Can art be interactive?

Roger Ebert is a reasonably famous American film critic who, from what little I know of him, I think is quite worthy of respect. When I bump into his name these days, though, it tends to be for his participation in the debate about whether or not computer games can be 'art'.

Personally, (and this may or may not surprise you) I struggle to effect any interest in this debate either way. So what if games aren't art? And I certainly think that Ebert is correct when he asserts that:

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.

At least as far as the most mainstream or mainstream-styled are concerned, games are almost universally immature and/or simplistic. (I might actually point to Galatea and some other interactive fiction games as possible counter-examples.) But what's really grabbed my attention here is just why Ebert considers that games aren't art: because they're interactive. Because the artist creates something which is then altered by the person who attempts to appreciate it.

Cards on the table: I don't really understand what art is in the first place. As Wikipedia snappily puts it:

The most common usage of the word "art," which rose to prominence after 1750, is understood to denote skill used to produce an aesthetic result. Britannica Online defines it as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."

By these definitions, the term 'art' is definitely inclusive rather than exclusive. Computer games are certainly 'art' in this fashion, as are Mills and Boone romances, newspaper comic strips and pornographic movies. The exclusive variant of the word 'art' on the other hand, never fails to confuse me in terms of what it chooses to allow under its umbrella and what it turns its nose up at. Jack Vettriano's paintings aren't allowed into the club, but an unmade bed is. By Ebert's decree of non-interactivity, however, an unmade bed upon which visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to lie down would also fail to measure up.

To me, as someone whose first love is external reality (and by extension, science), this can't help but seem hopelessly subjective, relative and personal. No-one can really define art in objective (mathematical, for example) terms, so 'art' is whatever it means to you. Why then, do people make factual pronouncements like 'art can't be interactive', instead of providing personal opinions such as 'something that is interactive can't be art to me'?

Does anyone have any wisdom to offer me? Do you believe that art can't be interactive, that it's sole purpose is to provide a one-way conduit of ideas from creator to consumer? Do you have a definition for art that is both objective and exclusive?


zhoen said...

HE wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Don't know that I would trust his taste in anything, honestly.

I like Sister Wendy for her definitions of art, which are not exclusive.

Not sure I'd call any game - ART, not because of the interaction, but because it is a sort of task. Not that I couldn't be convinced in certain cases. Tetris and Guitar Hero, no. But there are people who consider Thomas Kincaid an artist, so who am I to say?

Geosomin said...

I think art is very subjective thing.
I also think it can be interactive, altho it wouldn't be something everyone would like. This summer I was at an event that had an interactive dome, with art and various things if you walked by them or touched them would move or make noise or change the display...I thought it was fantastic...but a friend with me thought it was silly. So I suppose it's all relative.

Diddums said...

My thoughts got rather long, so I put them over at my blog:


Udge said...

I'm with Zhoen, I think the most useful defining characteristic of all art is that it is useless. Useful, useable things aren't art no matter how artfully they are made. In my personal opinion :-)

Why then, do people make factual pronouncements like 'art can't be interactive', instead of providing personal opinions such as 'something that is interactive can't be art to me'?

In my personal opinion, it's because their social function is to convey absolute truths which may be accepted and repeated without further thought. To say "in my opinion..." is a betrayal of their function, because it would require us to look into our own beliefs and ask "am I of this opinion too?" Too much like hard work.

Tinker said...

I like Wikipedia's definition the best. And yes, I think art can be interactive.
But art is also as subjective as what one chooses to eat - to one person, two pieces of fruit on a plate isn't a meal - to another person it might be a feast.

As wise old Auntie Mame said, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
There's eye candy everywhere - if you remember to look with open eyes and heart...

Sorry if I'm completely off-the-wall today - I've been under the influence of children for several days...

Bloggrrl said...

I was an art major for a year, and these type of discussions drove me batty. It can be a snob thing--the art I like is more real than that stuff you call art...I can't stand that attitude. I like the idea of it being a personal opinion, um, personally.

Diddums said...

Udge, perhaps it's about intention. If you made a useful thing and set out to make it beautiful, it counts as art. But if you made a useful thing without caring how it looked, and it just happened to press people's buttons because of its form or looks, it's not really art.

Bloggrrl, isn't 'the art I like is more real than the art you like' a personal opinion? I hate that sort of thing too (stumps off muttering about unmade beds not being real anyways...)

LuluBunny said...

IMHO, art is always interactive, at least to some extent, in that it passes from one person's intention to another's perception - and the mutation that can occur between those two points can be incredible - like a game of telephone. And, in the end, I think some strange hybrid is usually born - so that often times the collective decisions about quality and meaning bear little resemblance to my personal experience of something, or even to the artist’s original intention for it.

And not that I suspect it will matter much to anyone, but my personal definition of what art is, or is not, aims squarely (and somewhat desperately) at being objective, though it may or may not make it. My definition of art is that it is anything created simply for the fulfillment of the urge to create. It needn't be "good" (whatever that subjective nonsense word means), and I do not have to personally enjoy it. It just needs to be the thing that was aching to come out – the thorn in your proverbial side (or paw, or whichever fable you prefer).

Basically - if you did it for fame or fortune, to please someone, to shock someone, or to win the heart of the one you love ... then, in my book - it wasn't art, it was just desire. If you did it so you can sleep at night, look yourself in the mirror, or go one more day without cutting your ear off - congratulations my lunatic friend, I dub thee an artist.

And yes, for the record, I CAN dub people things because I am Queen of the Universe (didn’t you get the memo?) ;)

Pacian said...

Thought provoking comments, everyone! Although further visitors shouldn't let that prevent them from adding their own thoughts.

"IMHO, art is always interactive, at least to some extent, in that it passes from one person's intention to another's perception"

I was waiting for someone to say that, as I almost added it to my post - not nearly so eloquently, I should add. Interpreting art seems to be a big part of appreciating it, and everyone interprets it in different ways. Is it so strange then, to think of art that actually changes according to how it is interpreted?