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picasso it ain’t

My husband regaled this story to me while we were visiting a friend in Chicago and going through a Matisse exhibit

Picasso is sitting in a cafe, drinking a coffee, when a man walks up to him and says, “Mr. Picasso, I was wondering if you’d be willing to draw me something on this napkin”. So Picasso obliged, and in several moments had drawn something on the napkin supplied by the man. When Picasso turns the napkin over to the man, he simply states, “that will be 2 million dollars”. The man, confused at this, asks, “but it has only taken you 30 seconds to draw on that napkin.” Picasso responds, “But its taken me 30 years to draw that in 30 seconds”.

As an active member of the gaming community, I wonder if we don’t sometimes forget what really goes into art. I bring this up because there has been a recent rehash of claims made by Roger Ebert (yes of film review fame) that games are not art. As he stated previously:

But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

His most recent conversation on this subject culminated in this article in his journal. Kellee Santiago gave a talk for TED at USC and tries to attack this very notion of “are games art?” Personally, I have yet to feel that an entire game can be considered “art” with few, if not one exception. But my interest in this article has more to do with Ebert’s lack of reasoning as to why Kellee is wrong and my eventual siding with Ebert.

The lack of reasoning is easily summed up in one of the comments to the post that he “simply doesn’t get it”. If Ebert doesn’t understand the mechanics of the game beneath what he is being shown on a clip of play through, he’ll never understand what people are trying in vain to tell him. It’s as if Ebert himself were trying to discuss why Jaws was so pivotal in the horror/thriller genre to someone who simply doesn’t care about a dolly zoom effect and what it’s influences were on modern film making.

Perhaps that is where people have gone wrong. My proposal to anyone who wishes to convince him otherwise, would be to recreate a movie frame by frame in a 3D environment. My feeling is that he’d still reject this.

Ebert never once defines “art” for his argument which should also be a clue to those who continue to try to convince him he is wrong. If he presents no point to contradict, there is no argument you can engage him in. Simply disagreeing with his opinion means nothing.

Now, while I don’t agree with how Ebert is presenting himself in this argument, I for one, have to agree that games are very rarely art. His one point about many aspiring artists draw many wonderful nudes, but it doesn’t mean they achieve the artistic recognition of someone like DaVinci or Picasso.

This brings me back to the Matisse exhibit. In this exhibit, we explored how Matisse came to be Matisse. Much of what was on the walls were early scribbles and sketches. Over and over and over again he would draw the same paintings, advancing his style, reworking lines, and thoughts and elements within. This is one thing I think every artist does. They continually rework their craft, ultimately developing their unique look and feel. They become (in the words of film) auteurs; authors of their own medium.

Have games gotten to that point? Do we have many auteurs in the industry? Like movies, games have huge budgets and thus huge crews, but ultimately they are carrying out the vision of the director or lead developer. And there is a new theory out there that suggests games fall under a new kind of authorship, one that is explain in the Studio Auteur Theory, where it is the studio one works for that will create the authorship of the works. But this seems a little flawed to me as auteurship is over different genres of films, different characters, different worlds. Most studios keep to what they know best: EA has its sports franchises, Blizzard has WoW and Diablo, Valve has Half-Life,  and Bungie has Halo.  However, even in these studios, we still only see a handful of masterminds behind games that can continually reproduce works that are both interesting and engaging. People like Sudo 51 or Masaya Matsuura creators of the games Killer 7 and Chime are a rare breed in an industry where the craft is more about deadlines and bottom dollars than seeing a vision played out. The amount of time spent perfecting a game is exponentially larger after release. (hence all the updates and “patches” we download each time we load up) Films don’t have that luxury. And with that comes a need to get it right the first time out. Is that where the “art” lies? Can art be a fluid thing? Can you change a canvas once its hung on a wall, and still call what it is “art”, if what it was before was “art”?

Just like Matisse, there may have been 6 or 7 versions of “Bathers by a River” but only one remains on the walls of the Louvre.

More thoughts later….

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About colfaxave

Alex, VA

2 responses to “picasso it ain’t

  1. That story reminds me of that ad that’s on all the time during soccer games where as Aussie talks over a crown of fans asking how long does it take to make a nation care? (The he answers his own question as the crowd erupts over a goal): “if you do it right, it only takes a second.”

    I hate that ad. (1) no one remembers what it’s advertising. and (2) before that 1 second, it takes DECADES and thousands of dollars to actually make a nation care.

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