Play is for people.
“Art in its essence is neither practical nor religious. It is play.”
– Carl Schmitt
A friend posted this quote on Facebook with the caption: “Food for thought.” Being an artist and an art enthusiast, it caught my attention and even bothered me. I parsed Schmitt’s statement over and over again, and I think I finally understand what he is claiming.
Art is like “play” in the sense that it’s not “practical.” It is something done for its own sake.
“What do you play?”
Every time I tell someone I was in a band during college, I’m asked the question “what do you play?” For at least three years I hesitated to call myself a musician because I felt mediocre and incompetent. In my mind, if I couldn’t play scales proficiently or read music fluently, then I wasn’t a musician.
Finally, only after recording two EPs and writing over twenty songs, did I consider myself a musician, still uncertain as to what that actually meant.
Think about the concept of the game. You can imagine any game you like: football, tennis, Scrabble, billiards. As long as your idea of the game involves activity, exertion or effort of some kind, which is directed toward an objective or goal, then it is a “game.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “game” as “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.” Play anything too much or too long, and your parents or friends will demand that you do something “productive” or practical.
“Play” is the essence of art, according to Carl Schmitt.
He is on to something. It’s true: art isn’t practical in the sense that it provides temporal sustenance, serves a purely practical purpose or solves temporal problems. Neither is it strictly religious. While there is certainly religious art, not all art is religious, and neither do men or women make art for the sake of religion only.
When an athlete exerts his muscles to achieve a goal or your sibling exerts strategy to conquer you in Risk, they are striving to reach a goal or an end for its own sake. There is no practical purpose to their exertion. An artist does the same. There is no practical purpose for the choral arrangement, the woodcut, or the charcoal drawing. It has been made for its own sake.
Art is a kind of play. It is made within certain rules or parameters, but it is made for no practical purpose at all. And there is always something serious about play, isn’t there? When you’re young, there are monsters to kill. When you’re in high school, there’s an opposing team to beat. Play is often serious, because sometimes it feels like a matter of life or death. Sore losers aren’t esteemed for their display of virtue or fun, but they should be empathized with for their display of sincerity. To do and to do well is a heart muscle of being human.
I am coming to understand more and more that I am a musician. This need not imply that I am an excellent musician or not. What it does mean is that I am a player. By playing and writing music, I am lifted out of myself, and sometimes, I help lift others as well.
It is important, I think, that we play sincerely and passionately, and that we make art for its own sake. In the end, it is those non-essential things which are so essential to being human, because they continually raise us above the petty and the non-essential. As we form them, they form us, and we are reminded of transcendent realities.
Oh, and I play guitar. What do you play?
Joseph is a featured Humane Pursuits columnist. He works as a marketer in West Chester, PA, and writes music, articles, and the occasional short story.