Don’t Call it Art, Don’t Call Me an Artist

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Dada, I thought it’d be fitting to write about the anti-art stance that distinguishes both the avant-garde art movement and  the world of videogames.

Comparing them, however, is just a trigger: one is an art movement, the other’s a medium. There are videogames with Dadaist attitudes, but the purpose of this article is to reflect on the anti-art sentiments that link games and Dada, and on developing an external reference point that will allow us to understand different perspectives within the game dev community.

The Reluctance to Enter the “Art Circle”

What videogames and Dada have in common: they’re both art, yet conceptually resist belonging to the art world.

CirculoDelArte

Since its manifesto, Dada has promoted breaking ties with bourgeois art: mocking the wealthy in order to assert its anti-conservative stance. Though formally diverse, what defined Dada was its attitude: anti-art, primitive, destructive, illogical. It intended to displease the bourgeois of the time, and in that way assure that it would always be on the periphery — confronting, provoking.

Videogames also resist being a part of the “art circle.” The very idea of being treated as artists makes developers feel caricaturized, makes them feel they’re being painted as snobs — frivolous, exclusionary, up in their ivory towers, detached from the masses. It’s the exact opposite of the communitarian essence that prevails in the indie community today.

From a more materialistic point of view, the reasons for this resistance might be quite different: a game’s intellectualism immediately destroys its chances of large scale commercialization. The museum, the gallery and other places with an exclusive air about them maintain an idiosyncrasy opposed to videogames’ (generally) non-physical medium and global market.

More Than Anything, Anti-Art is Market Related

One of Dadaism’s first critiques is towards the creation of art to sell to the bourgeois. The critique is directed mostly at the attitude of artists to make closed-minded art that looks at the bourgeois and which is inevitably conservative. In short, the making of art just to be sold.

The videogame market requires a more complex analysis. It’s uncommon for videogames to adopt an attitude that turns its back on the market — and why would they? Once a project reaches a certain scale, aligning oneself to a commercial plan is the only way to sustain it Sometimes, however, it’s not just about selling the game: it gets to the point where the game is treated  as if it were just a commercial product and nothing more. Audio equipment, a washing machine, a motorcycle, a videogame. Each of them speculated on the market, with their fears of being disliked by the public, their features lists, their simplicity of use, presenting nothing more than a solution for some everyday, cotidian trifle. In the case of videogames, they provide  leisure time to clear away the fatigue and burden of work. It’s not art, it’s a commercial product. Art is risk, and avoiding it is an anti-art attitude.

The Scale of the Project Allows for a Small Risk Margin

I can’t entirely blame game developers for this attitude — both film and videogames tend to have a need for market sustainability. What can we deduce from this? That the scale of the project requires an investment of equal proportion, and that the project thus becomes a business of market speculation. No shareholder would increase their risk of commercial failure in favor of a work unsettling its audience and showing it something different and not functional to leisure.

But is that Entirely True?

Many great works of cinema and of videogames (despite their short history) were not trying to repeat formulas, or be predictable, or focus on being a piece of entertainment. The artist (painter, sculptor, musician, filmmaker or game developer) is not a conservative shareholder, or a speculator wondering what the public does or does not like. They’re a risky investor, who takes a chance at saying something that might not sit well with many people, but which will offer a perspective and a voice.

So if art is necessarily related to risk, a producer might ask: who pays for those risks? This question formulates an opposition: market vs. risk. Or, since we consider there always to be risk in art, we could say: market vs. art. That there is the gene of the problem, and it has a long criminal record that goes way back, before video games even existed.

¿Market vs. Art?

Take-My-Money

From a certain perspective, historically it was always a bit like this when a movement or an artist was metabolized by the market. Even if they kept selling and kept being called an artist, they had left their provocative space and simply catered to an audience, thus becoming conservative. However, as mentioned above, all great works in any medium were novel, either in form or content, thanks to the risk taken by their author or group of authors. In certain cases, that risk came hand in hand with a not insignificant profit. Of course, that’s not always the case – it’s called a risk for a reason – but when it comes to great works, the willingness to take a risk is part of what led them to reach historic transcendence and become meaningful, as well was what allowed them to function in the market.  What was capitalized on was the risk, and the novelty proved valuable. Therefore, this opposition is not necessarily valid in the current market. This means that art isn’t necessarily searching for a market (thus becoming conservative) but that the market (not elitist, but massive) can search for and sustain art, expecting, in return, to capitalize on its avant-garde attitude.

It seems important, here, to emphasize that it is the mass market that permits the sustainment of a work that requires large investments, without having to resort to wealthy elites who would purchase it, or to a patron. That changes the scenario in which this market vs. art confrontation is formulated.

Don’t Call it Art, Don’t Call Me an Artist (tl; dr)

Beyond market issues, and returning to the initial point, we can now focus specifically on the indie game scene.

Sometimes in the world of videogames, the oft repeated phrase, “What I do is not art,” refers to that same Dadaist (and later punk) attitude of confronting the system from outside of a circle centered on oneself. Other times – and I would say most of the time – the phrase has more to do with a desire to belong to the entertainment industry and not sound pretentious or exclusionary.

Using the word “art” (especially in games) always causes misunderstandings, surely due to the prejudices related to the topic and the people that form its circles. Although the question of whether games are or aren’t art no longer makes any sense – they clearly are – the taboo still remains: day-to-day the activity isn’t usually referred to as “art”, even though effectively it is; the work is called a product and the artist is whoever works on the graphics, not the rest of the team.

This anti-art stance distinguishes two types of indies:

  1. A significant bunch who take chances with their artistic expression, whether they recognize it or not, and belong to the more confrontational and risk-taking group. For them, being considered an artist carries a conservative connotation, which threatens their perspective.If they must recover their investment, they try to capitalize on the risks they’ve taken, which are the novelty, the central part of their work, hoping a favorable response from the market.
  2. In the other corner there’s a great majority that see artistic expression as opposed to the market and prefer to make conservative bets. Here, anti-art is synonymous with avoiding market risks.This group doesn’t capitalize on novelty, rather they expect the market to respond to the polished formulas of addictive entertainment. Central to their work is its anti-boredom functionality, which must work as expected and pack no surprises.

Perhaps both are united in their reluctance to join the art world, but their attitudes couldn’t be more different. One is anti-art in the Dada sense while the other is perhaps more truly removed from art itself.

Translated from Spanish by David T. Marchand and Pablo F. Quarta

About Santiago J. Franzani

Makes interactive stuff under the name of Antennaria. A friend of graphic adventures, maker of absurd animations, lover of discussions leading nowhere. His mission is to smuggle surrealism to the confines of the Internet.