Wednesday, September 13, 2006

General gamism

Roleplaying as art? Not for me

John Kim recently posted a reply to an old post in which I wrote about my first encounters with the idea that roleplaying is art. Answering John's comments I said he'd spurred me to return to the subject. Before pursuing that though, I'll comment in more detail on some of John's remarks.

Replying to my thoughts, John asked me if I could "suggest... any other case of an imaginative, creative endeavor which is categorically never art?" Yes: science. Although a lot of scientific spadework is technical and repetitive, developing new scientific theories is pretty much as creative and imaginative an activity as writing a novel or painting a picture. This is pretty much a truism of scientific literature these days AFAIK.

That question aside, John also noted that "by saying that RPGs can never be art, you are judging them by inappropriate standards. Playing RPGs... is an imaginative, creative endeavor, and I think it should be looked at the same way that other imaginative, creative endeavors are." To which my reply is: my point exactly!

The concept of 'art'
My fundamental objection to the idea that roleplaying is art is that I believe roleplaying games to be part of a cultural development that has undermined the very concept of 'art'.

What I mean here is this: it is pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that the concept of 'art' has always existed in contrast to its other- ie. 'high' culture versus 'low' culture, and that this contrast has always served a priori to elevate the so-called 'art' above whatever it was being contrasted against. That is to say: the very idea of 'art' is that there is a realm of creative expression which- by its very nature- is more sublime and somehow more insightful than anything from outside that realm. The inherent elitism of this is something that I feel I need not belabour here.

A historical example of this is the difference between what we now call 'classical music' and 'folk music'. The cultural wall between these 2 kinds of music was so strong that, unless my memory utterly fails me, a composer like Smetana created controversy by including native folk tunes in his orchestral compositions. Readers with greater knowledge of cultural history could enumerate further examples I am sure.

Now my aim here is not to write up a capsule social history of culture. Rather it is to highlight how the very term 'art' contradicts the nature of roleplaying so that the term is worse than meaningless when applied to rpg's. To this end I want to bring the issue of 'art' bang up to date, to modern art. I have to confess that I'm one of those people who really doesn't 'get' most of modern art. All the same, I would like to suggest that, if there is one thing that has been proved by the trajectory of modern art, then it is that the concept of 'art' to which I have pointed is completely and utterly bankrupt, because the world has quite simply passed it by.

I mean to say: whatever you might think about Damien Hirst's pickled animal carcasses (or a personal favourite of mine from the early 70's: a 1 mile-long brass rod buried in a hole in an American desert somewhere... really!), the very terms in which works of this kind are explained strip the term 'art' of any real meaning. What else can we say when artists eschew content, preferring instead to let the viewer project their own meanings onto whatever passes before their eyes?

My point here is more than just a rant against flatulent subjectivism. What I believe this development represents is the exhaustion of the classic- high bourgeois- concept of 'art' in the face of a culture predicated on industrial mass production whose immeasurable richness simply cannot be embraced via the cultural concepts of an fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins. This point about the richness of contemporary culture cannot be over-emphasised IMO, because it is the basis of what I believe to be one thing that the postmodernists got right and that everyone else barely noticed- namely that 'art' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

Stripping away the old conceptions of high culture enjoying a special pre-eminence over low culture we find ourselves in the situation of living in a mass culture consisting of a range of more-or-less widespread particular popular cultures. Roleplaying, it seems to me, expresses the dynamics of this rather nicely, with its distillation of themes enjoying a mass audience (eg. movies) into what is, let's face it, a minority interest- a particularly particular culture, if you will.

Wordplay aside, what I'm getting at then is the idea that roleplaying is a quintessential product of the developments of late 20th century consumerist capitalism which have rendered the concept of 'art' obsolete. Hence my opinion that the artistic conception of roleplaying is an attempt to judge rpg's by inappropriate standards.

What is it about roleplaying that is really novel?
Discussions about the nature of roleplaying abound, and theories about how they work are ten-a-penny. Speaking for myself, one thing which is pretty damn inescapably important is the shift from audience to participant as you enter into a world of adventure or drama. Regardless of which faction(s) of roleplaying you might situate yourself in, no matter which kind of game you are playing, it seems to me that at the end of the day you are motivated by the desire to stop 'watching' the action that thrills you, and to get stuck in.

The flip side of this- and something which I believe to be profoundly tied-in to the games in roleplaying games- is that roleplaying is about mutual entertainment pure and simple. This is not just the obvious point that rpg's typically don't have winners and losers as do competitive games. More than just that, I would say that at its best roleplaying is not just about having fun for yourself, it is also about being fun for your fellow players.

This is no longer a particularly novel point I'll happily admit, even in terms of the way that the shift from audience to participant parallels, highlights and carries forward the democratisation of culture implicit in my perspective on the decline of the concept of 'art'. Perhaps just a bit more novel is the idea that the advance that this movement represents is simultaneously a return, albeit one which recreates its point of departure in a more complex and sophisticated form.

What I'm talking about here is the feeling that roleplaying often gives me of having 'returned' to the venerable tradition of fireside storytelling. Or, in even more grandiose terms, I sometimes find myself wondering if those legendary PC's whose adventures live on in the 'fish-stories' you and your gaming buddies share down the years don't represent the revival- in an appropriate modern form- of the epic narratives of the ancient cultures of man.

Over the top completely? I'd like to think not. But if there is even a nugget of rationality in these speculations, then they pose another serious problem for the idea that roleplaying is art. Why? Because unless my basic understanding of history is profoundly mistaken, the narrative traditions to which I refer predate the very existence of 'art' as a distinct feature of culture which existed in reference to some external, inferior mere culture. Whatever the precise details of this history, people would have been sitting around fires telling each other stories for a very long time before storytelling could have become a speciality which could take on airs and graces.

John Kim's remarks quoted above were in response to my own comment that "[f]ar from highlighting roleplaying's distinct virtues, the artistic conception submerges those virtues by choosing to evaluate rpg's according to standards that are quite simply inappropriate to what rpg's are."

In taking up John's challenge I put forward a sketch of a concept of art arguing that the term is intrinsically elitist and a historical relic of no real value in understanding the modern culture without which rpg's simply wouldn't even exist. I continued by putting forward some thoughts about the nature of roleplaying suggesting that it enjoys novel features profoundly at odds with structure and history of 'art' as an aspect of human society.

I expect that many readers cleaving to the artistic concept of roleplaying won't be convinced by the barely fleshed-out bones of the case I have put forward. In particular, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some were to protest that they have no truck with artistic elitism, that they were instead concerned more deeply to understand how their experience of roleplaying meshes with their enjoyment of reading, movies, and so on- with "other imaginative, creative endeavors" in other words. Some might even agree with my opinion of what 'art' has meant in the past, but argue that the very development to which I refer means that the term has a new, more inclusive meaning.

Presumptious enough to answer imagined counter-arguments in advance, to the former I would say: fair enough, but the viewpoint I have put forward suggests that it is quixotic at best to attempt to achieve these perfectly reasonable goals by accomodating to aesthetic conceptions which bear no proven relationship to the specific features of rpg's. I mean to say: what are you trying to achieve by asserting the artistic conception of roleplaying? Are you trying to improve your gaming experience? To achieve for your gaming some dignity you feel it lacks? Or to explore purposes other than simple entertainment that rpg's might be adapted to? What exactly? And how exactly does the artistic conception of roleplaying assist you?

And to the latter I would suggest that such a line of argument would inevitably end up as mere semantic wranglings. If my basic historical case for the elitism of 'art' as a concept holds water, then attempting to argue that 'everything is art now' is hardly a step forward. Instead of grasping the novel features of the present situation in their own terms it is an effort which can only spread intellectual confusion by maintaining the old cultural jargon in a persistent vegetative state.

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #1: General gamism
- #2: A funny thing happened on my way to this article
- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!


gnome said...

Amazingly I agree, despite having a fe reservations... An excellent post anyway, but can't really comment in the non-existent time I have...

Elliot Wilen said...

Really great essay. I think if you cleaned it up just a bit and perhaps did some research or got comments from people who could firm up some of the more speculative bits, you'd have a good article for publication.

I have two specific comments. First, a key distinction between "art" and "science" is that the success of "art"--the way it's evaluated and the goals that go into its production--is tied up with purely aesthetic criteria. Now that may not be entirely true in the real world (art is often "successful" and motivated by social or commercial factors) but I think it's a core concept especially for "high" art and even for "folk" art. Whereas science, although having some aesthetic features (like the idea of elegance in proofs and algorithms), is ultimately measured against "objective" criteria such as adherence to logical principles, ability to explain/predict repeatable experimental data, &c.

What I'm saying is that even if you erase the category of "art" in the postmodern world, "science" is still a separate category from painting, interpretive dance, knitting, and playing RPGs. I realize there are some who'd like to tear down that wall as well but I do not think they will be successful, ultimately.

Second, I think the existence of a controversy over whether RPGs are "art" casts doubt on the motives of people who get bent out of shape when someone says RPGs aren't art. If this was all just a matter of semantics, then the mere term "art" shouldn't have the power to cause so much anguish. In other words if one worries too much about whether RPGs are art, then any protest that one doesn't see "art" in elitist or exclusionary terms rings somewhat hollow.

JMcL63 said...

@ gnome
I'm pleased you liked the article. Obviously I'm interested in your reservations, but I'm more intrigued by your air of reluctance. I hope to hear more from you on this. Cheers. ;)

JMcL63 said...

@ elliot
Thank you too for your praise. Reworking the piece for publication? Hmm, that's so far from what I was thinking about when I wrote the essay I really don't know what to say, except thanks again. Oh, and who might be interested in it, I guess?

Meanwhile: on the science thing. I agree with you about science being fundamentally different from art. Your other remarks make sense to me too. That comment was an aside to the main article by way of response to John Kim's question: can something be creative and imaginative and never art?

And I share your suspicion about the motives of the artistic roleplaying exponents. At the same time to approach the issue by impugning people's motives doesn't strike me as very productive, especially if you don't have a credible critique of their views in the first place.

Also, I wouldn't like to get into such questions without knowing what people's actual motives are. I would be surprised if I didn't share some of these people's motives even if I don't like their ideas.

Thanks again. Cheers. ;)

Thomas Robertson said...

I got linked over here by Elliot.

Anyway, I think most of the debate grows out of the fact that there are two common and dissimilar definitions for the term 'art'.

The one you present is most often presented in sociological and anthropological discussions. It's a social construct used to empower certain things at the cost of other things.

However, there's another common definition for the term 'art' and it can generally be paraphrased to mean 'something constructed/formed/appreciated for its aesthetic value'.

I think that the majority of the argument comes from people buying into the different definitions. I doubt that most people who don't want to mark roleplaying as elite would suggest that it's not aesthetic.

While I do think that some people who talk about roleplaying as art are trying to accord it some sort of elite status, I think most of them (us, I suppose) mean it in the second sense. It's an activity of aesthetic creativity, and should be accorded the respect that such activities deserve (which I happen to think is pretty high, creative aesthetic stuff is important, even if it's private).


jhkim said...

OK, first of all, I accept that the answer of "science" is a correct response to my question. However, I think we're agreed that it doesn't really say a whole lot -- because science is clearly differentiated in other ways from aesthetic creative activities like storytelling, painting, role-playing, etc.

So, the core of your argument is about the elitism that you claim is inherent in the word "art". I could quibble about the history of the term, but I at least agree that as of today it has elitist connotations.

But here's my view. Let's suppose there is an elitist, high-culture, snooty jerk who ostentatiously goes to the opera and thinks himself above the "common people". Now, suppose we present him with two claims: "My D&D game is art" and "No, role-playing isn't art".

You know what? He's going to side with your view that role-playing isn't art. He doesn't want the term "art" to be polluted by garage bands, fan fiction, role-playing, or any other local, non-elite creativity.

Personally, I want to shred that elitist view. Specifically, I want local, non-elite creativity (in performance, play, music, dance, or whatever) to be considered equal to mass-produced novels, art films, opera, etc. It seems to me that this is communicated best by disagreeing with them.

Elliot Wilen said...

Yes, in spite of the nasty implications of my last paragraph above, I really agree with John K. If calling RPGs "art" is part of a program to take "Aaaaht" off its pedestal and return it to the people, then I'm for it.

Which makes me think that I might have judged Brand Robbins's comments about this issue a little harshly a while back (in comments on one of your earlier postings), although in my defense I'm not sure if Brand made clear if he was advocating "grabbing the artistic brass ring" or melting the ring down.

I think Jonathan Walton might be interested in your essay for Push, although I'm not sure if John K. may have already published something similar in the first issue. Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing with your conclusion, I just think you've given a great rundown of the issues involved in the "art" debate.

Jonathan Walton said...

Nice article.

To deal with the publication issue first: I'm not necessarily interested in the article as is, because I don't think it really addresses the main reasons for claiming that roleplaying is art. Thomas really nails it; there are both physical and social reasons.

The actual things that you do when you roleplay seem rather similar, in many ways, to things that are done in theatre, storytelling, etc (existing art forms). This leads some people to think that roleplaying could be categorized and better understood as an "art form" (though of course that's not the only category it fits in). So there are percieved benefits to this.

Also, if roleplaying is considered an "art form" it both 1) raises its social status in certain circles, 2) enables the government funding occasionally enjoyed by our Nordic friends, 3) sticks it to elitist art snobs, 4) reclaims art for the geeks, and etc. So there are many percieved social benefits as well.

I agree that most of the discussion on the "art/not art" issue isn't really productive. But I think getting annoyed with it or saying we should stop talking about it is similarly unproductive.

Saying that roleplaying is or isn't art is definitely a powerplay. But saying "we shouldn't be trying to gain art status for roleplaying" is also a powerplay. What are you really trying to say here? If we weren't worried about roleplaying's art status, what would we be able to do? How does that benefit us?

gnome said...

Oh my... so many things said and I dont even have the time to answer... Damn. Still, as john proposed, I'll be back on the subject...sometime before Xmas hopefully


JMcL63 said...

A couple of quick points first...
Well I've taken my time replying to some substantial comments on my post. Sorry about that. Real life and all, y'know. Onwards...

@ John Kim
OK, first of all, I accept that the answer of "science" is a correct response to my question. However, I think we're agreed that it doesn't really say a whole lot -- because science is clearly differentiated in other ways from aesthetic creative activities like storytelling, painting, role-playing, etc.

I'm not at all persuaded that my correct answer to your question says so little John. I'll venture that your question- "can you suggest to me any other case of an imaginative, creative endeavor which is categorically never art?"- was posed in the hopes that imagination and creativity would stand as a self-sufficient assertion of roleplaying's artistic credentials. I reckon that my correct answer is a valid challenge to this key premise of yours.

It is precisely what differentiates science from art which is significant. That science is categorically not art despite sharing its imaginative and creative aspects is sufficient to suggest that other social activities- eg. roleplaying- also sharing those features might equally not be art. You can't just handwave this away.

@Jonathan Walton
I agree that my post didn't "really address.. the main reasons for claiming that roleplaying is art". That wasn't my aim in any case. All I wanted to do was to lay out key elements of my own opinions on the issue. It was something I've been wanting to get off my chest for some time. I'm pleased that you liked it.

That's it for now. I'll try to address the substantive points sooner rather than later. ;)

Victor Gijsbers said...

I have taken the liberty to attack this post here. :)