Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Realm of the Legitimizable

Long time, no post, I realize. I hope to ease back into a more regular writing schedule here.

Drew Morton has a post up at Dr. Mabuse responding to Roger Ebert's claim that "video games can never be art." Drew's rebuttal is measured and pretty convincing.

But given as this comes the day after a class debate I witnessed over whether TV advertisements were art (and if so, in what circumstances), I thought it might be worth stepping back to think about the very terms of this debate. To my eye there are a number of positions out there.

1) The debate over whether something is art or not is beside the point. Usually this claim is made on the basis that art (by which in this instance we mean a generally positive, expressive phenomenon) is a highly problematic term, either because it's ideological or because it's too subjective. I don't generally subscribe to this position, since I think that some human activities are far more open to aesthetic contemplation and experience than others and that cordoning off such activities from non-art can be useful. But this critique of the "is it art?" question does at the very least give a valuable reminder that the question imagines a community that imposes its judiciary authority on the matter.

But if we accept that figuring out the relative aesthetic expressivity of videogames is a worthwhile discussion, I see a few positions specific to the medium:

2) Videogames are not art. The Ebert position. And many others' undoubtedly. To the extent the arguments do not appeal to a self-obvious truth, the objections can vary and may be based on perceived intention, on narrative experience, on content, on authorship, or any number of criteria.

3) Videogames are already art, according to existing criteria. Some argue that games do precisely the things that we already praise in, say, literature or film. They engage affect and identification. They explore complex themes. Et cetera. This is what I see Drew as arguing.

4) Videogames are not art but they will be. Possibly, the existing games to date have not so much offered us an art as a testing ground for new audio-visual vocabularies - and centrally, for interactivity - that will form the basis for the vibrant art of tomorrow. Grand Theft Auto may not be art (then again, it may - see #3), but the audio-visual art of the future may look a lot more like Grand Theft Auto than it does No Country for Old Men.

5) Videogames are art, but only if we shift our aesthetic criteria. Drew (among others) gives the analogy of the early days of cinema to the present reaction to video games: did film, too, not face similar disdain in its infancy? Indeed, but I think it's easy to underestimate how much of a cultural sea change it was to extend serious aesthetic consideration to cinema. It involved not merely getting over class associations (or erecting an intellectual edifice capable of dealing with them), it required new approaches to aesthetic apperception. If some are not capable of extending to games the aesthetic contemplation they regularly extend to cinema, it could be because of snobbery (reason #3) or lack of imagination (reason #4), but it could be because the things they look for in judging or contemplating art are based in a specific set of arts - things like a unified form-content relationship wedded to an affective involvement that builds over the course of the experience of the work. Video games may have these (#3) but they might not. Or at least not in forms conventionally recognized.

As you might guess I'm partial to #5 but will acknowledge that others partially explain the issue, too.

In his book on photography, Bourdieu divides culture into three realms: the sphere of legitimacy, the sphere of the legitimizable, and the sphere of the arbitrary.

table from Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-brow Art (Stanford UP, 1990), p.96

This is why I bring up advertising. Not because the analogy is perfect, but because it is a reminder there is no automatic or teleological process by which a new cultural passes from arbitrary to legitimizable. Cinema did (it's not fully in the legitimate realm yet, but is getting close), and television is currently. Videogames may, but they may mostly remain, like advertisement or cooking or fashion, in the realm of "culture" but not "art."