In February, Ian Johnson asked the question ‘Can video games be art?’ While he put forward a pretty compelling case, as far as I was concerned, he also opened the door to the wider question of ‘what is art anyway?’ So, as something of a sequel (or more accurately a prequel) Huw Evans, responds with his Sputnik debut, considering an even more tangental discipline…
When I was in sixth form in the 1970s there was a debate in one general studies lesson as to whether the Lord of the Rings was a classic in the same sense that Macbeth was. My tutor, who had seen Macbeth many times, did not consider Tolkien’s book to be in the same category. I disagreed heatedly and said something like ‘come back in fifty years and see if I’ve changed my mind’. But no one changed anyone else’s mind that afternoon, and I doubt if either of us learned much of the other’s position.
In the light of that, I want to consider whether crosswords might be art; not because I particularly care about crosswords, but mainly because most other people don’t particularly care about crosswords. My hope is the disinterested examination of crosswords might generate some principles that might be applied to other areas of human endeavour.
So, what is the essence of the crossword? It is, I suggest, a puzzle. An extended riddle, or set of interlocking riddles, set out in a symmetrical geometric form. The riddles may be complex, with coded instructions for resolving anagrams from word fragments (typically the cryptic crossword), or relatively simple but still requiring a good knowledge of english language and culture and an ability to reject the obvious meaning of a word (typically The Guardian quick crossword).
Solving a crossword involves a measure of interaction: unless a crossword is lamentably below the solver’s level of competence she or he will have to make marks on the page, very specific marks in very specific places. Moreover, the marks made in one place dictate, or at the least, affect, the marks made elsewhere. But the fact that a crossword may be solved without making a mark means that mark-making is not inherent to the solving process: it is mental interaction which is inherent to solving.
A few art forms require physical interaction: many do not. It is possible to recite a poem in one’s head, giving almost no sign of an artistic experience. Interaction then is not a valid test of art-ness.
The creation of a crossword requires a great deal of skill and ingenuity, and crossword compilers are mildly celebrated in the solving fraternity. Inevitably, they have their own ‘signature’ which would enable an enthusiast to identify the compiler of a particular puzzle. So far, crosswords have many things in common with literature, and particularly poetry, although skill, ingenuity and ‘signature’ can be found among Norwegians building log piles. On their own those are not enough to enable a crossword to be considered to be art.
What then of meaning and purpose? Ah, these are more problematic. A crossword really has only one function: to provide an appropriate level of resistance to its solution. Ultimately, a crossword is designed to be solved, in the same way a formula one car is designed to cross the line first. Does it have meaning beyond its solution? Rarely (although one of The Guardian cryptic crossword compilers did announce his terminal cancer through the medium of a crossword). We see this more clearly when we consider what happens after a crossword has been completed: that is, nothing. Except occasionally to congratulate ourselves on our own ingenuity in the solving, we do not return to a finished crossword. (We may note the same treatment of romance stories which are rarely re-read.) The purpose of a crossword is diversion.
Compare that to Macbeth which can be viewed many times, with each occasion revealing more of the work and of the human heart. (I will leave you to consider whether that is true, to the same extent, of the Lord of the Rings.) The work of art may divert, but it is fundamentally about communication; not of facts, not even of emotions but of what R G Collingwood refers to as ‘the emotional charge’. When we read Macbeth we experience something of what it is to be a regicide. (When we read the Lord of the Rings we experience something of what it is like to be a hobbit, but nothing of what it is like to be a dark lord.)
So, with those foundations laid, shall we talk about video games now?