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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

Why Ebert Still Doesn't Get It

It has been some time since Roger Ebert's first claim that video games are not art, and he has come out with a second diatribe supporting the same statement. In this case, he writes his essay as a response to Kellee Santiago's TED talk. Poor Santiago, who didn't realize that she was debating rather than presenting.

Personally, I don't really care about Ebert's definitions of art, nor do I particularly like the games that Santiago recommends as examples. In fact, I chortlingly agree with Ebert when he refers to the story in "Braid" as something that "...exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie."

But he's still wrong, and to me the reasoning is still pretty simple. If I write a short story, one can argue that I have committed art. In public, no less. When I create characters, narrative, story arcs and moments of drama, that is art. Perhaps not high art, perhaps not fine art, but certainly art. When game writers like Marc Laidlaw or Richard Dansky write a non-game novel, they are writing art. And yet, when we put these same skills and the same craft into a video game, suddenly it is not art anymore. Dude, where's my art?

Suddenly, the illustrator who does graphic novels or posters or book covers and is now doing games, isn't doing art anymore. Somehow to Ebert the collective creation of all these artistic minds is less than the sum of its parts; we start out with talented artists (I'm not necessarily including myself in that) using their skills to their utmost, and manage to end up with non-art. Sub-art. Pseudo-art.

Which of course, if you think about it, makes absolutely no sense.

It's an uphill struggle to talk to someone like that about games, because it is difficult to explain the artistic nature of games to someone who has not played one. Until a person grapples with a game like "Passages" or "Flower" (which Ebert does not understand... because he has not played it) it is unlikely that they will understand some of the subtler effects of a game. Guess what? I'd have a pretty free time arguing films weren't art if I'd never seen one. Or if I'd only seen stuff by Michael Bay.

Ebert also goes off on tangents that are nothing short of bizarre, for instance stating that Stravinsky, Picasso, and Beckett were not trying to communicate ideas to an audience. Why? Because Santiago says that games do that, and it is why games are art. Therefore, in Ebert's world, other forms of art cannot do that. Mr. Ebert, if you do not believe that Picasso wished to communicate ideas to an audience in order to engage them I have one word for you: "Guernica." But gosh, what am I thinking? It would be ridiculous to even fantasize that Beckett wrote plays because he had, you know, ideas to communicate.

Ultimately Ebert decides that art is some indefinable thing that occurs to imitations of nature as those imitations pass through the artist's soul and become something indefinable. He ends up  admitting, after all, that we know what is art and we can define it because it is a matter of taste.

And there we have the crux of his argument. Video games are not art, because Roger Ebert does not like them.

I shall, respectfully, disagree.



What I find astounding is the ease with which each one of Ebert's points can be crushed. I really wonder how someone like him can have such fascists ideas, as to discriminate against an entire medium simply because, in his taste, individual "works" from said medium don't reach an arbitrary level of quality. A level a quality that is measured, for Ebert, by how it compares to famous masterpieces from OTHER mediums.

I wonder how someone like him, can really judge something that he has never experienced.

Ebert also seems to ignore the existence of the independent scene, which spawns more so-called "art games" than the industry does. A bit like an underground music scene.

Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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