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The twenty-first century will be the century of play
Brian Sutton-Smith
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For anything or anyone to be thought of as cool, they have to have two things going for them: first, they have to be imbued with the rebel spirit, and second, they have to be unique when compared with the norm of the day.
Del Breckenfeld (from his book THE COOL FACTOR, 2009)
Old hat is never "cool". Only that which requires cutting edge creativity or startling novelty is what we define as cool. The establishment is frequently threatened by the new which the younger generation quickly adapts and creates a phenomenon.
Helga Long
PlayArt's Cool Factor
By Ernst Lurker
PlayArt is a worldwide art movement founded in 1962 that now includes more than 1,000 members. Numerous pioneers go back to earlier times. Searching the name on the internet, the search results have gone from one billion to more than three billion. However, the vast majority of the sites have nothing to do with the art form. Some search engines show everything but PlayArt. So, what on earth created this chaos?

It is true, PlayArt has its own website and it can be found often at the very top of the search results. But the internet is inundated with millions of misappropriated PlayArt sites, and their multifarious content is truly astonishing and overwhelming.

To separate the real thing from the countless emulators, let's quickly recall the essence of PlayArt, the art form. It is the intention of PlayArt artists to have their works touched, manipulated and experienced. The most innovative aspect of PlayArt is the introduction of play as a subject of art. The core premise of its philosophy is the idea that play is the source of creativity and the foundation of culture. This thinking is supported by artists, scientists and philosophers from Plato to Einstein. Museums and cities around the world have been involved in this art form in a variety of ways. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had a major exhibition planned in 1969. The Munich Olympics (1972) featured PlayArt on a large scale and coordinated the entire cultural program under the umbrella of the "Spielstrasse" (Play-Street). The city of Berlin started the creation of a PlayArt museum. These efforts and a few others unfortunately became victim of unforeseen events; the last one was the global financial crisis.

This crisis was largely caused by the notorious 1%, the moguls of the financial world, and interestingly, they are also very much in charge of the art world. They invest in art and they sit on the boards of museums. This is a serious issue (primarily in the US, less in Europe) and it was brought into focus by the "Occupy Museums" movement, a parallel demonstration to Occupy Wall Street. All the seminal events in the PlayArt movement had ultimately no financial impact and consequently they could easily be ignored by the art establishment. However, while the artwork was virtually shunned, the name PlayArt had sufficient momentum and became extremely popular, particularly after the internet became a dominating factor in mass communication. In fact, the name went viral; it became a free-for-all and proliferated into countless fields that were only marginally related to the original PlayArt or often not at all.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, coined a fitting expression for this kind of phenomenon. He called concepts that replicate in unpredictable ways, penetrate our culture and take on a life of their own "memes." They provide the framework for his hypothesis of cultural evolution. Since such memes are not always copied perfectly, he also later referred to them as "mutations of the mind." A common definition of the term "meme" is an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. Some memes cross borders and penetrate cultures more easily than others. A significant distinction for PlayArt is that it is not tied to a single culture; in spite of its English language origin, it has by now become a global art form, and not only the artwork but the name as well.

The PlayArt phenomenon, with all its countless mutations, certainly fulfills all the requirements of Dawkins' definition. However, it also stands out by its immense number of variations. It appears in virtually every language and it ignores virtually all boundaries of terminological categorizations.

How can this be explained? It appears that the name carries a certain "cool factor". It is a memorable designation and appeals primarily to a young segment of the population. These people have a fairly good idea of the powerful concept of combining art and play. They are intrigued by the profound implications when play, creativity and culture are viewed on equal and complementary terms. By contrast most curators and art dealers are likely to be uneasy with these ideas. For the art establishment there is something too capricious about the term PlayArt, and the combination of the two words sounds incongruous and unsuitable. Most curators maintain that the name needs to be abandoned in favor of more euphemistic and serious-sounding terms such as interactive, variable, transformable, participatory art, etc. They also object to the fact that PlayArt is meant to be touched and manipulated, inconceivable requirements in any art museum or gallery environment where, to the contrary, the do-not-touch rule is strictly enforced. Art collectors, who frequently adhere to a rather materialistic orientation where monetary values supersede cultural ones, actually find it abhorrent that artwork could deteriorate and lose its value through its intended usage. Museums, of course, share these attitudes and keep the audience at a safe distance. In short, PlayArt does not fit into our stifling society; the establishment considers it to be a nasty nuisance.

Within the context of art, the subject of play is perhaps even more of a disturbing factor. It is frequently considered infantile, trivial and frivolous, consequently not respectable enough to be the subject of the sublime and serious sphere of art. One curator labeled PlayArt a trivialization of art; another maintained that the term would not be taken seriously during our lifetime. Curiously, many self appointed experts are quite furious about the outlandish idea that art should become some kind of plaything, and most curators claim they would not be able to get funding for such an undignified subject.

Obviously, all these negative reactions are seriously off the mark. They betray a critical lack of knowledge of the philosophical background of play (mentioned earlier). The critics are also helplessly out of touch with the tectonic shifts that are happening in full view. Admittedly, PlayArt goes beyond the established norms in the art world. It even invalidates certain taboos, but it certainly represents significant progress. As the National Institute for Play proclaims, it unlocks the human potential through play in all stages of life and helps us to discover all that play has to teach us about transforming our world. In this respect the institute and the art movement are pursuing identical goals. We are literally witnessing a cultural turning point.

This means that some fundamental changes are happening, and in fact, our society is clearly moving in these directions. In the mid nineties the foremost play theoretician, Brian Sutton-Smith, predicted that the 21st century would become the "century of play" (see his letter). He maintained that the playful artists of that time were the "forecast" of these inevitable changes. Today our youth culture is already fully immersed in these predicted play activities, and the name PlayArt became a virtual symbol for the new times, predominantly on the Internet.

Significant indicators of the changing times are the various types of museums, such as technical museums, science centers, and children's museums, to name a few. With the only exception of art museums, they have all reinvented themselves and are today primarily interactive, hands-on institutions. Consequently, art museums are missing an enormously important development. The situation is reminiscent of the times when the Impressionists were rejected by the Salon, the French art establishment of that period. For thirty years they had to exhibit at a photographer's studio.

Today culture is moving forward in a more dynamic and democratic way. Cultural institutions are no longer the sole harbingers and custodians of culture. Mass communication, the media, the internet, all play significant roles, and PlayArt is an extraordinary example of novel dissemination of cultural progress. This art form has been enabled by new technology and communication to make an impact. Now companies and establishments that cater primarily to the youth market have broadened their influence immensely, and they adopted particularly the name PlayArt in a liberal fashion and with abandonment. There is no system or leadership, and the advances happen often in haphazard, unpredictable ways. One of the first companies to adapt to these new circumstances was the now defunct Hong Kong-based toy company that produced die-cast and plastic miniature cars, trucks, trains and airplanes in the 1970s and '80s. This merchandise still represents a dominating number of internet sites. Many collectors and merchants are now posting their prized models on the internet and offer them for sale. The company's PlayArt logo is a ubiquitous presence on many of these sites.

The second most prominent group of PlayArt emulators or promoters on the internet are action-figure manufacturers and fans. Some large companies such as Disney and Microsoft saw in this area a very profitable market niche. With the huge success of movie spin-offs they've created a multi-billion dollar industry. Mickey Mouse, Batman and hundreds of similar cartoon characters are now PlayArt action figures. That's certainly a far-fetched development and could not have been predicted even by the most radical PlayArt artists. At trade shows some of these action figures are displayed in larger-than-life size dimensions.

While the preposterous appearance of cartoon characters under the designation of PlayArt comes as an immense surprise to most of us, it is by no means an entirely new phenomenon in the art world. Cartoons or comics, animated or not, have been part of our culture for roughly 200 years. This material was generally regarded as "low art", but was then "referenced" or "appropriated" by artists of the Pop Art movement, primarily by Roy Lichtenstein in the 1960s. Ever since, the line between one kind of art and the other has become more and more blurry. Even kitsch, originally considered as the exact opposite of art, or minimally as mass culture, has infiltrated galleries and museums en masse. The original Mickey Mouse film, Steamboat Willie, and many other titles are in the permanent film collection of MoMA. The museum also exhibited animation cells by Disney and Pixar on various occasions. One of the more recent examples of this migration into the sphere of high art are the three copies of the Disney character "Snow White Dwarf (Bashful)," a plastic sculpture by Paul McCarthy. All three sold at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, 2011, for close to 1 million dollars each.

So, who is to say that Mickey Mouse cannot be a form of PlayArt?

Another extremely successful new business is the cultural phenomenon of video games with a huge following of gamers. A single video game took in $1 billion on its first day of sale, making it the biggest launch in the entertainment industry ever. The gamers are organized in countless teams and clubs with a plethora of competitions, trade shows and a very strong connection to the internet. PlayArt has numerous applications as a name for the organizations and for the visual presentations on the video screen. Video games are a new technological development in the computer industry, which seems to be the most powerful indicator that our society is moving towards a more playful culture. While the establishment is still clinging to rather outmoded values of the puritan work ethic, the younger generation is clearly moving in the opposite direction. Most digital technology has now become interactive, and the young consumers get bored when such possibilities are not available. Many members of the establishment don't even have an inkling of the new and different world of the younger generation, which already has a significant lead in technology and is very likely to continue its current course towards a new Play Ethic (see the book of the same title by Pat Kane, 2004). Interactive PlayArt seems to be at the intersection of the two cultures: the young generation embraces it; the establishment finds it incompatible with the status quo and usually fights it with considerable passion and anger.

Music publishers are another category that needed to jump into the youth market. Again they take advantage of the catchy PlayArt name and use it for numerous recording studios, CDs, concerts, music festivals, speakers, film and video production studios, even a PlayArt laboratory. Most of these establishments don't even come close to relating to the actual art form. It is difficult to imagine the plot of PlayArt, the Movie or The PlayArt Movie. Most of these name duplications use nevertheless an inter-related approach and they ride on the coattails of the successes of the other enterprises.

One of the new, cool and rebellious activities where the name PlayArt also appears is skateboarding, again a typical youth phenomenon. Skating goes back to the 1950s, has elements of choreography and acrobatics, and is one of the most creative action sports. In some estimates, currently 20 million skateboarders exist. However, the conservative Olympic bureaucracies have been arguing for a long time about its acceptance in the Olympic games. Many skaters are fiercely independent and want no involvement with Olympic rules and regulations, leave alone the commercial exploitation of winners or stars. There are some interesting similarities between skateboarders and PlayArt artists. In both fields, many believe that mainstream, institutional acceptance is neither possible nor desirable. Many artists are convinced that art museums will never be able to bridge the gap between conventional art that needs to be protected and progressive PlayArt that invites the public to get physically involved. A smaller number of them also believes that mass produced objects are superior in serving the ultimate goal, society's liberation from play inhibitions, and the resultant joy and creativity.

While skateboarding does not qualify as art, it is understandable that these performers gravitated to the name PlayArt. There seems to be a connection. However, there are numerous extremes at the other end of the spectrum where any kind of connection or similarity is utterly nonexistent. A typical example is Amazon with its various product categories. It offers PlayArt in two categories:

  1. Under home, garden and pets,
  2. Under outdoor furniture and décor.
Such obvious falsehoods cannot easily be excused as honest mistakes; they look more like objectionable opportunism.

Opportunism seems to be rampant in this area of copies and adaptations by the millions. There are PlayArt clubs, competitions, festivals, theater, film and design studios, birthday parties, summer camps, porcelain painting, furniture studios, costumes and clothing, souvenirs, sports events, organizations, corporations and merchandise of an amazing variety; the list is endless. (The illustrative video shows an abundance of examples in quick succession. They need to be seen to be believed.) The art "authorities" who object to the PlayArt name are really failing to understand the gravity of this cultural upheaval. Actually, the word combination PlayArt may by now be one of the most popular in the English language. It is even introduced verbatim in a number of other languages such as Greek, Russian, Chinese and Japanese, which show no similarity to our alphabet. How does this make sense? – These millions simply find the name cool and they have appropriated it with abandon on a global scale, whether it is suitable or not. Countless individuals use the name as an internet identity. What remains puzzling: how are average individuals in these foreign countries going to recognize and understand a complicated logo that consists of two English words? One answer is: we are dealing with a component of the youth culture, and young people around the world are generally quite familiar with the English language.

Without question, it has become clear that all these many young fans literally love the name and its multifarious, symbolic content. Their serious dedication is especially demonstrated by the very elaborate designs of the multitude of PlayArt logos. (Again, they need to be seen.) When millions appropriate a rather outstanding name, it is conceivable that not all of them go to such great length of redesigning the logo. Why not grab the existing logo as well? Believe it or not, that happens also on an international scale. In one example, the free-trader is a Russian website, and it was not immediately clear what the subject of the site is. Google can instantly translate such sites, and it turned out that it deals with team members of a gaming club who were active in Brazil. Another site is written in an unusual, exotic language, possibly Indonesian. At the translation command, Google drew a blank; consequently we don't even know the purpose of the site.

At any rate, this super-abundant dissemination of the PlayArt name and logo is clearly an indication that we are faced with the outgrowth of a mass culture. Typical promotional icons of this culture are T-shirts, buttons and balloons and they also appear in large numbers with the PlayArt logo. It is quite evident that these items are shown with pride, enthusiasm, even with exuberance. Many videos on the internet show such joyful people prancing around and demonstrating their icons of a new age. Thus the internet became a true game-changer. It is the main communicative medium for all these productions, it actually facilitated and magnified the proliferation of a radically new culture. That is no small accomplishment!

This entire scenario makes it quite obvious that PlayArt and its emulators are here to stay. The phenomenon has expanded beyond imagination. But this explosive proliferation was entirely unplanned. Most of these outcomes seem to be a byproduct of the controversial name, as it is objectionable and appealing at the same time. But it is important to state that none of the artists of the PlayArt movement intended to be cool. We are even critical of the entire thinking and practices that revolve around the concept of cool, especially the crude and vulgar exploitation by shrewd marketing and advertising companies. Admittedly, we currently have quite a state of chaos, and it has become difficult to separate the real thing from the countless emulators, as it requires a certain amount of expertise.

The actual art form, PlayArt, has already caused a considerable measure of democratization in art since most of the PlayArt players become artists themselves during the moments of their creative play. It will be a different world when more and more people will be able to be creative and artistic. Just like literacy, which grew from minimal beginnings to today's almost complete generalization, creativity is part of the human spirit and should not be limited to a select elite. The vehicles to reach this enlightened plateau are play and PlayArt.

In the art world all these results are a totally new and unique phenomenon. No other art form has ever had such a powerful and far-reaching effect. The enormous groundswell of the PlayArt proliferation makes it evident that our culture is moving in the direction of a more playful zeitgeist. The artists of the PlayArt movement were the frontrunners and trailblazers of this groundbreaking transformation and they have created the defining art form of the 21st century.

Ernst Lurker,
See Illustrations ->

Brian Sutton-Smith  |  Our Playful Culture  |  Museum Animation  |  PlayArt’s Cool Factor  |  Culture and Play in the Emirates

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