Spoiled for Choice

Since Duchamp inaugurated what we now call “conceptual art” by submitting his now infamous “Fountain” to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, the art world has spent nearly a century investigating the utterly inane and faux-profound question: what is art? If a urinal can be a brilliant sculpture, what’s to distinguish a Rembrandt from a few objects thrown around a gallery seemingly at random—provided there is a catalogue essay to contextualize the fraud?

Unfortunately the sophomoric approach has enjoyed over a century of dedicated partisanship. Empty art criticism has become the norm, relying on empty philosophy to justify palpably bad art. And the result, as Spencer Klavan has recently written, is a banana tacked to a wall, or, one might add, any number of “conceptual art pieces,” the point of which seems to be to combine bad art with bad “theory” in the hope that one deficiency will make up for the other (whereas in fact each merely accentuates and calls attention to the other).

Klavan wants to get us out of our infantile rut and back to questions of form and beauty, order and harmony. Here we’re in agreement. But in his attempt to find his way back, he’s unwittingly reverted to the kind of questions that underlie the entire post-modern art project. He may do it for the right reasons, but it’s a dead end, nonetheless. 

In short, Klavan wants us to ask ourselves why we are so quick to dismiss the idea that video games can be art. This might sound at first like nothing more than a further detour into the Duchamp quagmire. But his reasons are clear, and I sympathize with them: video games, according to Klavan, “are a creative form with rules and constraints. This makes both community and meaning possible.”

Let’s run through the more obvious responses first. If video games can be art, why not chess? And if chess, why not checkers? For that matter, can MMA be considered art? And if so, why not Olympic weightlifting? These are games, after all, and some of them have an undeniable aesthetic component.

We rapidly come up against the problem of the utility of basic distinctions. Games are games and not art. Playing chess on a beautifully made board is still playing a game. Nor will pointing to relative levels of aesthetic merit or development do. I happen to find boxing beautiful, and while this may not be a common view, changing that perception would nonetheless not take boxing from the realm of sport to that of art. At best we say that these things are “like an art.”

Similarly, while comparing a novelist to a chess master to highlight his deep understanding of character trajectories, say, or his strategic thinking (the if, then movement of actual human action), the metaphor remains limited, and cues us in to only a handful of specific points of comparison.

Distinctions exist for a reason. And while certain aspects of each area of endeavor might be shared with other, discrete areas of endeavor, this hardly makes a case for breaking down self-evident distinctions. Moreover, such distinctions have evolved for a reason. One might find a game highly “artistic.” But again, we should be careful how far we take that claim.

Now we need to examine intentions. Central to Klavan’s argument is the idea that video games “are a creative form with rules and constraints. This makes both community and meaning possible.” Notice how closely the evaluative, essentially moralistic entailment is pushed to the purely descriptive. This seems to presuppose a theory of art in which moral purpose is more important than aesthetic merit. Rather than attempt to balance both moral and aesthetic concerns, this implicit theory seems merely to order them (without explicitly saying so), so that the crucial term is the moral, and it requires only some admixture of aesthetic merit.

In other words, Klavan clearly has a goal, which reveals that he has worked backward from his ideal conclusion, rather than forward from a sound argument. It’s not so much that there is an excellent case to be made that video games are truly a form of art. It’s more that Klavan likes what would follow from this state of affairs if it were true.

Conservatives want to re-instantiate “community and meaning.” Video games, then, can be argued to further their essentially political and moral goals (of course, one could just as convincingly make the opposite case, depending on which games one chooses). As Klavan puts it: “despite the seeming hopelessness of the age, the gaming mindset is inspiring consequential endeavor and action in real life.”

Even if this could be proved, there is no logical link between it and the idea that video games are really art. Klavan ought to stick with his moral case about video games without conflating it with a wholly separate claim about what constitutes art. The possible use of a conclusion does not make it legitimate.

Viktor Shklovsky famously said that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Art allows us to see something or to see a state of affairs more clearly by making it first seem strange to us. But to do this, art must present us with a finished product—not an open-ended experience. Klavan’s argument turns out to be roughly the same as the one made by the post-modernists in the train of Duchamp, Derrida and Stanley Fish.

Art, then, is distinguished from games most importantly in that art is presented to us in finished form. The artist shapes his work. The New Critics and the Russian Formalists used to argue that the work of art cannot be amended because there is a logic or inner unity to it that would be destroyed if this quatrain were removed or this character tinkered with.

Art and literature are not political. The moment we attempt to rope them into the service of a cause, we suffocate whatever is precious in them.

The artist gives us something to contemplate. We meditate on Raskolnikov’s motives and layers of self-deception because his story is fixed. It cannot suddenly go off in another direction. When, on the other hand, we play with virtual avatars, which need latitude to choose different paths, we also realize that contemplation is no longer viable.

Let’s call this a general rule: that the more latitude a work of art gives its characters, the less room its audience has to wander in productive contemplation. If Raskolnikov sometimes refrains from killing the old pawnbroker, there is, effectively, nothing to contemplate at all, beyond a young man toying with fashionable philosophical ideas in his rented room.

The corollary would be this: the more final the presentation of the characters, the fuller and more rewarding our contemplation. We can circle a sculpture in the museum and view it from different angles. This enables sustained contemplation. Similarly, we can reread a favorite poem and expect it to remain the same. Our understanding deepens because we can come back to it. It’s hard to see how this would apply to video games.

In fact, part of what makes much of post-modern fiction so dull is that its characters do not make the kinds of choices focused on by the great writers of the past. Instead, the authors strike various tedious poses, and rattle off disconnected allusions, or “play” with a variety of open-ended scenarios, like that found in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. In trying to give us more to contemplate, they give us far less.

On the other hand, presenting a situation accurately and fully has a salutary effect because clarity comes to the aid of action. One cannot act if one cannot see. To understand a situation is to become able to work through it. Action without understanding is a kind of blindness—like Lear in his madness.

When conservatives make the kind of argument Klavan has made, they are, in essence, telling themselves what they want to hear, rather than soberly assessing a situation. This is why I prefer the often brutal realism of a Houellebecq to the comforting but no longer legitimate tone of self-consciously “conservative” writers. Art and literature are not political. The moment we attempt to rope them into the service of a cause, we suffocate whatever is precious in them.

It has become tempting, since the contemporary left has effectively corrupted the culture and made art all but impossible, to take the conservative defense of culture to mean that culture is or should in some way serve conservative goals. But this is not how the great art and literature that conservatives admire was made. Dostoevsky was a Christian, but he didn’t write didactic treatises on morality and appropriate behavior. His novels weren’t instruction manuals for polite young men, to be passed out at YMCA barbeques. This is why Nietzsche could say that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn.

There is a similar lesson here for conservatives. While some video games might indeed foster community and meaning, and while some video games might also “use color, light, sound and language to convey what it is like to live a human life,” we have to refrain from making the kind of seemingly profound but ultimately empty substitutions that got us into this mess in the first place. A urinal is not a sculpture, and a video game is not a work of art.