Art Practice vs. Play
If you’re an artist who thinks of your work as play, or who has referred to your work in the studio as playtime, I’d like to invite you to think differently, and go deeper this year. It’s not that play doesn’t happen in the studio. It does! Play fosters risk-taking, discovery and flow. And it’s worth doing for the fun alone.
John Cleese, insightfully, on the relationship between play and creativity.
Play is serious business for children, a deep, imaginative mode that facilitates learning. But when adult artists use the word ‘play’ to talk about what they’re up to in the studio, it comes off as breezy shorthand for pleasure that means “I did something fun.” If you’re using any of the #studioplay hashtags on social media you’re calling on a stereotype of the artist as a childlike figure content to mess around with paint. It’s inauthentic. (I know that’s not who you are. No artist is.) And it fails at communicating the juicy, more interesting stuff about who you are and what you do.
Art is fun (when it’s going well). There’s a narcissistic, almost primal pleasure in seeing something of yourself reflected back at you in a mark you’ve made, whatever that mark may be. I get that. It’s part of the draw. But it’s not why I chose art. I chose art as my vocation, and have chosen it again and again at the crossroads in my life, because it holds meaning for me.
Jackson Pollock painting for the camera. Is this work? Play? Or is something else going on?
Unfortunately, the meaning I get out of art isn’t constant. Sometimes my work feels guided and purposeful. Other times it’s a struggle. I don’t see art as special in this way. This is something that all of us who want to do meaningful work have to face. When I think of what I do in the studio as play in the service of enjoyment, when I dismiss the more challenging work I feel called to do, or that is required of me by deadlines, then purpose fades.
I like the word ‘practice’ for what happens in the studio because of its many meanings. Practice connotes seriousness. A doctor works in a medical practice. An attorney practices law. But it’s also linked to play. A musician has to practice before she can play a new instrument. Athletes practice before they play. And then there’s the spiritual angle. You can practice your religion. Or start a meditation practice. In all cases ‘practice’ suggests an ongoing commitment to a growth oriented endeavor. To have an art practice is to engage with your work and your materials in a complete way, physically, intellectually, spiritually. Play may be a part of your process. But it’s not the most interesting thing you do.