What is Art?

Posted October 25, 2013

This question came up in conversation the other day, and got me searching for the answer. It may not seem relevant to games at first. Bear with me and we’ll bring it back around.


The common assumption is that anything pleasing to the senses is art. Yet this falls through when considering that many of our greatest works of art are grotesque. Further still, what is beauty? A hard question to answer, and tangential, but important to ask yourself as we move forward. If we define any beautiful work as art, then beauty and art are the same and we dilute the meaning of the word. There’s an intuitive distinction that we have to address.

Something Made By Artists

At first this sounds obvious, unhelpful, and a delaying of definition. In more subtle terms, it implies that someone who intends to create art, is creating art. The creation of art is a form of expression by the artist, for the specific purpose of being art. On it’s own this is still full of holes. One is now left with two things to determine, the original question of “what is art”, along with two new questions: “How do we determine intent?” and “Is intent relevant to the interpretation of something as being art?” The original question remains because if an artist is someone who creates art, and art is something created by an artist, we have a circular definition which doesn’t fly.

Putting that aside we come back to intent. Without knowing the artist we can’t determine intent. If I paint a beautiful sunset that I mean to represent the twilight of my life, and the serenity that comes with losing fear of your inevitable demise, someone who knew me would see that as a lovely and moving piece of art. If no one were around who knew that intended deeper meaning, they would likely construe it as a beautiful painting and move on. People may infer the deeper meaning, for them it would be art, yet that distinction is something made within the mind of the observer. This then answers the second question, intent is not important to art, because you can’t always determine intent.

My Answer

Art is something created by someone, that a collection of outside viewers determine to have complex meaning, beyond the obvious surface one. It seems to me that the audience is what matters in determining if something is art. Much like beauty, it’s subjective to the context of a person’s life when they come across it.

Context is the key component of art, not intent.

Tying to Games

The debate comes up every so often about whether games are art. We all know this is a dumb conversation, but not for the reasons we assume. Games are not art due to a simple semantic point: No medium is art, there’s no such thing as an art form. Certain games are art, others are entertainment. Some paintings are art, others are beautiful, others entertaining. We know this is true of music, movies, books, dance, poetry, none of them are art. They contain pieces of art, as part of the medium.

When someone says to you that games aren’t art, bear some things in mind. They assume all games are the same and haven’t experienced The Walking Dead, or Journey, or Braid, or Limbo, or others that people tied to the medium know intimately. They lack context to understand when games are trying to comment on the world at large, or trying to talk about the nature of interactivity, or move you to question who you are as a person. Much like parents, they just don’t understand.

Don’t get mad at them. Take it as an opportunity to explain the context and show them why a particular game is art.