Thursday, July 8, 2010

Artistic and Cultural Categories

I was recently alerted to a small maelstrom that has consumed certain corners of the Interweb. Roger Ebert - of film criticism fame - decided to take on video games, asserting that they are not and cannot be art. That is to say, they are not merely, in their current state, cave paintings waiting to become, with time and refinement, Rembrandts. They are, instead, some utterly non-artistic enterprise, not necessarily valueless, per se, but certainly not of significant cultural value.

Not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of backlash against Ebert, leading to a kind of retraction. That is, Ebert didn't back down from his position, but he did insist, essentially, that it was a bad idea for him to bring the subject up in the first place. He fired a final salvo shortly thereafter, discussing, among other things, the status of Huck Finn, and the definition of art.

Are video games art? That question doesn't really interest me that much. "Art" is one of those moving-target words that is intentionally vague and ambiguous and personal in such a way that it is almost impossible to define in any meaningful way. Why, in just my last post I argued, more or less, that soccer is art, a position that depends, frankly, upon my failure to define the term "art" in the post. Precisely because I let art be an imprecise category, I was free to fit a game and a sport into it.

Which is not to say that soccer isn't art, or that it is. The real point is that soccer - and sports in general - occupies such a central place in the culture of the world that, even if it isn't art, it is certainly something worth exploring and thinking about. Anything - whether it be, by some precise definition, art, a game, a diversion, or what have you - anything that captures the fancy and maintains the interest of some 3 or more billion people the world over is something worth taking seriously. Art or not, soccer is a cultural artifact that tells us a whole lot about how we understand the world, how we want to understand the world, and how we describe that understanding. You might say, the anthropologist is not picky about whether what he studies is "art" or not, but rather how much what he studies reflects or doesn't reflect the culture and personality of the society and its people he is interested in.

Of course, the anthropologist would also care whether or not the culture in question defines the activity or artifact in question as art. If we, collectively or individually, call video games art or, on the other hand, reject them totally, that says something about us, too. It is not, in short, the category "art" that matters, but the way in which that category is used that is most important.

I see, in Ebert's stand and the backlash against him, not some great crisis in the definition of art and the status of modern technology in a world where "kids these days" don't read anymore. Frankly, the kids are going to be ok, and no one has any idea what, 2,000 years from now, people will hold up as the great art of our age, if anything. No, the point of interest here is the fascinating clash of cultures, where Ebert represents a certain subculture which has a certain relationship with artistic categories, while those who are upset with him are acting out a whole other cultural position. What I respect about Ebert in all of this is that he seems conscious of his cultural situation in a way that the authors of many of his angry comments do not. But even that comes with his cultural territory, while the anonymous Internet complainer is anything but self-effacing and reflective, at least in his presentation of self.

What is in conflict here, then, is not video-games-as-art versus video-games-as-trash (at worst) or video-games-as-well-designed-commercial-products (at best). The "I know it when I see it" meme is all-too-easy in that case, and there's not likely to be any kind of productive dialogue. As spineless as it likely seems to hardened disciples of Shadow of the Colossus or World of Goo, Ebert's "forget I said anything" is probably the best thing he could say.

The actual conflict is subtler than that, because its categories are much harder to define. There's something of old-guard versus new-guard, established medium versus new medium. Video games, to a man like Ebert, likely seem like some ugly bastard child of cinema, but let us not forget that cinema was once an ugly bastard child of theater, which was in turn an ugly bastard child of literature, which was an ugly bastard child of spoken narrative. That is not to say that the Iliad recited by Homer is the only true art, and all else is some pale shadow by comparison. Rather, it is to say that the history of what we call art is not a clear-cut one, and that each new innovation is usually regarded with great skepticism, especially by the luminaries and critics of the other mediums.

Which is not to say that Ebert is some stick-in-the-mud who just needs to play games, and then he'll "get it." Ebert is exactly right, in fact. As he understands art, video games are not and never can become art, just as movies are not and will never be art to some dead guy from the 1800s for whom the medium would have no relevance or meaning. The thing is, in order for us to use any intellectual category, we need to have some relevant context in which we can develop our understanding, and what's more important, where we can be fitted into that cultural position. There is really no acceptance of or resistance to culture of any kind in a vacuum. Ebert, like you or me, is coming from a lifetime full of accepted norms, ideas, and beliefs, most of which are utterly inaccessible to any kind of self-reflection.

Let me put it this way: I believe what I believe about soccer and baseball (and video games) because I grew up in a certain way, with parents of a certain disposition, and because I spent time in schools, in relationships, watching movies and tv shows, playing games, listening to the radio, and so on. I never defined myself in some essential sense. I certainly made choices, based upon all of the cultural options available to me, but even the maverick and the rebel are such in contrast to something. When I say "nicht diese tone," "not these tones," I acknowledge both my resistance to the world-as-it-is and our accounts of it as they are, but also my immense debt to exactly that world. Were it not there, I would have nothing to resist, and I would have no categories - no words, I might say - that I could use to express anything.

The same is true of Ebert, and, as I said, he seems aware of that exact fact. Admitting that he should not have brought up the subject was, it seems to me, a realization that his entire cultural framework is different than that of the 20-something-year-old men that populate the Internet, a generation that grew up on Mario and Master of Magic and Civilization and Grand Theft Auto. It's not to say we can't have a conversation, because there's a lot we share, too, but it is to say that we need to be careful about how different the categories we use are.

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