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MoMA Enthusiastically Endorses Video Games As Art. Why?

When the Smithsonian American Art Museum presented a special exhibition The Art of Video Games earlier this year, I decided — after much consideration — to ignore it, rather in hopes that it would go away. Or fade from lack of buzz. Fat chance — it was a big draw for the museum.

Now, the Museum of Modern Art is making it impossible for me to ignore this development of calling video games art. Not only has MoMA acquired “a selection of 14 video games” but the museum says they are “the seedbed for an initial wish list of about 40 to be acquired in the near future, as well as for a new category of artworks in MoMA’s collection that we hope will grow in the future.”

Call me old-fashioned, while I recognized the creativity and craft involved in making video games, I don’t believe they, as a class, belong in the Modern. Yet, now, with the MoMA’s imprimateur, the floodgates will open. Get out your old video games and take them to your nearest dealer.

MoMA responded to the potential criticism in making the announcement on Friday — calling the games both art and design:

Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design.

You can read more about MoMA’s criteria for acquisition here. While I am glad to have that explanation, it does underscore MoMA’s defensive position. They don’t explain why it needs to buy a new Rauschenberg.

By next March, the museums says, it will install its initial game purchases — they are listed at the link above — “for your delight in the Museum’s Philip Johnson Galleries.” Again, the language is notable in ebullience and thus in defensiveness.

MoMA’s enthusiasm for video games as art raises a question, in my mind — why is it so enthusiastic about a genre like that, but so unenthusiastic about new forms of it would label as craft? Where are, say, new quilts in its collection? (There is one or two, I know, but an organized campaign to collect them.) Where is fabric art in general? Or other kinds of contemporary folk art?

I am not advocating for MoMA to become a craft museum; I simply wonder if its enthusiasm for electronic games might just be a sign of pandering to the popular, rather than a judgment based on artistic merit.

Photo Credit: Tetris, Courtesy of MoMA   

Comments

  1. Robert Hughes is rolling in his grave. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t outrage him so much he rises out of it. (Let’s hope so!)

  2. Of course MOMA is pandering — if you define including fashion and video design as art — I guess it’s a question such as “Is this chili too spicy?” a matter of taste. I believe art museums can pander and still keep their art credibiity.

  3. richard hertz says:

    functional items can be art. if chairs, tables, and desks can go in then video games can as well.

    they have visual beauty, a history that has become self-referential and has built it’s own language, and reflect the common experience of an entire generation of people.

    also – more art in the world doesn’t hurt anyone. There will always be kitsch and transcendance in all forms of art, and video games are no different than painting in this regard.

    • Fair enough. But MoMA doesn’t devote a special gallery for chairs, tables or desks. Why video games? It’s pandering.

      • Chairs, tables, and desks are not art and are not considered art. They may be considered decorative art, or there are arguments for certain kinds of design to be considered art. But art is not just about something being beautiful (there’s all kinds of art that isn’t beautiful at all, and infinite numbers of beautiful things that are not art, like buttercups and forgeries).Language has a history, is self-referential, and reflects a common experience, but language isn’t art. Computers ditto. Nothing about computer games relates to the continuum of art history. Nothing in the making of computer games involves the kind of intellectual and cultural involvement and intention that are necessary for the creating of a work of art.

        Now, if an artist were to declare a video game art, you could say it was art in a neo-Dadaist kind of way. But that’s about as good as it gets, and for the curators at MoMA to pretend otherwise is, as Judith says, “pandering” — though that’s a nicer way of putting it than I’d be inclined to express.

        • richard hertz says:

          language isn’t art by itself. but what about books? i disagree with just about everything you said. i could replace the words “computer games” with “paintings of flowers” in the last sentence of the fist paragraph and make just as much sense.

          it must be so easy to tear down ideas rather then build.

          video games are a medium, just as language, just as paint, just as wood…. art can be made from anything if the intent exists.

          also – you think the curators of MoMA are pretending? get over yourself.

          • That makes no sense.” Language isn’t art but what about books” suggests that the contents of books are nothing but words with nothing beyond them. Some books are art. Some books are not. Surely you don’t think that a college textbook “Introduction to Science” is an artwork.

            Video games are not a medium. Video is a medium. “Paintings of flowers” aren’t a medium. “Paintings” are a medium. And no one with an iota of knowledge about what art is would suggest that all paintings of flowers are art, either.

            You don’t have to agree with me. The history of art speaks for itself. But what you do have to do, it seems to me, is be able to have a civil discussion without ad hominem attacks and certainly without accusing people of saying things they never said. “Pretending”?

          • richard hertz says:

            you don’t speak for the history of art – which is an ever shifting definition, and you don’t know better then the met curators. you said they pretend. “But that’s about as good as it gets, and for the curators at MoMA to pretend otherwise is, as Judith says, “pandering””.

            not all paintings of flowers are art. not all video games are art. nothing of any set of {anything} is automatically art.

            however – it is my belief that art can be made out of any substance. including – gasp! – video games. it seems like the curators of the MoMA agree with me – and with your fetish for the history or whatever – you should probably respect their decision, since they will write the next generation of books for you to follow.

            i find you reductive and small-minded. have fun with other people’s definitions of art and art history instead of making up your own mind.

      • richard hertz says:

        the met does for sure. they also had video games in their warhol and beyond exhibit. if the met is ahead of the curve on contemporary art to moma…..

        corey archangle in particular, and others, have used humor as well as beauty as a form of expression. i would say that they are part of a long history of found objects or manipulated sources in the art world.
        let’s all build a bigger sandbox to play in! beauty can come in sooooo many forms :)

  4. richard hertz says:

    by the way, i like your columns and criticism, and am a frequent reader. keep up the good work!

  5. Norman Sasowsky says:

    Well, so be it.. Now we know what the museum doesn’t know. The chickens are home roosting.

  6. out with the old, in with the new

  7. All this talk about “calling” or “declaring” something art, things being able to “be” art, “defining” things as art, “considering” things to be art, and so on, is a bit confusing, not to mention wrongheaded, Can anyone make any sense of it all? I can’t.

    Call her “old-fashioned,” Judith Dobrzynski says, for believing that, as a class, video games don’t belong in the Museum of Modern Art. Call me even more old-fashioned for recommending that what is needed in discussions such as these is not a bunch of opinions about what art is and is not—not mine nor anyone else’s—but an objective definition of the term. To begin, one might first consult the 1948 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for its succinct entry on “definition” that includes three rules—yes rules!—for forming an accurate definition. Then one would do well to consult a philosophy text from that long-ago era—‘Logic’ by Lionel Ruby, for example—for a more detailed discussion of the topic. Ruby doesn’t define “art” but says it is the sort of term that ought to be defined.

    (Not to worry—I won’t hold my breath waiting for all this to happen on a widespread basis anytime soon. Kudos to Abigail, by the way, for her interesting and often valid remarks, including the argument that beauty is not a defining attribute of art.)

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000) – http://www.aristos.org / http://facebook.com/AristosOnlineReview://facebook.com/AristosOnlineReview

    • Thank you, Louis.

      Actually, the efforts at forming a definition of art stretch back to Plato’s Republic. My own feeling is that no one has hit the nail better on the head than Arthur Danto, working on the definitions put forth by George Dickie – too complex to rightly consolidate into a few words, but essentially based on the idea that an object is a work of art if an artist and/or someone else fully educated in and cognizant of the history, theory, and continuum of art states that it is. That, after all, is why “Fountain” is art, and any efforts at a definition of art has to be able to recognize that.

      So arguably, one could say that video games became art when the curators at MoMA determined that they were. The question then becomes: what was the basis for that determination, and how all-encompassing is it? Maybe that’s the real question we should be asking them. But the indiscriminate declaration that “video games are art” is about as meaningless as saying that “all paintings are art.” They’re not.

      • Abigail: I stand by my praise of your comments thus far, but it’s clear by your reply that we are world’s apart regarding the matter of defining art. You won’t agree with it, but you may find of interest Chapter 6—“The Definition of Art”—in ‘What Art Is.’ Its sections are entitled “Anti-Essentialism in Contemporary Philosophy,” “The Institutional Definition of Art (Dickie, Danto, et al), “The Rules of Definition,” and “[Ayn] Rand’s Definition of Art.” You can find it at .

        Michelle Kamhi and I are very critical of Arthur Danto in this and other parts of the book. If interested, search for his last name in the “Look Inside!” feature of the Amazon.com Books page for ‘What Art Is’—.

        On Duchamp’s “Fountain.” As we document both in ‘What Art Is’ and in “Aristos,” Duchamp himself did not consider any of his Readymades to be art. Regarding “Bicycle Wheel,” for example, he said: “When I put a bicycle wheel on a stool the fork down, there was no idea of a ‘readymade,’ or anything else. It was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason to do it, or any intention of showing it or describing anything. (Quoted in Pierre Cabanne, ‘Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp,’ p. 47.) When asked how he had “come to choose a mass-produced object, a ‘readymade,’ to make a work of art,” he replied: “”Please note that I didn’t want to make a work of art out of it.” We take him at his word.

        But we need not agree, do we, in order to have a brief “civil discussion” on these matters in Real Clear Arts (to quote from your well-deserved rebuke of Richard Hertz). Thanks to Judith Dobrzynski for making it all possible.

    • richard hertz says:

      i believe that we consider expert opinions of people such as the curators at the damn MoMA to guide the discussion of what is art.

      also – there is nothing in art that says it has to be made out of only this or that material.

      your arguments will be thankfully lost to history given time.

  8. P.S. To Abigail: I neglected to give the Amazon.com Books page URL or ‘What Art Is. Here it is: http://tinyurl.com/WhatArtIs-Amazon-com

  9. P.P.S. to Abigail: The URL for the Definition chapter was also missing (I had entered both, actually). Here it is: http://tinyurl.com/DefinitionOfArt-Ch-6-WhatArtIs – (Note to J.D.: Sorry for all this!)

  10. I don’t think art is nearly as exclusive and exclusionary an enterprise as most people make it out to be. Any creative expression of feeling or beauty is a form of art. There are plenty of games which aspire to this idea (Ocarina of Time, Metroid Prime, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy 7, Killer 7, Earthbound, Braid, Journey). I’d like to see someone fall into despair and existential isolation staring at a quilt the way they do playing Majora’s Mask. I’d like to see a painting inspire the same level of fear and desperation Resident Evil 4 does. If anything, video games have a greater claim to artistic intent, since they wed music, visuals, sound mixing, architecture, and narrative into a single experience, and combine it with interaction and game-play, which are wholly new and unique elements of storytelling.

    Of course the museum wouldn’t need to justify a piece by Rauschenberg, because painting has been an acceptable form of artistry for the past several hundred years, whereas video games are less then three decades old, and only now beginning to acquire a cultural voice of their own. People (namely the author and commenters of this thread) really need to be more open about forms of art. I’m sure movies were just as glibbly dismissed when they arrived on the scene at the start of the 20th century, but I doubt any of you can watch something by Tarkovsky or Welles and call it pop trash. If Dobrzynski was actually interesting in discussing this topic, and offering a critique on why she believes video games “don’t count” as art, then I would be happy to listen and respond, but as of now, she is just closing her eyes, sticking her fingers in her ears, and dismissing anything culturally new, bold, or progressive.

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