Sister Socrates's Blog

Exactly what- in a very specific, concise, eloquent, and bullet-proof definition- is art?

At a Conference on World Affairs in 2006, Roger Ebert was placed in a panel to discuss the topic, “An Epic Debate: Are Video Games an Art Form?” Ebert famously stated, “Video games can never be art.”

From a man so cultured, someone who holds the medium in which he submerses himself on such high regard- for him to not be able to appreciate another field of entertainment in an artful way- this was really shocking to me.

I’m sure that most people, based on their knowledge and understanding of the subject, would not consider video games to be art. “The Sistine Chapel is art,” would be a common response to the question. But so many things that I would not have considered to be art, without learning further, are very well defined as so.

Roger Ebert has sparked my interest. I’d like to lay it all on the table.

So, I’ll humor him. What is art?

Cave paintings are art. They are depicted in every introductory level art history textbook you could venture to find; it’s a unanimous decision. While they may seem primitive to us, they are the creative expression of an ancient culture that was equally primitive to the work itself; the culture’s level of sophistication is conveyed in the works (however, that is not the case in every situation). At first glance, a cave painting is painfully simplistic: an anamorphic shape somewhat resembling some sort of animal historically prevalent in the area surrounding the markings’ locale, with 4 sticks shooting downward, and occasionally, some scribbles on the top half representing a mane or tail. But if you spend some time with these paintings, there are some very clear elements of the work that prove that the works were created with the employment of techniques used for depiction that required a great deal of thought and analysis on the part of the artist. Subtle tonalities, as well as the patterning and shape variation of the subjects show that the artist spent a great deal of time observing the animals. While they may not seem spectacular to us now, that does not mean that they were not spectacular once.

Pruning and landscaping are art… so what’s saying bodybuilding isn’t art? I realize that may seem like a stretch, but this is somewhat an exercise in fairness to all media. Follow me: Pruning consists of the trimming and working of a living thing- there is a delicate relationship between the plant and the pruner. High levels of skill and patience are required for this meticulous work. Pruners must take into account the biological elements of their work: how much the plant will grow, how long it will take to grow, and what effects certain elements and processes will have on the living thing. By learning everything there is to know about the plant, the artist has mastered his medium. Now, he can shape the plant to portray anything that he wishes. What makes the fine tuning of the human body any different? Is Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino an artist?

Architecture is art. I think we can all agree on that. Some of the most famous pieces of art in the world are architectural structures, both modern and ancient. La Sagrada Familia, located in Barcelona, Spain, is a striking and whimsical architectural venture that was the brain child of Barcelona’s beloved Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi was a famous architect associated with the Art Nouveau movement of early 1900s. He is a very famous artist and his work is regarded in the highest possible terms by our modern culture.

So, to clarify, that means that something made through the employment of a number of different disciplines, something that requires a knowledge far outside the ability to draw and paint well, something that was created for the purpose of functionality, can be considered art, right? Ok, hold on to that thought.

Marcel Duchamp was an artist. (And in fact, a rather famous one.) He is described as such by every authority on art. If someone asked, “Who was Marcel Duchamp?” the anticipated response would be, “He was an artist.” He was associated with an art movement known as Dada – it’s goal, among other things, was to create work that’s  sole purpose was to mock the question, “what is art?” He and his colleagues aimed to drive the art world crazy with their outlandish pieces while encouraging their audience to broaden their scope on what they considered to be art. In 1917 he created a piece entitled Fountain. It consisted of a found urinal which he signed, “R. Mutt 1917” in inky black on the bowl. It is one of the most influential pieces of artwork of the twentieth century, because he presents the piece to us under such circumstances that there is really no way we can deny it’s right to be called art.

Marcel Duchamp- Fountain, 1917

Prior to Fountain, Duchamp was a well-known artist, primarily for his somewhat Picasso-like paintings, so he did have a preexisting rapport with the art community. Fountain was entered into an art exhibition by an artist. It was an original piece- the artist manipulated the materials in some fashion in order to create the work. To what extent, however, is a question that he implores us to reflect upon. Is it really our place to determine what an artist needs to do with his materials in order for it to achieve the right to have the title of “art” be bestowed upon it? Many mosaic artists buy their tiles premade in bulk. Rarely do today’s artists mix their own paints.

My own opinion of the definition of art was greatly influenced by an experience I had in my early time in high school. I became a member of my high school’s art community by chance- I took an art course freshman year in order to fulfill an elective requirement. The teacher of the class’s name was Rick Scaduto. I had a great deal of respect for Scaduto. While he was nothing like his colleagues, they respected him. He was voted the head of the school district’s art board. Everything he said was rational, intelligent, and made perfect sense. Scaduto was an extremely average guy, especially compared to the rest of the teachers in the department. He in no way fit The Stereotype of the Artist. He was middle- aged, he liked playing sports with his kids, and he wore regular old dress pants and button downs. his claim to fame was designing the logo for a local ice cream company. He liked fast food. His persona was in stark contrast to the Birkenstock- wearing, organic- eating trend seekers that taught my other art classes. So, his presence alone was a lesson in the ability for art to be a means of breaking stereotypes. Being in his class made me realize that there is no specific “way” an artist needs to be- an artist needs to make his or her own way.

Scaduto showed our drawing and painting class a documentary on a contemporary American artist named Chuck Close. Early in his career, Close was known for his strikingly realistic large- scale portraits, such as this, his most famous:

Early self portrait, 1968

Early self portrait, 1968

In 1988, Close suffered a spinal cord injury. This left him confined to a wheelchair and with limited mobility in his upper limbs. Since then, Close has had to shift his painting technique to a more abstract, highly illusionistic and systematical means of creating portraiture.

detail of a recent untitled self portrait by Chuck Close

Viewed at a distance, these pieces are still highly realistic in nature. However, because of Close’s inability to paint detail as well as large- scale works being his signature, these pieces are generally very large. In the documentary, the possibility of Close potentially losing all mobility was discussed. Since these pieces are very systematic, Close would essentially be able to continue creating original works of art, as long as someone else’s hand painted the shapes. He could oversee and give detailed instructions; they would still be his original ideas, but he would not be able to physically touch brush to canvas.

Now, if we viewed a work of art and were told that the artist himself never touched the canvas, we may be quick to discredit the piece. However, understanding the circumstances described above, can we begin to see places where our preconceived notions about art do not apply? where the “rules” are broken for good reason?

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain implores the viewer to question their understanding of art. He is telling us that just because what we are seeing is unconventional, or doesn’t follow the “rules” for art that we have set up in our heads (by the way, there are no written rules for art. We have reached no consensus. Artwork is judged on a piece- by- piece basis), does not mean that what we see is not art.

If what we have established above about architecture, that something that requires knowledge outside of the realm of art to be made and that serves some societal purpose other than that of conventional art can still be considered art is true, then I am sorry Roger Ebert, but there is no reason that video games are not art. Now, if a clarification such as “Video games can never be high art” had been present, I would never have written this blog. However, the idea that we feel such a strong need as a society to exclude certain things from the category of art in an attempt to make what remains appear more credible is really very disquieting to me.

I thought long and hard about it, I asked for opinions from friends and strangers, and I have come to a conclusion: If an individual regards their personal creations in an artful way, and creates it in with an artful mind, who are we to tell that individual that what they have created can not be art? When Pablo Picasso unveiled his paintings to the public, he was told that they were not art. He died poor. Yet today, he is one of the most well- known artists in our Western society. A tragedy, is it not?

We are tiny little people in a huge world. We do not have the scope that we think we have. We only have the past as our guide to learn from. So why are we so hung up on putting a definition around a field that we very well know is ever- changing? The answer to the question, “Is The Situation an artist?” is moreso, “Why does it matter” than “If he wants to be”.

So yeah, Roger Ebert, video games are art. So is my iPod (they have them in the NYC MoMA), and the outfit I picked out today, and the Mona Lisa, and the homeless man’s hemp necklaces that he sells on Bidwell Parkway. And I am totally comfortable with that.