The Work of Art in the Age of Software

The hoary old discussion of artistic merit in videogames has always been hampered by a general ignorance of art history on the part of gamers. Too often capital ‘a’ Art is treated like some fatherly authority figure: it is good because it is and always has been. On the contrary, the hierarchical and quasi-religious concept of Art is only around 300 years old and came out of the transition from the pre-history to the bourgeois era of capitalism.

Take this video from The Game Overthinker. In it Bob Chipman talks about how the lack of a single, original and finished work of art causes videogames to fall short of Great Art (as illustrated by the Mona Lisa). I always enjoy Bob’s broad looks at the state of videogames, but I think he misses a crucial point about what Art (in the context of capitalism) really is. In the pre-industrial age, an art object would have value for many reasons, often for its use in rituals. The best example in Medieval Europe would be the icon. An icon was usually a painting of a religious figure or scene that would be housed in a holy place. Pilgrims would travel great distances to visit icons. It was believed that touching the icon would cure them of illnesses, or that icons of religious figures like the Virgin Mary would act as a portal to the real immaterial being in heaven. Icons were treated like relics: they were holy embodiments of Jesus, Mary or the saints. In this context it is easy to see why the single, original painting is considered to be the only authentic one, but the value of such objects also comes from the labour and materials required to produce them.

This all changed with industrial production. Now a secular icon like the Mona Lisa can be reproduced countless times. There is no need to visit the Louvre to gawp at the ‘real’ thing. There is nothing materially different about the original painting that gives it value – with one exception: its age. But the Mona Lisa is not priceless because it is old; it is priceless because it was touched by the artist. This is exactly the same process whereby relics gain value. Another way to look at it is to see priceless Works of Art like religious icons: the original and singular painting enables the pilgrim to venerate before the dead and holy Artist, the difference being that before it was the subject of the icon that was venerated and now it is the maker. In secular Art, the Artist has taken the place of God.

This is all old news, of course. The religious and contradictory nature of bourgeois Art was thoroughly exploited and undermined by 20th century modernism. For those of you who scratch your heads at modern art, this is why calling an urinal, a soup can or a pile of bricks Works of Art was such a big deal: because it exposed and undermined the quasi-religious origin of the authority of the Artist and the supposed value of the original Work of Art. The idea of videogames-as-art not only has to deal with the concept of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but also in the age of software. Bob is right to say that there can be no single original videogame Work of Art, but – as his example of Star Wars shows – there can be no single original anything in the age of software. This has caused artists to go to ever more ludicrous lengths to justify the inflated price tags of their Works of Art. Take for example Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (given the hollow-joke title For the Love of God), a work designed both to be sold for millions and to cynically dismiss artistic worth simultaneously. With For the Love of God, the reporting of the price becomes the artistic justification of the naked greed behind making the object. The critique of the Artist and the Work of Art has gone from undermining the gallery system and the quasi-religious veneration of the object (Duchamp) to become the necessary cynical gesture that allows the whole process to continue (Hirst).

I have in the past said that trying to take videogames down this moribund path will only result in artistic suicide. Videogames do offer a challenge to traditional ideas of the value of Art and of the Work of Art, but this is only because the foundations of those concepts are so flimsy that they are challenged by their own shadow. For a while now it’s been understood that trying to make videogames conform to our understanding of other media – film especially – is foolhardy. Instead of trying to paste past aesthetic models onto videogames we should try to understand videogames as a separate medium. That means coming to terms with videogames as mutable software to be played and modified by the multitude, not as oil on canvas catalogued in a museum. As Duchamp put it, museums are the cemetery of visual artefacts. RIP.