Art as Play

Such a spirit of playful creativity is more in keeping with modern understanding of the word “art” than are the functional amplifications of plainchant that we have been encountering up to now. (I, 161)

[Early notated polyphonic practices] bear witness to the process (and the fun) of creativity within an oral culture. Homo ludens and homo faber – “humanity at play” and “creative humanity” – were close allies in such a culture. (I, 162)

.. What begins in necessity often ends in play – that is, in “art.” (I, 179)

.. What was prompted by practical need became the stimulus for luxuriant artistic play. (I, 186)

As our week’s reading has progressed, we can begin to see the genesis of a new (rather, old) creative principle at work – art as play. Surely the concept of creative play has been a major driving force behind the activity of music making since the first song was sung and the first rhythm danced back in pre-history. At this point in our musical odyssey, however, Taruskin sees the concept of play coming to the fore. (And just as the role of play gradually took a more prominent role in notated music at this time, the connection between art and play is gradually deepened and expanded upon over thirty pages in Taruskin’s text. By the end of this development, “playful” and “artistic” are virtual synonyms.)

Play is a transparent yet complex phenomenon. Oftentimes, the word “play” is invoked as a sort of counterweight to seriousness, as in: “Come on! I’m only playing with you!” Play is, almost by definition, fun. (“Can Mark come out to play?”) It is closely associated with recreation, games, and sports. Play in music is most often used in the context of  “playing a piece,” or “playing an instrument.” And here, linguistically, we can almost see a bifurcation  in our thinking about the various roles in music making: performers (ie. those who play music) vs. composers (ie. those who write music). This formulation is, of course, highly reductionist, but  the words we use to describe various musical actions (play guitar; make hip-hop beats; improvise jazz solos; write symphonies) can be very telling. One does not “play” a fresh, new piece of music; one writes, composes, or creates new music.

Taruskin does us a valuable service by pointing out that early compositional practices, steeped in the oral tradition, were in fact modes of creative play. The intricacies, puzzles, and patterns of early Aquitainian polyphony and the Notre Dame school demonstrate this playfulness. (Of course, most if not all composition, period, includes the component of play. But more on that as the Challenge progresses..) Taruskin goes a step further, however, by identifying this quality of play with a modern aesthetic valuation. Play is art.

There’s so much to unpack with this topic, and the purpose of this post is simply to get the idea out there on the table. How do we theorize play? A fruitful place to start could be biologist-psychologist-philosopher Gregory Bateson’s writing on the subject. To Bateson, play is not just a feature of human behavior – it is universal to all complex life forms. In his “A Theory of Play and Fantasy” (1954), Bateson visits the zoo and observes a pair of otters at play. It is obvious to all – even a toddler – that the otters are playing, not fighting and chasing each other out of hostility. Of course, the otters themselves are in on it. This leads him to conclude that true play is only possible when the organisms in question are able to transmit the message “this is play.” This code is a meta-level communication, since the actual behavior involved in the play (biting, chasing, tackling, etc.) could, under different circumstances, be interpreted as aggression. Therefore, an otter (or two brothers wrestling, for that matter) communicate two contradictory messages at once: I am biting you, but don’t take this bite as a real threat. It’s only play. In a brilliant and dense string of logic and reasoning, Bateson concludes that play is where members of the animal kingdom show us their advanced abilities to decipher multiple levels of meaning at once. Similarly, play in humans communicates a multiplicity of different meanings. This is where he touches on the profound nexus between play, fantasy, ritual, and art, arguing that play is of the same logical type as aesthetic engagement. Bateson: “In the dim region where art, magic, and religion meet and overlap, human beings have evolved the ‘metaphor that is meant,’ the flag which men will die to save, and the sacrament that is felt to be more than ‘an outward and visible sign, given to us.'” Play, to Bateson, could be the key to that metaphorical unlocking of meaning.

I’m not sure how all this will relate to our topic of music, but I feel that is does somehow. More to come when (if) these inchoate thoughts take shape. How do you, readers, engage with the concepts of play and artistic activity?


  1. Mark Samples says:

    Another theme of play that can be extracted from the OHWM quotes you listed is “playing around with.” In this metaphor, play is applied to an existing thing, in order to make it better or more fun. When a parent tells a child to “stop playing with your food,” it is usually because the child doesn’t want to eat the lima beans on his plate. Turning them into a portrait of Spongebob Squarepants is much more fun and interesting.

    This also happens with ideas. A student has a glimmer of an idea—such as the connection between the metaphor of play and music—and “plays around with” it to develop it. The idea is turned over, prodded, massaged, and in the process illuminated. At its heart, this blog is a sandbox where we are able to play with the ideas that Taruskin has stirred up in our brains.

    We humans like to tinker with things, to play with them. The development of chant that Taruskin is highlighting here is hearty evidence of that.

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    I love it – blog as sandbox for playing with ideas! This is surely yet another advantage this format gives us: a platform for play.

    Ideas can definitely be a form of play. There is a quality to good creative work that engages our expressive side but also our puzzle-solver side. And we do it purely for the intrinsic value of the process. Play is not for profit, power, or personal gain – play is for fun. Even the most heady abstruse music on earth has the fun principle behind it.

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