Why Philosophy and Politics? The Artworld Theory of Art and the Future of Video Games

Jordan Magnuson's picture

So we have seen that video games can play along with theories of art as imitation, formal unity, philosophical extension, and political platform. At this point someone will inevitably rise from their seat, stomp their feet on the ground, and ask, “who cares?” Maybe video games can be philosophical and political, but why have we selected these criteria to judge them as art objects? Why don’t we look for games that deal with history, or physics, or frogs, and judge them by how well they manage to embody those things? Where is art in all of this?

The answer to these questions was already hinted at above when I noted that most contemporary art exhibits are either philosophical or political in nature. The reason we’ve looked at games politically and philosophically as one way to determine their art status is because politics and philosophy are what the Artworld is currently interested in, and according to one strong theory, the Artworld defines what is art.

According to Arthur Danto, who follows in the anti-essentialist footsteps of Wittgenstein and Weitz, it is the socio-historical context which defines what it means for something to be art; if you’re not at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, the Artworld is not going to pay attention to you, and what you’re doing is not going to be considered art. We must do away with grandiose theories which attempt to define art for all time and place, Danto says, and realize that what defines art at any given time and place is going to be determined by that particular context: for the Greeks it was imitation, which turned into Realism during the Renaissance, then we had impressionism, expressionism, formalism, etc. etc. All of these categories are valid for a particular setting, but none of them can be taken as a universal standard: try to box art in, and the next thing you know someone will come up with something completely new and say “Ha! I defy your categories! I have just created a work of art!”

Danto’s theory does a noble job of explaining the diverse history of art interpretation, as well as art’s apparent disintegration in recent times;[1] if we take it seriously we will judge an artifact as art not by distant theories such as formalism or expressionism, but by the criteria dictated by our current setting. Ergo philosophy and politics.

The question of whether video games are art is also simplified by the Artworld theory (or Dickie’s New Institutional Theory of Art), because instead of analyzing models, we need only ask, are video games being displayed in art museums? Are they being presented as objects to be considered by the Artworld public? The answer to both of these questions is yes—barely. As attested by many of the video games described in this paper, developers are starting to create video games with the specific intention of presenting them to the Artworld public, and within the last few years video games have indeed been displayed in prominent art museums such as San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Walker Art Center.

Video games are still regarded with suspicion by many art critics, and are not yet accepted universally by the Artworld as valid art objects, but all indications are that things are about to change—are in the process of changing. Academic papers are being written on video game aesthetics (see my bibliography), artists[2] are making video games (check out the “Computer Games by Artists” online gallery), and curators are starting to open the doors to their coveted museums; this appears to be the same process of acceptance that photography and film went through not so long ago.


[1] It is easy to look at our current situation and say that art is exploded and dead, because, as Rosemblum points out, “if the Duchamp urinal is art, then anything is.” Danto helps us to avoid this conclusion by noting that we are simply living currently in a context which values art in terms of philosophical and political ideas. The idea of art is not dead, as we can tell from the fact that we still have art museums, which still contain certain specific works of art. Our current criteria for what makes something art are simply radically different from the criteria we’ve used in the past—and they will be different in the future.

[2] Artists subjectively defined as 1) those coming from accepted art backgrounds (working in painting, sculpture, photography, etc); 2) those who wear strange clothes and do strange things; 3) those who are willing to sacrifice comfort and luxury for what they perceive to be their “art.”


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