The debate rages on.
Brian Moriarty’s investigation of the question of whether video games are or can be art tackles question from both sides, taking on the extreme positions as well as the subtle ones. He draws on art history, aesthetic theory, and philosophy to construct a definition of art that covers all of the pronouncements made by advocates of the not-art position (Roger Ebert) and games-already-are-art (Kellee Santiago), and generally gives the question the philosophical and historical treatment it deserves.
His ultimate conclusion is that games are not yet “high art,” but instead reside squarely in the category of kitsch art. Given the deluge of Call of Duty and Mario knockoffs, I’m content with this conclusion for now, but I don’t think it will hold for very long.
Part of his problem is that he never really unravels the complexity of the question of definition. The definition of high art he uses is vague but is the same definition that Ebert and other film critics have used to excluded almost all movies from the category, save a small handful, so it works for him. Sort of. But notions of “high art” or “great art” are hard to pin down. But I think Moriarty, in all his exposition orbits around probably the best definition for art I have ever read:
Proper art, says Joyce, is “static” and improper art is “kinetic.” Kinisis, as you know, means movement and Stasis, as you know, means standing still.
Kinisis: Improper art is kinetic in that it moves the observer either to desire, positive, or to loathe or fear, negative, that object represented. That’s clear and simple. Improper art is kinetic, it moves the observer either to desire or to refuse, to fear or hate the object represented.
Art that moves you to desire is pornography. All advertising art is pornographic. You are going through a magazine and you see a picture of a beautiful refrigerator and beside it stands a lovely girl with lovely refrigerator teeth. And you think, I love refrigerators like that. Pornography. Picture of a dear old lady and you think, “Oh, lovely old sweet soul, I’d love to have a cup of tea with that dear lady.” That’s pornography. You go into a ski buffs department and you see pictures of ski slopes and you think, “oh, wow, to go down slopes like that.” Pornography.
You get it? It has to do with a relationship to the object that’s that of social, physical or otherwise action. You are not held in aesthetic arrest.
Art that repels is didactic. All of this sociological art is didactic.
-Joseph Campbell, “The Way of Art.”
High art induces stasis. It is art that holds you in aesthetic arrest. Moriarty echoes this when he says “All sublime art is devotional.”
But kinesis here is not used as a synonym for kinetic. All drama, all films, are kinetic to a degree. They have to be to establish the tension that with which the audience empathizes and which is dispelled in a catharsis at the end. But this catharsis is what can induce stasis.
So are games kinetic, under Campbell’s definition? According to Moriarty:
Game designers are taught that the ideal player experience is something called flow.
Flow is that magical state of highly focused motivation, a kind of skating on the fine edge of effort and challenge.
Flow leads to a feeling of euphoric exhilaration.
Gameflow is work made fun! Flow keeps you joyfully working, even in your free time!
Gameflow will be the harness of the New Labor class.
Flow is painless effort. But pain management is not the business of art.
Entrancement is not insight.
Flow is an-aesthetic.
This “flow” is pure kinesis. “Work made fun.” But it’s still work. So if this is what the game industry is shooting for, then Moriarty is absolutely correct. High budget, high concept games will almost never be high art because this approach cannot induce aesthetic arrest. It strives for the opposite–“euphoric exhilaration.”
I don’t work in the industry, so I don’t know if there is a theoretical approach that can be pursued systematically that achieves Joyce’s aesthetic arrest. But I’ve played enough indie games like Passage and Braid to be convinced that we are going to get there sooner rather than later, and from independent and lwer-tech games.
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