But is it art?

“Jazz? The word to me means freedom of expression – if it is accepted as an art it is the same as any other
art.  The popularity of it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything; because when you get into popularity you’re talking about money and not music.” – Duke Ellington

Not long ago Roger Ebert, movie reviewer, caused quite a hate storm (2,000 pages of hate mail according to Ebert) when he decided that videogames were not art.  Even if they aren’t art, does anything have to be popular to be good?  Certainly Duke Ellington didn’t think so. The quote above comes from an interview on Swedish television from the 1960s when Ellington appeared there.  The interviewer asked Duke Ellington about the rise of popularity of other forms of music other than Jazz.  As you can see from the quote, Duke was a firm believer in ars gratia artis (art for the sake of art).  When you get into popularity, the famed Duke said, you are talking about money and not art…ars gratia pecuniae (art for the sake of money).

But let’s assume for the moment that Ebert was wrong and, heaven forefend, not the sole determinant of what constitutes art.

There is a woman I used to speak to in the subway who was (and presumably still is)  a street musician.  But not just any street musician, no.  She could play the guitar, the harmonica, and the violin. The remarkable thing was she could play them all at the same time.  What is more, she is good at it. If you  take the same train long enough, you will eventually hear just about any  form of music imaginable – including young musicians who earn their shekels by beating on empty plastic paint cans turned upside down.  Few, if any, of these musicians I have heard, have ever rivaled the great Gene Krupa. Still, they are certainly earnest. Mind
you at the end of a long day the paint pail music is more of the sort that I would pay the young artists to stop rather than reward.

But just because I don’t enjoy a particular form of art does that mean it isn’t art? Doesn’t it have an intrinsic value in and of itself as Duke Ellington maintained of Jazz?

Consider the two pictures that accompany this article.  The first of the two, obviously, are simply pictures of a rotting trash heap and an overflowing garbage can I “Photoshopped” into an art gallery.  But what of the second picture? Is it a pile of garbage as well? The answer is that the owner of the objet d’art paid some $250,000 for the square metal object that stands some fifty feet tall.  What of this particular work of art?  It was protested by 800 people. Ultimately some individuals destroyed it.  Did it have intrinsic value?  The National Endowment for the arts thought so – they paid the artist $15,000 dollars to produce it. Did the 800 protesters have the right to force the closure of the exhibition?

And what of video games as art?

Take a look at the  work of  Lord of the Rings Online/Shadows of Angmar – certainly the work of  artist Rick Schmitz is unquestionably art and as good as you will ever see grace a videogame. What about more objectionable video games?  Supreme Court Justice Alito once cited “Raplay” as an example in Brown vs. Entertainment Merchant Association, writing “It…appears that there is no antisocial theme too base for some in the video-game industry to exploit.” What about  the Super Columbine Massacre Rpg  The subject matter alone is what kept in the public eye a game that otherwise would have faded into obscurity after only 10,000 downloads.  Even though I consider both games beyond objectionable do they have intrinsic value?

Does anything have intrinsic value when social mores and not legality are the only issues called into question?

Closer to home…

Star Wars the Old Republic Online has been the subject of protests by a group calling itself the Family Research Council protesting gay and lesbian romance in a game that doesn’t actually contain them. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 caused a stir in 2009 when it allowed players to  take the side of terrorists (amongst other controversies).   CCP’s game Eve Online created a bit of controversy recently when a player calling himself “The Mittani” caused a stir at the fanfest with his now infamous remarks  for which he received a 30 day ban.  On what is possibly the lowest end of gaming controversy, Mittani’s Eve Online player group called the Goonswarm Alliance recently launched 14,000 ships ready for ganking on the Eve Online trade hub Jita in an action they called “Burn Jita” – and while some players are worried that Goonswarm would ruin Eve Online, CCP Senior Producer Jon Lander said of the event “I’ll tell you what, it’s going to be fucking brilliant.”

The other side of that particular coin is represented by the words of Bree, Senior editor for Massively.com, writing on the Skycandy blog in an article entitled Bully for You .

“The thing about EVE that distinguishes it from those other games is that the most public part of its community proudly revels in griefing and bullying.  Normally, a lazy, laissez-faire sandbox like EVE is a
blank slate on which the community can chalk anything it wants. But in EVE’s case, CCP set a testosterone-laden, misogynist tone for the playerbase. It’s right there in the official “harden the fuck up” marketing materials. The company itself is to blame for reinforcing the idea that being an asshole is welcome,
acceptable, and even commendable.” – Bree, Bully for You

Do I personally agree with Bree’s opinion?  In my case that would be a resounding yes.  Did that sort of behavior ruin the game for me?  Most certainly it did.  Burning Jita was indeed a prime example of
emergent gameplay.  What is more, the people who created Eve Online and keep it going not only support the event but consider it “fucking brilliant.”  For me personally it drops the value Eve Online gameplay to somewhere around that of used toilet paper.  But does this mean Eve Online has no intrinsic value? Does the popularity of Eve Online even matter?  The answer to that seems determinant upon one’s point of view.

See you online,
Julie Whitefeather

3 Responses to But is it art?
  1. Tremayne
    May 1, 2012 | 1:11 am

    Does EVE’s popularity matter? Ultimately yes – because without the pecuniae an MMO soon folds. No arts foundation is currently going to pay to keep an online video game running, whatever its artistic merit, and if CCP’s attitude drove all their customers away they might have problems telling their staff to “harden the fuck up” instead of taking a salary.

    Having said that, EVE clearly doesn’t drive all of the players away. It repels some, and it attracts others. It gets people talking, and thinking. And if that isn’t the real purpose of art, I don’t know what is. I can admire that, even though I don’t particularly like EVE’s art of being an asshole.

  2. Sr. Julie
    May 1, 2012 | 6:12 am

    Thanks for the comment. Ironically, the National Foundation for the Arts DOES consider videogames an art. As for putting the “P” in pecuniae John Smedly once said if a game at least pays to keep the servers open Sony would keep the mmo going. Ultimately no one outside the CCP accounting office will know if the layoffs at CCP were the result of driving away more players than they attracted – but it does raise another issue.

    While I can appreciate emergent game play I wonder if it can reach a point where it comes at too great a cost to the company itself? If you do draw a line where do you draw it? If Jon Landers comment was meant to praise the initiative of the emergent gameplay in the Burning Jita event one might indeed consider it “brilliant” by some standards. And obviously the event itself does get people talking, as my controversial art works do. But it leaves me wondering if not drawing the line anywhere does more harm than good.

    By way of a microcosm example, it was the fact that no where in Eve Online is truly safe that destroyed the large active corporation I belonged to – after an entire calandar year of war decs it reached the point where nearly the entire corporation quit, and in many cases the game as well as the corporation. In the end there was rarely more than one or two people online in what used to be a very active corporation.

    In the end, making the game fit the needs of the consumer is certainly good marketing – where the danger comes in is if that particular group of consumers is too small to support the long term financial viability of the company.

  3. McClaud
    May 2, 2012 | 10:13 am

    I think EVE Online was actually more of a scientific experiment than art. It’s proof of what you should and shouldn’t do when you are running an MMO. If anything, it helps other MMO’s learn valuable lessons.

    But is it art? I don’t think the environment is, but maybe actions players take in MMO’s can be considered brilliant and artful.

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