Alan Bennett on Art

Yesterday I visited Leeds where I attended an evening with Alan Bennett, an event for Script Yorkshire members.  It was an incredibly enjoyable evening as you’d expect from such a man.  His book, A Life Like Other People’s, is among my favourites.

He started the evening with a reading that was very nostalgic, like much of what he does, which looked at the way that names come in and out of fashion and had us all in laughter on numerous occasions.

Alan then took questions about his work and his writing process, which he answered very insightfully and most enjoyably.  It was difficult to come away from the evening without the feeling you’d learned a little something.  The thing that particularly stood out for me was something he said when going more deeply into his work.

He said that many people can learn the craft of writing – dialogue, prose, etc. – but art is something different.  With writing as a craft, the writer knows where he or she is going with the piece they are working on, much like a chair maker will have a clear idea of the type of chair they are making before setting out to do so.  When writing is art, the writer sets out with the possibility the whole thing may fail and certainly with no clear idea of what the finished work will be like at the outset.

Since then I’ve been thinking about how this relates to games and it really does show that the vast majority of games will never be art because the developers have a clear idea of where they are going from the outset.  But not only do they have the end in sight from the beginning, they have a very clear schedule of how that end will be achieved.  Like all the other creatives in the industry, I’m just a craftsman working to production line deadlines.

When games are developed as an exploratory expedition in search of something meaningful, then they will become art.


  1. Hmm, I actually have an opposite view of writing or ‘story’ as art: that the writer has an image of the whole thing in his head when he starts, like a sculptor visualising his sculpture inside an untouched block of stone… Then if the artist has the finished piece in his mind throughout every part should complement the whole.

    There’s a different school of thought, anyway.

  2. I’m not sure that I agree with the comparison between sculpture and story development. Finding the form buried within a piece of stone is different to developing a story from nothing but the initial idea.

    It’s more like creating a painting starting with a blank canvas and a range of paints. You have the initial idea but as the paint and colours come together on the canvas you react to that and modify your original idea to accomodate the emerging painting.

    Sculpture can be like that, too; reacting to the way the forms emerge and adapting your ideas.

    Most story writers aren’t trying to create art, they simply want to tell an exciting story. I certainly follow a process similar to the one you suggest and build up iterations to develop the original idea and strengthen it through plot and character devlopment. But it’s not art, it’s just a craft.

  3. I think you can have an artistic vision for story, just like other art forms. But I know what you mean, when you create art you want it to come organically, not necessarily according to pre-planned lines. But I think if you have a simple artistic vision and are flexible about how you get there, you can pull it off.

    On art in games in general, I think story in any form can be ‘artful’, if it has rich characters and setting etc., and a decent plot. But some mediums have constraints that mean they don’t lend themselves to art very well, in my opinion. Novels can be art, film can be art. TV soaps, and drama series can never be works of art though because of the need to stretch things out over many episodes, and keep things like romances perpetually unresolved.

    Computer games – I guess the constraints on story are the need to make it first and foremost a GAME, with game-like challenges for the player, any story must revolve around that. And then these challenges have interface and other constraints… In short I think achieving art with these constraints is difficult :-s

  4. What it comes down to is the difference between things being Art and things having artistic qualities.

  5. Yeah I agree, I meant to make that distinction clearer.

  6. So what Mr Bennett seems to say is pretty much that an artist must be an inventor.

    In the sense, that sure he can invent something that others already invented, but he must do it on his own, adding his own flavor to it.

  7. An artist must have something original to say or to present what has already been invented (in your words) in a new light, a different perspective. But it’s also about the exploratory.

    For example, he didn’t know whether his Talking Heads monologues would work when he started writing them. His The Habit of Art gives us an interesting insight into the relationships between the play, the actors and the writer(s).