Friday, October 27, 2006

Elitism, and RPGs as Art

I have been planning to respond to John McLintock's Roleplaying as art? Not for me for a long time, and I'm finally getting round to it. McLintock's post infuriated me when I first read it - not because I get angry at people who think that roleplaying is not an art, but because of its rhetorical use of the word 'elitist', and its attempt to discredit art.

Let me make an important point right here at the start: the question whether RPGs are art is meaningless, just as meaningless as the question whether painting is art. Is there a hidden essence of RPGs or of painting, that may turn out to be 'art' or to be something else? Of course not. Rather, we can paint with many different goals; and we can look at paintings with many different 'eyes'. We can paint for fun, and judge the painting by how much fun we had making it. We can paint to express our hidden trauma's, and have our psycho-analyst look at the painting as a symptom the meaning of which has to be discovered. Or we can paint in order to create beauty, and use aesthetic criteria to judge the painting. In the latter case, painting has not suddenly become art, but we are judging our painting as art.

With RPGs it is the same. RPGs are not art; but we can judge both the game books and the actual play sessions using the criteria of art, and thus view RPGs as art. How could John McLintock deny this? With a very strong claim:

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'.

The very concept of art has been undermined. That is a discouraging, even catastrophic revelation! How did this undermining come to pass?

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.

On the surface, this is true. When we judge something as art, we judge it; we apply criteria; and thus we make a distinction between low and high. (Whether we call the high 'good art' and the low 'bad art', or the high 'art' and the low 'not art' is a merely linguistic matter. I will use the first convention.)

But of course, we make such distinctions all the time, and not only in the context of art. So I gather that McLintock means something deeper: artistic criteria are not merely used to seperate good and bad art, but they are supposed to divide the sublime from the not-sublime; they are the most important criteria there are.

The idea that good art is the highest thing there is can be defended, I suppose. I, personally, would be willing to argue that in general good art is better than good fun. But I don't see how this conception that artistic criteria are the most important criteria is inherent in the concept of art itself. It seems to be something external, something tagged on to the idea of art. There is the idea of art, and then there is the idea that art is the highest good - McLintock conflates the two.

But let us go back to that tragic history of undermining.

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. [...] 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. [...] '[A]rt' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

This is not immediately enlightening. In what sense are artistic criteria founded on a "fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins"? Apparently, at least something that is contradicted by everything now being a matter of personal taste. And, sure enough, if everything is a matter of personal tast, then there can be no artistic criteria - there can be no criteria at all, but only the whim of the moment.

Reading the rest of the article, one sees that the thesis is never developed with sufficient clarity, but one gets the impression that the most important word is elitist. What, if I read McLintock rightly, according to him is so great about the destruction of the concept of art is that (1) an elitist conception of the sublime has been abolished; (2) this conception has been replaced by a consumerist conception of the sublime, articulated by the masses, which (3) boils down to "it's all largely a matter of personal taste now"; and (4), in the case of roleplaying games at least, this conception equates the sublime with the fun.

How absolutely horrible.

Perhaps Harry Potter is 'fun' to read, but can anyone seriously consider it to be a better book than Paradise Lost? Should our high schools and universities teach their students Dan Brown or Shakespeare? Britney Spears or Bach?

A culture in which fun is the measure of all things is a culture without soul, a culture in which people do not strive for excellence of character and for wisdom. A culture in which all standards have been abolished and everything is left to the subjective sense of enjoyment is a culture which has lost its greatness - and it will soon enough rue it.

You can call me elitist. If being elitist means to say that yes, there are standards, valuable standards that you too should learn to apply and appreciate, which divide Shakespeare, Milton, Proust and Kafka from Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling and who knows what other crappy writers - then I am elitist, and proud of it.

But I don't think 'elitist' is the right word here. You can find Shakespeare and Milton on the web, for free, available to everyone. That's not elitist; it's as anti-elitist as it gets. Maybe they are hard to read, but that's what schools are for, and dictionaries, and if you persevere you too can penetrate them. You'll be enriched by it. Everyone will be enriched by these texts that are available to everyone and able to speak to everyone - how less elitist can you become?

Or is 'elitist' the term that people use to label those that say that they should sacrifice some of their 'fun' in order to grow? Is it the resentment that the child that wants to watch television feels against his parents that tell him to do his homework, which is speaking to us through this word 'elitist'?

I do not wish to suggest to John McLintock is a child who'd rather play roleplaying games than do his homework. But we should realise that the mere fact that you and I like roleplaying games does not prove that it is a good thing that we spend our time playing them. (Unless it be in those moments we just need to relax.) I do think it is a good thing, and I have discussed some of the reasons for that in this blog; others you can think up yourself. That we like it, however, is not enough.

For luckily, there are standards other than 'liking'; standards that we can call on in order to rise above ourselves and reach that height of spirit which we can always strive for, if never quite attain.


  1. wow. his is quite interesting..who knew?

  2. No offense to you or John McLintock, Victor, but if you folks really want to moonlight as aestheticians, you might want to play catch-up with recent developments in art theory, since really smart people have spent a lot of time discussing all of this.

    I suggest Noel Carroll's book Theories of Art Today, which contains essays by some of the West's best aestheticians.

  3. I have not read that particular book, but I have read Carroll's Philosophy of Art. How distinctly I recall the parade of attempted 'definitions' of 'art', only to end with some luke-warm compromise! The dark side of analytic philosophy was all too clear in the book, and it is no wonder that I wrote the final essay for the course we read it in on Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.

    Anyway, what I really want to say is - can you indicate some specific point in my post that would have benefited from a better acquaintance with contemporary aesthetics? Because I don't really have the idea that I said anything philosophically controversial, except for my condemnation of what Harold Bloom calls the 'Culture of Resentment' - something that is not exclusively the terrain of the philosophy of art.