Open World opened last Saturday, October 19th at the Akron Art Museum. I attended the opening, and was very impressed with the exhibit. It is a large installation, covering three of the museum’s galleries. The works included cover a wide range of media, from ball point pen drawings to video to prints to sculpture to textiles to interactive media and virtual reality.
It’s exciting to see the art world acknowledge the importance and influence of videogames on fine art.
It’s been about 15 years since famed film critic Roger Ebert famously proclaimed that videogames were not art, and could never be. He was wrong about that in so many ways, although to be fair to his argument, we should seek to understand what he meant by that. The word “art” has multiple definitions, and this is a confusing and contentious point, which can trip up many conversations before they even begin as people talk past one another without realizing it. Untangling that mess requires more words than I have time to type here.
But if I can bottom line it, Ebert was wrong, but he had a few good points.
Art is a very broad word, and to think it couldn’t include videogames is simply short-sighted and more than a bit bigoted. To make a pronouncement that games can never be art is arrogant. And of course games are art. Game design is an art, games are comprised of program code, graphics, and audio, and all of these require an artist’s touch in order to come alive.
But no, not every game is a work of high art. Just as not every book or film is art. Not every statue or painting is art. And sure, most video games are thought of primarily as commercial kitch intended for mass entertainment. But sure, a video game can be an object d’art. Why not? There’s an entire genre of videogames called “art games“, which are intended to be experienced as art.
But… wtf is art? Which definition are we using each time we say the word?
Well, that’s an important question, but never mind that. My goal isn’t to write a book about the definition of art, and argue that videogames are, or can be, art. We could spend time exploring that, and it’s not like that wouldn’t be worthwhile. But that’s not my point in writing this post; my point is to talk about the Open World exhibit at the Akron Art Museum, and how you should go see it.
Why not simply go into the world and look at some art, and see if any of it is a videogame? And why not explore the world and find examples of art that show a clear influence from videogames, a clear sign that videogames are culture, that video games are a force that shapes and influences humanity, and has been, for decades, from very nearly the very beginning of the history of computing machines.
It turns out this is a rewarding endeavor. As much as it’s important to think about what art is and isn’t, its much better to experience art, and engage with it.
The exhibit does this very well, I think, by taking a broad survey of different approaches different artists have taken, and the different ways that video games have influenced them in the creation of art.
One of the artworks in the show is a video game: Cory Arcangel’s I shot Andy Warhol, a romhack of Hogan’s Alley for the NES, which simply substitutes images of Andy Warhol, the Pope, Colonel Harlan Sanders, the founder of KFC, and Public Enemy hype man Flava Flav for the usual graphics, to make a statement of some sort, about the historical fact that Andy Warhol was actually shot in real life. What that statement is exactly, I’m not entirely sure. But there it is, a playable video game, presented as art, in an honest-to-god Art Museum. Suck on that, Ebert.
Feng Mengbo‘s Long March: Restart, is another playable videogame, and incorporates numerous sprites from 8- and 16-bit run-and-gun games such as Contra, is another game, but was not playable on the opening day due to technical difficulties.
A lot of artwork that people might think of when they hear “art influenced by video games” would fall under the category of “fan art” — simply, works created by fans, done in homage to a favorite game, or character from a game, or to create feelings of nostalgia. This isn’t really what Open World is going after. The artwork doesn’t serve to celebrate commercial products. But there are a few pieces that might come close, such as the Colossal Cave Adventure quilt made by Krista Hoefle, one of my favorite pieces in the exhibit, or Butt Johnson‘s brilliantly executed ballpoint pen drawings, which simultaneously reference both 80’s video game culture and the Italian renaissance.
But most of the works in the show are not games. Some are digital works, such as Tabor Robak’s 20XX, or Angela Washko’s “gaming intervention”, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft. Washko’s investigation of Warcraft players’ attitudes on feminism tends to be buried in the visual chaos of WOW’s cluttered UI and fantastical character avatars, but it is nevertheless interesting for its chat content and the social dynamics she frames and puts on display in the context of a popular fantasy MMORPG.
Many of the works in the exhibit reference games in some way, or excerpt from them. Others borrow cues from the new aesthetic of video game graphics in creating artistic compositions, such as Invader’s pixel art created out of Rubik’s Cubes, or Mathew Zefeldt’s life-size barrel and door from Duke Nukem 3D.
Still others use games as raw material, taking elements out of them, repurposing or recontextualizing them, turning them into art. Still others use a game to stage a sort of theatrical performance, sometimes called machinima. These often are done for social commentary, as with Joseph DeLappe’s Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides, which is especially powerful in its depiction of gun violence through a modded version of Grand Theft Auto 5.
The above only covers about half of the total show, so to see the rest of it, you’ll have to go in person. Open World is up from October 19, 2019 – February 2, 2020, and after that will be travelling to Currier Museum of Art March 21 – June 28, 2020 and San José Museum of Art September 10, 2020 – January 10, 2021.