Are games art?

Last year, what Jim Preston wrote drove the nail into the coffin of this absurd and useless question:

To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans’ attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the “is-it-art?” debate altogether.

Preston sheds light on a fatal problem with the “games as art” conversation. Forget games — “art” doesn’t have any sort of stable meaning in contemporary culture anyway.

Movements in the History of Art

There are many reasons for such a development, perhaps the most important being that the avant garde changed art for good.

In the turbulent times of the first two decades of last century, localized movements in Europe gained attention by rejecting traditionalism. Futurism founder Filippo Marinetti spurned all things old and embraced youth, machine, violence.

Then when violence became reality in World War I, a handful of artists in Zurich concluded that if progress since the Enlightenment had lead to the destruction of the Great War, then such progress had to be rejected. They called their work Dada.

The Futurists called for a total reinvention of cultural and political life. Dada scorned artistic and social conventions in favor of absurdism and recontextualization. Tristan Tzara performed live poetry by choosing words randomly out of a hat. Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art by putting it in a gallery rather than a restroom.

Movements like these, which became known collectively as the avant garde, disrupted traditional notions of art’s role and context. As the 20th century wore on, it became much harder to distinguish art by its form or function alone; context became the predominant factor, its arbitrariness exposed forever by Duchamp’s urinal.

But even before the avant garde, the history of art lays strewn with the babes and corpses of movements that hoped to re-imagine or reinvent their predecessors, even if they did so less rapidly.

The Gothic style of the 12th to 14th centuries preferred elongation, ornament, and angles in sculpture, architecture, and painting. The Renaissance perfected perspective. Realism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on portrayals of everyday life, itself spawning numerous movements of their own right such as Post-impressionism and the Pre-Raphaelites.

From the long perspective of history, the very idea that “art” means something monolithic and certain is simply absurd.

From Art Games to Art Movements in Games

What lessons can video games learn, even from a rudimentary understanding of art history? For one, there are no unified field theories of art. The pursuit of a pure, single account of art in any medium is a lost cause. Instead, the history of art has been one of disruption and reinvention, one of conflicting trends and ideas within each historical period, and since the 19th century even more so.

How then can we then understand the role of games in art? Unseating Roger Ebert’s hubristic clutch on film as the apotheosis of contemporary art is not the way forward. Neither is the impassioned folly of appeals to video games’ legal status as speech. Nor still is the repurposing of familiar game imagery as craft or as cake. Nor indeed granting game stills and concept art gallery status by hanging them in exhibitions at trade conventions.

Despite its lack of specificity, the idea of “games as art” or “artgames,” to use Jason Rohrer’s term, does offer some insight on its own. It suggests that games can be construed as art natively, within the communities of practice and even the industry of games. Its practitioners are game developers first, working artists second, if at all.

By contrast, “game art” describes a work prepared for exhibition in galleries or museums, still the “traditional” venues for art despite Duchamp. Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, a hack of the NES cart that removes everything but the moving clouds, offers a good example of “game art.” These are games that get exhibited, not games that get played.

Beyond such a distinction, however, and despite its rhetorical power, “artgame” is an insufficient name to be useful for players, creators, or critics. It is a stand-in for a yet unnamed set of movements or styles, akin to Realism or Futurism.

We must look deeper, toward the particularities of specific aesthetic trends in game development itself, with the hopes of identifying their positions in relation to games and art alike.

In other words, what we lack are discussions of the developing conventions, styles, movements through which games are participating in broader concept of art, both locally and historically.

Read the rest of this article online at Gamasutra

published January 21, 2009