Every now and then, you’ll come across an article which puts a case for something or other being taken seriously as an ‘art form’. Designing computer games, cake-making, upholstery, you name it, sooner or later it’ll be up there with painting the Sistine Chapel. And the more elaborate or intricate the process of production, the more earnest the appeals of the writer seeking artistic validation. And sometimes the article will even come right out and say it: ‘This [insert the thing being promoted as a Serious Artistic Endeavour] is art. It’s as much art as Turner’s late paintings, which were once dismissed as “soap suds and whitewash” by the sneering cock-eyed art critics of the day.’ And if you’re the sorry art critic who protests, then you may as well be sent to the art critic’s knacker’s yard, since your day has surely passed.
The writers who write these appeals usually think that simply by repeating their claims about how lovingly crafted their particular thing is, or how highly skilled its production, that they have made a compelling case – all without so much as a pause to ponder the bigger question about the nature of art, or the way the art world operates, or even bothering to see what much contemporary art actually looks like.
Ah, we’ll all say after reading their pleas, we don’t want to be like those sneering, cock-eyed art critics, all destined to be proven wrong by history. Why, if Michelangelo were alive today he wouldn’t be painting the Sistine Chapel, he’d be decorating fancy cakes, upholstering designer furniture, designing games for the more discerning middle-class gamer (not those smashy-and-grabby affairs, but something stark and minimal and artistic) – or, as was often said in the 1980s, making video art. And he’d be way ahead of those know-nothing critics who once sneered at Turner.
Much to my non-surprise, there was such a piece in the Guardian last week, written by the paper’s gaming critic, and it did, predictably, kick off with a tale illustrating how new art is often disparaged before being hailed as ground-breaking by a new generation of enlightened critics.
This time it was Turner’s misunderstood genius that was bought to the fore, stating that history had once again proven the critics wrong. (Actually, for the record, Turner was hardly that misunderstood. At 26 he became the youngest ever full member of the Royal Academy, he outshone his nearest rival Constable for plaudits and acclaim, and he never had the slightest trouble selling his paintings, since he was incredibly market-savvy as well as dazzlingly talented and hard-working). But that’s by the by. This was a piece written to tell us that games designers are artists and that games are art and whoever sneers at that is destined for the bin marked ‘Irrelevant ramblings of an art hack’ or the bin marked ‘Brian Sewell’.
The piece landed on the back of a hurried three-minute debate on Radio 4’s Today programme, which had invited art critic Sarah Kent and game developer Alex Evans to debate the merits of computer games. Wisely, James Naughtie didn’t pose the ‘but is it art?’ question – because he, you and I know that anything taking material form, and in some cases non-material form (Yves Klein’s Void, Duchamp’s breath-in-a-perfume-bottle, Martin Creed’s Lights Going On and Off) can acquire cultural significance as art – and it can do this by an almost alchemical process of art world validation in which timing and fashion play their crucial parts. Naughtie simply asked whether games had ‘power and integrity’. Were they any good?
Kent, who’s hardly an expert on gaming but who’s been a champion of difficult contemporary art for most of her life, weighed in by saying that of the games she had encountered most were a bit rubbish: all whizz-bang and noise, designed to get you addicted like an illicit drug and with no attempt at anything reflective. Art was all about editing, she said, and these games were all about chucking it all in in order to offer cheap thrills. Art, she said, does more than that.
Well, let fury rain down. This made the gaming critic of the Guardian very angry indeed and he fulminated against ‘irrelevant critics’. But here I’d blame the brief format of the debate and the honesty with which Kent attempted to answer the question from her limited personal experience in the 50-odd seconds allocated. Such is the nature of a quick-fire radio ding-dong.
Beyond this I wondered if the Guardian writer actually knew that digital art had been around seemingly forever, and that computer animation had been informing the work of contemporary artists for years, and that gaming was actually already part of the visual vocabulary of many ‘cross-over’ artists who showed work in galleries.
Because what he failed to grasp is a fundamental thing about what we call art: that it’s not the medium of expression that makes something art, but the process of artistic production. A urinal isn’t art, but Duchamp’s Fountain is. And that’s because of the complex way that that work directly engaged and challenged the art world of which Duchamp was already a part and asked an audacious and profound question about the nature of art that has managed to reverberate down the decades. As such, Fountain, in its playful and provocative way, is as much a work of philosophy as it as a work of visual art (ding – it becomes all about the idea).
Furthermore, because we can be talking about two different things when we talk about art – the first an institutional definition, whose boundaries indeed shift, and the other, which has a wider brief, about what possesses cultural significance – we can often find ourselves in a muddle. If we feel something lacks the cultural cachet it deserves – such as games – some immediately seek to validate it in terms of art, not just as something that possesses cultural value but that which should be accepted by the art world. And they seek to do so by listing criteria which no longer hold weight in the art world, such as how intricately made something is, how skilful its production, or how beautiful. Such are the confusions and convolutions we have arrived at after a hundred years of modernism and its off-shoots.
Such questions, of course, wouldn’t have bothered anyone in the days when artists, before the Renaissance, were considered mere tradesmen. Nor anyone before the cult of innovation began to hold sway, and the Western world began to seek the thrill of the new, with each generation enacting a mini-revolution in the plastic arts.
I suspect that, had television been invented in the 15th century instead of oil paint, just at the point when the notion of artistic genius was first being formed, then television, niftily deployed as a tool of church propaganda, would have been imbued with all the hokey religiosity that painting and sculpture have been invested with through the years.
Our feelings about Western art are a hangover of what painting and sculpture were once for during the Renaissance: to depict moments in the life of Christ and the whole panoply of saints in order to stir religious feeling and obedience to God. The Renaissance was also, coincidentally, when artists discovered the power of classical Greek art, which laid the foundations for a new humanistic vision in which man imitated God by creating great art.
The gallery eventually replaced the church, but our notions of art have largely remained in obeisance to art’s dual Renaissance function: work that worships God – or latterly some numinous quality – but also invokes the artist as God-like. And even when, in the 60s, artists escaped the confines of the gallery, they largely took that notion with them. Like a bad cold it lingered for a seeming eternity, persisting in the person of (male) artists such as Joseph Beuys or land artist Robert Smithson, both of whom, in different ways, are still mythologised. This is why it feels like apostasy to dismiss some artists in the 20th century canon. Art never stopped being synonymous with religion, nor the artist with God.
Aspiring to be taken seriously as an artist in the art-making business when you’re working in the consumer market is a muddled objective, because it isn’t the skill or the beauty or the amazing cleverness of what you produce that, alone, will propel it into that world. In themselves, these qualities don’t hold that much currency, which makes many people who value these things in art very sad. But to also still repeat that art is really only about the idea also seems a little tired, a little dead on its feet these days. And clever ideas are hardly in short supply in truly brilliant television dramas such as Breaking Bad. I somehow doubt its creator Vince Gilligan has an inferiority complex. What would he gain by doing a James Franco and showing risible rip-offs of Cindy Sherman in a swanky blue-chip New York gallery? Nothing.
So why seek the validation of being called art? The work of Chris Marker, the French avant-garde filmmaker who in later life created an online presence in the virtual world of Second Life and conducted interviews through his cat avatar, can currently be seen at Whitechapel Gallery. But his films are best seen as films and not as artworks, which, when seen on a loop as you wander in and out of galleries, lose all sense of narrative power and purpose. In short, the work gains little by being seen as art and loses quite a lot.
So I suggest that people who want to see this, that and the other as art, should really just chill out.
Note: the headline has been changed to more accurately reflect the tenor of the piece.