Art Is a Game
C. Thi Nguyen on why the struggle (with art) is real
We struggle to understand art. We pore over the details; we search for the best interpretations. We argue with each other, fighting over whether a work is brilliant or pretentious. We trade ‘Best of All Time’ lists and then quibble about the rankings. But why do we seem to care so mightily about getting things right? We can’t we just relax and take whatever pleasures we can?
Here’s my suggestion: The struggle is actually the point. We don’t study art and have long conversations about it just in order to understand the art. It’s actually the other way around. We take on the task of trying to understand art so that we may have those delightful conversations and be propelled into those wonderful studies. We have shaped our practice of art appreciation for the joys of the process. We engage with art for the satisfactions of the struggle—for the pleasures of careful attention, interpretation, and evaluation. In this way, art appreciation is like a game. In a game, the goals and restrictions shape the gaming activity, fine-tuning it into just the kind of struggle we wish to be absorbed in.
And thinking of art appreciation as a kind of game will help us to understand some of the oddly Byzantine ‘rules’ of art appreciation. It will help us resolve a long-running debate about the value of independent judgement in art appreciation. Consider: There are two norms of art appreciation that seem deeply in tension. On the one hand, we seem to care about making correct judgements. We want our beliefs and judgements to match the fine details of the artworks. On the other hand, we seem to also value a radical independence of mind. We are supposed to judge the Van Gogh for ourselves, to experience its strange twisting bubbling life for ourselves. We are supposed to decide for ourselves whether Kanye’s new album is a tragic overreach, a misunderstood masterpiece, or a lazy sell-out. We seem to think that an we should not declare that an artwork is beautiful or failed, based simply on the testimony of another. We are supposed to judge art for ourselves.
But these two demands seem deeply at odds. Elsewhere in intellectual life, our interest in correctness usually trumps the demand for independence. When we want to get it right, we usually defer to experts. I defer to my doctor about what medicines to take; I defer to my mechanic about which repairs my car needs. Even the scientific experts need to depend on thousands of other experts. So: if we really care about getting things right with art, shouldn’t we also defer to experts there, too? After all, Beethoven may give me all kinds of rich, shimmering feelings and responses, but I know so little of the music theory that is apparently required to understand much of what Beethoven is doing. If I wanted to have the right judgements about Beethoven, shouldn’t I just defer to some classical music expert? But such deference seems to miss something crucial about the whole activity of art appreciation. Here’s one traditional explanation: such deferences misses the essential subjectivity of aesthetic judgement. It would be absurd defer to others in our aesthetic judgements, if those judgements were just expressions of our own subjective responses.
I wish, here, to offer a very different explanation. It could very well be that some aesthetic judgements are objective. But the reason we pursue those right answers are different with art appreciation than with many other objective domains. In science, we care about actually getting the right answers. But with art appreciation, we care most about engaging in the activity of trying to get it right—about going through the whole process of looking and searching and imagining and interpreting. This is why we don’t defer to experts. Correct judgements are the goal, but not the purpose, of art appreciation. The value of art appreciation lies in the activity of trying to get correct judgements, rather than actually having made correct judgements.
The games analogy is quite useful here. With a puzzle game, we don’t just look up the answers online. We avoid deferring to the experts who have already solved the puzzles. But the reason we don’t defer to experts here is not because the solutions are subjective. For many puzzles, there is, indeed, a single objectively correct solution. And if the whole point of the exercise was simply to have the correct solution, then we should proceed to that solution by the most efficient means possible, which often will be looking it up online. But often we don’t just look it up online, because the whole point of the activity is to try and figure it out for ourselves.
To understand this point better, we need to distinguish between goals and purposes. The local goal of an activity is what you aim at and pursue during the activity. The purpose of an activity is your reason for taking it up in the first place; it is the real value you find in the activity. For some players, goal and purpose can be identical, or close to it: like the Olympic athlete trying to win because they really just want to win; or the professional poker player trying to win because they want the money that follows from winning. But for many other players, goal and purpose sharply diverge. A lot of the time, my purpose in going rock climbing is to relax and shut up the endless, nattering voice in my head. But in order to relax, I have to throw myself into the local goal of getting to the top of the rock. I need local dedication in order to fully absorb myself in the climb—and that absorption is exactly what I need to clear my head. But in the larger scheme of things, I don’t really care if I get to the top. If I spend the day failing and failing, but go home mentally and spiritually refreshed, then it is a day well spent.
There are, then, two very different motivational structures that can be involved with playing games. First, one could be engaged in ‘achievement play’—playing a game for the value of winning itself (or something that follows from the win, like money). Second, one could be engaged in ‘striving play’—playing a game for the value of the struggle (or something that follows from that struggle, like fitness or relaxation). Notice that, for a striving player to have that desirable struggle, they have to actually try to win. But winning isn’t the point for them; playing is.
If you doubt that striving play is a real motivational possibility, consider the existence of what we might call ‘stupid games’. A stupid game is a game where, first, the fun part is failing and, second, you have to try to win in order to have fun. Examples include Twister, the children’s game of Telephone, and most drinking games. The funny part in Twister is when you fall. But it isn’t funny if you fell on purpose. Falling is only funny as a genuine failure, and it’s only a genuine failure if you were sincerely trying to succeed.
Stupid games make obvious our capacity for striving play. In the game, we pursue success, but success is not what we actually value. Our purpose is to experience hysterical failure. More broadly: We can see the difference between goals and purposes in all sorts of enjoyable gaming. Suppose I throw a board game night with friends. Many games are fun only if the players are really absorbed in the struggle. To have fun, I need to genuinely try to win. But if I lose the game, I haven’t thereby wasted the evening. What really matters is not whether I won or lost, but whether I had fun in the attempt. Only a truly poor sport would think otherwise.
Striving play involves a motivational inversion. In ordinary, practical life, we take the means for the sake of the end. But in striving play, we take the ends for the sake of the means. We pick goals for the sake of the struggle that they will force us through.
My suggestion is that art appreciation is another kind of striving activity. We aim at getting correct judgements about art, but getting correct judgements isn’t the actual point. If correctness were our real purpose, then we should do all we can to get the right answers—which would often involve deferring to experts. But such deference would miss the point. It is far better to try engage with the art for yourself, even if doing it on your own leads to all kinds of mistakes. The value of art appreciation lies in our engagement in the process of untangling the art for ourselves. And the kind of person who buries their nose in the guidebook, and only hazards those opinions that have been vetted by experts, makes the same mistake as the bad sport, who despairs that they lost that silly party game. They bring an achievement mindset into an activity that has been engineered to produce delightful striving. The guidebook obsessive is assuming that art appreciation is an achievement-oriented activity—that you win at art when you get all the right judgements.
Let’s call this the ‘engagement account’ of art appreciation: that the primary value of art appreciation lies in the process of generating correct judgements, and not in having correct judgements. The engagement account helps us see exactly what’s wrong with deferring to experts. Deferring to art experts is like playing a puzzle game and then looking up all the answers online. It mistakes the local goal for the larger purpose, and misses the whole point of the activity.
The point here isn’t that we have to do absolutely everything for ourselves. The engagement account does not demand that we forsake trusting others entirely. For example, the account doesn’t deny the value of art education. The engagement account says that we can trust others with art and learn from them, so long as that trust is a starting point and an aid for our own journeys, and not an endpoint. We can let others suggest new ways of looking at art, directing our attention to details we’ve missed—so long as we use their directions to foster further active engagement of our own. The engagement account looks kindly upon the forms of aesthetic trust that catapult you further into more engagement, and looks poorly on the kind of subservience that short-circuits personal engagement.
But why aim at correctness in the first place? Why not just revel sensuously in pure imaginative freedom? Why not believe whatever you want and ignore whatever details you feel like ignoring? The analogy with games suggests an answer. In games, we adopt particular goals and restrictions, because those goals will catapult us into a very specific form of activity. In rock climbing, we take up an artificial goal: to get to the top of the cliff the hard way. We accept artificial restrictions: no helicopters, no pulleys, don’t pull on the rope or gear, advance only using your hands and feet on natural features of the rock itself. Such restrictions often strike rock climbing novices as bizarre. ‘Why’, they often ask, ‘can’t we just pull on the rope? It’s so much easier!’. The answer is that if you’re allowed to pull yourself up with the rope, then most climbs turn into the same boring slog: endless pulling yourself up with a few simple movements. But when you’re only allowed to use the natural features of the rock, then you have to pay attention to the endlessly varying features of the rock. You have to search the rock for subtle ripples and pockets, to invent novel solutions to an ever-changing array of details. The rules of rock climbing sculpt an endlessly variable, challenging, and ever-renewing activity of careful attention and responsive creativity. We take on those odd constraints because we love that process.
Art appreciation, I’m suggesting, is a similarly constructed practice. We take on the goal of correctness, while adopting the constraint of thinking it through for ourselves, in order to sculpt for ourselves a particular form of careful, engaged, creative attention—an attention that must forge itself anew, in response to every new artwork. And we construct the targets of that appreciation—the art objects themselves—to call forth and foster that peculiar, lovingly detailed form of attention.
And the engagement account explains why we often value art that is subtle and complex. The process of engagement is too quick with obvious, explicit art. But subtle and ambiguous art sustains a long and satisfyingly involved processes of engagement. We are pursuing correctness, not for the sake of correctness itself, but to be absorbed in the process of trying. So we have tried to create an activity that tempts us with a possible conclusion, but always yields up some new, fresh possibility to explore. We want our life with an artwork to be an open-ended, never-ending conversation, and not something that can be finished with some final, decisive argument.
This exposes a deep difference between science and morality, on the one hand, and art appreciation, on the other. After all, if we figured out the great mysteries of medicine, or came up with a final answer that solved our moral dilemmas, we might feel a little relieved. If somebody wrote a book that solve all the dilemmas of ethics, I would want certainly want to read it for myself, and to encourage others to read it, too. But if somebody wrote a manual which explained, once and for all, every mystery and ambiguity in The Brothers Karamazov—which offered a definitive and convincing interpretation of every moment—then I suspect I would feel quite saddened. I would feel that something truly wondrous had been drained from the world. And I, for one, wouldn’t want to read it.