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What Is Art?

Samantha Plate's picture

Samantha Plate

Play In The City


What Is Art?

            In Mary Flanagan’s book Critical Play, she tries to define play through art. She associates play with art because they both “manifest critical thinking” (Flanagan 3). She believes artists use play in their work, often in subversive ways. While in Philadelphia this weekend I experienced a lot of art. This made me think of Flanagan and how art is connected to play. Last week I examined one of Flanagan’s definitions of play and how it fit with what I saw. This week I viewed my experience of Philadelphia through her view of art. Flanagan makes a few statements about art and its playful and subversive qualities to help define it. Flanagan first quotes Marcel Duchamp saying "in art there is no such thing as perfection" (Flanagan 3). She believes there is a "call for innovation" in the art world and subsequently in play. When it comes to defining what an artist is, she uses "’making’ for ‘making's sake’" (rather than for some arbitrary reason like money) as a qualification (Flanagan 4). Flanagan also discusses the subversive nature of art. It made me question if art has to be subversive to be playful or vice versa? Flanagan looks at Antonio Negri and determines that subversion is “a creative act rather than a destructive act” (Flanagan 11). Subversion is all about breaking rules and so naturally both play and art are conducive to subversion, but must they be subversive?

            The first bit of art I saw on Saturday was a series of murals that caught my eye as I looked out the window of the subway. They took up the sides of buildings and were scattered all along our ride, each with its own theme and message. These reminded me of Zagar’s mosaics, but much simpler. But they also made me think of the graffiti that I also saw on the subway ride. What made these murals, and Zagar’s mosaics, considered art almost instantly while graffiti is usually considered more vandalism than art? True, the muralist, Steve Powers, and Zagar probably had permission that the graffitist did not, but there still seems to be a distinct gap, a liminal space, a jump that needs to be made, to get from the side of graffiti to “real art”.  A jump that, according to an article by Theresa Everline, Powers made, since he started his art career in the illegal field of graffiti. This made me think about how Flanagan, and our society, defines art. What makes a child’s finger-paintings fridge worthy or art gallery worthy? Firstly, Flanagan says artists make for the sake of making rather than monetary reasons. Certainly all three artists in question were “’making’ for ‘making’s’ sake” as at least part of their reasoning (Flanagan 4). I do not know if Powers was paid for the murals or if the graffitist was doing the graffiti as an act of defiance and vandalism, but there was obviously some natural calling to do their work. In fact Powers has recently been painting signs for businesses for free. However he also makes art that is sold at shows and galleries (Everline). Likewise, Zagar makes money from his mosaics, but he makes money to create art rather than creating art to make money.

Flanagan also discusses the subversive nature of art. Certainly all three of these types of art are subversive in nature, the graffiti the most. So if the graffitist is the only one not making a profit, and the most subversive in his or her actions, why is the work not usually considered art? Should it be? Or is Flanagan missing something in her definition? She says that "artists can challenge ideas, beliefs, and social expectations and subsequently transform them in their work" (Flanagan 3). I think all three artists attempt to do this in different ways. And I believe this is an important distinction that Flanagan’s definition does not specify. Subversive art must be playful; it must challenge and imagine things in different ways.

            Throughout the day I continued to see different forms of art. We stumbled upon a building with the inside covered in a Zagar mosaic. We also saw a woman selling hand blown glass figurines and jewelry. One of the last things we saw, as we walked behind a building in Philadelphia, may not have even been art at all. Only a few minutes after seeing the Zagar mosaic we happened by what appeared to be a work in progress. Laid out on pieces of cardboard were large pieces of armor and what we think were armadillo slippers. The slippers and possibly the armor had recently been spray painted gray leaving interesting patterns on the cardboard. Muni noticed the pun of “armor-dillos” that could be the purpose of the two things being situated together, which made us all laugh. But who knows, maybe these were parts of costumes and not art at all. If it was art, I imagine the piece will be very subversive. It fits the description mentioned earlier that focuses on creativity rather than destruction and it is certainly unexpected. But what makes a few pairs of strange slippers and some armor art? I think the answer lies in purpose. In class we discussed that Duchamp’s “Fountain” was critical play because it had a purpose, and in the same way I believe that a piece becomes art when it is purposeful.

            My trip to Philadelphia this weekend really helped my look at art through Flangan’s eyes. It helped me to see firsthand what she is considering when she thinks about art. The ideas of “‘making’ for ‘making’s’ sake” and the innovation that art requires were made clear to me (Flanagan 4). However, her lens leaves much to be desired when trying to discern what is and is not art. While art often comes down to opinion, I believe determining what art is should consider whether or not what was created was purposeful. Likewise, this trip helped be to better understand subversive art. However I think Flanagan had it the wrong way round by trying to define play by art. To me subversive art comes from being playful.


Works Cited

Everline, Theresa. "A Way With Words." Philadelphia City Paper. N.p., 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Oct. 2013. <>.

Flanagan, Mary. "Introduction to Critical Play." Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. 1-16. Print.


here is a clickable link to the article about the mural artist (it also has some cool pictures of his work more of which can be seen with a quick google search of his name):


Cathy Zhou's picture

Samantha started her article

Samantha started her article using Flanagan's argument of critical play in art, and followed up with Flanagan's idea that art should be subversive and there's no perfection in art. Then she compared her trip to Philly with Flanagan's view and questioned Flanagan's point of  "art should be subversive." Her play is by leading her statement with a question and bring reader's attention by her doubt for the definition by Flanagan. Her play is to subvert with something already a subversion. 

Frindle's picture

In the first paragraph,

In the first paragraph, Samantha compares Flanagan's book, her previous trip to Philly, and her newest trip to Philly. She ends on a question that she will discuss throughout the rest of her essay. When I read this paragraph, I think of it as background information for the essay that is to come. She gives information such as Flanagan's definitions, the fact that she will talk about her experiences in Philly, and the question she will attempt to answer in the essay. She is working by giving us enough information to understand the argument she will later make, and we are woking in that we have to begin piecing together the information she has given us. She is playing by showing some of her thought process, "It made me question" leads to her actual question. We are playing by watching her go through the thought process, trying to understand her thought process so we may be able to understand why she answers the question the way she does.