Modern Art should not feature real artists

Knizia’s Modern Art has seen no less than 28 different editions from all over the world. Some of them, like the one released by CMON, or the most recent one by Dicetree are quite beautiful. Perhaps, a little too much. The inclusion of famous artists, like Munch, Picasso and Cezanne, over the parodies found in the original has a profound impact on the game’s message and heavily undermines its brilliant satire.

IT’S NOT ABOUT ART

Knizia makes a statement right from the title. What name did he choose for his speculation-driven auction game? Modern Art. His portrayal of the art world puts economics right at the front. Players take the role of brokers instead of artists and winning is based on amassing the largest pile of money rather than the best collection of paintings. Artistic merit, if it exists, isn’t represented in-game.

In other words, Modern Art mocks its namesake style. In the game, paintings aren’t bought because they are great or beautiful. Rather, they are desired because speculators have made them popular. It’s a riff on the likes of Rothko and Pollock, whose work is frequently dismissed as not being “not real art”, but who repeatedly break records at auction houses like Sothesby’s or Christie’s.

The paintings in the original version of Modern Art weren’t exactly flattering. It had Krypto, a less talented Pollock parody, a Mondrian clone obsessed with pointillism and Yoko, a spin on well-known comic book plagiarist Roy Lichtenstein. It drove home the idea that players, that is, the art world establishment, aren’t as concerned by aesthetics as it is with hype and speculation.

When you sell a Cezanne in one of the new editions, nobody bats an eye. He’s a great, well-known artist. But when a bid war breaks over Maximus’s latest, blue-tinted masterpiece featuring four Loch Ness monsters at dinner, that’s funny. Trying to explain why everyone should buy a kitschy painting from a false artist does more for Modern Art than any real painting could.

This hasn’t prevented editions featuring real artists from outnumbering satirical ones. In fact, the last version not to do so was released only in Japan more than eight years ago. Modern Art is even being used to celebrate living artists, turning it into the board game equivalent of the RoboCop award to the most humane police force. Except, this time, nobody is in on the joke.

THE PRICE ISN’T RIGHT

Even setting satire aside, real paintings are at odds with the mechanics. Modern Art is a game defined by uncertainty. Artists who sell for thousands in one round might be worthless the next. Auctions produce unexpected results and it’s not unusual for rounds to close up early just to stop additional sales. Well-known paintings, particularly those of historical importance, don’t fit that mold.

Anything by Picasso is obviously valuable. It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t gather a high price because he’s not “popular enough”. Millionaire bids are the norm rather than a sign of speculation. And while the paintings chosen by CMON aren’t on that level, they don’t leave any doubts, either. They have such a broad appeal that nobody wonders if they are worth paying for.

Modern Art is at its best when it parodies artists whose value is contested or not obvious at first glance. Rothko is a good target because it’s not exactly obvious why Orange and Yellow would fetch a different price to Orange and Tan. Similarly, Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings are taken directly from comic books, so it begs the question why they are worth millions while the originals are forgotten.

With famous art, the role of the player becomes softened. If the paintings on sale are terrible, we are hyping out something without value. We fool others for profit and laugh all the way to the bank. But, if the paintings are well-known, that’s no longer the case. The failings of the system now fall onto the buyers, who don’t pay enough for artwork that deserves it. This lets players off the hook and makes their speculation less noticeable.

WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?

Modern Art is a victim to a larger trend. Board game illustrations, while seemingly varied in style, are highly homogenous in their themes. Most covers, boards and cards celebrate their subjects, regardless of the actual content. The goal seems less to reflect the mechanics than to make games look bigger, better and more of an enticing purchase.

Citadels, once known for its sinister, deranged characters, is another example. Its new edition is brighter, larger and free of the sense of danger that permeated the original cast. It’s more welcoming to prospective buyers, as marketing would put it. But the happier, better-looking characters are a poorer fit for the high-stakes interaction that defines the game.

It couldn’t be any other way. All art-related decisions fall on publishers, whose interests align more closely with sales than with the preservation of artistic integrity. Designers rarely have any input on how their games are meant to look and artists almost never get to play the games they are illustrating. Under those circumstances, it’s only natural for satire to go unrecognized.

It’s not even the first time for Knizia. The elitist socialites of High Society already became examples of diversity and beauty while the anti-rich theme of Rockefellers was removed to create Through the Desert. Elsewhere, Food Chain Magnate has been accused of glorifying 1950s America, in what would have been a strange turn for the Dutch creators of Greed Incorporated.

Ultimately, it all boils down to board games not being recognized as an art form. The majority of the industry, designers included, don’t believe games are as capable of delivering social criticism as film or literature. They are valued on a lower standard, where a change in artwork or even message, is always minor. As long as it remains that way, Modern Art won’t be complete as a satire.

8 Comments

  • I love modern art, in particular the version from CMON but when I played the version of classical artists something fell flat. I tought that it was due to the paintings already been known. But I think this article describes really well what felt wrong.

    Even tough it’s a really great game.

    • I meant something not simmering*

      Damm autocorrect

    • Thank you Jimo, I’m glad you thought the article explained your feelings well! The CMON version is probably the best of the editions with real artists because it uses actual contemporary art and has a kick-ass cover. The ones I’ve tried with XIX century painters are less fun, the paintings are just too serious.

  • The NFT market would actually be a great retheme for Modern Art. The images themselves have little if any artistic merit, it often makes no sense why one is so valuable when something similar isn’t, trands come and go so quickly that something can be completely worthless because the market has moved on, and all that matters in the end is selling stuff for more than you paid for it.

  • I’ve been saying this for years. Thank you for articulating it so well.

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