The Art of Video Games…?!

Or: When Exhibitions Go Commercial…

So I wanted to consider The Smithsonian’s Video Game Exhibition that just closed at the American Art Museum the end of September and will be touring.

In many ways, this appears to be a design show; though they label it video “art,” I believe this was to qualify the aesthetic approach of game imagery.  So in this way, it is not even a fully realized design exhibition since it does not seem to address game logic.  (Historically, exhibitions have displayed high minded commercial design as exemplars of cultural and artistic trends. Take Eames or Frank Lloyd Wright for example in regards to Modernism. More importantly, how the exhibitions create meaning through the objects is always telling about the values we give to them and we seek from them.)   Moreover, there is a considerably different approach in the openly celebratory feel of this Smithsonian exhibition, than in the more socially and media critical approaches in the examples from our readings.  It also does not appear that any serious artistic gaming efforts were included in this show.  Instead, the commercial big-money version that defines gaming today prevails.

Chris Melissinos, founder of Past Pixels and collector of video games and gaming systems, is the curator of the exhibition.  He is not a trained curator.  There is nothing that leads me to believe that as a video collector that he has any knowledge of the theories or the histories that are important to ART, let alone, that he might have an intellectual view of what constitutes an analytic approach to creating a substantial exhibition. That he deflects a more  critiqued approach to the material belies the very rigorous training and thoughtful approach of traditional art curators.  This may also signify the attitude of online culture that has co-opted the term “curating” to refer to the practice of putting together any ol’ selection of digital media, from your Facebook pics to your top 10 list of favorite online videos.  In these exhibition displays, Melissinos’s presentation of this gaming work reflects a commercial “expo” like treatment that reflects the business culture of commercial gaming.  For bad taste sake, they had a costumed Pac Man at the opening… and not ironically!  Also, the games were selected with help from public feedback… from public “voting.”  How very “American Idol” of them… this also suits the current commercial gaming “feedback” oriented culture.  What an info-tainment echo chamber!

So yes, who is curating matters and not all exhibition or institutional approaches are the same.  For example, to equate Christiane Paul (who authored the Digital Art book and from whom we are all learning her  institutionally supported terms, labels and descriptions of digital art) with this guy would be a joke and a disservice to serious art historical practice.

Yet, the irony does not escape me… this commercial exhibition demonstrates the increased willingness of the public and art institutions to consider interactive digital media as “art,” albeit via their experience with gaming, as a commercially driven, popularly “consumed” medium, whereas other “interactive media” within the rarefied  art world as been historically less celebrated by the population at large.  Yet, interestingly, some gamers and developers seem to readily recognize that their medium is similar to other forms of art that are not complete until they are experienced by a viewer.  This is not to say that this exhibition or its curator has intellectually deep considerations (cultural nostalgia seems to be a main point), but it does seem to demonstrate populist support for the idea of digital interactivity as a viable medium for art… something that has long been understood by the specialists of the art world, though not always institutionally or popularly supported.  With such a dilemma (the affirmation of the art form, but a disavow of more meaningful cultural themes and types of engagement), maybe it’s time that more art historians and more artists take another bite of this (interactive digital art) apple?

Other Press that relates to the public’s views:

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