions on play by looking at ontological definitions of 'game'. This is what 'Implicit Game Aesthetics' (drafted on my blogs, and enmired in peer defense for a journal) pursued. If the topic interest you, have a crack at that:
Thanks for your comment!
Posted by: Chris | May 14, 2014 at 01:48 PM
Congratulations on another successful procreation!
I enjoy your writing, and want to support your Republic of Bloggers, but I must admit that your open letters are so well written, well-considered and voluminous (for a blog post, at least) that it's difficult to feel that I have much to add to your existing thoughts -- and even to the degree that I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation, doing so often feels more time consuming than I can afford.
But, since having my ass handed to me (again) by FTL hasn't cured my (thankfully rare) insomnia, now seems the perfect time to vomit forth something that resembles discourse.
As usual, you have many fascinating thoughts here that I find convincing. But since merely nodding is uninteresting, I will focus on my points of dissent.
I claim that art does not merely "acquire a certain kind of usefulness", but in fact can easily be seen in purely utilitarian terms. Of course I understand your aim in contrasting art against the Victorian ideal of utility, but I think it's equally important to point out that numerous events (a patient overcoming post-surgery pain while avoiding drugs by playing a videogame, or a gamer relishing making decisions in her favorite fantasy world in what would otherwise be a dull couple of hours, or a group of friends centering a social gathering around a game, and so many more) are all naturally thought of in utilitarian terms. So you're really criticizing the Victorian sense of utility, not the applicability of utilitarianism to videogames and other art forms.
I also object to art being characterized as "undefinable" in some way unique to the field of art. Many thinkers (including yourself!) create consistent and useful definitions for many aspects of art -- while there are surely many aspects left to understand, and many aspects that are incompletely understood (and indeed are unlikely to be fully understood in our lifetimes, if ever), to a greater or lesser degree this is true of all fields of inquiry, and is in no way specific to art.
I also fail to see how "mega-bureaucracies" cannot achieve the aims of art. Can you really argue that no large organization has ever in human history played a significant role in creating a piece of art? (This statement seems hard to defend given any reasonable definition of "mega-bureaucracy" or "art")
Someday I hope to find the time to read "Imaginary Games", but until then, I've felt very comfortable thinking of art in terms of communication. This metaphor seems broad enough to encompass all art, but narrow enough to provide some practical insight to the in-the-trenches artist.
If art is communication, then many things can be artistic -- indeed, any time a speaker (artist) communicates something (anything) to an audience member by any means, the function of art has taken place.
As with communication, miscommunication happens all the time: sometimes through an incompetent speaker (artist), an incompetent listener (audience member), or a willful misinterpretation of the art (communication).
Great art communicates a great deal in terms of profundity, clarity, and volume of information. But since communication depends as much on the listener as on the speaker, it will always be entirely subjective (as it appears that Kant has noted), and great art to one person will often be superficial and nearly meaningless to another.
The only thing that separates interactive art (such as videogames) from purely passive art (like film or music) is interactive artists teach the artwork itself to listen to the audience member, and adjust its speakings accordingly.
I'm terribly curious to know your thoughts about these and other topics!
The rest of your letter was fascinating, with numerous details altogether new to me! Hopefully someday I'll be able to dig deeper without sacrificing the other time-consuming activities I'm engaged in.
Cheers and best wishes,
Posted by: Nathan Frost | June 09, 2014 at 04:03 AM
Thanks for your thoughtful comment... although I must say, if you're suffering from insomnia FTL is definitely not going to offer a cure (it is likely to be the cause!), and writing text is also not high up the list of ways to get to sleep. As someone with a long history of insomnia that I am thankfully mostly over, I will have to say that videogames are best avoided in the last two hours before you intend to go to sleep. They wake up parts of your brain that will not slumber easily once awoken! :)
Thanks for your kind words about the blog letters - I have to say, it is becoming clear that because people agree with me on so many points, it is hard to get the dialogue going! This is unfortunate... Clearly, I will have to wade in on more strident subjects later this year! :)
Regarding utility, I think I am only criticising the ethical perspective that would reduce *all* morality to utility. Utilitarian thinking can be a healthy part of morality - but it becomes cancerous when all other aspects are quashed in its pursuit. I feel it would be unfair to blame the Victorians for this - although they started the ball rolling!
It is certainly not unique to art that it is 'undefinable', although I also do not think art is 'undefinable', as such, so much as it (like 'game' and many other words) have clusters of meanings that cannot be fully captured in a single definition. Wittgenstein is on point for me on these issues, as ever. ;)
I do not wish to claim that mega-bureaucracies cannot produce artworks. They do. Almost all feature films these days, to give one obvious example. But they pursue these for their commercial utility. It is art in Oscar Wilde's sense that is beyond the reach of the corporate mega-bureaucracy. They cannot pursue 'useless' art, because even in order to do so they would have to provide an explanation in terms of utility to justify its production! Only the individual and the small band of artists can reach art in Wilde's sense, or such is my claim, at least.
The view of art as communication is quite well established now, I'm pleased to say - I am very open to this understanding. There's an Eric Newton paper in the British Journal of Aesthetics called "Art as Communication" in 1961, and I'm reasonably sure that William James or some other pragmatist advanced a view predicated on this kind of understanding. I only resist it because I think that an unseen artwork could still be an artwork, and I do not feel the need to invoke communication-with-self to defend this. But the communicative aspect of art is definitely one of its most salient points, whether or not it is properly essential.
Lastly, I baulk at your characterisation of film or music as 'purely passive'. This is a common view that I resist - my paper on Tolkein's legendarium (which I linked to here somewhere) expressly tries to show how a book or a movie can be a highly active imaginative experience. This is not a merely technical point, either - as much as I enjoy videogames, most do not actually engage my imagination actively as much as a genre movie that is connected to a wider megatext.
I cannot commit to the line of reasoning that is going to demarcate 'interactive artworks' on some claim of passivity for other kinds of artworks - no art is passive. The experience of art is always active. If we must tease games away from other artworks, I fear it must be because of the ways they dictate experience as much or more so than any agency that they may seem to offer...
I must dash, as I am horribly behind on my work, but thank you for commenting and since you *have* commented before, you count as Player #6 for the Meta-campaign. Many thanks for returning to comment!
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | June 09, 2014 at 09:36 AM