NPC – Non Play Criticism: Everybody’s An Art Curator

It is a truism in video game circles of serious thinkers that video games are a young medium and that we are forging new territory with our criticism. That is of course bullshit in both respects.

Video game critics are often cut off from other mediums. May perhaps that our medium is so new that more energy is required to get anything done as each new step is not just walking along a singular path among the fold, but having to stir and pour the concrete before a step may be taken. So much time gets spent toiling away on our own medium that we rarely look up and see the critical spheres of other mediums happening around us and the realization that so much that is considered with art is true for however an artist wishes to express themselves because it is all still human expression.

Non Play Criticism is my attempt to occasionally highlight some piece of criticism relating to another medium, educate whatever readership I may have by pointed it out and try and bring back into the fold whatever lesson it may have to offer.

If nothing else, I share an interesting piece of criticism from another medium.

It’s the end of year and for me that means one thing: Curation.

A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a news piece by Ellen Gamerman1 about a recent trend in museum curation of ceding partial control of the exhibits to the public. It’s apparently a controversial subject amongst museum curators, but a fairly successful practice when it comes to getting people to come to the museums.

I’m not an art curator. I know little about paintings. I suspect that is true about many of the people who voted in the talked about exhibit showcases. However, I do know something about curation. I suspect that more people nowadays know about the subject than in did 10 years ago, hell even 5 years ago.

Social media outlets have put the basic tools of curation into the hands of the public. Not everyone has a gallery on hand to shuffle things around in, but anyone can have a Tumblr or a Instagram or a Pinterist account. Even platforms like Twitter and Facebook ask of their users the basic question of, how do I want to represent myself. Whether or not the person in question pays attention to that implicit question being asked is another matter. I suspect that the main criteria for someone reblogging something on Tumblr is, ‘did I like it or think it looks cool?’ Maybe it extends narcissistically to, ‘how does this reflect upon me?’ But some go all the way to, ‘what does this say if I place it amongst all the other reblogged things?’

I don’t have a Tumblr, an Instagram or a Pinterist. I have a position at Critical Distance and more directly, the position of project lead for the This Year In Video Game Blogging feature. I have learned much about curation over the past few years. There really is nothing quite like doing to learn about a subject. What I find interesting about the piece is that many of the practices now being employed by museum curators are things we’ve evolved our practices into.2 As anti-populist as it may be, I do understand the fears of ceding control of what goes into the gallery to public vote. It can make a mess of things. The worst end of year feature I put out was one where I democratized too much and everyone walked away unhappy, uninspired and with a general feeling of meh.

Art is about communication. Curation is an art form, one that takes preexisting material and arranging it in a way to convey or enhance meaning. Curation is a form of communication between the curator and the audience through the means of other people’s work. The purpose is less about what the curator thinks or wants to say, but more about using their skills as a learned person in the field to enhance and make something more obvious about the works or attach a lens to the work by their mere placement.

Curation is about communication. Museums are learning that direct participation, a community having a say about what the art says about their community, may be a better form of communication. It’s true that the general public will of course know less about paintings that the curator does. I’m sure I know more about game criticism than most of my audience, though I suspect that gap is quite a leap smaller. But art is about communication and the most sublime work ever isn’t worth much if it doesn’t have an audience to speak to.

There’s a word I like a lot: Calcification. It’s just fun to say. It’s also one I get use more than one should I think should be able to in regards to the arts. The democratizing of opinion has not been the greatest of things these past few years. It turns out a lot of people are shit. Who knew? At the same time, a substantial minority has proven themselves up to the task of measuring up in fields they previously had little or no access to. Calcification happens over time. Calcification happens when an opinion is reached and then waits at the end of the road going nowhere. No one steps up to question it and to be educated. No one comes forward to challenge it and to be debated. No one opens their mind any further. The opinion stagnates against lack of pushback. It grows roots. It hardens. And before you know it, it has become dogma.

There’s a scene in Dead Poet’s Society where it’s the first day of class and Robin Williams3 has one of his students read the introduction to a poetry textbook. Incidentally, the essay being read either is or is heavily based on a real essay being taught at one time. Fear for our education system. Another student is taking notes about how you can graph the artfulness of a poem like it were stock ticker. When the first student finishes, Robin Williams utters a single word: “Excrement.” The second student then scribbles all over his notes.

Opinions kept to a few and a consensus reached between those few calcify. At some point something thinks you can definitively measure the worth of art. There’s a quote from the piece that talks about one of the pieces voted to be put on display. It was a painting of a peacock and it substantially out voted a rather popular piece portraying large ducks. “Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker said that even though the peacock is inferior to others based on technique, that’s somewhat beside the point.” True, and the peacock did win because it went viral on Tumblr, but it does highlight the attitude. There isn’t room for it in the piece, but I wonder if Mrs. Danzker could explain why to me it is inferior in technique.4

I’ve used the word ceding twice above, because that was the word used in a quote from another museum director in the piece that is against the practice. How we frame things can change our opinion on them. Rather like curation one could say. One says cede, another could say solicit. We are a very visual illiterate society. If a person cannot read, then they are not in conversation with the author. If a person cannot parse the visual language, they are not in conversation with the painter. Asking for an opinion of what to show, forces the person into the conversation. They may not understand, but paying attention is the first step to learning. It keeps the conversation alive.

Thank you for reading my new feature these past several weeks. It will be back come the new year. I’ll be wrapping up other projects, both for publication and behind the scenes, in the meantime.

  1. Oh my god that name.
  2. You can read how we do the feature here.
  3. I don’t remember the characters name and everyone just calls him Robin Williams so I’m going with it.
  4. I haven’t seen either painting. It could be bleeding obvious for all I know. I’m making a point here.

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