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.
But what is it that uplifts and inspires the greatest number of people in the most visceral ways? If you ask the average person on the street, most of them haven’t seen Citizen Kane, they haven’t read War and Peace, and they’ll stare blankly at you if you mention Jackson Pollock. For many, it’s shows like friends or Seinfeld, it’s movies like The Wizard of Oz, or it’s games like Myst or Monkey Island. These are the stories we latch on to. And we are no less inspired or intelligent for it.
There’s an argument that we should force people to enjoy high art, and cast pop culture into the pits, but The Art of Videogames instead asks the question: How can we use this medium to create art?
For me, the thing that drove home the power of this place was the demo room, stocked with five games: PacMan, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Since I’d played all but Monkey Island and Flower, and the line for Monkey Island was a bit long, I got in line for the latter. Behind me were a mother and her son.
“I thought all these games were like your Call of Duty or whatever,” she said, “But I mean, what is this called?”
The son didn’t answer, so I chimed in. “It’s called Flower.“
“I mean … well, what’s even going on here?”
I gestured to the screen. “Well, you’re making the flowers bloom,” I said. “Trying to bring a little color and life back into the world. So you just fly around, and make the flowers bloom, and eventually you can make them bloom in a city, make it green again and full of life.”
My session ended, and I handed over the controller to her. “Look, try this level,” I said. “With the rainbows.”
She hesitated, then looked at me, then took up the game and started to play. By the end she was laughing, tilting the controller trying to get that last flower, gasping as the landscape and music changed around her. I left before she finished, walking out into the rest of the museum. The other exhibits were nearly empty, and much more subdued. There were no conversations, just people quietly looking at pieces on the walls, then moving on. I’d been to dozens of art museums across three continents in my lifetime, and I’d never seen an exhibit that drew that kind of fierce joy, nor such lively discussion. The conversation wasn’t quite as arch as, say, the discussion I heard in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art over the value of Jackson Pollock, but it was far more engaged and enthusiastic.
There’s an argument that we should force people to enjoy high art, and cast pop culture into the pits, but The Art of Videogames instead asks the question: How can we use this medium to create art? Other art exhibitions place the paintings on the walls, sometimes with a short explanation of artistic intent. The Art of Videogames takes a different approach. Each of the historical stations in the timeline room doesn’t just declare that the games on display are art, but presents the games as examples of what the medium is capable of, and how they evolved. The station for the Atari 2600, for example, explained that Pitfall!, while itself primitive, was one of the earliest examples of a human protagonist and a game that was more than just a game, but an attempt at creating an adventure. The narrative was simple, sure, but it was still a narrative. It’s true that The Art of Videogames does avoid the controversies around the medium, you don’t find any discussion, for instance, of sexism in games, or of glorification of violence, but that’s not what the exhibit is for-the idea is to develop a dialogue between the curators and the audience, to be accessible to gamers and skeptics alike.
This isn’t the first time there’s been a pop culture exhibit in a major museum, and it won’t be the last. But The Art of Videogames is an evolution of how pop culture is displayed and discussed in museums. Games aren’t displayed as history or technology, but displayed to encourage questions of how they can be used to connect with people, to engage people emotionally and intellectually—as truly great art should. The Art of Videogames doesn’t just sit as a proud addition to the Smithsonian’s legacy of respecting the power of pop culture, but expands upon it. It asks, instead, how we can illuminate our future.
Jensen Toperzer is graduate student living in Boston, and does not get enough sleep. You can see more ramblings about popular culture on Jensen’s twitter, @conventioneerin