Quality of Art & Design in the Digital Age
(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)
In a December article in Wired, John Maeda talks about how the art community’s sensibilities were recently challenged by a decision made by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to include videogames in a new category of art there. Although the examples were acquired on the basis that they demonstrate good interaction design, some art critics claim that videogames are not art – that they do not, as per Jonathon Jones, represent an “act of personal imagination.”
Whereas design is focused on solutions, art (according to Maeda) is focused more on creating questions – “the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way ‘forward’ actually is.” So should artifacts like video games be accepted into an art collection? The answer, according to Maeda, comes down to how the institution defines quality:
When I was invited to a MoMA Board meeting a couple of years ago to field questions about the future of art with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, we were asked about how MoMA should make acquisitions in the digital age. Schmidt answered, Graduate-style, with just one word: “quality.”
And that answer has stuck with me even today, because he was absolutely right – quality trumps all, whatever the medium and tools are: paints or pixels, canvas or console.
The problem is that what “quality” represents in the digital age hasn’t been identified much further than heuristic-metrics like company IPOs and the market share of well-designed technology products. It’s even more difficult to describe quality when it comes to something as non-quantitative – and almost entirely qualitative – as art and design.
Last month, I shared what I’ve discovered over the past 7 years, as I’ve aimed to answer the question “What is Quality?“ By applying the ISO 9000/Mitra perspective that I described, the MoMA dilemma (and others like it) may be easier to resolve. My approach centers around the ISO 9000 definition that quality is the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bears upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.”
These stated and implied needs translate into quality attributes.
For art, the object of art is the entity. If that art is functional or interactive, then there are stated needs that relate to its ability to function within a given context or towards a given purpose. These may relate to quality attributes like conformance, reliability, or durability. (If the piece is not functional or interactive, then there are quite possibly no stated needs to meet). However, there will always be implied needs which relate to the meaning and purpose of the art; does the object help achieve the goals of art in general, or of the individual interacting with or observing the art?
Similarly, since art is in many ways a personal experience, does the object help the individual by inspiring, connecting, engaging, encouraging, illuminating, clarifying, catalyzing, transforming, encouraging, or revealing aspects of the self and/or the environment? Does the object stimulate an emotional experience? (Any of these aspects might indicate that the object of art is meeting quality attributes that are related to implied needs.)
A subset of Mitra’s model is relevant to examining the quality of art and design. Note that to assess the quality of an example of art, such as a videogame, we might focus more on the objective quality and the consequences of quality, because the antecedents will be more useful if we are attempting to improve quality over time:
Antecedents of Quality (conditions that must be in place to quality to be achieved): contextual factors (e.g. whether the environment/culture – or enough people within it – are ready to recognize the piece as art), quality improvement process (what mechanisms are in place to continually improve the ability of the artist/team to deliver high quality work, e.g. practice or evaluating other artwork), and capabilities (whether the artist has the skill to create and share the art).
Objective/Product Quality: This asks “how well does the entity meet the stated and implied needs?” Does it meet all of them, or just some of them, and to what degree or extent?
Consequences of Quality: This is the combined effect of the quality perception process (whether the piece meets each individual’s standards for value) and the broader impacts that the piece has on individuals and/or society in general. Quality perception is, necessarily, an individual process – whereas broader impacts involves factors such as how many people did this piece impact, and to what extent.
So, are videogames art? First, we have to check to make sure they meet their stated needs – and since they were produced and successfully distributed by companies to people who played and enjoyed those games, we can assume that the stated needs were met. So, what are the implied needs of videogames as art? This depends, like many things, on how you select and define those stated needs. Ultimately, you want to take into account the emotional and transformative impact of the piece on one person, and then across individual and demographic designations to see the impact of the piece within and between social groups.
IMHO, I was personally inspired to learn more about computer programming before I turned 10 by playing lots and lots of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. I was an empowered fighter in a world of power pellets, ghosts, strawberries, and bananas, and so were lots of my friends. We connected with one another, and with the era in history that is the 1980’s, as we do today whenever someone reflects on those games or the arcades in which they were played. Because the games inspired in me an emotional experience, that today is tinged with nostalgia, I’d say that videogames are just as much art as the beautiful cars of the 1950’s that catalyzed the same feelings in people of that generation.
Kudos to MoMA for casting their net wider.
What do you all think? How can we effectively assess the quality of art and design?