On April 16th, Lord-of-the-Thumbs Roger Ebert said the following in a Chicago Sun-Times piece (which was repeatedly interrupted by lots of pictures he found on the internet) :
“Video games can never be art.”
... which was quickly followed by over 3000 comments, as the droves of nerdlingers which dominate the internet demographic flocked to defend Mario Party and insist that Mr. Ebert just play one particular game which would irrevocably convince him that video games are, in fact, the artiest muthafuckin’ thing that ever happened to a television. 3000 comments missed the point.
See, it’s not our lot to convince Roger Ebert that video games can conceivably fall into the category of ‘art’, and if that’s your intent, you should not cite a single example that presumably validates the entire genre. Neil Gaiman winning a World Fantasy Award for Sandman doesn’t mean that Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is suddenly Leaves of Grass. It doesn’t work that way. It’s Ebert’s very definition of art which is flawed by its self-imposed limitations.
"No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets”, says Ebert. I’m not entirely certain why ‘poets’ deserves two mentions, but I have to question why we’re making these comparisons at all. If you summon up two of the most universally respected examples in any creative genre, you cannot intelligently compare them. Guernica and The Godfather may have some loose intellectual strings that run between them, but these are not comparisons that need to be made. Also, please make Guernica : The Video Game, since we’ve already done it to The Godfather.
Ebert criticizes the inextricable ties between video games and business, and uses this as an argument against video games as art, while failing to acknowledge the billions of dollars that keep the "artistic" movie industry afloat, or Andy Warhol’s hands-off approach to the manufacturing of art. Are his ideas less valid because he did not personally manifest all of them?
It’s safe to say that the earliest films, the earliest video games, and the earliest visual arts were created in an environment that was free from the concerns of finances and business, no matter where they ended up. The earliest, most nascent existence of any new form of experience is free from these things. The first fornicators didn’t rub their genitals together because they thought it would be a great idea to film it and slap it on the internet for a few bucks. We do all of these things because they feel awesome. Sure, everything eventually becomes entangled with money and business somehow because we’re a filthy, filthy species, but in their purest form, video games were not imagined for profit. They were an experiment which has come amazingly far, not unlike Ebert’s beloved art of film.
I don’t think that there are many gamers who would have argued that video games were art until Ebert insisted they were not. I mean, if we’re lobbing examples of things which invalidate the others’ preferred form of art, let me just say this: Norbit.
That’s right, I just went all Norbit up in this bitch.
Ebert goes on to say that video games, should they ever evolve into 'art' will not reach this state until long after we’re all dead. I’m not sure where an item’s longevity became part of the definition of whether or not it becomes 'art,' either, but he is completely out of his depth, having based his arguments on a 15-minute YouTube video which calls upon some especially bad examples. All of this is without deigning to lower himself to actually experience the medium. For a man who focuses so much attention on his thumbs, you’d think he might want to actually employ them in something more aggressive than a gesture that stopped being gnarly about 20 years ago.
What it comes down to is that Roger Ebert, while an astute man, does not possess the authority to define what art is. Neither do I - but both of us have a right to express it. Anyone who refuses to accept an amorphous, evolving definition of 'art' is betraying their own ignorance, and the beauty that our filthy, filthy species is capable of. This from a guy who has generated his ample fame by sitting in a soft chair and extensively criticizing the works of others.
I play video games sometimes, but mostly because I like hearing the little bloopy noises and seeing things explode or evaporate in a miasma of laser-induced death. I don’t play them because I’m after artistic enlightenment, but I would not so vehemently deny the experience if it presented itself to me.
If there is anything positive to come from this, it’s that Roger Ebert so poorly defended his position that he’s provoked a widespread discussion about the nature of art among people who many have never thought about it before, and in this way opened up the iris of the very definition of art for thousands of people.
Also, Roger, don’t cite Wikipedia when you’re trying to make a point. It demeans us all.