Use Your Words: Art Game Criticism

Originally posted January 14, 2010: original blog post.

I read two great articles on art games last night, one by Emily Short, and one by Leigh Alexander, both at Both articles were critiques of art games that have come out recently. Both articles were very well written and examined many aspects of what worked and didn’t work in the games. The games they discuss are also worth playing. However, I was shocked to find a few angry, bordering on vicious, comments posted to the articles. There were some people who were extremely angry about these art games being treated seriously. I was taken aback by the comments I read. At first I couldn’t understand why people were so upset by the idea of art games. The more I thought about it, the more I decided I needed to write it all down.

A lot of the anger seemed to stem from accusations of pretentiousness. In Ms. Short’s article on aging and death in games, she starts by talking about hating when the word “pretentious” is used in art criticism. I love that she talks about this. She starts her article with:

I hate the word “pretentious” in art criticism.

I understand why people use it. Often we call something pretentious when we think the artist might be concealing a lack of meaning or vision behind obscurity, jargon, or a set of conventions currently hallowed by the art establishment. It’s a way of saying “I don’t get this, and I don’t know that there’s anything to get” that shifts the blame (if blame even applies in so subjective an area as one’s response to artwork) onto the artist rather than ourselves.

The on-going debate over whether or not a video game can be considered art and art gaming is an area of great interest to me. I grew up in a family of artists, and so for a long time I assumed that everyone enjoyed art as much as I did. As I got older, and understood more about politics and people’s differing views on the world, I started to see that not everyone had the same love of art that my family did. In the age of the Web 2.0 (oh, how I hate that term) where everyone has a voice on the internet (yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing that on my blog), a wider contempt for art is becoming more and more apparent to me, especially in gaming circles.

Ms. Short’s article brings up the issue when she mentions the use of the word “pretentious”. Reading the comments on her article and on Ms. Alexander’s article, you can see the anger that erupts from some people when the concept of art is discussed. This is an attitude that greatly saddens me.

Let me take a little aside here to talk about a professor I had for one of my art courses in school. Every Monday in class we would all hang our work from the previous week on the walls and everyone would critique each others’ work. It was an important exercise for two reasons: it taught you how to think critically about someone else’s work, and it taught you how to accept criticism of your own work. However, there were also two rules: any criticism had to be constructive, and you weren’t ever allowed to use the word “interesting” when describing someone’s work.

Our prof’s reasoning for the “interesting” rule is that people use the word interesting when they don’t want to commit to a response. It shows that they haven’t thought about the work, that they haven’t even tried to understand how the works makes them feel. I think this is why Ms. Short’s article affected me so much: the word pretentious works the same way. Except that Ms. Short is right, the use of the word pretentious isn’t just about not understanding the art, it’s a statement that the viewer feels the artist is laughing at them for not understanding.

It’s here that I think a lot of the anger towards art stems from. People are intimidated by art for some reason. When they don’t understand a work, they assume that the artist is laughing at them. They are afraid of being embarrassed by art.

Complicating all of this, of course, is the fact that there are some artists out there who create work with the expressed purpose of making people angry that they called it art. I think this is also why a lot of people are afraid to express an opinion about a particular piece of art: they’re afraid that if they do form an opinion and comment on it, the artist will say, “Ha ha! It was all a joke, don’t you feel stupid.” Well I say: enough. It’s better to have an opinion on a piece than to be afraid that it’s the wrong opinion.

Other people would tell us that art can only be enjoyed by those who are educated enough to understand it. Statements like that upset me deeply. Anyone who tells you art can’t be appreciated unless you understand it is probably afraid that they themselves will end up looking stupid.

I’ve taken enough art history classes to know that you can learn to understand historical contexts that help you appreciate why a particular art movement appeared when it did. And knowing about an artist’s life and past work can help put their work into a context that can let you enjoy aspects of their work that you wouldn’t otherwise. But that’s not the point. My point is that even if you’ve never taken an art history course, even if you’ve never looked at a painting before, that should never stop you from going into a gallery and making up your own mind about the artwork in it.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to learn more about art. We should read about the artist, learn about the movements that lead to their work. This will help you enjoy the art at different levels. But we need to get over this feeling that art can’t be enjoyed without being understood. Art is for everyone! Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the artist intended for you to feel when he/she painted/sculpted/film/programmed the piece. What matters is what you feel when you experience it. We have to get rid of this idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to feel about art. Focus instead on how it makes you feel.

Take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s paintings. This is called “Orange and Yellow” and was painted in 1956. The original piece is 71″ x 91″. That’s big! Imagine yourself standing in front of this painting that is over seven feet tall!

Orange and Yellow

If you know about Rothko’s evolution from his early paintings that were much less abstract into abstract expressionism, then great. If not, I would argue that it doesn’t really matter. Look at the painting. If your first reaction is “it’s just two blocks of colour. I could have painted that” then fine. But now move on and really look at the painting. Take your time. How does it make you feel? Do you like it? What do you like about it? Do you hate it? Why do you hate it? Look at the way the colours interact. Consider the proportions of the blocks of colour. Really look. Take the time to let it affect you. Reflect on it. Don’t just make a snap judgement based on the first two seconds of looking at it. Now describe it without using the words “interesting” or “pretentious”. And remember, there’s no wrong way to look at this painting. Whatever you feel about it is valid, as long as you’ve actually taken the time to give it a chance.

So let’s please leave the ignorant yelling about how art is pretentious behind. Let’s look at art and art games with an open mind. Not every painting or art game is going to be considered good or appeal to you, just as not every book or movie will appeal to you. I’m just asking that when you criticize an art game because you don’t like it, tell us why.

As mothers everywhere have been saying to their children for generations: use your words.