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The twenty-first century will be the century of play
Brian Sutton-Smith
Choose Essay:
Play keeps us vital and alive.
It gives us enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable.
Without it, life just doesn’t taste good.
Lucia Capacchione (best-selling author and therapist)
By Ernst Lurker
On a trip to Italy, my wife and I were guests at Miguel Berrocal’s villa near Verona. Miguel (1933-2006) was one of the leading members of the PlayArt movement, and we were discussing various plans for exhibitions, etc. when some patrons, an elderly American couple, also arrived. Over the years, they had collected a large number of his intriguing puzzle sculptures; in fact, he was their favorite artist.

Berrocal with family

During dinner, we discussed some philosophical aspects of his work and Miguel stated, "Play is the key to my work." The American woman was aghast and incensed, responding "How can you say such a thing?" as if he had committed the worst possible faux pas. I then asked them whether they had ever taken Miguel’s sculptures apart and assembled them again in order to point out that this is actually play. In response, her husband stated, "Only my little niece can do that. I could not possibly put them together again." And he was proud of it. For him, play was for children. He couldn’t have anything to do with it. It almost looked like they wanted to return Berrocal’s sculptures if play is what they are all about. I never found out what other important content they saw in them. While Berrocal used names such as Carmen, Odalisque, Goliath, etc., the fact remains he did not make a statement about such mythological figures. They are simply a means to an end, which is play. If you are looking for any literary meanings, you are misinterpreting the art. At any rate, the evening was certainly a demonstration that the concept of PlayArt touches a very sensitive nerve in some individuals. One annoyed painter regarded PlayArt, in light of the ominous global situation, as the ultimate diversion of a decadent, pampered and overindulgent society. A backward curator from the old school declared it a trivialization of art.

While many artists enthusiastically embrace the play principle in their art, there is also a large segment that seems to be victimized by the prevailing attitudes. Even artists whose work literally invites play sometimes have compunctions about using that term. Instead they choose categorizations such as participatory, dynamic, or variable sculpture. Individual pieces carry names such as metamorphosis, transformations, transfigurations, permutations, multipli-cations and polymorphic volumes, I suspect, to wrap them in a cloak of science and respectability. Much of this art actually flourishes in science museums, which contributes to the fact that it remains a largely unrecognized art form and a similar jargon of disguise has evolved. One speaks of audience involvement and participation, of touching and manipulation, of interactive, hands-on and experiential exhibits, of performance pieces, recreational learning, personal discovery and "infotainment," apparently to appease corporate sponsors and government institutions that might frown upon fun and play in such places. There is an extreme number of euphemisms used to camouflage this joyful human activity. Even art critics and curators, expected to be in the vanguard of perception, write about that subject and prefer to call the play element (which all these manifestations of this art form have in common) the ludic element (Latin: ludus = play). A playful museum show was described: As people lining up to use response stations and interactive devices that were placed for their benefit.

Looking at all this phobic avoidance of play, or simply the shunning of the word alone, it becomes clear that there is an enormous effort invested in this phenomenon. One would think that society is seriously attempting to protect a valuable cultural treasure or a level of sophistication that must not be sacrificed under any circumstances. The surprising fact is, however, these evasive tactics actually represent a form of impoverishment. All these commonly used substitutes for "play" such as interactive, participatory, etc. are empty shells compared to the rich philosophical underpinnings of play. We have entire libraries on the subject of play, there are play institutes and play museums. It is impossible to summarize the wealth of thought that deals with play. We are dealing with all of culture and creativity, with human development and happiness, just to name a few of the highlights. As a comparison, we cannot talk about the symphonic music of Beethoven or Mozart and limit our language to such basic terms as "notes" or "sound." When a curator suggests, "lose the word play," it amounts to exactly that kind of restriction and impoverishment. We need to become aware of this incongruous mechanism that perpetuates our misplaced negative attitudes.

In essence, this negativity toward play bears a strong resemblance to the ancient principle of taboos which have always presented mixed blessings in art and in science. For instance, in medieval times, the only permissible art was religious art, with sacred and holy figures alone deemed worthy of depiction. All earthly matters – even still lifes, portraits and landscapes - were considered profane and evil, leading to sin and damnation. In those days, the painting of a nude was completely unthinkable. Botticelli, for example, was victimized by this culture of superstition and religious domination. He felt compelled to burn his worldly, and therefore "sinful," pictures; worse, he stopped painting.

Both science and the arts created opposing forces to this stifling and suppressive atmosphere and our (Western) culture became more and more secularized. Today, the majority of these taboos have become severely disempowered or completely abandoned. In fact, one of the most recent and hottest trends is "shock art" which makes us wonder whether there are any taboos left at all. This kind of art is by no means new. With his notorious urinal ("Fountain" 1917), Duchamp can be regarded as the originator of the principle of shock value. His creation was so disturbing and embarrassing that the exhibition committee refused to put it on display at the time. Only the name of the art form has changed since then. Duchamp used the name "Dada." Today, the newer incarnations of such creations include animal cadavers, excrement, blood and urine, often also imagery of violence, sexual and antireligious content.

These developments are startling in themselves. They become even more outlandish when one considers that these works now command prices that dwarf the top financial heavyweights of the past, the artists Picasso, Warhol, and Dali. Damien Hirst, the leader of this new group was, at the age of 42, worth £130 million, more than the other three combined. Obviously, these financial machinations are driven by a group of extremely wealthy investors, collectors and art dealers. With auction manipulations, superstar promotions and clever branding, they have made art into gamesmanship and the ultimate commodity. In addition they have become the tastemakers of our times. Consequently, many museums and collectors have gone into competition and into a virtual frenzy to become owners of these desired trophies.

One of the notorious creations of Damien Hirst is his dead shark suspended in a tank of a 5% formaldehyde solution. The piece sold for $12 million. The solution turned out to be too weak. The shark started to disintegrate; it needed to be replaced and put into a stronger solution. The most interesting aspect about this event is that it did not affect the price or the status of the work, in contrast to similar issues with PlayArt. The potential of PlayArt sculptures needing repairs or replacements was always considered a serious drawback of this art form, thus museums and collectors often did not allow it in their collections. Some few exceptions were put under glass in order to avoid any damage.

Considering the current state of affairs in the art world, taboos really sound like an anachronism. The "hardcore" taboos of the past have even become the biggest moneymakers. So, it comes as a remarkable surprise that the humble subject of play seems to have filled that niche. When accusations such as "decadent diversion" and "trivialization of art" get hurled at PlayArt, it is the only conclusion one can draw. A considerable number of opponents of play also display an inappropriate amount of anger. PlayArt threatens their structured equilibrium and their work ethic. In this state, they try to degrade play artists as misfits and dropouts who cannot be taken seriously.

In the final analysis, when a taboo looses its purpose and becomes outmoded, we generally experience this as a form of liberalization as we are less confined and limited. Obviously, this also represents a step forward and a contribution to society at large. However, since a significant segment of our population is still avoiding play and makes it a taboo, at least in the cultural or artistic realm, it is clear that this taboo, while still alive, is also drastically outmoded. In fact, it has been clearly established that any kind of negativity towards play is counterproductive and destructive. Such attitudes stifle creativity and damage all of culture; they hinder human development and seriously diminish our happiness and fulfillment. Consequently, PlayArt is not only a valid artistic expression, it can also help us dislodge the useless taboo against play.

But since the taboo is so far by no means eradicated, how do we explain this irrational, even emotional, antagonism? It appears that we are still very much victims of a culture that stigmatized play, a leftover of the stern times of the Puritans. The early Puritans considered hard work a religious duty and led a life of severe and unremitting discipline. Drinking, dancing, playing games of chance or musical instruments and participating in theatrical performances were penal offenses. There were ordinances against desecrating the Sabbath by sporting and horse-racing, even against traveling and boarding a ship. Exact fines for first, second, and third offenses were written into law. Individuals who were unwilling or unable to pay were to be whipped, "not exceeding five Strypes for ten Shillings Fine." Historians describe the Puritans’ fear and hatred of lighter diversions and unseemly laughter, their conviction that evil came along with idleness and leisure: "No Person, Householder or other, shall spend his Time idly or unprofitably under the Pain of Punishment." The Puritans even completely banned all church festivities and issued a law against church weddings and Catholic holidays: "Whosoever shall be found observing any such Day as Christmas or the like either by forbearing Labour, by feasting, or by any other Way, shall pay for every such Offense five Shillings as a Fine to the County." (Source: H. P. Wagner (1982) Puritan Attitudes towards Recreation in Early seventeenth-century New England. Frankfurt, Verlag Peter Lang.)

Obviously and fortunately, most of that repressive atmosphere has been overcome in our Western society, and this is not the place to discuss the archaic Taliban or fanatical Islam where delusional religious fervor reaches pathological mass hysteria. Yet we don’t have to go that far to find extremists on our own home turf where some fundamentalists actually advocate a return to a life of radical discipline and self-denial. The following paragraph is quoted from a recent, Christian pamphlet:

The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. (I Corinthians 10:7) This characterized God’s church in the wilderness. Some Christians picnic, travel, vacation, Disneyworld, and seek entertainment until they are spiritually impoverished or dead, and God doesn’t answer their prayers. These pleasures are gods to America’s Sick Society and worldly Church! Are you one of these? If so, shame on you!

It would be difficult and costly to get an exact reading on the prevalence of this righteous mindset. To a large degree, people are not even aware of it and this kind of thinking festers insidiously in the subconscious. Whether the numbers are large or small, it is certain that play and leisure are an emotionally and religiously tainted issue for a sizable segment of the population, primarily in the US, much less in Europe.

To the extent that we are at odds with play, when we are ashamed and allow feelings of guilt and inferiority to interfere with our play, we are victims of this repressive, religious dogmatism. As long as play is still considered infantile, undignified, trivial and frivolous, possibly even a sinful waste of time, we are faced with the remnants of an outmoded way of life. When it happens that puritanical bureaucrats and politicians presume to be authorities on art or consider themselves to be moral guardians, when they meddle in art and discredit play and playful artwork in museums, then we have a cultural outrage of serious proportions.

Ernst Lurker


Stuart Brown, M.D.
The phobic avoidance of is pervasive beyond art, believe me.
Best wishes,

Ernst Lurker
Thank you, Stuart.
The example in your book, play was, in fact, very much to the point. You relate an experience during a conference where you spoke about play. During a coffee break, you were accosted with “outright hostility.” A participant of the conference stated: “You are being inaccurate. You are being irresponsible telling people to play. What are you, a hippie?”

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

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