Posts Tagged ‘Smithsonian’

Halo 4Are video games art? It’s a question that’s been posed many times, particularly over the last decade as the power and speed of graphics processors and gaming machines (exemplified by the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U) have reached the point where digital artists have virtually unlimited ability to give their imaginations free rein, allowing them to create and deliver visual landscapes of stunning beauty, richness, and depth. Many of these worlds are so engrossing that gamers regularly find themselves captivated, forgetting, for a moment, to play and pausing to admire the view—to, in essence, stop and smell the virtual roses.

Okay, fine. Video games are visually spellbinding. But, again, are they art? The late Roger Ebert, film critic and bearer of the almighty thumb, famously said “no” and paid the price for it, as outraged game aficionados called him to the mat for failing to recognize the virtues of their favorite medium. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts declared, in 2011, that video games are art, and for the first time in history opened up the possibility of federal funding to assist digital artists in the development of video games. Of course, neither of these points of view answers the question, but both clearly indicate the range of opinion on the subject.

La NoireI suspect that no matter who you ask, you’ll hear a variety of responses, and most won’t be a simple yes or no—and the debate will probably never be settled (at least not to anyone’s satisfaction). Nevertheless, museums around the country are throwing their hats in the ring through a traveling exhibit entitled, appropriately, The Art of Video Games. And though it doesn’t claim to be the final word on the subject, it aims to at least push the conversation forward. The exhibit kicked off in March of 2012, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (as good an institutional judge of art as any, I suspect) and is now on a ten-city tour—including a stop a stone’s throw from my hometown at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY.

Which is where I’m writing this, books in hand and ready to extoll the social, cultural, and, yes, artistic value of video games. It’s not that I feel any particular need to validate them to professional critics or anyone else who staunchly refuses to see any merit in the form (though I do have game developer friends, and I’d like to see their work taken seriously and truly appreciated). It’s just that I truly believe that they are art—and further, that when you really spend time with games and explore what goes into creating them, the issues developers are attacking, and the messages they’re trying to communicate, that conclusion becomes inescapable. Take Jonathan Blow’s Braid, for example, which deals with forgiveness and desire; Ryan Green’s That Dragon, Cancer, an attempt to cope with his own son’s terminal illness; or Flower, by Jenova Chen, which explores our relationship to nature. As you progress through each of these games—as well as a host of others for which there isn’t the time or space to do them justice here (Bioshock, Super Meat Boy, and Deus Ex, just to name three)—the story gradually falls into place, and you gain insight into the developer’s world view. Even the infamous and, I would argue, mostly misunderstood Grand Theft Auto series reveals some scathing social commentary for those who care to look just a bit below the surface. Some games, like Fez, are boundlessly joyful and beautifully presented, and some, like Myst, Riven, the Halo series, the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, Uncharted 2, and the unfortunately canceled Star Wars 1313 are simply gorgeous to behold, their worlds rendered in artistic splendor, filled with music befitting a symphony hall. By any definition you care to apply, these games—and many others—are, quite simply, art.

Tomb Raider

The biggest criticism of video games seems to be that their very nature—their interactivity and reliance on a player—invalidates their inclusion in the list of artistic media. This stems from a quaint and woefully mistaken concept of art as a unidirectional exchange: the artist presents us with a vision or an idea, and we passively receive and, at most, react to it—as if viewing it through a one-way mirror. But true art is a conversation. We take it in, react to it, and seek to understand the artist’s frame of reference and what s/he’s trying to tell us about a particular time or place. We examine our reaction—how do we feel? Why? How does our frame of reference affect our response, and what does that say about us? How does approaching a work of art from our reference point and our experiences change the original work? And ultimately, what is the artist trying to communicate about humanity at large, about our perception of and place in the world? Certainly, not all video games achieve this—but then neither do all works of more popularly accepted forms of art. However, when they do, their interactivity gives video games an immediacy and impact that can far exceed traditional artistic works.

Like painting, sculpture, writing, photography, and music, video games range from simple to complex, derivative to revolutionary, and profane to sublime. They can elicit feelings of hope and fear; longing and despair; grief, loss, joy, and love. They can heal our bodies and open our minds. And if we let them, they can teach us about the world, about each other, and about ourselves. In the final analysis, that is the mark of true art.

But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself. For those in the Westchester County region, the exhibit’s at the Hudson River Museum until May 18. For more information, check out the museum’s website. You can also find out the next stops for The Art of Video Games on the Smithsonian’s website here.

One of the biggest issues with Roger Ebert’s criticism of video games was that he’d never played them—and refused to do so, ever. Since that time, people with actual video game experience have weighed in on the question. You can read some of their answers here.

There’s also an in-depth look at the artistic aspirations of one particular game, Journey—developed by Jenova Chen’s studio Thatgamecompany (of Flower fame)—in The New Yorker.

Keith Stuart, games blogger for The Guardian, has an excellent piece on the issue here.

You can also find information here about a new journal, The Arcade Review, and its mission to, as the author says “push the dialog of video games and art.”

And finally, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has been acquiring video games as part of its Applied Design exhibit. You can find a list of some of the games here.

What is art? People of all backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life have asked and debated this question since time immemorial. Bertolt Brecht believed that art was a hammer with which to shape reality. Raymond Chandler felt that all art had a quality of redemption. Picasso once said “art is a lie which makes us see the truth.” According to Annie Dillard, “art is like an ill-trained Labrador retriever that drags you out into traffic.” Longfellow felt that art was the child of nature. Stephanie Mills believed that art “troubles and pleases, inspires, and reminds us that humanity is ever capable of adding to the sum of the world’s grave beauty.” Louise Bourgeois said that art was a guarantee of sanity. And Beethoven once quipped, “Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?”

Which says more about art’s effects than its reality. When it comes to actually defining art, even the mystics are silent. You can give it a shot if you like, but I’d wager that any definition you devise will be a statement about what art does rather than what it is. And here’s the thing: for most of us, it doesn’t really matter. We may not be able to define art, but we know it when we see it.

There are, however, some forms of expression that fall within a commonly-accepted concept of art: painting, sculpture, classical music, ballet, literature and photography to some extent (you may not like James Joyce or Ansel Adams, but I defy you to deny their artistry). And, of course, videogames.

Yes, I said it. I mean, you had to know it was coming, right? Okay, maybe adding them into the category of agreed-upon art forms is a bit of a stretch—at least right now. And in the era of Space Invaders, Asteroids and the Atari 2600, it would have been a hard claim to justify. However, in 1993, a little game called Myst changed everything.

Myst presented an immersive, virtual world that was—in a first for videogames—both engaging to play and gorgeous to behold—prompting both Wired magazine and The New York Times to suggest that videogames could, in fact, become a bona fide means of artistic expression. Myst was a runaway, and somewhat unanticipated, success, and it also represented a convergence of technology, talent and opportunity: the larger capacity of CD-ROM drives allowed skilled graphic artists to create stunning visual landscapes and game images, and Myst’s popularity clearly demonstrated the gaming audience’s hunger for more. The success of its sequel, Riven, as well as two similar games, The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, confirmed this.

But, you protest, four games doth not an art form make. Okay, granted. However, before you write me off as hopelessly deluded or just plain insane, I’d like you to consider a few items.

First, the National Endowment for the Arts now officially recognizes videogames as a legit art form. Now I don’t go around changing my definitions of things because the powers that be make some declaration, but this is a significant legal win for videogames, and it provides grants of up to $200K to artists working in the medium (details are here).

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting “The Art of Video Games” next year, from March 16-September 30, 2012. That’s right. The Smithsonian. The exhibition explores the four-decade evolution of videogames as an artistic medium, and focuses on visual effects and creative use of technology. It features some of videogaming’s most influential artists and designers, and takes a look at their contributions and influences, and the larger role that videogames play in popular culture.

The Smithsonian installation isn’t the first display of videogame-related art. An earlier exhibition at the Barbican, in London, showcased the videogame-centered work of Brooklyn-based artist Cory Archangel. And an online exhibition entitled The Semiotics of Video Games examines videogames and the production of meaning.

Games are growing up. Stories are becoming more sophisticated, music and audio rivals the best in Hollywood and the symphony, gameplay is increasingly interactive and non-linear, and digital artists are creating virtual worlds of breathtaking beauty and power. In the best of the genre, all these aspects come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Whether this translates to a valid art form is a decision each of us has to make for ourselves, and it’s not likely that we’ll all agree. But the history of art teaches us one thing: it is not static. Art is constantly evolving, pushing boundaries. It speaks to the human condition, and seeks to reveal something about ourselves—or, at the very least, shine a light into spaces we’d rather not go. It is a living, breathing form of expression, and it will not be denied.

Ready or not, videogames are about to throw the art world into a spin. So grab something solid and hold on for the ride.

Check out the Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games” here.

You can learn more about the featured games here

… and here.

Here’s a write-up of Cory Archangel’s London exhibition.

And you can view the online exhibit, The Semiotics of Video Games, here.