What Gets to Be Art?
Following the scrutiny of Lady Gaga’s designation as an artist, pop culture is again entangling the aesthetician’s turf. This time Roger Ebert has declared that “in principle, video games cannot be art.” As before, I simply do not understand the reflex to exclude media from the possibility to communicate larger ideas visually (which is the broadest definition of art I can think of). Historically photography, performance, and film and video have all been previously ghettoized, only to emerge as media that have supported masterworks. I think it’s a foolish to bet against any media at this point. It may take a great while for the conventions and infrastructure that lead to greater acceptance to emerge, but as the digital world becomes more and more integrated into the fabric of our lives from a younger and younger age, I think the generational timetable that Ebert mentions is greatly overstated.
While I think that a good deal of the exclusionary desire stems from older generations’ comfort with a given technology, the fact that we are talking about games does complicate matters somewhat. Still, there is plenty of art that is interactive or participatory (MoMA’s current exhibition of Marina Abramovic being a prime example); many artists construct whole environments as art; so would the fact that said environment is digital matter? If we can accept total immersion in an environment and participation separately, why does combining them both in a game rule them out as art? Is there something else?
In the end I believe that almost any medium will wind up sprouting little seeds that can best be described as art. Earlier this week I had a brief exchange with @museumnerd about art in Twitter feeds. On the surface 140 characters of text would seem to be a medium that would completely resist visual art, but I’m not so sure. @jennyholzer or @barbarakruger may not actually be the artist in question (or someone from their respective studios), but I feel that their work would work well there (at least as exemplified by these feeds ). There’s something a bit jarring about suddenly encountering their all-caps pronouncements within the discourse, fuzz, and minutiae that comprise my (and probably most people’s) Twitter feed. I feel that the sudden shift to a more serious context within everyday life can give these bytes of data the impact of a more realized art object. Call them the small sketches for the digital set.
Similarly @On_Kawara may even be a program rather than a person, but to me that makes his feed, which gives the same 2 posts, one immediately after the other, day after day, declaring that “I am alive” even more directly a work of art. The entire project, so similar to the artist’s paintings of dates, aligns with his oeuvre so well, just in this small medium. I enjoy seeing them come into my feed and then vanish, surfacing with a comforting, just-off regularity and reminding me of the digital end of the artist as manufacturer with a large workshop. I always wonder about the technical aspects of this project (the way I do with most art; I always stick my nose in a painting), and I wonder if there is some mechanism that will end the feed when Mr. Kawara passes.
Perhaps none of these qualify as masterworks, and masterworks is what the public usually needs to see before a medium is truly accepted. But I don’t think that means that the early attempts should be denied consideration. They can be judged on their own merits, and all we have to remember is that acceptance is different than canonization. Opening up the space will get those works and artists here more quickly, but they’ll get here regardless.