Thursday, April 22, 2010

So Ebert's Wrong. What Now?

Edit: I don't know if, six hours later, I still agree with any of this. The chance that I discuss at the end of this is so miniscule that it does not bear fighting towards. Let Ebert waste his rants against the irrepressible advance of time. 

Yesterday, after reading through Ebert's posting on games, I was arming myself up to write an essay here problematizing the question of whether to ignore him or argue with him. I was originally going to draw a parallel to the anti-libel suit that James Abbott McNeill Whistler levelled against John Ruskin in the late 19th century. Late in his career, Ruskin, as the premier 'man of taste' in the Victorian world (and brilliantly deserving of the distinction for most of his life), put on his old man pants and grumpily wrote a response to Whistler's experimental work in which he said: "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face." Whistler won the suit, greatly diminishing Ruskin's clout, and although he bankrupted himself in doing so, he nevertheless was successful not only in defending his art, but also in forcing recognition of his work.

Ebert, like Ruskin, is an arbiter of cultural valuation, a 'man of taste' and, at least with regards to movies, he has earned his position. Where Ruskin merely attacked a single artist (and artistic movement), Ebert is irresponsibly using his cultural sway to slander an entire medium with baseless, poorly made claims and specious arguments. And though history will prove him wrong in time, I initially saw a space, or a call, for a Whistler figure to stand in the defense of games and, by fighting, force a recognition of gaming as an artistic medium.

But, really, what's the point? On one side the question of whether games can be art is entirely outside of the concerns of the average person. On the other side, the question is so puerile it does not even bear consideration - of course games are art, how could they be anything other than art? In order to claim that some creative product is not art, one must define art. But there has never been a useful definition of what is and is not art, and there never will be.

There are three thousand comments on Ebert's posts, but nothing is decided by the end. Ebert's mind isn't changed. The entire article displays that he doesn't even consider the issue one that bears discussing and his three or four responses amongst the thousands of comments are snide and completely disengaged, showing his disdain for even needing to consider it.

It's frustrating, because as ridiculous as his claim is, there are people who do listen to him. It's frustrating, because those of us within the culture have found so much that is revelatory and incredible within gaming that we can't help but cry out for recognition from the rest of society. (Except for the 'games are not art yet' apologists. I don't know if they're imbeciles or traitors, but the absolute hollowness of that utterance suggests that they are probably both.)

We could use a Whistler figure right now, someone with enough eloquence and cultural weight to actually set down an impassioned defense of games. But even if some titan of the industry stood up in defense of games, who would pay attention except for us gamers? Ebert doesn't know who Ken Levine and Gabe Newell are, and he probably never will. It's clear from the article that he deems the entire discussion so far below him that he probably would not lower himself to defending his opinion. The nightly news is probably not going to provide commentary on Ebert versus Wright. The average person on the street is probably not going to change their opinion on gaming. There probably will not be an opening for any meaningful public discourse on the value of games.

Probably. But there's always that little nugget of a chance. I can't do it, as much as I would love to argue with Ebert about this topic. The three thousand posters on the article can't do it. The thousands of other bloggers who write about games can't do it. Games journalists, as much as we love them, probably can't do it. It would need to be a games designer that the public knows. It would need to be someone that the culture can recognize as an artist.

We don't need a Whistler figure, surely, but if one stood up, and was heard, then perhaps we could move gaming forward in cultural recognition by fifteen years. And, as much as you may pretend that gaming does not need cultural acceptance, it does, for it's own benefit and for the benefit of the culture at large. We don't need to defend ourselves against Ebert. His ignorant jabs at gaming are not born of targeted malice, he simply stumbled into an unfamiliar area and got scared and aggressive. But we should see his flailing as an opportunity to raise a voice to the culture and perhaps get people talking about games in a way that doesn't involve sexboxes and child-focused murder simulators.


Greg said...



Ebert still says that videogames are not art, but admits that they could become art and that he doesn't know shit about video games.

Adam Swenson said...

Greg, you're a hero for letting me know about this.

It's a compelling reflection on the nature of his argument, even though he's still wrong (and I get the impression that he knows he's wrong): I have no patience for the "games are not art yet" argument as anything but an insult to the discussion on a whole and, ultimately, the nature of art.

What I find most exciting in this, however, is the response from the industry - the move to supply Ebert with a Playstation 3 and "Flower. It's similar to the kind of civil confrontation that I talk about in the above post, but much, much more effective.