Jan 2, 2013

Finding the Play in Art

But is it art? The Museum of Modern Art has placed videogames in its permanent collection. Benjamin Nicoll asks whether they belong.

The Museum of Modern Art reinvigorated tired debates of videogames as ‘art’ when they recently made games part of their permanent collection. Such debates are limited, and tend to gloss over the significance of the deeper relationships between games and art.

We tend to think of videogames and art through definitional questions, but another way to think about the relationship between videogames and art is through a historical framework. What is it that videogames have inherited from older art forms? This approach enables us to conceive of the “artistic” aspect of gaming as something that originates historically, rather than something that originates in the thematic or visual content of any given game.

In other words, the art isn’t in the game, but in the activity of gaming itself. And the activity of gaming possesses an art history that can be illuminated by thinking archaeologically. The goal here is to uncover moments in art history that speak to our contemporary gaming experiences. Media theorist Siegfried Zielinski puts it succinctly: “do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old.”

We are quick to talk about ‘play,’ when it comes to videogames, but it is also a concept that has had extensive theoretical and historical presence in art more broadly. This gives us reason to think that the videogame inherits one of its key properties from the art world—an art world which has, perhaps unfairly, pushed the videogame towards being a cultural outsider. By looking at the trajectory of playful aesthetics throughout art history, the videogame seems less like an estranged media object and more like an historical continuation of artistic media.

There are playful qualities to art even as early as the baroque period. Works such as Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of Divine Providence draw the viewer into labyrinthine narratives that drive multidirectional forms and frames of reference. This painting is a great example of how baroque artists were rethinking the idea of perspective in art, by inviting the viewer into a more labyrinthine model. Media theorist Angela Ndalianis neatly summarises the affect of such works by arguing that they engage viewers in a ‘game of vision,’—asking the viewer to playfully navigate the artwork and its iconography.

Play was no less prominent in art throughout the long stretch of the modern period. German philosopher and Enlightenment writer Immanuel Kant was one of the first to observe the mysterious connection between art and play in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. He theorised that art, like play, was essentially a ‘disinterested’ activity: we find pleasure in art without necessarily needing it to fulfil a practical purpose. Additionally, for Kant, pleasure in art comes only from the ‘free play’ of the viewer’s mental faculties—a kind of harmony between imagination and cognition.

Twentieth century art brought with it an array of new themes and directions in artistic practice: the nonserious, the playful and the experimental. Surrealists saw the playful properties of games as an impetus for opening the imagination to unprecedented creative possibilities (the ‘exquisite corpse’ game was a favorite among Surrealist painters). Cubism allowed artists to play with form and subvert established modes of perception, instead presenting viewers with challenging visual puzzles. And later in the century, the radical French avant-garde group, The Situationist International, attempted to bring about a free-form, unstructured ideal of play and art in the city space.

However, by the 1960s, conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Piero Manzoni began to undercut the playful characteristics of modern art by asserting the centrality of the artist’s ‘idea’ to the creative process. Their goal was to eliminate many of the concepts we traditionally associate with art—form, colour, shape and line—in favour of an art that took the pure ‘concept’ as its medium. It is an intriguing coincidence that videogames emerged in the same timeframe—further situating play as a separate concept to art.

What does all this mean for videogames? Perhaps English sociologist Graeme Kirkpatrick put it best in his recent work Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. Instead of claiming games for art, Kirkpatrick argues, why not turn the question on its head and claim art for games? The objective is not to raise videogames up to the perceived status of art, but to discover the links between games and art by looking closely at what has defined their core experiences throughout history.

The Museum of Modern Art’s incorporation of videogames into their permanent collection allows us a moment to reflect on a deeper relationship between games and art.

By focusing on the way players engage with videogames through the aesthetic concept of ‘play,’ we can better understand how the medium speaks to the history of artistic experience. Videogames have never been separate from art. Instead, they are part of a deep lineage of playful aesthetics that has evolved throughout art history.

Benjamin Nicoll is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Find him on twitter at @bcnicoll.

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One thought on “Finding the Play in Art


    As far as I can tell, the only real controversy exists in the minds of the kind of older folk who were wary of applying the ‘art’ label to cinema and non-classical music. I can understand someone picking up some of the more unimaginative first-person shooters and asking “Is this art?”, but you could say the same about Top Gun, Britney Spears and those lovely painted forest scenes hanging at your local Salvation Army shop for $5. There’s always going to be a prominent commercial mainstream (still art, just mostly bad art) and a smaller independent scene. Anyone who’s played the Silent Hill games, for instance, would know that they were interacting with an artwork (and an excellent one at that).

    So, yeah: clearly the video game is an art form, and an innovative one at that — its integration of interactivity within narrative paves the way for immersive virtual reality art of the future. I don’t really think we need all this ‘post-‘ stuff about the art lying in the viewer’s experience; it functions perfectly well as a work on its own. The fact that it’s ‘interactive’ (albeit often in a highly controlled kind of way) doesn’t change that one bit.

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