In 1917 Marcel Duchamp rotated a porcelain Bedfordshire urinal 90 degrees, signed it “R. Mutt,” and submitted it to an art show. Today there are replicas in 8 major museums worldwide. So yes, games are art. Don’t be stupid.

placing the frame

The entirety of the modern art movement is centered around asking “is this art?” We have canvases with nothing but solid blue paint, solid black lacquer, or no markings at all except eraser marks. I’ve seen films that are nothing but alternating black and white frames and caustic loud white noise. Andy Warhol made an 8-hour film that was a static tripod shot of the Empire State Building from evening til morning (my Modern Art History teacher in college bragged that he’d sat through the whole thing).

Near as I have deduced, the thing that makes a photograph of a landscape art and the landscape itself just a landscape is that the photograph has a frame around it. No one will ever see that landscape as the artist saw it ever again; the confluence of light, tilt of the head, etc. will never be identical. What you are seeing is a frozen moment of someone’s perspective, a perspective that neither of you will ever recreate.


If we are going to make blanket statements like Games Are Not Art, to say one medium is never art and another always is (which is how we mostly treat film and graphic arts; we even consider the animator on a computer game an artist even when we say the game itself isn’t art), we’d have to start stipulating what makes something art and something else not-art. And it would have to be across the board. We’d find our definition rules out some paintings, some performances, some films. I think most people are not prepared to follow that line of thinking through.

Simply put, I don’t see much difference between people today saying a game will never be art and the people who said film would never be art, back when film was mostly used as stereoscopic novelties at carnivals. I’m reminded of a thread on the TIGSource forum where we were sharing poems and I posted some Brautigan amid the Longfellow and Dickenson. Someone said it was certainly poetic, but wasn’t capital-P Poetry, on the grounds that it was free verse. Poetry is about rhyme and meter, they said, which hasn’t been a relevant argument since Whitman, since a century ago. Less important than thinking the argument is wrong, I think it’s old. And boring.


Obviously what made Duchamp’s urinal a work of art was not its construction. It was its placement in a gallery. (Before we go any further, I want it said I think Duchamp’s Fountaine is a shitty work of art; it has no content but it’s point that a urinal can be art if an artist claims it. He’s right, but it doesn’t make it good.)

I think about my notebooks. I journal constantly. Surely writing is an art form, but I don’t consider my journals art. They’re just for me. But if one day I decided to publish some of my journals, unedited, I’d consider the finished book art. But the content didn’t change, it’s the publishing that makes it art.

But what about posthumous books? They published Kurt Cobain’s journals after he died. Can a publisher turn a notebook into a work of art? And how about our internetful of blogs and tweets, most of which aren’t claimed as art but some people use for art projects. Art they art simply by being text? What if the people reading the consider it art but the authors don’t?

Who makes something a work of art?

I don’t have answers to these questions, split a cup of Darjeeling with me and we’ll discuss. But they’re much more interesting than saying “this is art, this isn’t.”


I am most apt to be expansive with my definition of art; if modern art has said one thing it’s that about anything a human can do can be done as art. Mondrian can have his straight lines, Magritte his apples. Braid and Grim Fandango are fair enough company. If your hand is in it, it’s art. Maybe only when someone claims it as art. And maybe we as game designers share in that responsibility: can our work be art before we call ourselves artists?

The more compelling question, I think,  than “is this art?”, is “is this art any good?”


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