Monday, January 5, 2009

Landscape Architecture as Art and What That Means for Games

"Each of you knows the name and genius of him who stands first in the heart and confidence of American artists, the creator of your own and many other city parks. He it is who has been our best adviser and our constant mentor. In the highest sense, he is the planner of the Exposition. Frederick Law Olmsted. An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes. With lawns and banks and forest-covered hills. With mountainsides and ocean views. He should stand where I do tonight."
Daniel Burnham, 1893

Burnham delivered this as part of an address made at Madison Square Garden to an assemblage of his peers in the fine arts (which the event's invitation listed as painting, sculpture and architecture, emphatically not landscape architecture). The event was meant to praise the work of Burnham and others in creating the World's Columbian Exposition. Olmsted was not actually present; he was in Asheville, Virginia at work on the Vanderbilt's palatial estate, Biltmore House. He would have been quite pleased to hear what Burnham had to say, however. Olmsted's career was marked by fervent efforts to see landscape architecture acknowledged as a true high art form, and despite 19th century high society's tendency for grandiloquent and flattering speech, Burnham's words were truly genuine.

I've written about Olmsted before, and in reading about his effort and craft in The Devil in the White City, I hear echoes of 21st century discussions about games and their stature as an "art form". Spencer Greenwood posted about this yesterday and catalyzed me into finally getting this post together. What he put down is excellent and I highly suggest you give it a look. But the truth is, I think both Olmsted and today's advocates of "games == art" have been led astray.

It's nearly impossible to get two people to agree on what is or is not art. Any definition that somehow manages to satisfy both will be bristling with caveats, exceptions and vagaries. Extrapolate that to an entire community and you get, well, the current state of the "games as art" discussion. The definition of art is so toweringly subjective that trying to have a conversation about what it is and isn't will end up bogged down and make little meaningful progress.

Let us stop. Let's stop talking about what is and is not art and let us talk about what is and is not interesting. It's a more useful discussion and for games, it's clearly true they (or at least some of them) are interesting. Let's make this a discussion on our terms, using terms that are useful. The beauty of the Japanese Garden in Jackson Park is not diminished if a few experts (real or supposed) saying it's not "art." Olmsted felt it was art and he spent his life trying to convince others it was so. But I must confess, I feel he might have had more progress demonstrating how his work had depth and complexity. And I think the advocates of games could gain more ground in doing the same.

I realize likely nothing will quell the "are games art" debate, but if we could at least channel more of the conversation toward "Are games interesting? What do they have to say?" it feels like we'd really be making some progress. Maybe even enough progress that someday someone like Daniel Burnham will speak as he did of Olmsted, but of Miyamoto, Wright, Meyer or Schafer. That's a day I would very much like to see.

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