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Monday, January 09, 2006
Art, High and Low: Sorry, But We Are Not Accepting Any New Members At This Time

As the major gift-giving holidays recede into memory, and the world begins to mentally jot down ideas for next year's wishlist, one question looms large for arts-minded people across the country: Where are the High Art video games? Okay, maybe I'm the only one asking that question, but I'm serious about the question.

I don't buy into the High Art/Low Art distinction, philosophically speaking, but enough people do that it has meaning as a sociological demarcation, and most artistic disciplines have both High and Low forms. We all know that the category of "High Art" includes things like Beethoven and Boulez, Shakespeare and Mamet, Dickens and Pynchon, etc. And "Low Art" includes things like the Rolling Stones, The Sopranos, Dan Brown, etc. As with the categories �bald� and �not bald,� there is no precise boundary between these categories, but sociologically speaking the two categories really do exist.

Interestingly, in addition to the difficult-to-articulate elements that differentiate the actual art in each category, the infrastructures supporting High and Low Art are very different: Low Art tends to be governed by traditional market forces, whereas High Art tends to be cushioned from the brutality of market forces by the charitable support of individuals and organizations. How many rock bands file for nonprofit status, appoint a board of directors, and solicit charitable contributions? How many classical ensembles do? I know less about the differences between the infrastructures of High and Low filmmaking, publishing, playwriting, painting, sculpture, and so on, but certainly the High visual arts are disproportionately supported by the nonprofit museum industry, many foreign governments provide funding for films. High Art practitioners often hold academic jobs, and most works of High Art are made on commission or with no expectation of remuneration rather than with a view to sales revenue.

According to Wikipedia, "in the United States, video game sales have exceeded the movies' total box office revenue each year since about 1996," (although the article goes on to note that "the movie studios trounce the video game publishers when the movies' 'ancillary revenue' is counted, meaning sales of DVDs, sales to foreign distributors, and sales to cable TV, satellite TV, and broadcast television networks.") But even though the game design artform is huge, and as I mentioned almost every major category of art has both a High and Low version -- music, drama, film, painting, sculpture, novels, poetry, dance -- there does not seem to be a High Art version of the computer game industry. I am not aware of any game design companies with Nonprofit status (except a few that make education and training games), or who run a fundraising operation that solicits charitable gifts. Training in game design and production, to the extent that it is formalized, is primarily offered by technical and professional schools, not by traditional art schools. Most universities don�t even have a game design curriculum in their fine or liberal arts departments, and shipping a great game probably won't get you tenure in those departments. Journalism that draws a distinction between "arts" and "entertainment" reviews computer games in the "entertainment" section. None of those by itself necessarily implies that there's no High Art gaming community (film schools tend to be more professional than academic, too, for example, but there is a High Art film community) but that we see all of them together makes a strong case.

So why? Does surrendering control to a gamer rather than retaining it for the author undermine the possibility of High Art? Probably not, since the plot and dialogue and characters and world physics and mythology and many other things are still entirely controlled by the design team. And a Beethoven piano sonata doesn't stop being High Art when it's performed by an amateur, so surely having amateurs "perform" games wouldn't prevent games from being High Art. Are they too fun, or fun-oriented? This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, but seems bogus. High Art is fun too, for the people who like it -- more fun than Low Art for certain snobs -- and the makers of High Art are trying to please some audience or another. And it's not that enjoyment of games is even of a different type than appreciation of High Art -- there's beauty in the imagery, sound, and design; intellectual stimulation from the puzzles; conceptual satisfaction from the conceptual design: in other words both High and Low Art provide both visceral and intellectual stimulation. There's no reason inherent to the nature of computer games that they can't be High Art. And there are a few games that seem like they could even be classified as High Art Games if the category existed: I never played Myst, but everybody I ask about this subject proposes it as a candidate for High Art status. More recently, Katamari Damacy could well be seen as a work of postmodern conceptualist art. I don't accept that the actual differences between works of High and Low Art are anything more than superficial, but I happen to like the superficial features of "High" art and think there's a lot of potential for really interesting games that bear superficialities analogous to those which demarcate other disciplines of "High" art.

Ultimately, I think the reason for the lack of a High Art game industry is that our culture is no longer capable of creating new High Art disciplines because most of the culture doesn't believe in High Art, or at least is not invested in its importance. Film made it in under the wire because it's conceptually similar enough to stage drama that the High Culture Gatekeepers were willing to let it in when films began to be made that were more superficially similar to High Drama than Low Drama. But film is new enough that the industry has not been able to build up the kind of massive non-profit infrastructure that music, drama, dance, and the other older visual arts have -- there simply aren't enough donors who think film is important enough to fund it at the level needed to support an infrastructure of non-profit studios and distribution mechanisms. It's no accident that the European film industry is stranger and more �artsy� than the American industry: European governments fund the arts more robustly, and so European art film doesn't have to put together as much private money -- plus the Europeans are motivated to fund High Art film as a way of promoting the idea of European cultural superiority over Hollywood and American culture. Comic books, on the other hand, have not arrived. The "graphic novel" has been accepted by some parts of the culture, but as a sort of popular and chic Low Art ("chic" here meaning "considered sophisticated by pop-culture elitists" -- not being an elitist myself I am reluctant to actually use the term �sophisticated� here). Comic book art has been shown in museums a few times, although one gets the sense that those exhibits are intended as fund-raisers to support the "real" High Art mission. It's also true that both of my Low-Art-Only examples -- computer games and comics -- are perceived at "for kids" even though the stereotype is invalid, but another of the forces at work is the fact that popular culture is largely composed of and defined by "youth culture," or rather by cultural elements identified as "youth culture" how ever inaccurately. On a more cynical note, there's an incentive for the existing High Art community to keep computer games and comic books out -- the pool of available philanthropic support is already too small without diluting it by adding another artform that needs support. And, as has been demonstrated with the comic book art exhibits at museums and orchestra concerts like the LA Phil's "Music from Final Fantasy," High Art venues presenting what I've just dubbed "Chic Low Art" can be a highly lucrative proposition. It's not Low-art-in-a-High-art-venue, but as the originator of the Museum Blockbuster phenomenon, the "Treasures Of Tutankhamun" exhibit is illustrative. The exhibit started at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 and then toured other museums until 1978, bringing over 800,000 people to the Met in its 117 day stay. Last month (on December 15, 2005, to be precise) a new tour of the King Tut artifacts was launched, and this time it's a purely commercial venture: the museums are essentially serving as a venue for a show produced by Anschutz Entertainment Group and the Egyptian Government. It's expected to draw more than 3 million visitors at $30 per ticket. Ensuring that the High-art-esqe areas of those disciplines which have no High Art establishment remain in the "Popular Chic Low Art" category creates a new revenue stream for High Art � the Chic Low Art remains commercially viable but has enough High Art credibility that High Art organizations can get away with presenting it and reap the financial rewards. I will be surprised if computer game music concerts don't become more common, and if museums don't start putting together computer game art exhibits. I don't think I have a problem with this likelyhood, or a problem with the new King Tut exhibit, but many people have been and will be appalled, and will denounce the "selling out" and "cheapening" of the High Arts and the High Art community.

Also worth noting is the apparent sociological connection between a discipline bearing the "High Art" label and the existence of a High-Art-style infrastructure. For example, all Rock and Roll is "Low Art" but some of the less mainstream genres have more superficialities and underlying philosophical motivations in common with High Art than with Low Art. It would make sense, maybe even more sense than the current system, to have High Art rock music and Low Art rock music, and a High Art classical music and a Low Art classical music (the "Low" classical music being film score and crossover acts). And I suspect that if the rock music that is currently Popular Chic Low Art had a High-Art-style infrastructure it would be classified as High Art. If, to use examples to represent larger phenomena, Radiohead were a 501(c)(3), and ran an annual fund, and Brian Eno had a faculty position at Harvard, and Carnegie Hall curated rock concerts funded by philanthropic grants, and bands with less commercial success than Radiohead were spared day-jobs because they could get commissions from foundations and be hired into faculty positions, our cultural schema would include "High Art" rock. But for the reasons I've already stated, this will never come to pass.

So is it necessarily bad news that our culture is incapable of establishing a new High Art community? Yes and no. It's not necessarily bad news for the established disciplines -- the infrastructure already exists, and not being able to build a new one for a new discipline does not necessarily mean that the existing ones are sick: Microsoft and Apple have a monopoly on the computer operating system industry because no operating system can be widely successful unless everybody switches at once, and engineering a marketing campaign capable of generating the new user group would be inconceivable, (Linux has a small but growing user base, but that base is a small group of elite users, and it's a free product) but the fact that the emergence of a major new OS is virtually impossible is not an indication that Microsoft or Apple are in trouble. On the other hand, the lack of a sufficient financial base to launch a new High Art is directly related to the insufficient funding for the existing branches, which is pretty clearly a real problem. That lack of funding, of course, comes directly from the fact that the culture believes in the High/Low distinction but doesn�t value the arts categorized as �High� enough to adequately support the infrastructure. The absence of a High Art computer game culture is a symptom of the same problems plaguing the existing High Art communities.

I suppose if we ever did manage to create a High Art computer game industry we wouldn�t be allowed to call them �computer games.� How about �computer experiences�. . . No, wait, that�s a terrible idea. Anyway, maybe it�s a pipe dream, but wouldn�t it be great?


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