The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Monday, July 5, 2010

Ebert Hits the Reset Button: Defining "Art"

In my recent post on the emerging importance of storytelling in video games in general, and in the very cool Red Dead Redemption in particular, I quoted Roger Ebert's cranky contention that video games can never approach the level of art. I feel obliged now, and also pleased, to post Ebert's most recent thoughts on the subject, the charmingly-titled essay "Okay, kids, play on my lawn." In it, Ebert attempts to make peace with the gaming community--inspired by the over 4,500 comments his previous piece received, overwhelmingly (and intelligently, thank God) arguing the other side. Of even greater interest is Ebert's admission that "art" is a term of broader application and definition than he'd previously considered:
I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

Not a bad definition, I thought. But I was unable to say how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art. Even narrative art didn't qualify, because I hardly look at paintings for their messages. It's not what it's about, but how it's about it. As Archibald MacLeish wrote: A poem should not mean, but be.

I concluded without a definition that satisfied me. I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don't know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don't know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can. How can I say? I may be wrong. but if I'm not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see. I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.

I'm happy to see that the mea culpa itself has prompted over 1,200 responses, the great number of which, rather than sinking to typical internet flaming or trolling--dude u suck roflmfao--debate, in thoughtful and well-reasoned terms, the nature and effect of art. Even the examples Ebert gives in this snippet, of abstract art and music, illustrate the complexity of the subject. I do believe that art functions as Ebert says in his original definition: that we connect with it personally and learn something about ourselves from the experience. But art also prompts reactions and feelings which go beyond rational deconstruction. I'm not sure I could explain the effect on me of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, or the last ten minutes of Fellini's 8 1/2, or reading a Gertrude Stein novel. But the last thing on my mind, in those moments, is trying to rationally explain the experience. The experience itself is enough.

Browse on over and take a look at the conversation, which is one of the more intelligent debates on art and aesthetic experience I've come across lately. And keep in mind that this smart conversation was prompted by the same medium which gave the world the following little gem, which is well worth three minutes of your day:

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