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?

Discussion (20) ¬

  1. Marluxia Kyoshu

    Agree an all points, very good post :3

  2. RHJunior

    Art is subjective— but it is not without rules or standards. Content, quality of craftsmanship, tradition, beauty, message, meaning, culture, communication— these must all be present, or it is no more than infantile dabbling or animalistic mess.

    • Rick Griffin

      Well that’s why I perceive art as communication. It’s a message between the artist and the audience. And doing it well requires good craft, even moreso I think than the tacit approval of your academic superiors.

    • Tachyon Feathertail

      If art = message, “beauty” and “tradition” are only relevant if you want to deliver a message that’s beautiful or traditional.

      I personally prefer a beautiful / elegant message, but my standards for what’s beautiful tend to differ from those of others (especially those who value “tradition”).

  3. Tachyon Feathertail

    I do love your essays sometimes.

  4. GameCobra

    To me, Art is a passion of communication from the mind, emotional and beautiful. What one defines art is dependant from simplistic to complicated to very light to very dark.

    And i like reading your essays, Mr. Rick. i don’t get into details much, but i enjoy a comic book artist that gets into the details =)

  5. pikakitty

    you forgot about the art that is so far above everyone’s head that it’s too deep for any mortal man to conceive. yeah..

  6. Wolf Nanaki


    You should watch this series of videos. Really interesting stuff. :)

    • BlueAnubis

      I was going to post this same link. I suppose great minds think alike (or at least an insane mind and whatever yours is)

      Seriously though, you really should check out his channel, his movies are pretty deep and funny at the same time.

  7. tahrey

    short version:

    “play ff6, you’ll understand.” ;)

  8. Adzo

    Excellent essay, good job.
    my point of view is that so many different media are considered to be art, from paintings, to sculpture, even practical items such as pots and vases can be seen as pieces of art. the medium isn’t art or not art, the message or image is.
    just as a Ming vase isn’t seen as beautiful because it’s purpose is to store flowers, being a game doesn’t negate any artistic value.

  9. Kustin

    I’ve never had a clue that art is based on communication but by my earlier experiences, I may say that this is quite closer to the truth (or subjectively, your reasoning is in common with my understanding). And I agree that art is subjective and it’s up to each individual to decide whether it’s art to him/her or not.
    I remember one of my favorite musical artists who told in an interview that whatever songs that young man shares with the listeners have no legitimate, specific or universal meaning/concept. He may have set one in stone for himself but he urges the listeners to figure out the work’s own meaning. That way, not only does he leave out the dead end points of the concept but he also gives the listeners the freedom to judge what’s in this piece of art and see for each and one how much they can take out of it. Some may get a little out of this, others may get a lot while some others might get nearly nothing out of it. Therefore, who is to decide what is art and what is not? It all comes down to how you personally relate to it. That serves as a brickstone, small or big, which helps to define how good an artist is.

    Thanks for sharing your essay, that was enlightening!

  10. Amy

    short version:

    “play ff6, you’ll understand.” ;)

  11. SamBlob

    Art is basically communication, you say.

    You give “Finnegans Wake” (rather ambiguous without the apostrophe) as an example of art not connecting with the general public. There is an exhibit in a Canadian museum called “Voice of Fire” that looks like an oversized medal ribbon and was bought by the museum for more than one million dollars. I still have not got the memo regarding that one.

    • no space

      But, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t. All art has to do is make someone feel something. If that over-sized medal ribbon made a few people on the museum acquisition board think, “Wow, I never got it before, but we truly do focus on succeeding too much,” then it’s art according to them, and they’re the ones that matter in this instance.

      I’ve long subscribed to the notion that art is like another human emotion. All something needs to be considered art is to make someone feel; no one else could ever tell them that it wasn’t art, because to them it would always be art.

      • Rick Griffin

        This is why, even though art is subjective, I try and avoid defining it as a sort of value judgement. The value will be placed on it by the audience, either through their own decision or because they trust the judgement of someone else.

        But I think the problem is that when Art Authorities define something as ‘art’, most people are just satisfied to know that True Art exists, but unlike the academics who labeled it as such, most people don’t make it a part of their lives, while they’re just fine with making a half-decent TV show part of their lives and discussing that around the water cooler instead of “Voice of Fire”.

        It’s not that I think Art is a fully democratic process either, but isn’t the cultural zeitgeist at its core democratic, and doesn’t art result from that? I know a lot of academics who lament that the modern perspective doesn’t respect High Art, but to be honest, they’re not even trying to compete on the same level as commercial artists. You can’t remove the democratic perspective on high culture and then blame them for not respecting it.

        • Lance

          Academics complain that the masses don’t respect High Art.
          Academics don’t respect the masses.
          Such symmetry.

          If you ask academics to define “high art”, it can be reduced to “art that only academics understand”. I don’t think academia WANTS art to be accessible, because if it is, that pulls academics off of the pedestal they so enjoy putting themselves upon. The very concept of “if it’s accessible, it’s not really art” is widespread, and repugnant.

          But then again, so are academics. Such symmetry.

        • no space

          I just think art is too ill-defined for all the debate that’s constantly popping up about it. If there’s controversy over what the definition of art is, or whether art can even be defined, how can we ever expect to definitively state that something is art?

          There is always more than one cultural zeitgeist, even in a small area. The same standard can’t be applied to obtain a wide-spread acceptance of a piece as art within a single community, let alone nationally or even globally.

          I think, from now on, I’m going to play the noble savage in these matters. The cultured and the critics can go on debating and berating about what is and isn’t art until the heat death of the universe for all I care. I’ll just sit in my corner perfectly content and happy with my art, without any need for validation.

  12. Lance

    To paraphrase an old Simpsons show, on the subject of “what is art”…

    “He evil. But he’s old and will die soon. So I like it.”

    Roger Ebert is old and cranky. Who cares what a self-absorbed prune thinks?

  13. Sockmaster

    Rick, above all I would like to thank you for saying “bear with me” instead of “bare with me.” Hooray for correct and not-so-suggestive grammar!