Okay bear with me, I tend to write up hugelong essays when I feel like people aren’t quite saying things in a coherent fashion. For the most part, anyone who saw today’s Penny Arcade and the accompanying newspost know that Roger Ebert is definitely in the wrong for uplifting his favorite media as art and tearing down his not-favorite as not-art, but the why seems to avoid people who want to say otherwise, as in they can’t accept that art is inherently subjective, and they need an explanation. So I made one!
Art, being subjective, is difficult to define, and that generally means that anyone’s definition of art contains several metrics, not just one which is labeled ‘art’ and goes from ‘not art’ to ‘low art’ to ‘high art’. It doesn’t work like that. Art, being a human endeavor, is not like other human endeavors such as, say, survival. One might very well use art to survive, but using art in order to survive depends on the exchange between people.
That is to say, if you have a man on a deserted island, and he makes paintings out of squid ink on a mashed reed canvas, the paintings do not inherently help him gather food. However, if there are two people on the island, and the second likes the first’s paintings and as a result, would prefer that he continue to work on the paintings, and so becomes the sole gatherer of food, then the art has been used for survival, but only in a sense of social exchange.
Art is communication. The exchange between artist and audience depends entirely on mutual stances: that the audience is willing to receive the artist, and the artist is willing to speak to the audience. As much as he tries, the artists cannot create something that has utterly no meaning to the audience. There are of course times when the audience is already receptive to the artist (he “made it” in terms of the fine art scene, so everyone expects him to produce fine art) and the artist intentionally subverts your expectations of the art. He has not created something actually meaningless, but instead highlights the meaning between the expectations of audience and artist—we seek out meaning in things because as humans we’re wired to look for patterns regardless of if they were there or not. So the only difference between a good artist and a bad artist is that the good artist creates a perception of communication with the audience, while with the bad artist, the audience rejects his attempt at communication.
Bad art is essentially any time that the artist intends to say one thing, and says it so poorly that the audience can clearly see what he meant to accomplish but did not. Sometimes this is the sort-of fault of the audience, for having expectations that are different from the artist’s, but it is also the artist’s sort-of fault for his inability to perceive the needs of his audience.
Likewise, the obfuscation that happens in high art, and why lay people tend to reject it, is because many kinds of high art intend to say so many things that they end up saying nothing in particular. This is great for academics, who need to justify their jobs by writing papers, and the more things that can be read into a piece, the better it is for job security. For most people, not so much, because like it or not, Finnegan’s Wake just isn’t going to be parsed by most people. You can denigrate them for being philistines and not receiving the transcendental experience that is Joyce making up whatever crap he likes, but the end point of the matter is that they have not been communicated to by anything meaningful to them.
Most fine art of this type is fine art by default, even if its current audience is small, because what is usually defined as art has at one point or another been appreciated by an authority or many authorities. Games in this sense are art only so far as the person in the highest authority can say they are, either a political figure or an academic body or what have you, but ultimately what has happened is that the art has communicated to the authority, and the authority has used his authority to declare it art to the unwashed masses.
Now someone might point to Shakespeare and say, well Shakespeare is obviously art, therefore some art is objective! To which I say, your perspective that Shakespeare is art probably stems from the culture you live in, which has ideas on what authorities to trust concerning what is art and what is not, and you have likely encountered such people who take an objective stance to canon, such as all your English teachers. If you take the objective culture-authority approach, then you can objectively declare such a body that the authorities say is art as art, but you lock yourself out of anything they say is not art, and when you and your subculture want to include video games in the definition, well, out go the old authorities.
But in its baser meaning, all art needs to do is communicate effectively to an audience, and generally, the more important the audience and the stronger the reaction, the more it is art. I tend to take issue with denigration of ‘popular art’ here—like video games or comics or animation—because while much of this has a ‘here today gone tomorrow’ sense to it, generally creating a work that can transcend its generation comes down to either luck or genius-level skill, because that is essentially the artist speaking to an audience he has not met. This applies to art that is contemporarily decreed ‘great art’ (always take with a grain of salt) and then wondering why such art from the 70s is barely observed or even known about today. The artist might make the art, but the audience who received it keeps it alive (and the authorities, who tend to be in this position, can keep it alive for a very long, dry time), and that is the only thing that matters when considering something art. Is it important enough to you that you wish to make it part of yourself and keep it alive, regardless of whether it has an obvious utilitarian use?