The Cult of the Old

Modern Art

Words by Ben Maddox

20 February 2023

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Art has never been pure.

This is a concept floated by the academic, those removed from the process of creation. They peddle the myth that art floats in some rarified palatinate, a pure land disconnected from base impulses we all have, like the impulse to look at a ceiling at night and or eat something other than beans. This is a realm in which the crude notion of expecting remuneration for your skill, effort and time is to be unseemly, to be grubby and, dare I say it, common.

This is a fundamental untruth though. Scrape through the pigment and the linseed oil, unpick the canvas and you’ll find money at the centre of it all. It is the catalyst behind all of these noble aspirations. It is the thing that gets people off their arses and into rehearsal rooms and ateliers and it has always been that way. I am sure that in those caves at TroisFreres, back at the dawn of humanity, when our distant cousin had finished daubing hematite on the walls he turned to the tribe and demanded an extra large portion of boar scrotes.

“This is a game of bluff and conniving and chest thumping. It is unruly and loud. I pity those contemplative souls who have to sit next to a table of Modern Art being played”

That’s not to say that art isn’t valuable. Of course it is. Art says so much about who we are. It testifies to the petty and the grand. It rips open our carapace and pokes around inside us. It pulls out our griefs and our joys, it examines what it is that propels us through this brief sojourn on the planet. Art deals in the moments of greatest import and the flickers of insignificance.

Art can be so transformative that you could be forgiven for forgetting that all of that transcendence costs. Reiner Knizia hasn’t forgotten though. I’m sure Reiner Knizia doesn’t forget much. Except every time he’s met me it seems.

Knizia isn’t wasteful. You could even say he’s parsimonious. There are none of the distracting excesses of other, less skilled, designers. He strips back a game until what is left is something that goes straight into the basal ganglia and forces it to pump out dopamine.

His games are unflinchingly simple. You turn the rule book over in your hands thinking, “There has to be more than this” but when you start to run the machine you realise that this simplicity isn’t laziness or folly. It is the output of a mathematician’s brain where everything has been pared away to exactly what is needed to be brilliant.

Also he understands that games are an interactive artform. He understands that the rules shouldn’t fence players in but offer a framework, they should be intellectual monkey bars that players can leap around in but, and this is most important, there should be little risk of them falling flat on their face because the monkey bars have been bolted together right.

Modern Art is the quintessence of a Knizia game. He offers a vast playground to muck around in and that playground is the brutally cynical world of Art.

When I think of human interaction in games I think of Modern Art. There is none of the thoughtful flow of a game like Concordia here.

This is a game of bluff and conniving and chest thumping. It is unruly and loud. I pity those contemplative souls who have to sit next to a table of Modern Art being played. Sometimes we want gentle psithurism and sometimes the roar of the city and Modern Art certainly isn’t the lulling sound of the wind through trees.

Knizia wrings auctions dry here. You have so many options on how to oversell to your colleagues around the table. You have to know which auction to deploy when to maximise your shysterism. You need to know when to set a price just high enough to ensure that they don’t go for it so you can flog off the work yourself.

This game is about reading the table and the motivations of people and those with the greatest insight will come out of the other end victorious.

Shyster is the right word too. This is a world in which talent is inconsequential, in which the quality of the art is measured in numbers. Knizia posits a world in which what we think we like is simply the confection of dust-nosed douchebags, using your desire to seem de rigeur and urbane to fund their dick-replacement cars and their dick-replacement watches. It is these people, the soulless bottom feeders of the art world, that Knizia forces us to be. It is in this assumption of the despicable that the humour of the game is born.

Modern Art is a work of satire and in this it is important. Satire and irony are suffering right now in the glare of ubiquitous, superficial virtue. The truly evil are running riot because we refuse to see the world through their eyes and understand their motivations. We need to get grubby to beat filth. This is the role of satire. To understand our enemies by becoming them and to use that knowledge to defeat them. Within the safe confines of art we can see their true intentions and excesses. Knizia puts us in the role of those who wouldn’t know their Azure from their Heliotrope and asks us. Is the world of Art really in safe hands?

I love this game for all of these reasons. It is an hilariously cynical look at the art world, it is masterful game design and it is the encapsulation of Knizia’s ethos but the reason this game has sunk itself deeply into my heart is the effect it has on a group of people sitting around a table.

This game changes people. People start to role play. They start to name the paintings, to describe the hues and tones. They start to develop biographies for the artists and develop aesthetic theories. They get involved in this game. They deride overpayments and curse bargains. So many of Knizia’s designs focus on bringing us together through the experience. Gaming can be solipsistic but Knizia reminds us that there is a world out there and sometimes it’s only as far as the other side of a table.

Modern Art results in laughter. It results in faux indignance and connection. Through its mechanisms it forges memories. It’s games like Modern Art that lead us into this hobby because it leads us to what we really want every day, and that is simple human reciprocation and it is in this kind of reciprocation that we find ourselves because it is only through others that we can know who we are.

This is the power of Art. Art isn’t pure but it is vital and Modern Art is the definition of vitality.

Ben Maddox is the host and producer of the acclaimed podcast Five Games For Doomsday listen to the show at
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