Childish Pranks

Somewhere in his introduction to Edith Grossman’s recent translation of Don Quixote (which is not, per se, the subject of this blog), Harold Bloom makes a statement to the effect that Don Quixote is on a quest, but that he (Bloom) doesn’t know what the object of the quest is. In my poem “Further Observations,” (appearing soon in Interim) there are the lines “In answer to your question, Don Quixote/Is searching for the fountain of youth.” The tone of the entire poem is tongue-in-cheek and I don’t really intend to claim the authority to answer Bloom. It’s an answer among many possible answers. What I mean by it, however, is that Don Quixote is an adult who has decided (perhaps unconsciously—his “madness” is very selective) to turn the world into a child’s fantasy, and to live in it as such.

This is not very far from what artists do in real life, and it is quite possible that Cervantes intended the Don to be a satirical comment on artists and art. Artists as a group consist of people who have, and give themselves the permission to use, the ability to return to childhood and to play. The product of their play has meaning for the adult world, which consumes it in one form or another. Artists give themselves permission to do what most adults do not. Within the confines of a more or less stringent set of rules, they give their imagination the freedom to create the objects of their own forms of play. And like all play both the process and the results are very serious. Play is not a synonym for frivolousness, though it may be seen as a synonym for having fun. And again, as adults, this is also what artists give themselves permission to do: create their own redefinition of what the child called fun.

The artist as a playing child is manifest in just about any work of art. Cervantes, through his character Don Quixote, is making, re-making, re-playing, playing the roles of, the novels that have made the Don insane. The Don’s insanity is a kind of second childhood inspired by art and consisting of play, which is very much like being the creator and hero of one’s own romance novel. And this “acting out” of existing works is a strong component of children’s play. Children’s play often consists of making what they have absorbed from various media into games. E.g., “Let’s play Barbie, You can be Barbie’s mom, etc. etc.”

Of course there is a complex doubling and tripling in Don Quixote as regards Cervantes’s role in relation to the Don and to his novel. This, however, is a further form of play: the author playing with his own creation.

Our language provides abundant direct evidence that art is play. Plays are the things that are played in theaters. Actors play roles. In the orchestra pit the musicians play musical instruments. Visual artists are often said to play with color or with objects (one thinks of the serious, adult artists who work with finger-paint, or the collagists who go around in public picking up interesting pieces of trash), writers play on words, and generally play with words and meanings, dancers or choreographers play with the ways the human body can move and make shapes in the process of non-verbal communication.

For the artist work is play and vice versa, an interesting paradox. When I was a semi-professional percussionist I took great pleasure in saying “I have to go play” rather than “I have to go to work.” A great “work” of art is a great “play” of art. And so on.

Looked at as play, art is as much for the artist as for the consumer. The artist is not working in a sweatshop producing button down shirts, nor is he or she putting rivets in a bridge. These are more or less “useful” forms of employment. Artists are arrogant, even snobs at times (though one would prefer it if they weren’t) in that they not only claim the right to be children again but also claim that the output of their “childness” is worth consuming by the general public, or at least by the educated public.

And here, of course, is the inevitable caveat. So far I have managed to avoid using that trite term “the inner child,” but for the sake of convenience it works. The artist’s “inner child” often has a strong component of the spoiled brat, the intransigent snob (as mentioned before), the kid who picks his nose and says “here, eat this.”

On the other hand, it should also be said that children are much more vulnerable than adults. Most adults have “gone through the mill,” so to speak, and have become hardened to one extent or another. The artist, however, in company with his ability to play like a child, often also retains, despite having been through the mill to one extent or another, at least some of the vulnerability of childhood. The artist’s “inner child” is often hyper-sensitive to criticism or insult, and often he or she is particularly vicious in responding in kind.

Leaving the interpersonal to one side, however, the fact that most societies tolerate (and some encourage) the artist as child/player is very encouraging. Of course most artists have to be riveters or teachers or seamsters to put food on the table. But often these activities become a transformed part of the artist’s play, which is another example of the positive aspect of art for, and within, society. In societies where art is suppressed or subverted for the purposes of the state, people are at best unhappy and at worst persecuted, especially if they are artists. Art is a positive force for the health of a society, (which is not to claim that any particular society does the best it can for its artists)  at least in part because it keeps certain aspects of childhood alive for its citizens, whether as consumers of art or as makers of art. And the artist him/herself is particularly fortunate (we might say “blessed”) in that he can give him/herself the permission to be a child again, at least to the extent of playing like a child.

Ian Ganassi’s poetry, prose and translations have appeared previously in Fogged Clarity as well as New American Writing, Interim, Skidrow Penthouse, New England Review, Denver Quarterly, and Hotel Amerika, among many other magazines.