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Is All Art Play?

Claire Romaine's picture

It’s obvious that kids on a playground are playing.  They are running around, bumping each other, screaming, carousing, and often having the time of their young lives.  But what makes all of those different activities they take part in fall under the umbrella term of play?  Is it the physicality, the human companions, or even the entertainment value? If those things are the definition of play, than many adults have not played for years.  So many of the games and activities in a child’s world are nonexistent in an adult’s, yet adults are nonetheless capable of play just as much as kids.

Mary Flanagan uses a conglomeration of other scholars’ work to create a generalized depiction of play, which disregards the limitations of age.  She suggests that there are a few, fundamental aspects that occur in all instances of play.  Play is considered to be a “voluntary act…[that] is mentally or physically challenging, and is separated from reality” (5) either spatially or through a set of  distinct, definite rules.  What is missing from this definition, and is something that she touches upon separately is that playing and games in particular involve interactions in which “decisions...pose real plausible alternatives” (7).  A player has to be able to interact with the object of play in a way that can affect the progression of the activity.  Critical play, which is supposed to critique some aspect of society, is no different in this regards.  The player must be able to impact the course of the game, or else they are no longer taking an active, voluntary role in playing.  It’s quite obvious then, why the performing arts are so often alluded to in the essay as a form of critical play.  An audience may be seated to watch a performance, but their reactions to the show can influence how the performers proceed.  Actors can gauge an audiences’ reaction and adjust their performance according to whatever point they are trying to make.  It’s a more subtle form of audience participation than literally pulling people on stage but it is comparable nonetheless. 

Considering this definition of games and play, it might be surprising that I do not consider the Quiet Volume performance we went to an instance of critical play.  It seems to have all of the key aspects of play: its mentally stimulating, it’s spatially isolated in the library, its voluntary, and it even involves participation.  However, it lacks any true interaction.  The decisions each and every person might make during the performance cannot have any impact on the performer himself.  Whether or not they choose to follow the instructions, the whispering voice will continue to drone on oblivious to their response.  It is lacking those decisions that “pose real, plausible alternatives” (7).  Saying ‘no’ to putting your finger on the page as the voice directs you does not result in a new dialogue, nor does any other decision you make.  In Flanagan’s words “they aren’t real decisions” (7) because they have no real outcome.

Unlike Flanagan, I think this concept of tangible action and reaction is absent in Quiet Volume and most other fine and visual arts.  No matter how many decisions I might make about a painting, the painting will never change in reaction to my perception.  Nor will a sculpture, statue, arrangement, or inking.  This is not meant to degrade the impact of art on society, but rather to express that an observer cannot ‘play critically’ with these stationary pieces of expression.  On the other hand, the artists themselves in creating these pieces have ample opportunity to play.  As their perceptions change, the artist can mold a piece into reflecting this change.  Artists play an active part in the creation of art, whereas the audience is entirely passive in their role as the observer.

Regardless of whether or not a given piece of art is considered ‘critical play’, most pieces make some kind of commentary on life or society.  Each artist has the intention of creating something that makes others reevaluate life or society.  But what about those creations, those games, that have no intention behind them besides entertainment?  They too can alter peoples’ thoughts and concerns.  What happens to a child who grows up playing games like Chutes and Ladders, Life, and Monopoly?  Games like these suggest that life is nothing but a strictly linear story of movement forwards and backwards along a given path.  I don’t mean to say that all modern children are somehow ingrained with the idea that life moves along a cardboard square with the roll of the die, but sometimes the greatest effects, unlike art, are never intended at all.


Anne Dalke's picture

Playing with Art

Great pushback/engagement with Flanagan here--

so now let me push back and ask you to consider some other examples...

Check out, for starters, Juneau's alternative interpretation of the same experience, @ Quiet Critical Play.

Then watch the TED talk by Jane McGonigle, "Gaming Can Make a Better World," which Tomahawk called to our attention: what do you think of her argument?

I'd like to talk with you about the "slide" you make from the active artist, to the inert art, to the audience...
who is (always?) passive? (sometimes?) changed by the encounter with art--or could be?

Let's think together, too, about the way in which you've "played with" and structured this essay, in relation to the argument it develops. It ends, as it begins, with children, but is it "really" about adult experience?

Juneau's picture

Claire uses Flanagan's

Claire uses Flanagan's definitions to argue that The Quiet Volume and other works of art are not forms critical play. She focuses on the interaction between the artist and the viewer, both of whom can play on their own, but do not necessarily interact. Claire says that if the artist cannot be changed by the passive viewer, it cannot be critical play.

Amy Ma's picture

Claire used what Flanagan

Claire used what Flanagan cited from other scholar's work of the definition of play. She compared her own experience with The Quiet Volume with the generalized definition Flanagan gives in her book, and didn't consider Quiet Volume as critical play although Quiet Volume does has some features of play, because there is no reaction in Quiet Volume. The participants reaction cannot  lead to any different result. She then stated that is the same iwith art. When creating art, the artists do play critically, but audience don't really participate in it. 

I quite agree with her last sentence:"sometimes the greatest effects, unlike art, are never intended at all." Those that are created without any intentions can still make some difference in people's life. 

Claire Romaine's picture


Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. London: The MIT Press, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.