What Ebert Gets Right

April 20, 2010

Roger Ebert posted a blog on April 16th. The internet then exploded.

Perhaps that’s overstating things. The internet only exploded if you closely follow the gaming press. What Mr. Ebert did was finally expand on his assertion that, in his view, games can never be art. Obviously, to those of us who play and write about games as a hobby or for a living, this sounds like an outlandish and ill-informed statement. It must also be noted that Ebert does himself few favors as he defends his position throughout the blog by citing as most of his evidence examples of games presented in a 15-minute web video of a talk by Kellee Santiago — games that, of course, he has never played.

Still, it’s hard to see any reason to get worked up over this, given that Ebert is working with a definition of art that he admits belongs to nobody but himself. The crux of his argument, and the expansion of that argument that makes it impossible to argue against his point, is contained in the following paragraphs from the blog in question:

Santiago now phrases this in her terms: “Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.” Yet what ideas are contained in Stravinsky, Picasso, “Night of the Hunter,” “Persona,” “Waiting for Godot,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?” Oh, you can perform an exegesis or a paraphrase, but then you are creating your own art object from the materials at hand.

Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art. But is Plato’s any better? Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

Yes, the definition of art is a matter of taste. This actually makes sense to me — one man’s art is another man’s urinal, after all.

A little bit tougher to parse, though, is Ebert’s idea that works by Stravinsky or Picasso do not contain what he calls “ideas”, which I am reading here as messages to the listener or viewer of the art. To think that an artist could go from this to this in his lifetime and not be trying to communicate some idea about something seems patently absurd. On an entirely superficial level, however, Ebert is right: There is no overt message in either of these pieces. There is only being. As such, he seemingly renders Santiago’s argument invalid by counterexample.

While Santiago believes that the evaluation of something as a piece art is intrinsically tied to our own personal experience — that is, the ideas that we believe the artist is communicating to us — Ebert does not. He wants an artist to tell him or show him something, and he doesn’t want that “something” to be shrouded in ambiguity. He doesn’t think that he should have to provide the context, because then he is adding to the art in a way that may or may not have been intended by the artist. This is his right, and if this is how he chooses to define his art, then so be it.

I know, on the other hand, that it would be impossible for me to appreciate art without putting myself into it. Part of the draw of Stravinsky is imagining the ballet that could happen alongside the music of his “Rite of Spring”; part of the appeal of the ending of Citizen Kane is putting your own spin on what “Rosebud” could mean. Games offer a venue to do this to an extent that goes beyond what is typically thought of (at least by someone who agrees with Ebert) as “art”, and as such, the way that we evaluate them changes. While we can still pass judgment on the way the game looks, the way it sounds, and the story it tells — and this is just what Ebert does when offering his opinion on the tiny clips of games in the talk he bases his blog post on — those factors are only part of an equation that in most cases must also include the means, extent, and execution of player interactivity.

The difficult thing about evaluating something in this way, however, is that the equation changes based on the game, and we must rely on our own understanding of the intent of the designer to legitimize our opinions. A game like Heavy Rain, heavy on narrative but light on interactivity, must be evaluated by a different set of standards than a game like Sleep is Death, whose primitive visuals and somewhat user-unfriendly interface can be trumped by the freedom it gives players who master that interface.

That Ebert continually refers to chess in his piece betrays another of his discomforts regarding the classification of games as art: the question of which games should count. If a game has no consistent visual, no audio component, and no narrative — that is, if the game consists of nothing more than a system of rules — can it be art? I think it can; after all, an awful lot of people have come up with an awful lot of rule systems, and only the best of them last. The rule system of chess can be deconstructed, analyzed, and broken down in many of the same ways that a painting can, or a piece of music; the politics inherent in the power of the queen piece and the necessity of the king piece barely scratches the surface of the depth to which we can study and admire (or despise) the rule system of chess.

Still, that Ebert thinks of chess as something other than art is not wrong, merely different than my own point of view. There are so many definitions of what can be considered art, not to mention so many definitions of what can be considered a game, that to come up with a universal definition of either is folly. Ebert is skilled in the art (well, “art”) of persuasive journalism, in that he is incredibly adept at giving his own words the feel of finality, of the definitive. That he can provoke outrage with those words is testament to that skill, especially given that his basis for those words, at least as far as that one blog post goes, is so utterly and completely limited. One wonders if he would construct a review of film as a medium based on an AFI clip show.

But again, as even he concedes, it’s all a matter of taste. While it may negate much of what he’s trying to say, he’s right. We’re getting up in arms over one man’s point of view. This insecurity complex over the opinions of one man feels a bit ridiculous. He has his “tastes”, and they may never intersect with ours where gaming is concerned. So it goes.


One comment

  1. […] Mike Schiller at Unlimited Lives decides to go the opposite route by exploring what Ebert got right. […]

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