Holed away inside a rental cabin in the thick, rainy, forest near Washington’s Mount Baker, I happened upon an unexpected treasure: a board game from the early 1970′s about buying and selling fine art at auction. The box featured a surly cast of fiscally flush archetypes straight out of some airport intrigue novel — all of them bidding against each other to take ownership of the masterworks that line the walls around them. The game was called Masterpiece.
Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir — paintings by the world’s most famous artists are on the auction block, for sale to the highest bidder. How high will you bid before the tension and bluffing get to you? And how good’s your eye — can you spot a forgery when you buy one?
The MASTERPIECE game combines the excitement of a fast-paced board game with the glamour and sophistication of a game that deals with fine art. Some of the world’s greatest paintings, illustrated in full-color postcards, are an integral part of gameplay.
The high-stakes world of international art — and the power plays of an auction — will entertain and enlighten as you join a particularly eccentric group of collectors who’ve all come in search of a MASTERPIECE.
The version of the game that I played, the original, featured works from the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, including Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, and even relative newcomer Jackson Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow.
The game was designed for Parker Brothers by master toy design firm Marvin Glass Associates (in an office located, at the time, just a few blocks away from the Art Institute in downtown Chicago). The firm had recently created the classic bug flipping game Ants In The Pants and, with Masterpiece, someone at the firm apparently wanted to take things a few notches up the cultural ladder. You know, in order to teach young people about something culturally relevant… something like the concept of art as commodity.
The cast of characters that you play in the game are gross caricatures of the wealthy “art collecting class”. You’ve got shady Barons, huffy intellectuals, and plenty of inherited or stolen wealth. I imagine in 1970, after a Hippie youth uprising and in the midst of a distinctly anti-establishment movement throughout the country, I too would be tempted to turn a few screws into the elite class — snobbish, self-possessed pricks throwing their ill-gotten money away on a bunch of old paint and canvas. Also, the way that the value of the paintings in the game get assigned randomly according to chance presents a similarly jaded viewpoint, and helps to reinforce the silliness and greed of the collectors themselves.
It is in this same spirit that contemporary artists like Andy Warhol were managing to both make fun of the art market and also to prosper within it. By 1971, Warhol’s Factory was openly taking commissions for silk-screened portraits at a price of $25,000 apiece, milking dough from these same tasteless collectors by giving them what they really wanted: pictures of themselves.
Artists would soon attempt to opt out of this system of commodification completely. So called ‘conceptual art’ was popularized in the 1970s, led by artists such as Sol LeWitt, who didn’t sell objects, but instead sold sets of directions that allowed his ideas to be realized by others. Ideas became valuable, simultaneously owned by everyone and no one. On Kawara made simple paintings that depicted simply the date of the work’s creation in white text on a black ground. He and others produced ideas and objects easily copied by whomever found them appealing. This body of work was a cry for freedom from a much more elite world of painterly talent, schooling, and expensive materials. Anyone with a love for ideas could feel free to collect without worrying much about things like money or rarity. However, the irony of this populist subversion was, of course, that the collection and subsequent high market value of such ‘immaterial’ work has served perhaps to alienate the general public from the art world even more.
In any case, games such as Masterpiece certainly don’t help to re-frame a dismissive opinion of art and its buyers. As much as this game no doubt served to introduce many people to beautiful works by renowned artists, it also primed them to understand the world of fine art with a veneer of contempt. Unfortunately, the “masterpiece” of the game turns out to be whatever random work gets randomly assigned the game’s only million dollar price tag. It seems sad that a whole generation of kids grew up with this slanted notion of artistic value, when they probably should have been taught that it is possible to have a real relationship with art — a meaningful and ongoing conversation based on their own ideas, empathy for artists and their historical environments, and maybe even a little wonder thrown in for good measure.
Back at the cabin, my curiosity got the better of me, and we ended up playing a round of Masterpiece. I felt a rush of satisfaction as I snatched up Mary Cassatt’s gorgeous The Child’s Bath, only to be immediately crestfallen to see that I had apparently overpaid. In the end, I must report that the game really wasn’t very much fun. In a real auction, you get to assert your love for a work of art by bidding on it. The amount you’re willing to pay becomes what the work is worth to you — what the work is worth in the real world. In the game, you are often forced to acknowledge that your love was misguided when the work turns out to be worth half of what you paid for it. Your confidence in your own taste and in the artist is deflated, and you try to trick someone else into taking the ‘dud’ off your hands. This dynamic kinda sucks.
Everyone at the table agreed that the game was lackluster, but we also saw promise in the basic premise of an art collecting game. If I were to redesign the game, I might encourage players to defend or steal the works they love from other players, designate their own ‘masterpiece’ to pursue, or at least award a bonus to the biggest collection of art at the end of the game. Though the game would still be unavoidably focused on art as a commodity, at least it would also consider the artistic tastes of the players themselves and give a value to the art itself as something more than a stand-in for cash.
The thrill of the sale must never usurp the much more significant and meaningful thrill that accompanies an association with beauty, vision, and genius. That’s the real trip of the art collector.