Super Mario Bros is great but let’s not go overboard

The Ideas Channel dude – you know, the gingerbearded Seth Cohen type who talks really fast about culture – had an idea about videogames. It is: Super Mario Brothers is the world’s greatest piece of surrealist art. 

To summarize, because the visual elements of the Mario universe are as weird and apparently nonsensical as a Dali painting, Super Mario Bros is the greatest surrealist artwork of all time. Well, ok. As we’ve known since Duchamp’s urinal, context is everything when it comes to art. If it’s in a gallery, it’s art; if it’s on the street behind a dumpster, it’s trash. “But videogames are now in MOMA!” you cry. Fair enough. But it’s important to remember that surrealism was avant garde because it was a genuine shock to the people who saw it – it was a reaction to both the art that came before it and the political and social changes of the time.

Mario, though indisputably wonderful and strange, is hardly an unsettling of what came before it, and you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that it’s a response to the political and social changes of the 1980s. The better argument, as the Idea Channel dude gets to, is that the nonsense visual vocabulary of Mario may have helped condition our culture to accept more nonsense signs in mass media. Now that’s an idea.