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The year was 1978 and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History was fending off a flood of angry letters from patrons about a recently acquired set of artifacts: a pair of chairs from the popular sitcom All in the Family. Archie Bunker, the central character of the show, was a noisy, slothful, racist bigot. The objecting visitors were all too keen to point this out, as well as to admonish the Smithsonian for daring to immortalize a form of entertainment as base and crass as television. After all, as everyone at the time knew, television was responsible for declining intellect, laziness, and violence in children-rhetoric the gaming community finds all too familiar.
There's this idea pushed on us from a young age that art is somehow sacred.
Despite the familiarity of that sentiment, the reaction to The Art of Videogames at the Smithsonian American Art museum has been more positive. The BBC and the New York Times had kind words to say about it. Even the most vicious article I read, a piece in the Washington Post's style section decrying the exhibit as "intellectually inert" and better placed in "a history or technology museum" at least conceded that games can be art, and that the issue the author had was more with the exhibit's execution.
So why the change in attitude? In the thirty years since those beat up old chairs shook the nation, our attitudes towards popular culture have shifted drastically. The American History museum ignored the protests against the All in the Family exhibit and added more pieces to its popular culture collection, including Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Jim Henson's Muppets, and pieces from the set of M*A*S*H. Soon, the popular culture collection became one of the most asked about collections at the Smithsonian. When the exhibit was briefly put on hiatus in 1991, the reaction was even louder than that first response to the All in the Family chairs, but with the opposite tone. As one visitor wrote, "I am most distressed that the exhibit has been discontinued. So many of us came here to see Dorothy's shoes, Archie's chair, Fonzie's jacket, Mr. Roger's sweater-America as we know it. I can't fathom what would possess you to discontinue this popular exhibit." Around the same time, other museums and cultural organizations around the country were starting to change their tune when it came to the high culture/low culture divide. The American Studies Association, for example, got a rude awakening when a group of scholars decided they were fed up with the way that traditional arts were put on a pedestal and founded the Popular Culture Association, a group devoted to the critical analysis of pop music, movies, comics, and material culture.
But academic posturing and what the establishment thinks doesn't really matter at all. While the critics and PhDs talk till they're blue in the face about whether or not pop culture and so-called low culture are art, the public finds in this media something deeply resonant and meaningful. The guest curator of The Art of Videogames, Chris Melissinos, mentions in interviews how he grew up with games, and that games are being recognized because those who grew up with them are now grownups themselves. It's the same for television, movies, toys and comic books. These things shape our childhoods, even more than the struggles of nations or the musings of poets. And people's minds are no less rich, creative, or analytical for having grown up immersed in this culture.
So why is the Art of Videogames then even more important than the Ruby Slippers, or the puffy shirt from Seinfeld, or any of the other bits of television and movie memorabilia that sit in the American History Museum? Unlike those, the Art of Videogames exists in an art museum. An art museum gives this exhibition a completely different flavor and context than something that's mere history; it brings up the dreaded "A" word. Once again, we find ourselves faced with that tired argument, "Are videogames art?"
There's this idea pushed on us from a young age that art is somehow sacred. As the late Stephen Weil, former director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, said in his book Making Museums Matter, we've created this bizarre hierarchy for artistic creations. On one end of the scale, we've got unique works of art, useless for almost anything but staring at; the Jackson Pollock originals, the Picassos, the DaVincis. These are valued above anything else. At the other, there are the decorative arts such as toys, crafts (knitting, etc), anything designed for profit and made to be consumed, all much too "common" to be considered art. Even if the same degree of craftsmanship, work, and thoughtfulness has gone into the design of a piece of consumer culture, we dismiss it because it's not unique (like a Pollock original), and therefore it isn't art. Thus, we've been taught that the only high art that exists are those unique, unreplicable originals. It's those which are the only things "worthy" of being in an art museum, in fact the only reason art museums exist. To suggest that something else might be worthy is to upset that status quo.