I’ve been hooked on this podcast recently. It’s called The Adventure Zone and it’s basically three brothers and their father playing Dungeons and Dragons. Have I lost you already? Here’s the thing about it: it’s one of the best examples of storytelling I’ve ever heard. It’s performative, collaborative and, well, hilarious. But it’s not art—is it?
When reading Robert E. Gard’s musings on what art has to do with America, I was struck by this quote:
The challenge [to building an ideal community] is to define the ways in which the arts can serve all of the people. To do this it is foolish to cling to notions about the arts that define them in terms of long outmoded aristocratic social models, or in outmoded philosophical frameworks.
Gard’s words in To Change the Face & Heart of America spoke to the tension between established and emerging forms of art back in the 1960s, but his words are as relevant today as an influx of new media and forms presses against what we commonly refer to as art.
My interest in what is and isn’t art has been a longstanding one—probably because who I am and the work I do often falls under many labels. (Currently I am a #ux #designer #technologist #AsianAmerican #storyteller #feminist #creative #Millennial.) As such, I encounter a lot of examples of exciting creativity in my work and life, but many are outside the bounds of what is traditionally called art.
Most of my time is spent making digital and technology-enabled interactives for museums. I find creativity in elegant lines of code or an ingenious solution to a user experience problem. I make beautiful, playful experiences and platforms for storytelling; yet I don’t think most people would consider them art.
Here’s another example plucked out of my daily life: on the subway, I like playing Monument Valley, which takes the spirit of M.C. Escher’s work and makes it the mechanic by which players solve puzzles and move through the game. It creatively builds on the work of a well-known graphic artist by having players actively embody it, but I don’t think people would call it art. But so what? With over 25 million downloads (compared to the Met Museum’s 7 million visitors last fiscal year), Monument Valley is reaching a large audience, many of whom don’t regularly visit a museum but would never leave home without their mobile device.
In one of my favorite Gard anecdotes, he talks about his experience participating in a 4H writers’ roundtable, which started as a reluctant meeting and turned into a rapturous three-day conversation about stories of the participants’ lives, struggles, and places they lived. Gard said: “The whole affair was a kind of dramatic ecstasy in which we were both the actors and the audience, the dancers and the music.”
Way before immersive theater or virtual reality were trendy, Gard spoke to the idea of an experience that is creatively valuable because the experience of the “audience” becomes the story itself. We see this in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, as well as new forms of immersive theater like Sleep No More or Then She Fell, in which the experience of participating becomes its own creative energy.
I think these creative endeavors resonate with people because they are grounded in each participant’s lived experience (rather than universal plots or a reflection of someone else’s perspective) and, as such, they cannot help but be authentic. Perhaps what we call “bad” or “amateur” art isn’t because of “aesthetics,” but because it feels derivative of some form that already exists rather than growing from this place of fearless, individual experience. But how then do we nurture this creative authenticity?
A few decades ago, the answer to this question was to engage local communities in homegrown creative activity (outside the confines of fancy theaters and big concert halls), but I think now the answer might also be to get people to engage with the plethora of new media and forms emerging as authentic expressions of our everyday life. Outside of the label experiences like listening to The Adventure Zone, playing Monument Valley, writing poetic code, or designing new digital experiences are all opportunities to explore the affordances of these new modes of creative expression.
You can’t have art without authentic expression because people’s authentic creative pursuits are what fosters art and, in particular, new art everywhere. Perhaps embracing these new, daring forms of creative life might open up even more avenues for achieving Gard’s vision:
The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time.
*All quotes are from To Change the Face & Heart of America by Robert E. Gard, which is available for purchase in the Americans for the Arts bookstore.