What is Art?

by William Barth

This is a big one.

At first I thought, “art is any expression which seeks to communicate something to someone”, but I have to second guess myself because it might just be expression without communication.  Is that really possible, though?  I’ve heard the argument that it’s impossible not to communicate the expression in some way.  Now we can whip up scenarios where the artist lives alone on an island yada yada yada…  but that just isn’t the case.  Let’s be reasonable and work with art as we know it in the modern cultural context we’re familiar with.  Typically, artists create work to express themselves and that work is shown to someone somehow.  A painter sells a piece at a gallery, a designer hosts a fashion show, a musician tours, Banksy tags buildings.  A reaction in the audience is solicited.  Communication occurs.

Let’s stop to consider communication and it’s profound impotence in the face of relativity.  We both speak English, so that’s great, but I still cannot possibly make you truly feel and understand whatever thought or feeling I’m trying to convey.  Skilled writers and painters might come close to expressing an idea or feeling and making the audience feel it too, but the transfer will never be perfect.  Because that is the case, I suspect that’s why we tend to label some art as “better” or “high art.”  I think that those pieces of art which resonate with us, which make us feel something by tugging our thoughts and our hearts and our consciences in certain directions, are popularly called “art”.

There’s an issue of semantics there.  I frequently hear painting referred to as “art” when really everything is art because any expression is actually creative.  Scott McCloud makes this argument in his book Understanding Comics (1993).  I highly recommend Understanding Comics for its lessons in understanding media in general, not just comics, which are underrated, but that’s another story.

So, the Mona Lisa and my lousy sketch of a tree are both art, but people care a lot more about one than the other.  The scene I imagine is a museum-goer stopping to ponder a minimalist painting.  The piece speaks to the viewer.  They feel something, for some reason.  This emotional communication is the transfer of expression from artist to audience.  If a piece of work can communicate a feeling accurately – meaning the audience feels what the artist intended them to – then I think that’s “good” art because it’s effective communication.  People seem impressed by effective communication which does not use plain old speech dialogue.

Someone could just tell you, “I’m angry”, but a painting that makes you feel their anger seems artful.  Perhaps it’s just because it’s unusual to communicate this way, compared to just talking to each other.  Perhaps it’s the audience’s part in the communication that’s special.  The audience has to do some work of its own to reach the answer, as opposed to hearing someone tell them the message.  There is a sense of hard-earned enlightenment.

The argument which recently made me question art is: “Videogames are not art.”

I’ve already said that all expression is art, but it’s the effect of the communication on the audience that makes an expression feel artful (I believe some parallels will be found in Reader Response Theory).  If a piece of work makes its audience feel what it set out to make them feel, then that’s good art in my book.  Here are some videogames with little to no dialogue I’ve enjoyed (evidently, all of these can be beaten pretty quickly and I highly recommend all of them):

  • ICO
  • Shadow of the Colossus
  • Journey
  • Passage
  • (I haven’t played The Path, but I believe it belongs on this list)

Videogames are particularly good at making the audience work to understand the expression being communicated because they are probably more interactive than any other medium.  The music and visuals of a game are part of the communication, but user interface (UI) is mostly unique to games as a medium, and that UI is itself customizable for particular means.  Animator Egoraptor does a great job explaining how the sluggish controls in Castlevania actually speak to the game’s theme (the argument appears in the first two minutes of the linked video).  In Castlevania, the player is a vampire hunter who uses a whip.  The whip control is slow to execute which helps make the player feel like they’re actually wandering a haunted mansion, taking care to ward off scary enemies.  In Shadow of the Colossus, the player spends a lot of time climbing moving giants.  To hold on and climb, the player has to hold down a shoulder button on the controller, and if we look at the hand’s grip on the controller, it actually mimics the gesture of grappling onto something, like the game avatar which is holding on for dear life.  Other games have used shoulder or trigger buttons for firing a gun.  We see similar uses of UI in other games for unscrewing screws, picking locks, and so on.  These conventions are dialogue-free communication which take audience involvement to the next level.

While I’m on the subject of mediums, I believe that opera is the greatest form of art we have currently.  I believe that videogames could surpass opera with time, but for now opera dominates with its interdisciplinary execution of visuals and sounds.  All of the popular arts are there: music, dance, 2D and 3D (i.e. painting and sculpture), and so on.  Opera does what film or music cannot do on their own.  Videogames add interactivity, but those other areas just aren’t on the same scale yet, nor am I sure they can be because videogames are a mostly solitary experience while opera is a public one.

Here is a great talk by game developer Brian Moriarty about games as art.  Professor Moriarty goes beyond videogames and explains how a game like chess can be art.  I really like his definition of (sublime) art, which is “the still evocation of the inexpressible.”


What is art?  Well, everything, but why do we call the Mona Lisa art and not videogames?  [1] Videogames are a brand new medium in the scheme of things so they don’t have as much practice at effectively communicating special meaning, and [2] painting and other traditional mediums are more accessible.

I’m going to go ahead and define art as communication which solicits emotional response and doesn’t simply transfer information.

What if the artist intended for the audience NOT to have an emotional response?  Well…crap.