Senior Curator Paola Antonelli announced last Thursday that MoMA would add 14 video games, ranging from Pacman to Portal, to the museum’s design collection. The reaction online was predictable: this is a good thing; video games are definitely art now; yo, Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.” Here he goes:
Casting my mind back to the philosophical debate I spied on in Oxford, I remember a pretty good argument for why interactive immersive digital games are not art. Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.
The worlds created by electronic games are more like playgrounds where experience is created by the interaction between a player and a programme. The player cannot claim to impose a personal vision of life on the game, while the creator of the game has ceded that responsibility. No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.
Firstly, don’t get confused: this isn’t actually backlash from the conservative sections of the art world. That sort of thing will take the form of sneaky reclassifications and rearrangements over decades, as museum curators fight over whether games belong to art or design, in gee-whiz tech exhibitions or in the main galleries, or whether they should ever be in the same room as, say, a Donald Judd. You can keep track of that by watching to see if video game-based artworks like Feng Mengbo’s Long March (Restart) (2008), which was on view at MoMA PS1 last year, ever get exhibited next to their primitive ancestors. No, Jones is simply a self-made bogeyman, who’s realized there’s easy notoriety in sounding like an angry dad. Artists produce art; the art world produces attention.
Still, Jones makes an argument. Video games are not art, he says, because art requires a singular, personal expression with a clear author. But that’s not true about art, is it? Art can have a lot of creators; after all, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is art. Art can also require the viewer’s participation; we know that from the Op Art in the New Museum’s recent “Ghost in the Machine” exhibition, from the camera-based installations of Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, and from every artwork ever to include a mirror, from Robert Rauschenberg (in his Combines) to Robert Morris and Robert Smithson. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s heartbreaking Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), on show at the Met right now, is nothing without an audience to complete it, but nobody doubts it’s art.
Besides which, some of the most art-y games out there are singular in their vision and linear in their execution. Braid, Jonathan Blow’s standout 2008 puzzle-storybook, was the result of a single programmer plus an artist, and gives the player no agency at all: there is a single correct way to progress, and your creativity in finding that single correct way is never revisited or particularly rewarded. Passage, a game created by Jason Rohrer and one of the games selected by MoMA, uses interactivity mostly under false pretensions as a crutch to engage the viewer, and never offers to share meaning in the way Jones suggests. His argument just doesn’t work.
With that said, I do wonder what good it does to triumphantly declare video games “art” in the first place. “Art” is a word we say when looking at something to indicate to others that it’s especially worth looking at, as a sort of token of attention. This is useful because the primary goal of most contemporary art wasn’t to get your attention in the first place; the artist who made the work was too busy interviewing rape victims in Ecuador and splicing together their responses with magazine covers from the 1980s, or whatever, to make everything shiny and accessible for the viewer. Video games are in the opposite situation: they’re crafted from the beginning to capture and hold the player, and because of that their more creative elements get noticed without needing to be noticed as art.
So let’s give it a break, shall we? Not all good things need to be art, any more than all art needs to be good. Not all things we could call ‘art’ would benefit from the label, because many things—video games, babies, pancakes—do not need the hagiographies, physical conservation, and endless cocktail parties the “art” label can provide. People who think video games are for kids are the same middlebrow assholes who point out wrestling’s fake, and we don’t need to win their love by appropriating words like “art” that middlebrow assholes respect. Can video games be art? Sure, why not, if you’re gonna make a big thing about it? Can they be design? Absolutely. But aren’t they more interesting as games?