What Is Art!? (Baby Don't Hurt Me...)

It’s been a while, but I recall a comment I was about to make when the subthread was shut down: That the use of “argument” seems overbroad.

In logic, there is a distinction between concepts, propositions, and arguments. A concept has a definition, which is a proposition; a proposition has a proof, which is an argument.

Now, if we’re talking about literature, literary works do have themes, the things they are “about.” A theme is a topic that the content of the work relates to and that ties it all together. For example, the theme of the Odyssey is polytropia (a double theme, in this case, as Odysseus is polytropos both in the passive sense, being repeatedly led astray in his long journey home, and in the active sense, being a man of lies and stratagems); the theme of Dracula is redemption. A topic is a concept. But not every literary work has a thesis (there is such a thing as a roman à thèse, but not all novels are that); not every literary work asserts a specific proposition. We may be able to say “the theme of X is a,” but not “the theme of X is that P.”

I think it’s even rarer that a literary work has an argument. There are examples; Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is presented in the form of a syllogism: “If we had unlimited time we would not need to consummate our love; we do not have unlimited time; therefore we need to consummate our love” (though logically that’s not a valid syllogism!). But even a work with a thesis may not present an attempted proof of that thesis; it may simply assert it. And all the more, a work with a theme may not even make a specific assertion about that theme, let alone providing an argument for one.

(And once we get out of literature into other arts, the concept of “argument” becomes even harder to apply. The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto has a theme, but it’s a series of musical notes with certain durations and pitches; it’s not something that can be verbally expressed as a concept. I really don’t see how it could be said that it asserts a proposition about that theme, or presents an argument for it. This whole system of ideas seems to be applicable to art in the medium of language, but not to art in other media such as imagery or sound or bodily movement.)


All of which boils down to “I don’t like that use of the word ‘argument’, I prefer the definition used for formal logic”, which is, well, fine, but doesn’t engage with the topic.

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Making comments about the technical use of language never really helps unless you’re in a format debate or discussion where technical language is important for defining very specific things. Taking things in good faith is far more important

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I disagree. I think, for example, that if we’re talking about fiction, the distinction between a concept and a proposition is vital to discussing them; if you take a theme to be a proposition than you are saying that every novel must assert something, or have a thesis, but if you take a theme to be a concept then you are saying that every novel must be about something, or have a topic—and those are very different claims. So I don’t think there’s anything to be gained, and much to be lost, by setting aside such distinctions, which is the inevitable result of not having different words for the different concepts.

And, forgive me, TamiJo, but if I am trying to make a conceptual distinction as clear as possible, and you characterize what I am doing as a comment about “the technical use of language,” then it doesn’t seem to me that you are taking my point in good faith.

Benkyo claimed that every work of art has an argument. I claim that the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony does not have an argument, or even a thesis. By characterizing that claim as purely about the technical use of language, you are dismissing my point, and thus affirming the validity of Benkyo’s position, not by presenting reasoning or evidence, but simply by refusing to consider a counterexample to it.

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You would need to go back to the original thread to find that assertion, if it’s still there and hasn’t been deleted.

Addendum: That thread is “What are you reading?” and on it, near the bottom, Benkyo said, first, “every work of art makes some form of argument,” and second, in a later comment, “For example, an argument made by David is ‘this is a beautiful man’.” (I’m not sure that he’s talking about Bernini’s David, which is what I was referring to; his comment seems more likely to apply to Michelangelo’s, or Donatello’s.)

Even accepting the use of “argument” to mean “assertion,” I don’t think that it makes any sense to claim that about a work of instrumental music. An assertion must be an assertion that X, and music doesn’t assert any propositions at all.

As for Bernini’s David (which you can see at Wikipedia), I will grant that it has a theme, which is the tension of the figure and its focus on the target (it shows David before he kills Goliath, not after). But I don’t think it asserts anything. You could take it as “this is a beautiful man” (though the expression of the face is not what is conventionally thought of as beautiful), but you could take it as “this is a man chosen by God to fight his battles” or “this is defiance of power” or “this is an arrogant and aggressive jerk”; different people might get any of those from it.

You’re having a whole different discussion to everyone else in here, and I’m really not sure why. If you’ve got issue with something said by someone, especially somewhere else completely, why not take it up with them directly, instead of derailing a different thread just to argue something. Intellectual flexing doesn’t really add anything to Arguments and framing in boardgames, unless I’m missing something?

Sorry @Benkyo.

This was presented as a continuation of the original discussion, which I have referenced. It seemed plausible that by referring back to that original discussion, Benkyo might have wished to carry on with it, which I was certainly willing to do. If the intent was to start an entirely new discussion no more than tangentially related to the original discussion, it might have been better to frame it so; as it was, when Benkyo wrote “I talked a bit about the arguments made by books, and art in general” and “I think the topic is a fascinating one, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this,” he seemed to be pointing at exactly the subject I have been addressing, and inviting continuation of the original discussion. If that wasn’t what he meant, he expressed himself unclearly.

Well, but I’m not arguing about the semantics. What I’m arguing is a conceptual point: that art as such does not make assertions (which seems to me to be what you mean by “arguments”). There are no assertions in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers, or Bernini’s David, or an O’Keeffe landscape.

Certainly. But I feel that it is; and Benkyo’s opening remarks seemed to suggest that he felt the same.

I certainly could have been clearer in the first post, but will clarify again. The previous conversation that interested me, and this one as a continuation of that, is about the arguments (or whatever your preferred term is) made by art, and more specifically games in this thread. Not the semantics of whether or not “argument” is the right term to use.

So are you wanting to talk about assertions (my preferred term) made in works of art? Or are you interested now only in assertions made in games? I don’t think I see games as making assertions (what is asserted by chess, or go, or contract bridge?); but I don’t know enough about current board games to have an informed opinion of them, so if that’s the only thing you want to talk about, I will leave you to it.

I think Benkyo’s already asserted that this thread will be focused on board games. :wink:

I also think it would be foolish to discount including conversation about art and art critique on the whole. At least in my case I’m having a hard time framing this outside of a “games as art” discussion and would find drawing parallels very helpful.

That doesn’t work so well for me, because I simply don’t see board games as an art form or their design as art.

On SVWAG Mark Bigney frequently refers to board games as cultural artefacts. How does that description sit with you?

Also what do you think disqualifies them as art?

Edit: added quote for context

I think it was Alan Gerding who, on a podcast, quoted somebody else by suggesting the definition of art is (paraphrased) “the thing or things you care about” which is about as catholic a definition as I could expect for such an otherwise-vague concept.

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It’s certainly true. But “cultural artefact” is so broad a term that I’m not sure it tells us anything useful. I mean, if you asked me “what are birds,” it would be a lot more helpful if I said “they’re tetrapods” or “they’re vertebrates” than if I said “they’re eukaryotes.”

There’s a human response that I’ll call “aesthetic pleasure.” And it can be taken in all sorts of things. An attractive person can produce it; so can a tiger, or a snake, or a dragonfly; so can a well designed tool or building; so can an action in an athletic contest; so can a mathematical theorem. But these things are not all humanly created, and those that are humanly created are not primarily created to be objects of contemplation and sources of aesthetic pleasure. A sword is made to inflict injuries on people; that well made swords are beautiful is secondary to whether they’re functional. And a theorem is meant to show that something is true; that a good demonstration is elegant is also secondary.

But art is created specifically to be contemplated and to give aesthetic pleasure; that’s its primary function. And in particular, it addresses not just the abstract sensitivity to good design, but the audience’s emotions.

Games are created to be played, and good game design enables good play. They’re not primarily meant to be contemplated. That’s probably the central reason that I don’t consider them art.

I fail to see how a primary function of play somehow disqualifies it from being art. The very nature of games are to be contemplated (admittedly not in the same way we’re discussing here by default) and even in ancient times, great effort was made to produce these games (chess, go, etc.) as beautifully as possible, to say nothing of the efforts made today. Ludology has come a long, long way and there is plenty to chew on with this subject.

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The pieces are not the game. The Game of Twenty Squares had some really beautiful boards, but you could play it just as well on a plain clay tablet. Or, these days, on a computer screen.

Sure, but tell the king his jade and onyx chess set isn’t art and it’s off with your head. Modern discussions demand modern sensibilities and I suspect there’s a disconnect on account of the focus on games here (and your admitted lack of experience with modern games).

This is the kind of conversation that happens more and more with video games as well, where it’s an easier pill to swallow due to their aural, visual and narrative parallels to other established forms. But there are plenty of examples of board games worthy of this kind of discussion and consideration as well (something we’ll see if this actually gets rolling).

Worth adding is that I personally feel that games have a unique voice in the art space (if so used) and that games which best exploit their “gaminess” to express themselves end up being most successful.

4 posts were merged into an existing topic: Arguments and framing in boardgames

I think there’s a confusion of categories here.

Whether or not the chess set is art is irrelevant to whether the game of chess is art. It’s still the same game if you play it with cheap plastic pieces on a cardboard board, or with little cardboard squares labelled K and Q and N on a sheet of butcher paper with squares drawn on it. Saying otherwise is like saying that a copy of Casino Royale becomes a major literary classic if it’s printed on acid free paper and bound in fine leather with beautiful typography; it’s confusing the content with the packaging.

As to what the king would think, it’s not clear that an ancient king would even know what “art” meant as a concept. But he might appreciate the elegance of his chess set even if he had never played a game of chess; or conversely, he might enjoy chess but not especially notice what his chess set looked like.