Arts Desk

Game Over

Matthew Yglesias's new permanent guest blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, who serves as Think Progress's in-house television and media critic, gives kudos to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for its plan to mount a 2012 exhibition on video games. Rosenberg congratulates the Smithsonian for its seemingly provocative decision to admit video games into the rarefied realm of fine art objecthood.

A nation of gamers sighs with relief: Video games have made it. With that question settled, gamers can get back to appreciating (or playing) video games. But the American Art Museum should put some work into museum-ing. Video games can be art, but "The Art of Video Games" doesn't look like it will in fact be an art exhibition.

Why should this show appear at the American Art Museum at all? Are any of these games examples of American art? But more importantly: Why should the Smithsonian squander its exceedingly rare space and valuable resources mounting an exhibition of things people already have, presented in the context in which people already know them?

I'm certainly no enemy to video games. Hell, I've got a Nintendo 3DS in my pocket right now. I'm about 40 hours into Dragon Quest IX. Historically, I have logged many more hours in the dungeons of Hyrule than in the National Gallery of Art. But even among art critics who might sniff at the notion of an adult playing video games—I'm looking at Christopher Knight here—I doubt the view persists that digital interactive media cannot qualify as art. It's a straw-man stance. Maybe the critics at the New Criterion would harumph at an argument that elevated Marble Madness to the level of Matisse—maybe. But it certainly hasn't been a mainstream critical position for a long, long time to say that only the plastic arts matter.

It's one thing to deputize a medium as art—though the notion is quite unnecessary, since everything has its right place in an orbit that heralds pickled sharks and inverted latrines. But it is quite another to say that some specific thing belongs in a museum. And video games don't need a museum half as much as the Smithsonian thinks it needs video games.

For the American Art Museum, "The Art of Video Games" will serve as one of those golden bricks from Super Mario Bros. that keeps pumping out coins. For the hordes of tourist families that this show draws, it will mean the same quest for the Triforce, the same renegade FOXHOUND nuclear threat, the same super monkey balls—but at a museum, which means education and (maybe) larger screens. If there is any scholarship to the exhibition, it takes a distinctly player-two role to the show's family draw.

The American Art Museum seemed to acknowledge the fact from the start by leaving the curating up to the audience. What the museum might have brought to the show in terms of some kind of elliptical argument or curatorial vision or organizational schema, it abdicated to the general public, American Idol-style. First, a jury of a bunch of people narrowed the list of all video games down to 240 video games. Then, from mid-February through mid-April, the museum invited the public at large to vote on the 80 video games that would made it into the exhibition.

Here is that exhibition. You can probably download the whole exhibit with a modded X-Box. As Jonathan L. Fischer said so much more succinctly, "Basically, this show will be exactly as authoritative as an IGN readers poll."

For audiences looking for even a modicum of thoughtful decisionmaking about what makes a video game noteworthy in an alternative context, meaningful opportunities are out there. Cory Arcangel's "Pro Tools", which opens later this month at the Whitney Museum, will feature some of the artist's work with video games, including Various Self Playing Bowling Games (2011), an installation of projections of various bowling games from the 1970s to the present day, each one hacked so that the player only throws gutter balls. (Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds did more to make the museum world take notice of video games than anything the exceedingly epic Hironobu Sakaguchi has done to date.)

There are art-based video games; all of them suck. There are even more video game–based artworks. In D.C., most recently, draughtsman Zoë Charlton included a video modeled on a first-person-shooter in her April drawing show at Conner Contemporary Art. Once, during the Venice Biennale, I laid on my back and played Pong via light-up ceiling tiles. (That was Pierre Huyghe's 1999 Atari Light, and it ruled.)

It's been a while since Rhizome has hosted "Next Level", its forum on independent gaming, but Rhizome—an affiliate of the New Museum—more or less exists to facilitate artists who engage technology. Last year, Georgia Tech hosted "The Art History of Games," a two-day symposium. That seems like an appropriate use of an institution whose resources are limited.

Meanwhile, the American Art Museum's "Art of Video Games" will run from March through September—a very long run for a show that doesn't even, even for one that includes Marble Madness, the greatest video game ever made. During that time, American Art won't be hosting special shows of traditional visual art, which, mind you, can't be bought at Best Buy or downloaded through a virtual marketplace.

And there's good work that American Art could be doing. To name one example: The Hirshhorn Museum has not showcased an African-American artist in more than 10 years. (By my count, the last time the Smithsonian's contemporary art museum specifically highlighted a black artist was in September 2000, when it placed special emphasis on Horace Pippin's Holy Mountain III. And that wasn't exactly a show.) The American Art Museum's record on showing African-American artists is good; its record on showing contemporary artists, less so.

It's only one suggestion, but in picking up the Hirshhorn's slack, American Art could do better than a blockbuster—it could reach the next level.

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