The Art Grid

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 18, 2007

Filed under: Random 40 comments

Here is Steven’s definition of art:

My own definition: art is a creation intended to communicate something which cannot easily be communicated. As such, there are three dimensions to it, three scales on which any given piece of art falls.

  • What is communicated can be mundane or profound. (Or somewhere in between.)
  • The idea is communicated effectively or not effectively.
  • What is communicate can be understood by a broad audience or only by a few.

“Great” art is profound, effective, and broad. It says something important, says it extremely well, and communicates it to many people.

This makes me think of a scene near the beginning of Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) begins a lesson on how to judge the merit of a poem by placing within a two-axis grid. I can’t recall what the two axis stood for, but they were not unlike the three-dimensional system Steven gives us above. The movie then mocks the idea that you can clearly define the merits of art this way and Keating has the students tear these pages out of their books. But I like what Steven has up there: A thing Is what it Does. Yeah, yeah. I know: Engineers and their confounded desire to quantify every dang thing. Sue me.

Later he says:

For instance, an impressionist landscape is (or can be) effective, broad, but also mundane; it tries to say “mountains are pretty.” But it delivers that feeling of entrancement with the beauty of mountains to many people and inspires that feeling strongly in them.

Let’s drag this topic over to my favorite dead horse – videogames as art – and give it a few more good thumps. It’s interesting to note that for an overwhelming number of games – first-person games in particular – the message is something along the lines of “You are a hero”, or perhaps better, “Heroes are good”. Hero stories are the landscape paintings of videogames. They’re an easy target to hit. Most of us have a built-in appreciation of heroism just like our appreciation of mountain vistas, so the creator just needs to connect with the audience enough to tap into that.

(Futile attempt to intercept nitpickery: Of course there are also games which aren’t trying to communicate anything. The Sim series of games is a good example of this. Will Wright calls these “software toys”. It’s not a chess set, it’s a box of Legos. They aren’t games in the sense that you have to “win” and they are not designed to communicate ideas or evoke emotions.)

Now, hopefully that isn’t all the game has to say, or it’s going to be very dull. Letting you knock down bad guys for its own sake is an empty sort of self-gratification. Hopefully the game uses the hero concept as a starting point for bigger questions. “What is a hero?” or “What can change the nature of a man?“.

Okay, this is the eighth post on videogames in a week. Man, I really need to get our D&D group going again.

UPDATE: Jennifer Snow makes a pretty interesting counter-argument in the comments.


From The Archives:

40 thoughts on “The Art Grid

  1. ChattyDm says:

    Debates on art are good. I might not agree with you on some points but that’s not important.. The mere fact that we can have a discourse on what is or isn’t art proves that it does it’s job: making a strong and lasting impression to fuel thoughts and ponderings.

    As for getting D&D out again, hey man I’m all for it… I write about it every day and I’d love to see how you’d tackle the issues of rules, Crunch and Fluff and what makes a good Adventure ! :)

  2. Steven’s definition has its merits, but it has problems.

    Martin Creed’s Turner-Prize-winning “the lights going on and off” (he’s so minimalist, he doesn’t even use capital letters!) communicates nothing whatsoever to almost everyone who sees it, except perhaps that the Turner Prize judges are a bunch of tossers. Yet I’m perfectly happy for minimalist works like that (including just about everything else Martin Creed has ever done) to be called art.

    On the other end of the spectrum, an advanced mathematics textbook certainly is attempting to communicate hard-to-communicate truths about the universe, and may communicate those truths very effectively to at least a small audience. Yet it’s unlikely to be called “art” by most people.

    My own not-too-useful definition of art is “whatever someone’s pointing at when they say ‘that’s art'”.

  3. Anonymous Botch says:

    This is the only blog I read regularly. I was reeled in by DM of the Rings, but stayed for the pie.
    Much though I enjoy long winded rants about videogames Idon’t play, I agree, please get your D&D group going again. Your log of the last campaign was what made me buy ver 3.5 after a 10 year roleplaying hiatus. Creative and humane GMing is possible and you proved it. Thanks for that. Can we have more?

  4. Gabriel says:

    There are just some things that nothing but a good RPG group can fix. It’s like cheeto-laden heroin actually.

    As a tangent, is a really well done attempt at a Campaign-building Template, with the stated goal:

    “The objective of the Instant Campaign Builder is to give you the necessary tools to keep that prep-time to play-time ratio under 1 to 4.”

  5. ngthagg says:

    Off topic: the [citation needed] banner made me laugh out loud. Well done.

  6. Matt P says:

    I think the two axes were (paraphrased) 1) the subject matter of the poem (how “high” it is) and 2) how “artfully” the meaning is conveyed.

  7. Matt P says:

    Sorry for the double post but it looks from my first post that I’m just being a pompous know-it-all. It’s just I love that movie with a passion and any mention of it I have to chime in.

  8. Shawn says:

    I’ve learned any number of valuable lessons from Sims.

    1: You should never put an area rug within 10 feet of the fire place.

    2: You should never stand in front of the microwave.

    3: If you’re going to cook on the stove, be sure to spend a few hours reading cookbooks first, or you’ll burn the whole house down.

    4: If you buy bigger and fancier things, you’ll be happier.

  9. Snook says:

    Point 4 is why I’m getting into engineering. I may be at one of the unhappiest campuses, but it’s easier to cry in a Porsche than a Honda!

    Back on topic… Art is what you make of it, to be cliche. Where others see graffiti, some see art. That’s why I like Banksy’s stuff so much. I think a better question than “What makes art great?” is needed. Why not “Why is art great to you? What do you derive from it?”

  10. Telas says:

    Snook @ 9: “it's easier to cry in a Porsche than a Honda”

    Not necessarily, but crying in a Porsche makes you look like a sensitive guy; crying in a Honda makes you look like a wuss. Marketers call this “packaging”. ;)

    Art is that which appeals to you personally. In my opinion, Cy Twombly’s work still looks like something a two-year old leaves on a wall after finding the Sharpies. Also in my opinion, the only value in most modern/postmodern art (especially minimalist stuff) is the act wherein the artist rakes in huge amounts of cash for, well, nothing. The artifact that’s left over isn’t art, but the act… That’s art.

    Your mileage may vary; it takes all kinds of spice to make a good chili.

    Public Art (especially publicly-funded art) is that which makes you want to seek out the alleged artist, and shake him down for a refund on your tax money. Or just shake him for taking a nice park and turning it into a corner of Ego Hell. Honestly, I think this is a pretty universal opinion…

  11. Shamus says:

    Someone once said that (paraphrase) art was anything that wasn’t directly related to survival or reproduction.

    I propose: Art is anything we do which is not funded by the government.

  12. roxysteve says:

    Argue what art is or isn’t all you like and good luck to you all, but I think you’re on a hiding to nowhere when you start using the word “meaning” in the discussions.

    Yes the mountain is pretty. What it means to me is bound up with the memories of mountain-walking in Wales as a teenager and a certain incident with a Victorian-ewra railway wheel that took years off my lifespan*, something I’d venture to suggest stands a reasonably good chance of being unique to me (although Scaryduck had a remarkably similar story to tell a few years ago).

    The meaning of art is bound up with the significance it has to each viewer. Totally subjective in a way that precludes discussion of meaning as some sort of concrete baseline.

    Rip out the pages of that book, my captain.


    * it turns out you get about 1.5 billion heartbeats and that is it if you are a mammal. I used up a good few tens of thousands in that episode.

  13. roxysteve says:

    ewra?!!! Thank you Mr Brain, I’ll take it from here.

    That was Victorian era of course.

  14. Phlux says:

    Shamus: I think you’d be eliminating Mt. Rushmore and a bazillion other government funded art pieces.

    How about this: If it was created, it is art

  15. Davesnot says:

    I propose: Art is anything we do which is not funded by the government.

    Hmm.. artists have historically been funded by governments and rich people.. If you take away handouts.. where would art be??

  16. Phlux says:

    Oh…and the graph from Dead Poet’s Society has “Perfection” on the Y axis and “Importance” on the X axis.

    The area under the curve denotes greatness.

  17. Davesnot says:

    Art used to be part of science.. math.. engineering.. we need art back in these fields!! The world is analog.. not digital.. something that those studying AI are learning.

  18. Gary says:

    Dang, Shamus, my entire life is funded by the Govt. ! :D

    (I work for it)

    I consider myself an artist, though I’m better at some forms than others, and I go with this:

    If I like it, its art.
    If I hate it, its crap.
    If I’m ambivalent, its ok art. :D

  19. Matt` says:

    I’d go with “anything designed to invoke emotion in people” be it music, paintings, sculpture, architecture, whatever.

    Much of modern art is more weird for the sake of weird, or a random curiosity than emotional.

  20. Erik Lund says:

    “Videogames as art” is in no way a dead horse.

  21. roxysteve says:

    [Matt] Then you’ll love my next performance piece. I call it “I just rear-ended Matt as he was coming home from the art gallery because I was too busy browsing the web on my iPhone to bother watching the road as I drove”.

    By your definition doing taxes is art. Actually, for many people, that actually works now I come to think about it. Creativity is involved too. As you were.


  22. Pederson says:

    Do we distinguish art, in the sense of objets d’, from art in the sense of skill or craft (esp. a skill or craft which produces art objects)?

    Art seems to generally be accepted as an indefinable term these days, though I’m not certain this was always the case. To that, there is the infamous quote by Warhol that art is what you can get away with. I don’t think that’s a particularly useful definition, though. (On the other hand, I think the world got entirely the wrong lesson out of Duchamp’s Fountain, whatever M. Duchamp intended himself.)

    Unfortunately, while I don’t think art is actually indefinable, I’m hard-pressed to generate a definition that I find satisfactory, since I’m inclined to filter out a lot of contemporary art (especially performance art, as opposed to performing arts). I’m disinclined to define art as anything (or even something man-made) which evokes emotion, because this is actually a broader, not narrower, definition than that which communicates an idea. Defining it as those objects or skills which explore or embody the idea of beauty seems limited in the extreme, though.

    So, yeah, no answers here.

  23. Eric J says:

    I think your example pretty effectively refutes the 3-axis model, because a given piece of art can be in different places on the axes for different audiences.

    To you, an impressionist landscape is trying to say “Mountains are pretty” and that’s all it succeeds at. To a contemporary painter or critic, the painting was trying to and probably succeeded at communicating things like the nature of light, the way emotions can be conveyed through brushstroke and color, and the subjective nature of perception and memory.

  24. Doug Sundseth says:

    Let me offer another definition:

    Art is the noise a seal makes.

    Lest I be thought a complete philistine, I should perhaps note that I have more prints and original paintings and drawings than I have wall space to put it on (or money to frame it, for that matter).

  25. Will says:

    Is a dog peeing on a tree art? No, and that’s why (unsolicited) graffiti is not, and never will be, art. It’s vandalism and marking territory.

    Art is that which separates us from simple animals. I know that’s a fairly broad definition, but it does manage weed out most “modern” art.

  26. Patrick the Malcontent says:


    Take some Pepto bismol and come on over and pick me up!

  27. Different Steven says:

    I work at an Art College, and I hve developed my own personal mantra over the years …

    Claiming that people don’t understand you, does not make you an Artist. Likewise, claiming that people don’t understand your work, does not necessarily indicate that you have created “Art”.

    To me, Art is an act of creation. You might be creating a physical item, or you might be creating a mood – an emotional response – from your intended audience. Causing someone to walk away shaking their head because they fail to understand the magnitude of what you have done does not entitle to you to sneer at them and claim that they are incapable of understanding your work.

    They didn’t fail, you did.

    Conversely, artistry does not require exceptional craftsmanship. A fine craftsman may make splendid cabinets, with wonderful woodworking and details, and their work may be looked upon as art, or it may not. That same craftsman might not consider them self to be an artist, seeing that title as too “hoity toity” but would instead prefer the title of “Master Craftsman.”

    Art is always going to open to interpretation, and everybody is free to label individual pieces and individual “artists” as they see fit.

    But for my money, I prefer something that talks to my soul and says “this is ART” over something that says “I got an art grant to cover plastic flowers with toothpaste and then arrange them on a pedestal in an upside paper mache monkey skull in order to illustrate the underlying decadence of western civilization – ooh and by the way that piece will cost you $5k.”

    Yeah, I’m cynical.

  28. Miral says:

    I don’t really see the difference between axes 2 and 3 — to be “communicated effectively” its meaning must be understood, which naturally includes being understood by a large number of people. I don’t think that something which two people in the world understand instantly and nobody else can figure out can be called “effective communication”.

    Oh, and PS:T reference FTW! :)

  29. DmL (Davey) says:

    Actually Will Wright said in an interview that part of the purpose of the Sims was to be a satire of our consumerist culture.

  30. Too embarrassed to say says:

    Ok.. I can’t believe I’m gonna go here… but.. Art.. isn’t that a guy that has a certain degree of severe disabilities that hang on the wall.. ok.. sorry.. I went there.. Now, back to the regularly scheduled comments.

  31. P'kay says:

    It’s “Lego”.

    Never “Legos”.

    otherwise I agree with most everything you say.

  32. Greg says:

    Miral: I think you can be understood without communicating effectively. Communications that can be understood vary in how much emotional impact they deliver and how quickly they are understood.

    Miral: It has been said by some people who are dead now but were once alive and saying stuff that it is possible to communicate in a way that leads to the other person comprehending what you have written but managing to do it in such a way that they wish they hadn’t gone to the trouble to do so because the method of delivery while clear in its content is so cumbersome people would rather cut out their eyes than read it again

    Matt: “anything designed to invoke emotion in people” I like this definition, I think it neatly sidesteps a lot of the problems people mention in this thread. (Especially Daniels comment about “an advanced mathematics textbook” which is a good criticism of the system proposed on the post)

    No I don’t have any origional thoughts today. It’s all about the plagurism ;)

  33. Art is a selective recreation of reality based on the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.

    I haven’t found a better definition than that, which was presented by Ayn Rand in The Romantic Manifesto. It’s very simple and concise and it makes it possible to objectively evaluate art by asking such questions as “does the artist’s technique convey his sense of life?” and so on.

    However, this objective judgment has nothing to do with whether you will like the art or not. You like art that conveys metaphysical value-judgments with which you agree. If you go see Michelangelo’s David, and you do feel that human beings are extraordinary creatures worthy of reverence, you will love the statue. If your sense of life is such that you regard human beings as slime fit only for death, you will prefer something else.

    Thus, it is possible to say “that’s great art, but I don’t like it”.

    I don’t think video games are an art form. I think they are more like an *art gallery* in which you have to solve puzzles or whatever to see new art. This is because the *game* element is not an *artistic* element. A movie is a work of art. A game is similar to a movie with puzzles added. There’s a lot of art *in* the game (you could rightfully call the plot of an RPG art), but the whole is not art.

  34. Shamus says:

    Jennifer Snow: That is by far the most interesting objection to “Games are Art” position I’ve seen. It’s certainly a step up from “Games aren’t art because they are dumb”, which is what we usually have to contend with. (A pointless and unrewarding debate.)

    I would argue that the “puzzles” (or other challenges) are not just gates between bits of story, but an integral part of the whole. In Thief, we get immersed in the game because the story pulls us in, and the story has impact because we’ve inhabited Garret’s viewpoint and suffered along with him. You couldn’t just take all the cutscenes from the game, jam them together, and call it a movie. The story can’t stand without the gameplay.

    It seems you’re sort of saying, “The canvas and the frame aren’t art. It’s just the painting that’s art and the rest of that stuff is just there to hold the paint together.”

    Which… I agree with, I guess. But the distinction seems pointless since the painting can’t exist without the non-art canvas.

    That’s my take on it, anyways.

  35. Doug Sundseth says:

    The choice of canvas rather than porcelain or the side of a mountain as a part of the medium certainly is part of the art. Similarly, the matting and frame can have a huge influence on the overall effect*. It’s too much to say that they aren’t part of the art.

    Similarly, while individual bits of a video game can be considered as pieces of art, the game as a whole is also a piece of art. In this, it is really no different from considering a scene or soliloquy a piece of art that could stand alone while also considering the play for which that bit was written a piece of art.

    My last (flippant) post was pointed directly at this sort of thing. “That’s not art” isn’t really a useful comment.

    In particular, many video games are intended to evoke a particular response from their audience, both from the bits of scanned painting and reproduced dialog, and from the sequencing of those things and the plot and the particular sorts of tasks required from the player.

    Which is to say that I basically agree with Shamus, just without his caveats.

    * This seems little understood by far too many artists. I can’t count the number of pieces I’ve seen that have had really unfortunate choice for both; choices that result in what the artist thinks of as “the art” being washed out or completely overwhelmed. As a practical matter, for an artist that wants to sell his art, the work isn’t done until it’s in the form that will be shown in the gallery or art show.

  36. wumpus says:


    I think there are very serious problems with Rand’s definition of ‘art’ – see my comments in response to Ms. Snow’s (belated) posting to the linked older ‘videogames as art’ thread. (I saw her posting there when I followed the link yesterday, and replied before she had posted to this thread.)

    Not that that necessarily invalidates her (Ms. Snow’s) points, but I do think it is important to read all the caveats and clarifications she posted there before taking her (Rand’s) definition too seriously. The definition itself strikes me as being a weapon or a platform for Rand’s use; I’m not sure it’s terribly useful to anyone else.


  37. JungianYoung says:

    33. Jennifer Snow: “I don't think video games are an art form. I think they are more like an *art gallery*…”

    I’m sure Frank Lloyd Wright would take offense with your dismissing the Guggenheim Museum as not-art :)

    You’re right, in too many videogames, solving puzzles or combat or whatnot is just time-padding to get to the cutscene where the “real art” is. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, I think this comes to the heart of why people like Ebert, who categorically don’t consider videogames as art, just don’t get it.

    What is the “game element”? The element of “interactivity” is EXACTLY what makes video games different from movies. Just as movies have “movement” to separate them from paintings, and “viewpoint control” to separate them from plays. Sculptures have “substance/3d-ness” to separate them from paintings. Etc.

    In the beginning of the movie industry, directors shot their movies like they were plays, with fixed lighting and cameras. It wasn’t until later that people who UNDERSTOOD the medium began using it as something else. Same with today. Right now it’s just (to take FF7 for example) “combat – puzzle – artsy cutscene – repeat”. It can be better. Occasionally it is. Planescape: Torment or Bioshock had flashes of brilliance that you get because of the interactivity, and would be impossible in a movie or static work of art.

    If you want to find people who are exploring what this interactivity really means, in terms of a new art form, try Googling various interactive fiction archives online (kind of like next-generation text adventures.)

  38. Steve C says:

    I like that 3 axis way to evaluate art. However I think it needs one more element to be complete. I instantly thought, “What about the 6 o’clock news?” I can’t consider the news as art, but neither can I come up with a criteria that excludes it. Can you?

  39. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    Steve C’s question, as well as comments made by others here, do not take into account the meaning of the first axis: “What is communicated can be mundane or profound. (Or somewhere in between.)” Where the confusion comes in, I believe, is in Steven’s (that is, the Steven from whom Shamus “borrowed” this idea ;) ) use of the impressionist mountain vista as an example. I would posit that said mountain vista (or any of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, for example) fall into the “somewhere in between” category. The evening news and math text books are designed to communicate fact: this I would suggest lies at the extreme “mundane” end of the scale. Landscapes would likely lie somewhere in the middle: that is, they portray “real” objects but attempt to cast them in a profound light. Poems about trees may fit here, also. I would suggest that art which attempts to depict things which are not tangible objects would lean toward the “profound” end of the scale.

    While writing this, however, I realize that visual media (ie, paintings, photos, movies) may not be the best way of depicting intangibles realistically (self-evident, I hope) but that poetry and prose, for example, can do so quite elegantly.

    Ah, crap. I’m no further ahead than I was before. Shamus, I hope you don’t feel the few electrons and whatever bandwidth I’ve used to be a complete waste. I love the internet for giving me the freedom to express. I just wish I knew what the hell to say.

    Hey, is that art? ;)

  40. Helge says:

    I don’t teach art or nothing (I’m a computer programmer), and I’m a highly indifferent artist. That said, I’ve never liked definitions that put the onus on the creator’s intent, e.g. to communicate something or other.

    Art is when the sensory participation in an object or action outweighs the utility of the object or action.

    Note that this definition does not suggest a person has to like it to make it art. Nor does it suggest that great effort (craft, time, whatever) needs to be invested to make it art. This definition also doesn’t suggest that an object or action either is art or is not – it may be both.

    It is certainly possible to look at a video game and see it as art, blocky sprites or not. Even a computer game that uses only text is a method of telling a story may evoke an aesthetic reaction from the gamer, and if the aesthetics outweigh the utility (I want to be entertained or solve a puzzle or frag my friends) then it may be art.

    But I see no reason (so far) to argue that more recent video games are more often art than they used to be. Not, at least, by my way of looking at art.

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