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The Arty Party
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The Arty Party


February 11, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

These same divides can be found in other art forms. Chuck Palahniuk is to some a rare literary artist, and to others he is a symptom of deep cultural decline. Quentin Tarantino’s constant recovery of cinema’s discarded detritus makes him a post-modern hero to hipsters, and a sort of cultural bowel obstruction to traditionalists.

What are video gamers to make of this? If there really is an art party, and we need to get someone’s approval to get inside, who is it? Roger Ebert? Harold Bloom? Johnny Rotten? Michael Kimmelman? Tom Wolfe? Does it really matter?

For my answer, consider this example. In May of last year, the Washington Post tried an experiment about the appreciation of art. They hired Joshua Bell to bring his Stradivarius and play works like Bach’s "Chaconne" in a Washington D.C. subway station on a busy weekday morning.

To put it another way, what would happen if you were to take arguably the greatest living violinist and have him play to busy commuters with a perfect instrument some of the greatest music every written? Would they recognize that perhaps the very apex of Western art was appearing in their midst?

As it happens, they did not. Only a handful of people even stopped to consider Bell, and only two truly recognized what they were hearing, probably due in large part to having been trained in music. In examining the question of why more people didn’t realize what they were hearing, the article cites Mark Leithauser, senior curator at the National Gallery.

He argues that if he were to take $5 million dollar work of art, remove it from its frame, and hang it up at a local restaurant with a price tag of $150 on it, almost nobody would recognize it as a masterpiece. The context in which we view the art, says Leithauser, goes a long way towards creating our appreciation of it.

Or if you are Marcel Duchamp, context goes all the way. Let’s not forget Fountain, his urinal that became art in 1917 for the simple reason that it was put in a museum. This, suggested Duchamp, is what makes art, art: how we treat it. How do we know this urinal, this "readymade", is a piece of art? Because it is in a museum, and that’s where we keep our art. How fitting is it that in 1993 at a museum in southern France one of Duchamp’s artistic admirers paid his highest respects to a reproduction of the piece -- he pissed on it.

My suggestion to my fellow gamers is not to piss on Roger Ebert, as tempting as that may be. Instead of adopting a philosophical or aesthetic strategy, we should adopt a political one. Even if I thought Ebert had a coherent conception of art, there is little to be gained by engaging him in an essentialist debate.

Instead, we should learn from Joshua Bell’s example and focus on creating the conditions in which video games can be viewed as art. And the good news is we are already well on the way to doing so. Orchestras across Japan, the U.S. and Europe have begun to perform concerts of videogame music.

Versions of Pong, Dragon’s Lair and Pac-Man are on display in the Smithsonian. Academic conferences about videogames are emerging. Cosplay. Machinima. Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play. Etcetera.

As the video game generation grows older and more influential, the "is it art?" debate will be won by context and simple attrition. Gamers will have grown up with them, and the cranks in meatspace will slowly die off.

None of this is really to say that games are in fact art (although Duchamp himself thought that one game, chess, was purer than art). Instead, I am merely suggesting a strategy about how games could actually come to be accepted as art. And as for Roger Ebert, my suggestion to my fellow gamers is the same as my suggestion to my fellow movie-goers: ignore him.

 


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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