Back in 2012, Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, announced that MoMA was acquiring videogames to display in their Applied Design exhibit. In her TED Talk called “Why I brought Pac-Man to MoMA,” she explains that shortly after the announcement, “all hell broke loose in a really interesting way.”
A variety of critics chimed in with their own opinions about MoMA’s foray into videogame collection; most notably, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian, saying, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art: Exhibiting Pac-Man and Tetris alongside Picasso and Van Gogh will mean game over for any real understanding of art.” (In her TED Talk, Antonelli snidely remarks that “they’re two floors away” from each other.)
In order to understand the state of videogame acquisitions at MoMA four years after their initial announcement and the resulting backlash, I spoke with two employees from the Architecture and Design department: Michelle Millar Fisher, curatorial assistant, and Paul Galloway, collections specialist. I asked about what it was like to be in the middle of a furious debate over the artistic merit of videogames, about MoMA’s somewhat nebulous (but evolving) stance on violent content, and what it means to be in a position of power when it comes to determining what MoMA will and won’t bring into the collection.
Galloway says that bringing games to MoMA was in no way intended to create any sort of controversy within the art world. Rather, they were simply trying to update MoMA’s collection of design materials in general. Galloway says that “prior to ten years ago, [MoMA’s] design collection was primarily posters, printed materials, graphic design, stuff like that.” In an effort to diversify and update this collection, the Architecture and Design department began looking at what was missing.
“So, digital fonts and typography was lacking, interfaces, data visualization—and among those was videogames. So it wasn’t just focusing on videogames. It was looking at kind of, broadly, our entire collection, where we were behind the times…but videogames was clearly one [medium] that this museum was decades behind on, right, because you’re talking about a culture that began in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and only in 2012 did we really start working on it.”
When asked whether or not they were surprised by the backlash the museum received from critics, both Galloway and Fisher emphatically shook their heads. Galloway says controversy over acquisitions isn’t limited to newer mediums like videogames, explaining that “there’s paintings that come in that are highly contentious… The point of [MoMA] is to be a place of rigorous debate—and it’s not like things got nasty.”
But Fisher was skeptical, saying, “Well, I feel like Jonathan Jones was a little bit nasty in The Guardian [laughs].”
Fisher agrees that the rhetoric around MoMA’s acquisitions of videogames was nothing new, but that repetition is exactly what was so frustrating. She says there is a long history of new art forms being derided in their early days, explaining that there were “so many art critics writing in pretty good publications repeating what had been said about the historical avant garde, repeating what had been said about the Ab-Ex painters, repeating what had been said in the ‘60s and ‘70s about Minimalism and Conceptualism, and [it was frustrating] that they could not be self-reflexive enough to see that and to write in a more holistic way about [videogames]…and maybe those critics weren’t necessarily the smartest in the first place, but that’s my personal opinion [laughs].”
She goes on to discuss Antonelli’s TED talk, referencing a specific moment with “this really wonderful slide from the museum archive of all the works that were denied access or entry [to the United States as works of art], and she shows on the slide, all of these artworks piled up, saying, you know, ‘This was what was not considered art in 1936,’ which [are] obviously now highly venerated, part of our canon — not part of our canon, part of the canon.”
Antonelli seems to take pride in ruffling the feathers of the art establishment, though. Just before the moment in her TED Talk that Fisher referenced, Antonelli puts up a quote by Gustave Flaubert that says, “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” Laughing, she remarks that she “considers [herself] the tide of shit.”
The Omission of Violence
When the acquisition of videogames was first discussed at MoMA, Antonelli and the rest of the team in the Architecture and Design department had to come up with a set of criteria that would dictate whether or not a game was eligible to become a part of MoMA’s collection. One of the most notable parts of that criteria was that games that entered the collection couldn’t be violent. Somewhat jokingly during her TED talk, Antonelli says that they “have Street Fighter [in the collection] because martial arts are ‘good,’ but we don’t have [Grand Theft Auto] because, maybe it’s my own reflection, I’ve never been able to do anything but crashing cars and shooting prostitutes and pimps. So [the violence in a game like Grand Theft Auto] was not very constructive.”
I asked Galloway and Fisher about this policy of not exhibiting games with “bad” violence, noting that to exclude all games containing graphic violence is to ignore a vast majority of the games that are on the market today. Fisher says that conversations about whether or not to include violent videogames are ongoing, saying that “the idea of no violence in the museum actually predates Paola [Antonelli] by a long time — Arthur Drexler, who was a long-time curator in the department — I’m paraphrasing him rather than giving the exact quote, but…he said that nothing should be in the museum if it doesn’t venerate the value of human life, and so we don’t have an AK-47 [and] we don’t have a Beretta.”
Even the notion that videogame violence is a measurably harmful thing is questionable. For example, though the American Psychological Association recently released a report that “confirmed” the link between violent videogames and aggression, there was a study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking which found that videogames actually increase “prosocial” behavior. In the study’s abstract, Dr. Matthew Grizzard writes that “committing ‘immoral’ virtual behaviors in a videogame can lead to increased moral sensitivity of the player.”
But MoMA’s stance on the issue of violent content in games has been evolving through a series of several exhibitions that turn a critical lens towards design rather than simply celebrate it. An exhibition called Design and Violence (which Fisher helped curate), for example, came partly out of a desire to examine some of the darker products of design. Fisher notes that, “Of course, design isn’t this perfectly wonderful, beautiful, progressive thing for society. Design does terrible things as much as it does great things and so I do think it’s a conversation that actually might warrant us coming back with the same sort of symposium…that we had at the beginning of the conversation about videogames to say, ‘We actually have omitted these works and there has been a curatorial reconsideration of the relationship between design and violence.’”
Because, after all, not all violence involves the senseless shooting of pimps and prostitutes. Fisher says that videogames have some really “beautiful” examples of violence, “in the sort of sublime sense, the British romantic early 19th century sense of it, like, terror [and] all of those heightened emotions around both the wonder and the awfulness of human existence and human action.”
Fisher explains that in light of MoMA’s recent willingness to explore design from a variety of viewpoints, she thinks that I’m “correct [to wonder about MoMA’s stance on violence] and I think we know that and I think this conversation sort of started in conjunction a year and a half ago with Design and Violence and so I think, you know, it might take us three years to remedy it because it’s a slow process here, but the point has been made and taken.”
Figuring out how to collect videogames has presented a unique set of challenges for MoMA’s curators. Since videogames are relatively new as a form of art and design—and since rigorous academic debate about the dangers of games are still ongoing—curators of videogames have to be extra careful about what games they decide to add to their permanent collections. Stay tuned for part two of this interview with Fisher and Galloway, which further deals with their responsibilities as gatekeepers of the videogame canon and the challenges that arise when museum culture clashes with the interactive nature of gaming.
Tim Mulkerin is a freelance writer from Tucson, AZ who just really wants to be a hype-man for Neil deGrasse Tyson in his inevitable rap-battle with B.o.B. You should say hi to him on Twitter.