Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are Roleplaying Games...Art? Part 2: What is...Art?

Okay, if any of you think trying to define rpgs or discussing "rpgs are art" is hard? Try climbing down the rabbit hole that is "What is art?"

This one blog post isn't just looking at the tip of the iceberg, it's not even grazing the surface of the snow laying on the tip. It's trying to encapsulate a complex subject by merely glancing at one ice crystal. I appreciate everyone baring with me as I work in broad strokes, refer to Wikipedia in places, and in other spots dive deep with an obscure references or quotes.

There is a spectrum of beliefs and definitions out there from people on "what is art?"

The Broad Extreme: "Anything can be art"
On one end is the meme in our Western society that any talent or skill using intuition, creation, and imagination is an art. In this sense anything can be an art: Business, riding a bike, motorcycle repair, etc. Wikipedia puts it succinctly:
The first and broadest sense of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to "skill" or "craft."

My issue with the idea that "anything can be art" is that there is no rigor in defining art.

The Narrow Extreme: "Art Theory"
The other extreme is Art Theory. I spoke with several people over the last few days in both the analog and digital worlds about Art Theory. The focus seems to be on what can be called Art.

What I gleamed from conversations and reading about Art Theory:
  • individuals who are using imagination/intuition/skill to create (artists)
  • artists whom intend to create art (intention)
  • artists creating bodies of work (artwork)
  • historical looks at an artist's growth/change over their body of work (career)
  • standards for what is good/better/best (heirarchy)
  • critics applying critiques (review)
  • judges giving awards (recognition)
  • their own equivalent of the "art gallery" (presentation)
Art Theory seems to focus exclusively on what art can be shown in galleries. I usually think of this as Visual Art, but by extension of being show in a gallery, this can sometimes include certain types of experimental music and film.

Several people I spoke with made the same point down to using similar words and/or phrasing:
"Art is to not have any purpose but to exist on its own merit"
(made me think that they were all using the same cheat sheet or all belonged to some weird cult).

One person even said under art theory, art can't even convey an idea, experience, or a story. If so, then those intentions gave the art a purpose beyond the aesthetic. For lack of knowing what to call it, let's call this "aesthetic value alone."

Another point was the idea that anything can be art. It only needs an artist display it in a gallery and call it art. A famous example brought up is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, a urinal he snuck into an art gallery, allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions on what made the urinal art. Let's call this the "declaration of art." It is art even though the artist had no hand in creating said something beyond the declaration.

My issue with Art Theory is that it is too rigorous. It pushes the sufficient-and-necessary definition to the point of not being practical.

Talking with people about Art Theory has made me realize many of my past arguments I've made to justify art as art used a layman's understanding of Art Theory. I have greater issues with Art Theory that I will get into later, but also realize that there are parts I would salvage.

The Anti-Extreme: "Art is useless"
There is a third extreme: people who are anti-art. These people are those who react to the arts is overrated, a waste of their time, non-practical, non-essential. They might be right. Though their world view is so far misaligned from my own that it's hard for me to relate.

Infinite Shades of Art
In the middle ground, you find a multitudes of views of "what is art?"

Often if something has a purpose, like sewing or pottery, it is considered a craft instead of an art. I know several crafters and makers here in Portland who have issue with the idea that what they do is not art.

Many designers see what they do as the industrial arts or applied arts, covering the "art" of a chair or a glass to architecture and engineering. I always associate the terms Form and Function with designers, both being equally valuable to them. Design often makes the point that functional objects can have aesthetic value.

Our society recognizes the fine arts such as dance, theater, and music. The Oscars and other various award shows honor what is best in film; the Tonies likewise with theater. Comics have gained in recognition as a legitimate form of storytelling art. Literature and poetry are lauded with reviews and awards.

A Layman's Sense of Art
I want rigor in a definition. I like recognition of great art. For me though, neither works if the definition is so narrow it prohibits practical use or denies the recognition of various arts. Part of the confusion I believe lies at Art Theory only covering what is considered the visual arts.

I believe that art is a creative act of the imagination and passion in any media. Sometimes incorporated in the act of art are communications beyond the aesthetic ranging into entertainment, ritual, social change, political agendas, etc. Art only becomes something else when the message or purpose is greater than the aesthetic. I believe that there should be something there, to call a piece of art work, or over a career a body of artwork. This body of artwork can be compared to itself historically to show development and voice. Bodies of artwork can be compared to each other. One of the main criteria of judging art for me is how close the artist came to accomplishing their desired expression.

It is this sense of art that I apply to rpgs. Let's look at rpgs and see where I believe the art happens.
Previous Posts:

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Are Roleplaying Games...Art? Part 1 - Exposing My Bias

I admit I'm biased on the topic: Are RPGs... Art?

I grew up in a house submerged in Art. My parents constantly exposed my sister and I to theater, museums, opera, ballet, sympathies, etc. I grew up around all types of fine art.

My dad was an art teacher. He started with teaching art at San Francisco State, but after his 40+ career had taught every grade from kindergarden to college seniors. I learned calligraphy before I was taught cursive in school. I was throwing clay pots on a wheel before I was trusted in most stores to handle anything expensive. He has a love for the finer things in life, and for him art is definitely a part of that.

My mom was no slouch. My mom taught elementary school for 40+ years - though she had almost majored in architecture. Where she really shines is spending the last 10 years of her career in the CA Dept of Education, as the arts consultant and an arts advocate. She passionately pushed an agenda for the Arts to be put back into schools. Her platform:
  1. for those people focused with STEM and standards testing - students with the Arts in their curriculum routinely tested higher than those without the arts and STEM should be rebranded as STEAM
  2. for those concerned with mental and emotional health - those students with the arts in their curriculum routinely showed less issues of discipline and exhibiting depression 
  3. tied Arts curriculum to economic results by bringing in professionals - from scientists and engineers at Microsoft and Google to entertainers and artists from Hollywood and studios such as Lucasfilm and Pixar, all advocating how important creative thinking and the arts are to their industries
  4. worked to establish comprehensive standards for Visual Art, Music, Theatre, and Dance to have the arts be as rigorous a course of study as math, reading, and science
  5. Arts Education means having teachers in the school teaching the arts as a scope-and-sequential curriculum with possible support from artists in the community throughout the year, rather than ONLY visits by artists from the community for a few weeks out of the year
Beyond establishing WHY the arts were important and what the arts needed to do to be taken seriously as stated above, my mom constantly felt like she had the conversation on "WHAT is art?"

My mom loved using this definition:
“Art is not a thing — it is a way.” Elbert Hubbard,  Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers (my mom would pull a quote from a book about teachers).

Maybe it was rebellion against my fine arts upbringing, but as I developed my own aesthetic my own tastes ran extremely pop, low-brow, and geek. My own art expressions were decided more modern and of the street. I love comics and movies. I still read comics electronically today, and I'm such a movie-whore that I have no problem going to see a flick by myself. I feel like we are currently living in a Golden Age of Geek for entertainment. In Sacramento CA in my twenties I ran a "street" gallery in a warehouse showcasing graffiti and found-art artists, with noise bands during shows (where I also lived in the office section without heat and a shower converted from a toilet).

I also consider myself as an artist in several mediums. Most of my energy goes into the visual arts. My favorite is illustrations. I've sculpted, painted murals, and freelanced in graphic design and layout. For writing, I've written poetry since puberty and participated in lots of spoken word open mics. I've had short stories published in local papers. I love to write, and feel its emotionally cathartic. I've acted in theater. I did double time as both crew and cast in plays throughout high school and into my twenties. I've designed and built play sets. I did dabble in music, yet haven't played the piano or sang in a choir for over a decade. Don't ask me to dance. I enjoy dance, but you might not enjoy watching me do it.

And I roleplayed a lot from 11 years old to now some almost 30 years later. Roleplaying for me has scratched the same creative itch I have with acting and writing.

My aesthetic and roleplaying has always confused my parents. But what has helped is my ability to explain Art and what makes it relatable. The person might not agree, but they usually at least end up respecting the work. What I think is one of my strengths is not my own artistic tastes or endeavors, but the fact that I can usually articulate WHY something is art, even something I do not like myself. And since I do not usually give enough credit usually to where credit is due - this is largely because of my fine art up-bringing by my art teacher dad and my art advocate mom.

So I have a VERY positive relationship with art. Art is something that I find very familiar, comfortable, and a large part of my self identity. It might be my bias, but probably due to my background, it feels natural to look at RPGs as art.

It might be my bias but I can't wrap my mind around people who flat out claim that RPGS are NOT Art. It is hard for me to not react with the feelings that there are one of three possibilities:
  • they are simply anti-art, do not have a positive relationship with Art, and calling RPGs art puts a bad taste in their mouth - it's an emotional defense reaction
  • they are anti-intellectual and feel like calling RPGs art is putting on airs - it's a cultural defense reaction
  • they do not have the same definition for art as I do, thus why they do not see rpgs as art - it's an intellectual response
I am hoping by writing these blogs, people will come forth and shed some light on why they do not consider RPGs art.

And that gets us to our next post:

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Further Thoughts on a Media Rubric for RPGs

My last blog dealt with Fairman Roger's development post about his definition for rpgs:
"A roleplaying game is an interactive, participatory artistic experience, similar to                      ."

I was really pleased with the civil and positive responses. There was no flames or trolls, which was, to be honest, a surprise. Even if someone did not agree, the poster was as least charitable.

Everyone felt that the phrase fell flat as a definition. Some people felt that the phrase would not explain rpgs to newbies. Others felt that the definition did not stringently meet necessary-and-sufficient standards for a definition. I agree on both accounts.

It's interesting how things develop. Especially when I am not as clear as I think I could have been, or people pursue their own agendas when responding to a post.

I'll repeat my disclaimer from the last post: I saw the phrase less as an over arching definition and more a rubric to help target play styles. Get everyone at the table on the same page for play.

Maybe the phrase as a useful tool for social contracts could be simply:
"A roleplaying game for me is an experience similar to ___________."

I have realized since writing the post that the rubric does little beyond describing what a player believes is a similar medium. I do see that as an important aspect of a table play social contract. It doesn't address genre, and some mediums do certain genres better than others. And various rpgs have mimicked different mediums successfully. I am now acknowledging that it might be far more useful to have this rubric as a part of rpgs:
"This roleplaying game attempts to mimic a medium experience similar to ______________."

It does far more for design and play for a game to set up specific expectations than to have each player define what medium the player believes rpgs mimic most often. Then at least a player who likes rpgs that are like, say for example, comics can then say that they are not in the mood to play a rpg mimicking movies.

It has left me pondering what kind of medium is the rpg, as compared to visual art, dance, literature, theater, or film.

Further dissection has lead me to realize how often medium, style, genre, and goals are actually differing viable rpg aspects that are in most cases lumped together under play style. It's leading to some interesting thoughts on rpg definitions and how best to further design and play of rpgs.

However! The responses to my last post that caught me off guard were those from people who did not believe rpgs are art. It's honestly jarring to me.

Fairman Roger used the term artistic with this in mind:
"(Roleplaying) is an act of imaginative creation of a non-practical aesthetic product."
 I might not use that definition though.

Before I come around to how I define rpgs as art, let's cover why I believe rpgs are art. And before I cover why, let me expose my own biases on art. Here is an attempt at an outline of where I am going with all this:

(I'll link these active as I finish writing them)