So I was lucky enough to get a guided tour of the Smithsonian's Art of Video Games exhibit last week by curator Georgina Goodlander. If you're in DC, it is worth a visit, plus it will be venturing off on a traveling tour at the end of the year.
What I found curious, but not surprising, was my mixture of excitement and disappointment at seeing video games displayed as "art" in the Smithsonian. During a long stretch of my adolescence, I trained as a visual artist, with the hope of one day producing something worthy of placement in a museum. At the same time, I spent a significant amount of time (perhaps too significant) with video games and early computer graphics programs. At that time, it never struck me as strange that video games were not in museums, since the divide between fine art culture and gamer culture was so wide and clear.
So now, in 2012, I get to stroll through a gallery of screenshots and video captures of the Atari VCS, Intellivision, C64, Sega Genesis, etc. On the one hand, it's thrilling to see the Smithsonian take these small steps into categorizing and curating examples of the video game genre. (Curiously, in a way that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort might appreciate, the major room in the exhibit adopted a platform-based taxonomy, with genre-based subcategories.) And surely, that was my dominant reaction to the exhibit -- it was really great to see the genre put on a pedestal, so to speak, as art.
My slight disappointment: how much was not there. It struck me that it is impossible it is to put the art of the video game in a small exhibit, or perhaps even to conceptualize this art form as fully expressive in the museum context. Video games are often such rich, interactive, social, and contextual experiences -- how to capture all of that in a few rooms of exhibits?
Perhaps, though, this is not unique to video games. I can only imagine what an ancient Egyptian might think, confronted with the average museum's scattered artifacts under glass. How much does an exhibit on ancient Egypt really give us a sense of what it meant to live in that culture? You can get a glimpse, perhaps, but not much more. The odd thing for me about the Smithsonain exhibit, I guess, is that all that you glimpse inside the exhibit is still very much alive outside of it.
Anyway, there's a website that goes along with the Exhibit which has some interviews with game developers -- I have yet to watch them, but I'm sure they're fascinating: http://www.americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/artists/
Update: Gamasutra does a piece on this topic, featuring Henry Lowood's efforts. Must be something in the air this week.