July 7th, 2010

Art With A Capital "A"

Elsewhere on the Net there's a debate going on about whether videogames are- or ever can be- Art. Roger Ebert kicked it off by saying they couldn't. A lot of people have come back at him complaining about his lack of jaw- or- more politely- offering him copies of Final Fantasy.

Like Ebert I'm not a gamer. I've looked at some of the samples of game play that people are proffering as Art and I've not seen anything that strikes me as much more than kitsch. This isn't to say that games can't be more than kitsch, just that I haven't been shown any that are (with the exception of Donkey Kong).  Mostly they work on us in obvious and unsubtle ways- with spectacle (vast landscapes and big explosions) and sentiment (all those big-eyed protagonists). The aesthetics are the aesthetics of Victorian history painting and Cecil B de Mille- excess,excess excess.

But that's not really the point. At least not the one I want to make.  The problem with the whole debate, one that lies at its root and renders it largely meaningless, is that we don't have a working definition of "Art".  We never really have done.  Ebert uses "Art" as a designator of quality: a person is only an artist if they produce good Art (whatever that is). But art can also be defined as a function, as a human activitiy. You slap paint on a flat surface- or indulge in any other of a number of creative activities- and you're an artist- and that holds good whether your name is Mark Rothko or Thomas Kinkade.

The idea- which is Ebert's idea- that the Artist is some sort of hero, some sort of priestly or shamanic figure- is relatively modern. It goes back to the renaissance- and the hero-worshipping art historian Giorgio Vasari. Before then the artist- like everyone else who didn't belong to the upper tiers of society- was unlikely to get his name in the history books. He was an artisan, a craftsman, a glorified brick-layer. The Vasari-Ebert idea of the Artist as superman-genius has always been a little shaky- undermined by the relative rarity of such figures and the inconvenient truth that in any generation most of the working artists in any medium are honourable or not so honourable hacks. It finally got its comeuppance at the start of the 20th century with the destabilising antics of Marcel Duchamp, who- among other japes- exhibited a gent's urinal as a ready-made art object. Since then Art has been anything that is presented to us as art by a person calling themselves an Artist.

Once in a while a new creative medium comes along- and always there's aa argument- often lasting for generations- as to whether it qualifies as Art or not. Typically the new medium will be compared with older mediums- either co-opted to them or found wanting- until the penny drops that it's actually its own thing.  This happened with photography, the movies, TV- and it only ever ends one way.  Meanwhile Art with a capital A has become a bit of a joke- mainly at the expense of the critics and punters- with the artists themselves either acting embarrassed at the status accorded them- or using it to make mischief. Ebert- as a leading movie critic- knows all this- and it's odd that he should have chosen to insert himself into such a pointless- and old-fashioned- debate.