The Lively Arts
In 1924, the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes wrote an essential book on the popular aesthetic, The Seven Lively Arts, making what was then a bold argument—that America's greatest cultural contributions in the twentieth century would come not from imitating the great art traditions of Europe, but rather from exploring emerging idioms such as jazz, Broadway musicals, cinema, and comic strips.1 Seldes sought an aesthetic language for discussing these “lively arts,” one that emphasized energy, virtuosity, and kinetics rather than nuance, narrative, or thematic ambitions, and he was not afraid to apply this vocabulary to talk about what excited him about Picasso and the emergence of modern art. His book is seldom read today because it is so preoccupied with describing the emotional dynamics of specific performances rather than making grand statements, but it contains core insights that continue to shape the study of popular culture.
In “Games, the New Lively Art” I attempt to tease out some of Seldes's core claims about popular culture and apply them to the study of computer and video games. This essay emerged from a series of workshops that I and other faculty in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program conducted with key “creative leaders” at Electronic Arts, one of the preeminent games publishers. As we sat around a seminar table with leading game designers, it was clear that they already had a well-developed framework for thinking about their craft, but they felt that discourse on games as “art” strengthened their hands in dealing with the management and marketing divisions of their own company, who were often hostile to experimentation and innovation. When I presented the earliest formulation of these ideas in Technology Review and in the arts section of the New York Times, I was struck by the public resistance to the idea that games might be considered art. I pondered yet again how radical Seldes's assertions about the value of slapstick comedy or comic strips must have