PlayArt Play Art Logo
The twenty-first century will be the century of play
Brian Sutton-Smith
Choose Essay:
Leo's Obstacles
By Ernst Lurker
The late Leo Castelli, in his time the art dealer number one, was convinced of the importance of PlayArt and after his letter, he personally contacted his liaisons at five major institutions to create interest in this movement. (He mentioned names, but this is not the place to divulge them.) Usually, when Castelli backed specific artwork it had a decisive impact, but against all expectations, this time his professional opinion amounted to nothing. – What happened? And what does this mean? Leo, as he was affectionately called, collided with three formidable principles of the "art world." Overcoming these impervious obstacles may be nearly impossible. As questionable as they are, they are nevertheless firmly entrenched in our culture.

1.The do not touch policy.
2.PlayArt undermines the powerful financial forces of the art market.
3.Play, as a subject of art, cannot be funded in serious society.

The first rule is universal in art museums and completely taken for granted. Most museum pieces are huge financial investments and need to be protected from accidental or purposeful damage. Elaborate alarm systems and eagle-eyed guards make sure nothing ever happens to these treasures. There are numerous art works that seem to be too tempting and virtually ask to be touched. In this case they are roped off or even put under glass. The public must be kept at a safe distance at all costs. In the eyes of most curators, this laborious system is simply inevitable. However, it certainly has created a very unpleasant and artificial atmosphere, an exaggerated aura of untouchability and it enforced an objectionable distance between artwork and viewer. It makes the museum visitor feel like a barely tolerated intruder or like an outsider locked out of an inner sanctum.

Numerous artists have rebelled against this situation. The art philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer writes:

It is one of the primary motives of modern art to abolish the distance which the viewer, the consumer, the audience maintain vis-à-vis a work of art. There is no doubt that the leaders of the creative artists of the last 50 years concentrated their efforts mainly on eliminating that distance.

Interestingly, not only artists have recognized and criticized this deplorable situation. With the single exception of art museums, all other types of museums have changed to so-called "interactive" or "hands-on" displays. This transformation has happened over the last fifty years or more, and it was recognized that interactive museum shows draw three times as many visitors as conventional ones.

The second obstacle is the colossal edifice of the powerful financial interests. The fact that the operating principles of art museums, galleries and auction houses are entirely money driven has disturbed conceptual artists in particular. They maintain that financial and speculative considerations are extraneous elements to art and seriously pervert our culture. They criticized the incongruous calamity that works of art have primarily become commodities while the creativity and the communication have been devalued. To bring this frenetic money machine to a halt, these artists have stopped creating tangible objects altogether. Their output consists of documentations of ideas, which no one can own. The perishable PlayArt objects also disturb the status quo of the financial establishment; they are another blow to this money machine. - As it stands, the financial control of the museum world and the resulting policing of the public are in full force, and they will not disappear very soon.

The third obstacle was the subject of "play." This obstacle is also very much intact today but it is more insidious than the other two. The negative attitudes toward play are quite common but often subliminal and not even consciously known or acknowledged. Curators or art critics can write pages about PlayArt artists; they can lecture and appear in videos without mentioning the word "play" even once. Such systematic avoidance of a particular concept is difficult to explain, but in this case it is an obvious victimization of a culture that stigmatized play as superfluous, infantile, frivolous and a waste of time, an anachronistic leftover of the puritan work ethic. With such attitudes, curators worry about their reputation, they are afraid that their curatorial work is not taken seriously, and they are convinced that the funding sources will frown upon such undignified and foolish proposals and requests. This kind of mindset can be characterized as "ludophobia." (An additional essay examines this subject in more detail.)

Suffice it to say; under these circumstances, Leo’s attempts to establish PlayArt in the museum world were destined to fail. It is quite clear that PlayArt is simply unacceptable in the conventional art museum. The art form is totally incompatible with the present orientation toward the irreplaceable, invaluable museum piece, which can never be accessible for touching and playing.

Since the creation of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), a true work of PlayArt, almost 100 years have passed. Since then, art has progressed way beyond the static and unresponsive creations of previous times, and there is no question that PlayArt will become an essential force in the future. In the words of Leo Castelli, "it promises to have a significant impact on our society." The prominent play theorist and author of numerous books, Brian Sutton-Smith wrote in 1990:

It is my opinion that the next century will be the century of play.

PlayArt is here to stay; in fact it will most likely become a dominant art form in the foreseeable future. The computer age, the Internet, video games and the thousands of interactive museums have all prepared the way. However, our art museums were left behind in this rapid evolution. Neither conceptionally nor physically are they equipped to handle this new phenomenon, and they are unlikely to move in this direction.

This situation is reminiscent of a very sad precedent. When the French impressionists were rejected by the salon, the art establishment of the time, it turned out to be the biggest blunder in the history of art. For several years, about 30 artists were forced to exhibit at the studio of the photographer Nadar and were ridiculed by art critics as soon as they opened. Ironically, the impressionists were the true pioneers of modern art, whereas thousands of paintings the salon showed at the time are completely forgotten today and collect dust in museum basements. In hindsight, this grave misjudgment changed the course of art criticism, which afterwards proceeded with much more caution and openness towards creativity. It is therefore believed that such blunders are no longer possible today.

Only history will tell how the PlayArt movement will have to be assessed. When the plans for a Museum of PlayArt in Berlin became a victim of the global financial crisis, there were more than 1,000 artists on the program. This is a number to contemplate.

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

News  |  PlayArt Team  |  Contact