On May 20 of 2010, Pablo Picasso’s painting, Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois (The Pigeon with the Peas) — along with a handful of other paintings — was stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern art. The work of art, now destroyed, no longer exists. For visual art and even literature, there is usually a “real” master copy that came directly from the artist. An inch by inch replication of a work of art can only be a copy, even if it is indistinguishable from the original. The original is sacred; anything like it is a cheap imitation that can never substitute the real thing. At least this is the thinking behind traditional understandings of artistic production.
A part of art has always been the experience of witnessing a piece for the first, brief time. Making a pilgrimage to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa or the final stop on a band’s reunion tour is a part of the almost religious experience of art. The location, the crowds of people, the journey to see the piece are a part of the artistic ritual, and for Picasso’s Pigeeon, it’s an experience that can never be had again. With the painting destroyed, the ritual can never be carried out again.
But one could find The Pigeon with the Peas on a postcard, on a poster, framed in offices. It has been reproduced countless times, and a copy can be ordered anywhere in the world. Literary critic Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that the mass production of art strips it of its secular sanctity. Once a play, painting, poem, or concert could only be experienced after a highly specialized person created it and a small audience flocked to it, experiencing it according to the demands of time and space. In the time of Benjamin’s writing, art could be experienced anywhere, by anyone at any time.
Film and photography were challenged as art forms. There was no “artist” that created a film. An audience hardly had to accommodate time and space to experience it, and most importantly, there was no master copy. One film reel was as good as another. Film represented an art form designed to be manufactured and distributed at a high volume. Film audiences, according to Benjamin, didn’t worship the object of film, but rather, its content.
When art is produced by machinery its value does not depend on its physical uniqueness. After a century of film and photography, the mechanical age of art is over. Going back to Picasso’s Pigeon, the distribution of the painting need no longer take place. Anyone can find it with a quick Google image search. For art, this is the age of digital reproduction and the art form that most embodies it is video games.
Just as film distanced art from the artist, so do games. Games are distributed for only a short while. When they are used their value is cut in half, in under two years most can only be found by adamant collectors. And with the advent of digital distribution, independent studios, and arcade titles, most game collections can include hundreds of titles that fit on a flash drive. Furthermore, games are not written or built by a single artist. Games are put together by teams ranging from under a dozen to hundreds of people. Art once implied an artist. This no longer necessarily applies. The power of art no longer comes from the artist.
Games are bringing art closer to its audience. There is no set ritual, players don’t travel to a museum, and they aren’t awed by an object created by a genius. If the mechanical age ceased worship of the art object, then the digital age is destroying it completely. For better or worse, video games are the new darling of the mass media and they appeals more to the masses, perhaps, than any medium before it. For games, it isn’t just that every copy is equal; even having a physical copy at all is becoming obsolete.
Video games mark the digitization of art just as film marked the mechanization of it. Music and movies as they’re consumed now would not be recognized 20 years ago and video games are drawing literary theory and criticism further online — into virtual distribution and away from reality.
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