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The Question I Didn’t Get to Ask

I just finished participating in the amazing Art History of Games conference. And the last panel, moderated by Ian Bogost, included Whitney curator Christiane Paul and game designers John Romero, Harvey Smith, and Richard Lemarchand. I thought of this comment too late to say it then but I want to say it anyway.

Earlier Christiane had said that certain games, like DOOM, don’t belong in a museum, but that it wasn’t about high and low, that she didn’t believe in that distinction. But as I was listening to the panel, I thought about the influence of heavy metal on the creation of DOOM, about how John and the rest of the folks at iD had wanted to capture the speed and power and over-the-top energy of that music in the game. And I couldn’t help thinking that this distinction was all about high and low. And the thing is, that’s ok. That’s what it means to be a smart person with good taste nowadays, we recognize that high and low exists, not as a value judgement, but as different modalities, different tones, different styles, and then we make value judgements within those different modalities.

DOOM doesn’t belong in a museum, not because it’s not worthy, but because it’s rock and roll. It’s too fast, too loud, too hard, and too fucked up to be in a museum. There are some games that will work in a museum and some that won’t ever and that, by itself, doesn’t say anything about their value. We need both.


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Perhaps we should be reconsidering the rhetoric of what’s included/excluded from museums. Why not have a museum of the fast, loud and fucked up?

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  2. daphny wrote:

    oh god i have to yell about how good this is on my LIVE JOURNAL but basically


    okay now to “articulate”

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Mark N. wrote:

    The music example is a somewhat depressing one, though. It’s not just heavy metal that’s excluded from the high-culture venues, but almost everything that isn’t in the very small subset of music that makes up the mostly academic “art music” community. Even experimental, art-focused stuff outside that narrow tradition usually finds it hard to get in— Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, for example, tried early on to give performances at galleries and museums, but quickly gave up, and started playing clubs instead.

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  4. daphny wrote:

    that is like a child pouting that he cant get into a bar

    go to the playground for christ sake, go to school, go to a show, WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE BAR WHEN YOU’RE A KID ITS A BUNCH OF FUCKING OLD ALCOHOLICS MOPING ANYWAY


    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  5. daphny wrote:

    oh i shouldnt carry on here, sorry!

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  6. Ian Bogost wrote:


    But that said, I think the curatorial/historical approach I was suggesting is one way DOOM or games like it could have a place in the museum.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  7. Nomnisang wrote:

    I wonder if a good comparison would be Jimi Hendrix [Doom] to Stevie Ray Vaughan [insert FPS here… Vanquish?]. Both Are wonderful players, but the former pioneered new ways to play while the latter showed complete mastery of those forms.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 3:49 am | Permalink
  8. Awesome conference, this was a particularly great panel, and I certainly agree that there’s value in both.

    Though what would John Romero, Harvey Smith, and Richard Lemarchand want their game in a museum? There opinions (and of course those of the other creative professionals involved) seem relevant.

    The time/length argument is what settled it for me though. The use of video in museums, for example, often seems to be only short clips prepared to loop, sometimes projected on multiple walls as part of a room-sized exhibit – thus The Godfather and Star Wars haven’t found their way into any fine arts museum that I’ve encountered. An exhibit for these, like an exhibit for Doom 2, seems like it could be about the work at best, but without the work itself in the most important sense. (Unlike, say, how we are able to see a painting or photo all at once, or walk around a statue to view it from every angle.)

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 5:24 am | Permalink
  9. [Oops. I find myself often wishing that more blog comments offered an edit button.]

    (P2) Though do John Romero, Harvey Smith, and Richard Lemarchand want their work in museums? Their opinions – and of course those of the other creative professionals involved – seem relevant.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink
  10. Colleen wrote:

    I missed the conference so I can only go on the tweets and electronic dispatches – but – one thing that strikes me is that the contemporary art folks I sometimes have the pleasure to hang with would be asking how to get art OUT of the museums and institutions (aka outside of capital). While I think being outside these systems doesn’t do much to reform them (and is it really possible to be outside anymore?) it is a stance the art scene has been playing with since the 19th C and formation of these institutions.

    Games are getting in (if “in” is the art market, which is how most of these institutions/museums survive), and I’m sure more will over time. Perhaps someday the discussion at the Art History of Games Conference will be how to get games out as well.

    That will be fun :)

    But as Frank says, we need both. And I think we’re there – almost.

    And I wish I was there, there! but I’ll be seeing you at the big capitalist conference in a month…

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 5:29 am | Permalink
  11. Colleen wrote:

    oops (Chris D, I hear you)

    p.s. heavy metal is alive and well in the museum. My ears were bleeding last weekend at PS1 (A Museum of Modern Art, NYC affiliate) when intermittent live thrash metal sets drowned out the performance art retrospective show. I think it was part of… the art?

    Anyway, my main argument is that “art museums” are a node in the art market and the work they usually show is part of that market as well. Genius works like Star Wars and Doom weren’t created in that market. They’re part of a different system, right? That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be shown in an art museum, but if they are, it will be interpreted to make sense in that (market) context.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  12. The time and length argument makes the most sense to me. Look at how badly the Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA has faired critically. You can’t condense a film’s experience down to the 36.9 seconds most visitors will spend on any one piece. Nor can you a long-form game like DOOM. So you’re left displaying artifacts, and quite often those don’t really hold up as artistic achievements outside the context of the stream of the original work.

    So then it comes down to a matter of archiving and placing it into a larger narrative. And yeah DOOM belongs there, but experiencing it in that context would require a different sort of museum. Like a history museum. Or a Hard Rock Cafe, to return to the rock & roll analogy. And we all know how wonderful the aesthetic experience of the Hard Rock Cafe is.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  13. Alex Covic wrote:

    1. Art as a historic term (with a long history)
    2. Art as in art market (something completely different
    3. Art as in ‘modern art’
    4. Art as a process, as in a form of cultural expression

    I could go on and on – I won’t. Doom does not belong to a museum because it’s Rock’n’Roll.

    Please don’t let me remind you of all the Modern Art that is documented and was/is on exhibition in Museums.

    What is a museum? Well, go and visit one to see that they are not what you might think they are. Museums ‘preserve’ our cultural achievements – they document snapshots in our history for future generations.

    It does not matter if you or me wants to see Doom in a museum.

    If we manage to survive the next couple hundert years as a species without turning the world into a Mad Max 2 scenario, museums will remind us of the things and times our ancestors created such amazing things like the Guttenberg press, the frist telegraph, the first CMOS-chip, the first … videogames that one day turned into holodecks.

    Museums have a purpose, Art history has a purpose. You have to think bigger, leave room for future generations. I beg you.

    twitter: @buckybit

    (sorry for spelling-errors – English is the 4th lingo I failed to manage to this day :)

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  14. Alex Covic wrote:

    “Doom does not belong to a museum bacause it’s Rock’n’Roll?”

    Question mark instead full stop.

    I think Doom DOES belong (also) in a museum!!

    Sorry for the typo.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  15. My netbook didn’t like the comment system, but my laptop should fare better.

    This was, I suppose, somewhat what I was asking when I brought up arcades at the end of the keynote panel, though I think it was misconstrued a little.

    What i was trying to get at that I don’t think quite got across to the panel as well as I’d have liked, is that perhaps much like Rock ‘n Roll has its own museums to showcase the work, perhaps fine art museums are just the wrong place for anything other than a so-termed “art game”.

    I think that it’s been well-proven that the art world doesn’t really handle games that aren’t obviously trying to be art well. So in term of curating games, of exhibiting Doom or Zelda or Street Fighter, I think we have to make our own form of the Rock ‘n Roll museums. And I think a good model to build such a thing from is going to be those areas where the games in question were originally exhibited– such an institution would likely have to (to a degree) pattern itself on arcades and living rooms.

    During the panel you were participating, Frank, there was a mention of XBox Live and other online multiplayer and the idea was floated that we don’t teach a culture of behavior and games. It had me thinking, because we *did* have a culture, but I think it died out to an extent when we shifted from multiplayer in arcades and at home to multiplayer in the impersonal online space.

    Perhaps we need arcades back in some form, not just to exhibit these great works, but also to help teach that culture that has fallen by the wayside. I just don’t see it happening in “proper” museums. New media requires new institutions.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  16. That’s a great observation, Frank. Very helpful! But I would even go further (and remove any form of value judgement) and simply say that Doom doesn’t belong in a museum because it’s music! Music has a different method of distribution, and is valued in different ways. So does cinema. And games. Museums are for “things”. Some art forms use things as their medium. But many don’t.

    I know that you’re implying that it should be ok for Doom to be “just” rock ‘n’ roll. And I totally agree. But still I hope that one day, we get serious critics who can tell us why Doom is so much better than any first person shooter that was made after it. That would be very helpful too.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  17. I agree with Michael: DOOM and games like it don’t belong in a museum because they have value as commodities — i.e. people are willing to pay for them. You don’t put a Coke can in a museum because there are about a kajillion of them, and they certainly don’t need any additional preservation or contextualization. (Unless an artist has declared the Coke can to be art — but I think we can put that discussion aside until the gaming world finds its own Duchamp.)

    Museums are filled with objects that have no inherent value as a commodity outside of the rarefied art world. When we go to a museum, we’re essentially paying a curator for introducing us to objects that we wouldn’t normally consider valuable. The curator provides context to allow us to grasp the cultural significance of the objects exhibited. (Which also leads to another conclusion: people who pay for art games are NOT gamers — they’re collectors.)

    Of course there’s a distinction between high and low in games, but I think it’s more useful to think of it in terms of economics rather than loaded analogies to rock ‘n’ roll.

    Monday, March 1, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink

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