Yes...but is it art?


Permalink 10:49:12 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 810 words, 6032 views   English (US)
Categories: Announcements, Modern Latin, My Own Latin

Yes...but is it art?

In the wake of the otherwise forgettable 2005 feature film Doom–based on the video game of the same name–film critic Roger Ebert made some comments regarding the artistic value of electronic gameplay. Although they may be subtle, ingenious, challenging, even visually stunning, video games couldn’t be art because the nature of the medium (player control of outcome, investment of enormous amounts of time, no emotional catharsis beyond solving a puzzle) seems to contradict common artistic goals.


Needless to say, gamers came out in force to rebut him. The lively debate IMO suffered because the two sides were talking past each other. Ebert is approaching the question analytically, while the gamers have a more visceral reaction–they enjoy playing video games, so of course they must be art.

I’m certainly more sympathetic to Ebert’s approach, but the question had me thinking about the artistic value of another activity I enjoy: Composing modern Latin poetry. There is no doubt Latin was once a luminous artistic medium; if the only reason you learn the language is to read Vergil in the original, IMO it’s well worth the effort (and you get Cicero, Horace, Ovid, and scads of other exquisite writers for free). But Latin today is a dead language; it has no native speakers and it hasn’t for quite some time. In a sense it’s culturally “frozen", an artifact structurally ignorant of changes in human culture at least since the end of the Renaissance (probably earlier).

To put it bluntly, can a dead language produce anything that can really be called artistic? For example, I’m sure there are folks somewhere creating poetry in Klingon, and William Auld is recognized by the small group of Esperanto specialists as a master of the invented language, having been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But to appreciate this poetry I would need to invest a lot of time learning these languages, and the artistic payoff seems less than it would be with a living dialect. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest IMO is the lack of a unique human culture behind the language, one that considered the words it used to be the absolute best way to express a historic, personal, or universal truth. This last point, I think, is what we mean by the phrase “Lost in Translation": There are aspects of a native culture so engrained in its language that–at least for its speakers–they simply can’t be expressed otherwise (or at least without a ponderous exegesis of footnotes).

So we have some of the criteria Ebert mentioned in dismissing video games as art. The last one–player control of the outcome–might be related to modern Latin poetry if we consider the medium a “closed shop” of specialist devotees, a process where the artist is his/her own audience and the group tacitly assumes the potential for criticism to discourage an activity outweighs its benefits. Much of the original Latin poetry I find on-line is bad (usually competent but often dull and pedestrian), but it’s such a stunning thing to find it at all that I make it a point to avoid writing bad reviews and focusinstead focus on the good. Ebert has an advantage in that for all the trash there are annually at least three or four absolutely stunning films–ones that haunt a viewer the way great art should–and a sizeable body of cinema that is more than worthwhile to spend time with. Now a gardener judiciously weeds a flowerbed to show off his blooms, but what if the bed is nearly all weeds? Would it be better to look at barren dirt, or appreciate the beauty inherent in any growing thing, however much it falls short of my prized azaleas?

I really don’t have the answer, but my response to the question has been to plant my own seeds–many of which you can find in the links on the right–and leave it for others to evaluate the blossoms. I am guided by my brother’s response when we discussed the video-game argument over the phone some years ago. He made the excellent point that distinctions about what is/isn’t art have been used for centuries to limit ideas or keep a certain elite in control of the conversation. In the end it never really works–those type of things are decided in other ways–but it often leaves a lot of minor but avoidable grief in its wake. It’s hard to see Latin–as conservative a discipline as there is–in the role of artistic iconoclast, and probably a little presumptuous. Nevertheless, the question will no doubt inspire me to write more on it in the future, and writing/encouraging modern Latin literature is just something I’ll continue to do, even if every Latinist on the planet ignores it.


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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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