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.
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