Just not getting it

I’m a big fan of Roger Ebert’s work.  I read his movie reviews with a general sense of enjoyment, both at his acerbic style and at his insight into the medium he enjoys so much.  He loves film and that love comes across in his work.

As arguably the most prominent movie critic in the world, Ebert holds an unparalleled position of power and influence over that most tenuous of subjects – What is Art?  Sure, there are myriads of critics who write about stage productions, about books, about ballet, and about everything else that people do that can be criticized, but film has a central place in the artistic views of the average American in the 21st century.  Besides music, film is (I believe) the most commonly appreciated art form in American in the 21st century.

So when the foremost critic of one of the foremost and most influential of modern art forms talks about whether something is Art, people listen.  The problem is, Roger Ebert hasn’t got the damnedest idea what he’s talking about when he talks about video games.

First, Ebert started things off with a bang by declaring that video games are not and never can be Art.  Well, as you can imagine, there are a goodly number of people who have differing views on this subject, and a rather large number of those people felt that Ebert was giving short shrift to an art form with which he has basically no first hand experience.  People yelled and clamored for Ebert to back up his statements or admit that he was wrong, and so he did.  Well, actually, no, he didn’t… he didn’t do either of those things.  Instead, Ebert posted saying he felt he was right that video games were not and could never be Art, but that it was wrong of him to say so.  That didn’t go over too well either, since it’s essentially just saying, “I was right but I don’t want to explain why I was right.”  Many, many people disagreed.  And so Ebert posted again, this time asking his Twitter followers whether they’d choose the existence of a great video game over the existence of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.

Ebert was dissatisfied to see that the results of his poll came in rather strongly supporting video games over Huck Finn, which Ebert took as evidence that we’re all a bunch of screaming savages and education in this country is in a sad state.  Me?  I took the results as evidence that it was a stupid, senseless poll that could hope to achieve nothing of substance.  Those are harsh words considering how great my general respect for Ebert is, but I’ll back them up.

My biggest problem with Ebert’s poll is that it’s absolutely nothing but a poll of personal preferences.  If asked to choose between an example of a piece of art that I really love, and an entire art form for which I lack strong feelings, I’m likely to choose the thing I love.  So e.g. would I choose the existence of “The Lord of the Rings” over the existence of literally every Lithuanian folk song EVER WRITTEN.  That’s right, all of them.  Now, before the Lithuanian activists start planning to firebomb my house, I should point out that I’m not saying Lithuanian folk songs aren’t art.  In fact, that had nothing to do with the poll nor with my decision.  Instead, I’m just saying that I don’t know any Lithuanian folk songs, and thus the whole musical genre has no special value to me, and so by extension I have less attachment to it than to a classic work of literature that I truly love.  This, in essence, is all we can get out of Ebert’s poll.

Let’s imagine that 100% of the respondents to Ebert’s poll said that they would choose Huck Finn.  Does this tell us anything – at all – about whether video games are art?  Not unless you take a populist view when defining art (e.g. “art” is something a lot of people like).  Pretty much nobody does so.  Ebert himself quite obviously doesn’t, or he’d accept that his poll was suggestive that video games are in fact art.

This brings me round to the basic issue at hand here; there’s a big argument about whether video games are or can be Art, but there’s no agreement on what exactly Art is.  How can we have any sort of meaningful discussion about definitions of terms, when we haven’t agreed upon definitions?  How can we meaningfully discuss whether Thing A is an example of Group X, if we don’t agree upon what Group X is in the first place?

Ebert himself is of no assistance here, since he steadfastly refuses to define art (or Art, if you prefer).  I’m sad to say that I suspect he’s withheld this definition because he can’t find one that includes everything he likes while excluding everything he doesn’t like.  That’s frankly disappointing and I expect more from Ebert.

Ebert ends his new blog post by suggesting that anyone who would choose “a great video game” over Huck Finn is immature and that he hopes we’ll all get through this phase soon.  Again though, this is nothing but unjustified snobbery.  We’re talking about a matter of personal preference here, not some objective Truth that we can all admire in its pristine beauty.  Bob may really enjoy Twain’s prose, while Jim might think it’s hackneyed and sterile.  Is Bob right and is Jim wrong?  Clearly that’s a foolish way to assess matters of personal preference; there’s no right and wrong when dealing with one’s tastes.  I quite like Twain’s work, personally, but I acknowledge that this is wholly subjective.

Why did Ebert even try this approach?  Clearly he’s gotten in over his head.  He made some indefensible statements and got called on it.  So he admitted he shouldn’t have made the statements, while still claiming they were true; this was unpopular since it’s clearly lacking in integrity.  Now he’s reduced to saying people who don’t know the value of Mark Twain just aren’t getting it, and there’s no real discussion to be had.  Sadly, that’s exactly how I now feel about Ebert’s own views on video games; he’s just not getting it, and there’s no real discussion to be had there.  Not only does he admit to gross ignorance of the subject matter, but he’s also indicated that he has no interest in learning more, so his opinion will never be informed.  He nonetheless continues to push his uninformed opinions on us, just as if they were informed.


A few posters have supported Ebert’s views by toying with various definitions of “art”, but all have steered clear of trying to use one solid definition.  Instead, some apologists have spoken about how art is generally created by a single unified/unifying view (the artiste) – which sadly excludes most films from being considered as art, as well as all ballets, operas, symphonies, etc.  It’s also true that some games are created by a single person, or even if there’s a team involved, there can be a single creative viewpoint that controls design (e.g. a Sid Meier, or a Peter Molyneux).

In general, most of this discussion comes down to the old adage, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.”  This is doubtless true, but it’s not a good basis for a discussion.

3 comments so far

  1. Ysharros on

    What constitutes Art has been a debate for several millennia already. 😀

    Erm… my brain is melting. That is all.

    (More would require voice chat and several pints in a congenial pub. Been there, done that, never did resolve What Is Art.)

  2. foolsage on

    Agreed, Ysh; there isn’t a consensus of any sort about what constitutes Art, and so I didn’t even try to propose a definition. I just wanted to take issue with how Ebert was treating the whole issue.

  3. Ysharros on

    It’s a fairly typical critic’s stance — non-gaming critic, that is. Comics had to overcome this not so long ago (and still do), science fiction had to overcome it before then, etc etc etc.

    You’ll always find people who say that only Proust and only Canaletto are art and Dave Miller could never be. What’s most amusing is that movies themselves had to overcome the same issue decades ago, and now nobody doubts that a movie can be Art (with a capital A).

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