Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Chess Art?

Popular film critic Roger Ebert has decided to write a long statement defending his pronouncement long ago that "Video games can never be art."  I really don't care what he says about video games: it's what he says about chess in his essay that bothers me.  As he writes: "chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules."  He grants that if we follow Wikipedia's definition of art as "the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions," then "as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition."  But he refuses to accept it and refuses even to acknowledge the long history of statements about how chess can be experienced as art.  Several readers have taken him to task for this.  I thought I would just mention some quotes.  The failure to at least acknowledge a history of argument comparing chess to art shows willful ignorance on his part.
"Chess, first of all, is art." -- Mikhail Tal

"Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes throughts, and these throughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. Actually, I believe that every chess player experiences a mixture of two aesthetic pleasures: first, the abstract image akin to the poetic idea of writing; secondly, the sensuous pleasure of the ideographic execution of that image on the chessboard. From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists." -- Marcel Duchamp, August 30, 1952 address to the New York State Chess Association
"Chess is in its essence a game, in its form an art, and in its execution a science." -- Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa

"Great chess games are breathtaking works of art." -- Stuart Rachels

"Chess resembles writing, painting and music in being an obsessional mental activity preoccupied with exploring tension and complication to resolve them to triumphant harmony."  -- Andrew Waterman, The Poetry of Chess


Anonymous said...

But when you are playing a game of chess you are not "deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions", you are deliberately trying to beat your opponent and win the game. If in the course of this an 'artistic' position (and emotionally satisfying winning set of moves) arises, that is nice, but it isn't the point of the game. If in the course of painting your room the brushstrokes happen to form a pleasing abstract shape, one could say that it looks like art, but you are not engaging in creating art.

MNb said...

It's all a matter of definition, so a debate like this does not make much sense in my opinion. The same for the question: is chess a science?

katar said...

Anon@1150am: Many chess players place higher value on creating art than winning. Tal comes to mind, who would often venture a specious sacrifice and possibly lose rather than simply win routinely. It is even more true at amateur levels, where many players purposely play unsound or downright bad openings in hopes of creating a brilliancy-- i.e., a game that appeals to the senses. In any event, problem composition/solving in chess is pure "art" even by your definition.

On the other hand, many "artists" place higher value on moving products, selling albums, attracting patrons, and generating recognition/prestige than on arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses/emotions. Your interpretation of the definition renders it subjective (based on the creator's intentions), which is well enough, so long as you recognize it.

As for Ebert, he obviously doesnt play chess, so his opinion about chess has as much value as my opinion of Sanskrit poetry, or a deaf person's opinion of music. Chess cannot be understood in relation to anything other than itself-- for starters, like abstract math, it cannot be perceived with the senses. Sight of the board/position means nothing to those who cannot interpret chess's unique/intrinsic spatial relationships. (Just as sight of complex math formulae means nothing to those who can't interpret it, and as Sanskrit poetry would look like gibberish to me.)

Tommyg said...

Katar makes great points!

I am a musician by trade and below is how I defined artistry in my Master's paper (written to complete my Masters in Music)

"Artistry in any field requires at least the following two attributes: 1) a certain level of knowledge of the various techniques and skills associated with the particular field; and 2) the deliberate manipulation of those techniques to obtain the result chosen by the artist."

So Chess can be art when it is played by an artist. (those are my favorites)

So what kind of chess is art? Is it attacking chess? Is it positional genius like Petrosian and Karpov? It is all that!!

As a musician I love the beauty of Brahms just as much as I love the raw energy of AC/DC, and the raw soul and spirituality of Aretha Franklin!

But I don't like Britney Spears!!

Not all chess is art but then neither is all music art. But all music has the potential to be art as does any chess game.

Therefore not every movie is a work of art. Nor is every painting.

The funny thing is that no matter how much I or wikipedia define it, art is not very objective.

So therefore Ebert is wrong. In fact he couldn't be more wrong.

I could list a whole slew of athletes who displayed artistic tendencies in their particular sport but I think we get the point.

Again, Ebert is wrong.

Oh and by the way if video games are not art, then one should tell Ebert that Avatar can not be a work of art either!

Michael Goeller said...

I think Ebert is just trying to get attention. Sorry to give him any. Of course video games and great chess games can be art. Consider video games that get you to interact with art, like Joan Miró, The colour of dreams." If we define games as just shoot-em-up games, yeah, Ebert may have a point. But he is too closed minded to imagine something else.

Dan Scoones said...

Roger Ebert is a film critic and as such he is qualified to judge whether filmmaking can rise to level of art. However, he is not a chess master and has no qualifications to make corresponding judgements about chess. Because I do not acknowledge his authority with respect to chess, I really don't care what he thinks about it.

Unknown said...

@Anonymous: "But when you are playing a game of chess you are not "deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions", you are deliberately trying to beat your opponent and win the game."

So does this mean that Christo and Jackson Pollock aren't artists, since their art is meant to derive a degree (possibly even a large degree) of its beauty from the randomness involved in their methods?

Art derives from creativity. The better portion of artistic endeavor, from drawing to paintings to film, are an attempt at art, but probably aren't. Anything done with imagination and passion has the potential to be artistic, though. Which is why a chess master can be an artist. Which is why Sun Tzu didn't call it The Pursuit of War. And which is why Ebert's just plain wrong when it comes to video games. He seems to take it at face value that there is no imaginative verve when it comes to video game design. A lie and a flat-out insult to those involved in that industry.

Anonymous said...

We are conflating definitions here. Ebert is saying that designing a game is not creating art. You're all saying that playing a game may or may not be art. These are completely different questions. Ebert asks whether the "inventor" of chess created a work of art.

But the real problem is nobody has a universal definition of art. So the entire question is useless until we first agree on a common point of discussion.

Avital Pilpel said...

I am surprised nobody mentioned yet the #1 chess artist: David Bronstein. His classics "Zurich 1953" notes that White's real advantage in the opening isn't the extra tempo -- it's the fact that he can choose the style of opening; and that certain openings give Black a cramped position -- but they have their own "style" and if you like their hidden possiblities you might want to play them. This is what "art" in chess means. Certainly many strong players are "artists" in this sense.

Mark Marcheschi said...

To see this topic having been focused on in the past is great for me to find. I wonder though why the focus on these games being art is always worked around the playing element of it. Is not the creation of a chess board so clearly art to make engaging with chess always apart of that art form? It is perhaps a different debate but I am interested in knowing if other people consider that thought about this topic.