There isn’t any data supporting this fact, per se, but it is possible that images of Mario and Pac-Man are as instantly indelible as some of history’s most famous portraits, like the Mona Lisa. And with an entire generation of artists finding inspiration in the classic video game characters they grew up with, Mario could soon become the twentieth century’s most enduring artistic icon.
It sounds ridiculous to some. Even Roger Ebert has created something of a backlash for his comments that video games could never be art, stating in a 2005 column that “I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”
In a way, the fact that Roger Ebert is even discussing the topic authenticates it somewhat. And if the games themselves aren’t art, then their reinterpretation by a new generation of artists certainly makes a compelling case. “I’ve never connected emotionally with any of the classic art. I’ve never seen the sadness on a personal level with Van Gogh, I never wanted to cut off my ear. It’s not my generation,” says Jon M Gibson, who five years ago founded I Am 8 Bit, an organization that curates exhibits of works inspired by classic video games. “I’m drawn more to pop art. There’s so much more action to it.”
It started as some bizarre takes on classic games, like Greg Simkin’s Pac-Man in Hospice, which portrays an elderly version of the power-pellet-loving icon alongside other classic characters. But it has since expanded into the commission of a giant working Atari controller. With the popular Into the Pixel exhibit making waves last year and a number of artists reinterpreting these characters through everything from sculpture to crocheting, Gibson and his peers see this as the future of high-priced modern art.
“Someone is going to use Mario and make hundreds of millions of dollars off of it. I’m sure people in the desert who have never seen a television might recognize Mario. Who knows why?” explains Gibson, who tried to deconstruct the popularity of these characters. “We don’t really know anything about Mario, which makes him subject to greater interpretation by artists. You can only know so much about someone before you start giving up on them.”