Modern Art Review

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Jackson Pollock drip painting. It nearly put me on the floor. I could not believe the immense size of this canvas, spread over 17 feet wide. I moved to face it head on and stepped forward until it filled my entire vision. I felt like I could stand there for hours.

Growing up I heard criticisms of modern and contemporary art many times. How could something so abstract and seemingly meaningless be called art? Can’t a child do that? It’s all pretentious navel-gazing, deliberately obscure for obscurity’s sake, separate from any notion of beauty and truth. Great art was that which demonstrated skill, I thought, and found myself thinking that the most detailed, precise paintings were the greatest. Romantic art, which combined that technical precision with Large, Great subjects, was my favorite for a time.

I still understand those criticisms on some level. Whenever I go to an art museum I go away perplexed by a portion of the art I see. But I now have a different approach, one I couldn’t understand when I was younger. Back then my approach was closer to the petty “plot hole” criticism we see pervading pop culture. Good art contained a long list of elements that could be easily communicated and understood. Good art expressed the skill and cleverness of the artist. I thought in the style of buzzfeed-esque “10 things you never noticed in…” articles.

I also rejected the existentialist argument that art should be a way to express the true self. One’s true self could be ugly and evil. If that was the case, why ought we pursue that? Instead, art should express an argument–one highlighting good or exposing evil. I couldn’t see outside of my debater perspective and consider that art ought to communicate anything other than an argument.

Two moments changed my perspective. The first was during a general literature class I took my first year of college. The professor specialized in southern literature and, of course, had us read Huckleberry Finn. I’d read it in high school and didn’t think much about the book after reading it a second time. In class the professor selected a passage to read aloud. He pulled through his southern accent and read a description of the Mississippi river so vivid and so beautiful I couldn’t believe it was in the book I had just read the day before. I was put in a headspace outside of thinking about the themes or ideas in the book and I learned, emotionally, what it meant to love a place in the world. Across time and space, I, for a moment, connected with Samuel Clemons and my professor in a feeling I had not previously experienced but was essential to their character.

The second moment was standing in front of Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. It felt perfectly balanced and whole. My eyes stared into the mix of colors and my vision pushed inwards, like I was looking into a fractal. What could this painting be about other than itself? And what was it but an expression of completeness? Like looking at the stars I felt a sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe and the miracle of my own existence. This wasn’t the phlegmatic passionless analysis I was used to; my experience and the meta-analysis about why I was having that experience danced together.

Reiner Knizia’s Modern Art is at once a critique of a certain kind of art and an example of its best qualities. Just as a great painting can strip away noise to find something true and clear, Modern Art doesn’t have a hint of fat. It provides a space for players to spar cleanly, without any distracting chrome. It’s about the players, their desire to win, and the fact that everyone else is both necessary to that goal and standing in the way.

There is perhaps no game mechanism more fraught with the messiness of human psychology than the auction, and Modern Art is entirely auctions. Four different kinds, even. Players will be dealt a number of cards depicting art. What the art is is not important at all; who created it is all that matters. One at a time players will offer a piece of art from their hand up for auction, the card determining what kind of auction it is: free for all, once around, set price, or simultaneous bid. 

Each auction type has its own strengths and weaknesses for the active player, and among other considerations they’ll want to think about which is best for any given phase of the game. The free for all auction will provide the most predictable result, as players bid up to the perceived margin. The simultaneous bid is least predictable, though the uncertainty of it all can lead to aggressive bidding. The once around auction is most beneficial to the person to the right of the active player, as they’ll have a clear price to raise or pass. Set price has the active player determine a price, and each successive opponent can either take the art at that price or pass on it. If everyone passes, the active player buys it.

This is the hardest for the active player as they typically do not want to buy the art. Why? Because if they sell it to another player that player pays them for it. If they buy it they pay the bank. Suppose a piece of art has an expected value of 30. If the active player buys it for 20 they stand to profit 10. If another player buys it for 20 they’ve profited 10 but the seller gained 20. 

This wrinkle informs the rest of the game, as the value of the art is entirely determined by player actions. This is where the satire emerges. At the end of each of the game’s four rounds everyone sells the art they’ve purchased, but the value of that art is determined by which artist’s art was sold the most. 

What a beautiful twist! As a particular person’s art sells, the more players want to put other art from them up for auction, knowing that it has a higher perceived value. But the more players do that, the more the players who got that art early (when it was cheaper) will benefit. It’s one of the most fascinating game theory situations I’ve ever encountered in a board game, as the way out from an early deficit is to collaborate with one or more opponents to subvert the expected values that people have been operating with.

Of course, this cartel-like behavior is difficult to maintain, and the temptation to select a piece of art from someone who has a large known value when your turn rolls around is high. I’ve not yet been able to throw a significant wrench into the proceedings yet, but I suspect as I play it with the same people more and more the meta will become more sophisticated. With new players or people not as fascinated with the pricing dynamics as I am, the game can feel too dependent on who is able to take advantage of big sales and best ride the momentum of certain artists because of the luck of the draw or turn order.

I’d say that this gem of a game is the work one of our best designers in his prime, but Modern Art was one of Reiner Knizia’s first major designs. It’s a masterclass in design simplicity, and as I see maximalist designs advertised on social media daily I wonder if, nearly 30 years later, we learned the wrong lessons from the German game design renaissance. Perhaps such cynicism isn’t giving Knizia enough credit. Perhaps I should simply be grateful that I now get to discover the master’s finest works at my leisure.

But what of the satire? I’m of two minds. I understand that the world of high art, in many ways, has become an insulated marketplace built on a mystifying blend of hype, pretentiousness, and absurd amounts of money. I also understand that the idea that economic value is not determined by some quality inherent in an object, but by the subjective valuations of economic actors, is one of the most significant bedrocks in the study of economics. There’s a third, trickier element at play regarding art as something special and somehow more authentic than cold economic calculation, but I’m not sure such ideas, taken to their extremes, can be consistent with reality.

That aside, the potency of Modern Art’s satirical bite is lessened by economic reality. Yes, the money thrown around significant pieces of art seems insane, and yes it feels artless to think of a painting as an investment or solid asset. But I imagine that a lot of the big money in art is able to subsidize, in effect, art that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Perhaps it stifles some other art, or creates trends that we might not approve of. But that’s beside the point–the fact that value is subjective, and may be informed by economic calculation, isn’t much of a showstopper. If it were a debate argument I’d call it a kritik without a viable alternative.

How can we reconcile these disparate truths? In my mind there’s a clear solution. Economic analysis doesn’t try to say what we ought to value, only that we do make valuations. What should we value, then? That’s the tough question. That’s at the heart of what I do by reviewing games. That’s at the heart of human existence, to be honest, and I don’t have the answers. But I know that right now, I try to approach art with an empathetic heart, be that a painting communicating something wordless and profound or a board game facilitating the excitement of intellectual combat.

Score: 8.5/10

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