Monday, August 26, 2013

F: Art?

A few years ago, late film critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert picked an online fight with the entire internet by claiming that video games cannot be considered art.

I think the flaw in Ebert's argument (and, indeed, the original argument he was rebutting) was that the terms are too broad. "Video Games Can Never Be Art" was his statement. Well... Ok, sure. How about "Paint On Something Can Never Be Art". That could be just as true when one dismisses specifics. Just as something painted on something can easily be considered art (The Mona Lisa, Der Sterrenacht) or not art ("oops, I dripped Eggshell matte Dulux on the floor") - and vice versa - can individual video games not be considered art on a case by case basis? I think so. Despite its cultural interest, the Atari 2600's "Custer's Revenge" may have no redeeming artistic merit, but by the lord Harry "Myst" certainly does.  The issue brings to mind the classic unanswerable question, "what actually is art?"

There is a theory that, literally, anything can be considered art, in the right circumstances. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. I remember being invited to a party in the wilderness one night and as I stumbled out of the venue at god-knows-what o'clock, I saw in the distance some sort of factory. It was lit by floodlights and comprised of pipes and tubes and drums and vats... obviously some sort of chemical or treatment plant. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe it was the unforgiving Brutalist curves of heavy industry. Maybe it was because I was tired and slightly drunk. Either way, it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. In a different part of the day, and in the harsh face of sobriety, it was probably the sort of place I'd be chaining myself to whilst holding a "Stop Raping The Countryside" sign, but as it was, a shining beacon of functionality in the pitch darkness of nowhere, it was beautiful. Was that art? You bet it was.

Art is defined as "the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, sculpture, and paintings" which plays very much into the argument for objectivity, but there is still the theory that something designed purely to be functional cannot, at the same time, be beautiful. I cry bollocks. Not only was that factory beautiful, I present to you what may be the most important piece of unintentional art that Britain has produced: Test Card F.

Designed in 1967 by BBC engineers to calibrate TV sets and test the strength of transmission signals, Test Card F has been, and continues to be, broadcast worldwide by PAL-format TV stations. Is it art, or is it not art? Here's why I think it is, and why I believe function can be beauty:

The sheer number of vases and pottery on display in museums proves that function can be artistic - In fact, very single inch of TCF has a specific function by design, from the lines to the dots and numbers... even down to the X on the board and the colour of the clown's costume.

It's as iconic as the Mona Lisa - almost every single person of my generation (and past generations) can tell you what it is thanks to its continued presence on TV from 1967 to the late 1990s.TCF continues to have a cultural impact into the 21st century - amongst other uses, the award winning drama "Life On Mars" used the girl as a narrative device and the BBC website's 404 error features the clown. His name is "Bubbles", by the way.

Bold lines and bright colours are beautiful - Piet Mondrian's minimalist "Lozenge" and "Composition" paintings hang in the Tate, Charles Rennie Mackintosh's modernist designs continue to be replicated worldwide. The girl - Carole Hersee - is immortalised as an intentional portrait. "A portrait is... an artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer."  Again, a classic technical definition of what art is that falls squarely into TCF.

With that evidence, it would be hard, surely, to dismiss the notion that Test Card F is art.  Whether once likes it or not, it could be - and should be - considered a work of functional art. But the fact is, no one person can define art for others - such is the beauty of it. Whether it's a factory, a statue with no arms, a faint smile on a mysterious lady, or Test Card F, we all see beauty in different things. After all, one person's unmade bed is another person's Turner Prize.


BaronessHeather said...

Whenever I hear "that's not art," I want to go all Iñigo Montoya and say they just don't know what that word means. "Art" doesn't mean "thing that is pretty" or "thing I like." To me, art is EITHER defined by its intention to be such or its interpretation as such. You find the test card to be meaningful and a visual representation of not just a cultural phenomenon, but of something important to your worldview. That sure sounds like art to me, even if those who created it were only setting out to affix a placeholder.
If Marcel Duchamp's Prelude to a Broken Arm (being just a snowshovel hung on a wall) is art, then I say, sorry Mr. Ebert, wherever you are, but so is Mass Effect 2.

Spike Nesmith said...

Right!! The minute they gave an unmade bed the Turner Prize was the minute the argument blew wide open. I laughed just like everyone else, but it was a pretty huge statement as to why *anything* an be art or artistic.

Dave Jeffery said...

The definition of art you use is excellent - I really think you nailed why TCF is art.

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