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Round Table Reaction- Games as an Object of Art History

Posted by Adam

I sent a long, sprawling email to Bart regarding October 1st’s research round table. This is an further response to Bart’s excellent question as to why an Art Historian/ Aesthetic Philosopher would think he(me) is doing Games Studies.

Are games, especially digital games art? If we define it as such, then yes it is. But Alexander Galloway, and to some extent, myself, offer a binary between games and counter games that chokes off other critical options- as a counter example, I see TAG’s experiments in game design such as The Victorianator and Propinquity as over flowing beyond both triple-A game norms and artistic practices that are merely critiques of those norms. An expansion rather than rupture from gaming.

To give a literary example as an illustration, compare the military science fiction of John Ringo(i.e. “Gust Front” with Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. The latter is clearly a science fiction novel, about cloning for organ replacement, but from the point of view of the young clones who will eventually be sacrificed. It flies in the face of the violent, tough- guy and explicitly politically conservative world in Ringo’s vision and that is commonly now considered science fiction. Interestingly, Ringo’s work has been broadly popular in the US, while Ishiguro’s novel was completely ignored both in the genre press and major awards, lacking even nomination. It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, in Britain, however. This reinforces my point that practices are defined within specific historical and geographical contexts.This negotiated relationship does not rest specifically in the material of the work in question but between the audience/participant and the object itself.

Stanley Marsh 3 and Ant Farm "Cadillac Ranch" (1973), photo, David Alexander 2004

Stanley Marsh 3 and Ant Farm "Cadillac Ranch" (1973), photo, David Alexander 2004

So saying that the gamic quality eliminates the artistic quality seems to confuse an exterior issue, how people in an given moment define art, with a quality that is largely intrinsic i.e. can the work be played as a game. Take Cadillac Ranch(, a site specific installation by Stanley Marsh and art collective Ant Farm. Their vision can hardly be discounted as art simply because their sculpture contains internal combustion engines, and some elements were operational cars at point in time where the work was installed. So why would a game using the unReal engine not potentially be considered “art”?
Virtual Jihadi
Cynically, I could say that art, in the contemporary Canadian context, is anything you get a government grant to produce. So while some authors argue that using game engines imposes a particular ideological stance on the complete piece( a gift from Marx through Lefebvre, et al) it imposes limits that are only partially sustainable in criticism, and subject to constant rupture in practice. Super Columbine RPG, Virtual Jihadi and Pain Station all seem to break with notions of what a game is or how a particular code necessarily imposes political and ideological biases on a game. My suspicion is that that those biases are not such simple function and leave room for excess beyond what is planned or predicted.

Danny Ledonne, Super Columbine RPG(2005) still from video game

Danny Ledonne, Super Columbine RPG(2005) still from video game

Janet Wolff explicitly “argues against the romantic and mystical notion of art… transcending existence, society and time” and instead grounds it in the particular means of production of it’s time.(Wolff the Social Production of Art, 2ed, 1993, NYU press). Moreover this contextualisation of art reveals that the definition of the object change over time and place. The Greeks of the classical era clearly valued aesthetic objects, but denigrated the workers who crafted them . Few were remembered by name, and the artisan class seems not to have differentiated between picture painters and wall painters- both were manual labourers in the hierarchy of Hellenic culture.

This notion of games failing to meet some received notion of artistic merit occurs in both the writing of Art Historians(Oliver Grau explicitly excises games from other digital and virtual artworks) and Games scholars(Galloway argues only for counter games as a resistance to what Dyer-Witherford and De Peuyter term the games of empire) who seem to argue that games that are meant to be played are intrinsically different from works meant to be contemplated. This notion can be traced back to platonic ideals of perfect works of art, like the Beautiful, cannot be changed or altered with out marring their perfection.

But this is just a notion of art, and more the province of connoisseurship that informed previous approaches to critiques of art. For the Art Historian, the fluid  social notions of what constitutes the art object is of limited interest, except how this effects the relationship of works both specific and generally amongst themselves(a more formalist approach such as considering GTA with Bejeweled or Star Craft) and the broader context of how broader social phenomena are revealed by considering, for example, the relationship between the means of production that underlies both families in, say, Canada, and mafia families in GTA. Thus our projects of both experiment and analysis allow us to reveal new relationships via forging new relationships with the material culture we today consider art. What will Propinquity tell us about other forms or genres of dance i.e. ballet, as well as dance games? What new relationships will be revealed between existing games and non-game genres and the social milieus that produced them?