Badass Larp Talk #31: Art, Ownership, Evolution
Art that is walled off, dies.
This may seem like a weird and rather harsh sentiment to kick off a post in this normally sunny blog, but bear with me, I’ll explain. I was recently involved in a discussion about larp and cultural exchange where I was told, explicitly and with no apparent irony, that certain groups were “not allowed” to use rules and design principles developed by a particular group, because they did not respect the originating group’s design culture and overall artistic mission. Essentially, the argument went, these ideas had been developed by artists who didn’t want them used for commercial purposes, and that by doing so, these other groups were “destroying” the original art form.
So, let me unpack the few truths and many errors in this philosophy.
Let’s start with the truths. First of all, as an English professor with a historicist take on literature, I happen to agree with the notion that it’s important to understand the culture that created a particular work of art, and especially the context for an entire art form or movement. Art does not exist in a vacuum, after all – it is the work of living artists and as such reflects the zeitgeist they create in, not to mention various personal quirks, interests, passions, and foibles. If you think an art form is great enough to adopt and/or imitate, it seems reasonable to expect that it’s great enough to research a bit too, especially if you have more than just a passing interest in it. No one says you have to drop everything and research the origins of EDM if you like one song, for example but if you plan on playing it at parties professionally or even making the music yourself, you might want to look into its roots, movements, etc.
This leads to another truth in that statement – when you understand a culture, you also can recognize areas that may not translate (literally or figuratively) very well to your own. For example, the innovative Ars amandi method developed in Europe for incorporating non-sexual touch as a way of expressing sexual and physical intimacy in larp does not always play well with American legal and social mores, which are often extremely touch averse. (I know, it’s pretty messed up that Americans are cool about hitting each other with foam swords and yelling “DECAPITATE” but not that someone might consensually touch their forearms with their bare hands to indicate romantic closeness. Damn Puritans, still fucking everything up.) It’s not that Americans are incapable of learning and properly applying the method, it’s just that doing so will take some extra adjustment and consideration for both players and facilitators because it’s far outside the larp norms of this particular gaming culture. So, again, research is your friend in a situation like this.
Those are two very good and important items, but that’s about where the applicable truths run out, because now we run into questions of ownership.
Nobody owns art forms, not in the macro sense. While individual artists should be credited for their creations and their specific work not plagiarized – and yes, that has happened in the larp discussion before, and no, it’s not OK to just take design philosophies and pass them off as your own – in the larger sense art doesn’t belong to anyone, at least not in a prohibitive context. Art belongs to everyone who participates in it, for better or worse. Attempting to gatekeep it and tell people “you can’t do that” is bound for failure, because that’s just not how art works. Sometimes we wish art could be locked down a bit, if only to make sure that artists receive their due – looking at you, white American musicians who stole rock ‘n roll, got rich, and largely didn’t give any credit to the African American blues and early rock artists who actually started the genre – but sadly it’s just not the case, even when it maybe might be better that way. We can and should try to do better than those early days of rock’n’roll, for the record, but still, art doesn’t like to stay in boxes and it definitely doesn’t like to be fenced in.
Art goes where it goes, and by and large we’re all better for it.
That’s where the idea of “you can’t use these rules” really runs off the rails. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that every member of an entire creative community agrees with the notions that 1) their design principles are being misused, and 2) that the solution is that others outside their group should not use them. That’s a tall order for agreement, given the often contrary nature of creatives, but it’s certainly not impossible, so let’s go with it. Let me be clear – it’s not that such a community can’t be upset if they believe things they created are being used in ways they find run counter to their design ideals. They certainly can be, and expressing that is natural – it’s another reason I think people should research new ideas and movements when they encounter them. No, where it breaks down is the “can’t” part of that response.
On a basic level, well, telling a creative community – any creative community – that they can’t do something pretty much guarantees a bunch of them will, if only just to spite you. Artists are funny that way. But even beyond a basic, knee-jerk reaction, it’s actually really important that they do so, because otherwise you set some pretty dangerous precedents for art – namely, that a particular style or genre of art “belongs” to a specific group of artists, and furthermore that those artists have the right and authority to exclude others from practicing the same type of art they create.
As an experiment, imagine that Picasso, on creating cubism – yes art history folks, I know it’s more complex than that and that actually helps my case, but bear with me here – told everyone that they were free to enjoy cubist art. However, they could not create any themselves unless they too lived in Paris at the same time he did and shared his cultural and philosophical context. It would not only be monumentally egotistical to say so, but such a declaration would be bound to failure from the start.
Now, would it be fair to say that understanding the origins of cubism and especially Picasso’s take on it would require understanding their specific cultural context? Absolutely. Should you maybe look into the origins of the movement and its principles if you intend to apply it to your own work? I’d strongly recommend it, if only to give credit where it’s due and make sure you’re not making mistakes that have already been addressed. But do you need to share all those exact to apply the techniques of cubism to your own art? No. And that’s where the idea of ownership of larp concepts breaks down.
Let’s say I coined a design term – call it “playground larp.” I define it as larps which avoid both simulationist realism and narrativist abstraction, instead using simple games and child-like activities to resolve conflicts and dictate outcomes in the story. As an example of a pioneering playground larp, I cite Brennan Taylor’s ongoing Bulldogs! sci-fi larps, which use activities like tossing rubber balls at stacks of Solo cups to simulate knocking down enemy shields and keeping a ball bearing in the center of a painted circle on an unpredictably tilting frisbee to determine if a ship avoids dangerous asteroid collisions. I acknowledge that neither Brennan nor I invented the use of such activities in larp, but write a design manifesto which centers these elements in ways that have not been previously explored, and outlines a new vision for playground larp as an expanding movement. I present this at larp conferences and publish it in larp journals, and I make it clear that I believe playground larp should never be run for profit, as that diminishes the essential DIY nature and childlike wonder of the experience.
With all that said, can I tell people that they cannot create playground larps unless they’re from the same background as Brennan and me, and share our design principles? No. Those ideas are out there now, ricocheting in pinball fashion throughout the larp community, and I cannot control them even if I wanted to. Even if a few years later I see a huge blockbuster larp that heavily incorporates playground design principles – it’s set at a carnival, and so lots of situations are actually resolved by playing various carnival games – and charging $1500/head, I can’t say to them “you can’t do that.” I may wish they wouldn’t, because it’s not what I had in mind when I wrote up the playground design manifesto, but that’s as far as it goes.
This also touches on another important problem with the ownership issue – the folly of tracing origins as a gatekeeping method. As previously noted, art is not created in a vacuum, and larp is certainly no exception. Attempting to claim ownership of a part of it because you “created” it only leads to others to say that without their work, you could have never created yours, and so you actually owe them. Whereupon yet another person steps up and says that their contribution to the field is even older and therefore both of those people owe them, and so on, and so on, and so on. I’m not saying that nobody has original ideas, mind you. Going back to Picasso, I can certainly give him credit for helping invent a new style of painting. However, if he claimed that other painters could not use his ideas to inspire their own techniques, I’d call foul. Trying to establish that sort of ownership authority in art world gets ugly and reductivist, fast, and anyway it misses the entire point of art.
As Steve-o wisely put it in SLC Punk, when discussing the ongoing European/American argument about who “started” punk rock: “Was it the Sex Pistols in England? The Ramones and the Velvet Undergound in New York? ‘Sex Pistols!’ ‘Ramones!’ Ahhhhh! WHO CARES WHO STARTED IT?!?! IT’S MUSIC.” The idea being that enjoying it is way, way more important than quibbling over ownership.
There’s also the problem of asserting ownership in that it assumes there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways to apply artistic techniques, which is rarely if ever true. (Appropriate is an important question, as is appropriation, but those are matters for another time.) Mainly because this sort of outlook assumes that, once created, a design principle or rules system must remain in its original state or it is being “corrupted” somehow. Which is also a very limited and frankly very unhealthy view of art. Is Dada a “corruption” of cubism, for example, because it arose in response to those techniques? Or is it simply part of the ongoing discussion that is art?
I’ll just say it: There are no platonic artistic forms.
So let’s be clear: It is important to research and understand where the art that inspires you comes from, because art exists in part as a response to its environment, and also because some elements may not be easy to translate into other settings due to their origins in a specific context. It can also be important to think about who makes the art that you love, because their perspective can have a profound impact on understanding their work; even if you ultimately do not agree with them as artists or even as individuals, you at least can do so from a position of knowledge. And simply put, it is important to give people their due credit for blazing trails and changing perspectives – we already have far too many historical examples of artists being ignored, glossed over, and otherwise marginalized by other artists, especially when it comes to commercial success. Don’t add to that list if you can help it.
That said, it is equally important to understand that art is not a gated community, and that telling people “you can’t” is rather correctly doomed to fail as a result. Once art is out there, it is out there, and others will use it, adapt it, reject it, and otherwise create in response to it as they see fit. You may, of course, keep as true to your own original community and ideals as you like, and that’s fine. You cannot, however, expect the rest of the artists in your medium to adhere to those same standards simply because you do, and even if you could, the result would weaken the medium, not strengthen it. Art is not a ship in a bottle, it’s a ship at sea, and while you can plot courses and hold that wheel tight you still never know exactly how those winds will blow or precisely where those currents will carry you.
In conclusion: Players, game runners – do your homework, give credit. Designers – understand that once your work is out there, you can’t dictate how it’s used. And most importantly, because it often gets forgotten in this debate, everyone –
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!