What is art? People of all backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life have asked and debated this question since time immemorial. Bertolt Brecht believed that art was a hammer with which to shape reality. Raymond Chandler felt that all art had a quality of redemption. Picasso once said “art is a lie which makes us see the truth.” According to Annie Dillard, “art is like an ill-trained Labrador retriever that drags you out into traffic.” Longfellow felt that art was the child of nature. Stephanie Mills believed that art “troubles and pleases, inspires, and reminds us that humanity is ever capable of adding to the sum of the world’s grave beauty.” Louise Bourgeois said that art was a guarantee of sanity. And Beethoven once quipped, “Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?”

Which says more about art’s effects than its reality. When it comes to actually defining art, even the mystics are silent. You can give it a shot if you like, but I’d wager that any definition you devise will be a statement about what art does rather than what it is. And here’s the thing: for most of us, it doesn’t really matter. We may not be able to define art, but we know it when we see it.

There are, however, some forms of expression that fall within a commonly-accepted concept of art: painting, sculpture, classical music, ballet, literature and photography to some extent (you may not like James Joyce or Ansel Adams, but I defy you to deny their artistry). And, of course, videogames.

Yes, I said it. I mean, you had to know it was coming, right? Okay, maybe adding them into the category of agreed-upon art forms is a bit of a stretch—at least right now. And in the era of Space Invaders, Asteroids and the Atari 2600, it would have been a hard claim to justify. However, in 1993, a little game called Myst changed everything.

Myst presented an immersive, virtual world that was—in a first for videogames—both engaging to play and gorgeous to behold—prompting both Wired magazine and The New York Times to suggest that videogames could, in fact, become a bona fide means of artistic expression. Myst was a runaway, and somewhat unanticipated, success, and it also represented a convergence of technology, talent and opportunity: the larger capacity of CD-ROM drives allowed skilled graphic artists to create stunning visual landscapes and game images, and Myst’s popularity clearly demonstrated the gaming audience’s hunger for more. The success of its sequel, Riven, as well as two similar games, The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, confirmed this.

But, you protest, four games doth not an art form make. Okay, granted. However, before you write me off as hopelessly deluded or just plain insane, I’d like you to consider a few items.

First, the National Endowment for the Arts now officially recognizes videogames as a legit art form. Now I don’t go around changing my definitions of things because the powers that be make some declaration, but this is a significant legal win for videogames, and it provides grants of up to $200K to artists working in the medium (details are here).

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting “The Art of Video Games” next year, from March 16-September 30, 2012. That’s right. The Smithsonian. The exhibition explores the four-decade evolution of videogames as an artistic medium, and focuses on visual effects and creative use of technology. It features some of videogaming’s most influential artists and designers, and takes a look at their contributions and influences, and the larger role that videogames play in popular culture.

The Smithsonian installation isn’t the first display of videogame-related art. An earlier exhibition at the Barbican, in London, showcased the videogame-centered work of Brooklyn-based artist Cory Archangel. And an online exhibition entitled The Semiotics of Video Games examines videogames and the production of meaning.

Games are growing up. Stories are becoming more sophisticated, music and audio rivals the best in Hollywood and the symphony, gameplay is increasingly interactive and non-linear, and digital artists are creating virtual worlds of breathtaking beauty and power. In the best of the genre, all these aspects come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Whether this translates to a valid art form is a decision each of us has to make for ourselves, and it’s not likely that we’ll all agree. But the history of art teaches us one thing: it is not static. Art is constantly evolving, pushing boundaries. It speaks to the human condition, and seeks to reveal something about ourselves—or, at the very least, shine a light into spaces we’d rather not go. It is a living, breathing form of expression, and it will not be denied.

Ready or not, videogames are about to throw the art world into a spin. So grab something solid and hold on for the ride.

Check out the Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games” here.

You can learn more about the featured games here

… and here.

Here’s a write-up of Cory Archangel’s London exhibition.

And you can view the online exhibit, The Semiotics of Video Games, here.

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