Chatter of the Squirrel – Is Magic Art?

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Tuesday, January 13th – Is this game we play, somehow, art. And perhaps more relevantly – really, more to the root of why I want to write this article – are the game’s creators, maybe even its players, in some sense artists?

Ever-conscious for the need to have a dose of Americana every now and then, I spent a good chunk of yesterday watching the first season of the Peter Berg television sports-drama series “Friday Night Lights.”

Completely incredible.

Never before have I seen the desperate irrationality, the soothing and reaffirming calm, the unexpected tragedy, the too-expected mediocrity, the pleading cynicism begging to be broken, the dreams and frustrations and joys and shocks and pathos and above everything else the unrelenting hunger for hope that defines small-town America so faithfully and effectively captured as I have on this show. I try not to let it out too much because nobody particularly cares, but some things about being in Malaysia (with my world turned upside-down, my networks neutered, my exuberance stunted, my social avenues paved and dead-ended, and the consequent seeds I’ve planted here nevertheless taking their natural time to grow like, well, seeds indeed tend to do) really are genuinely difficult, genuinely trying, genuinely confidence-breaking and perspective-endowing like few things tend to be. So it’s good, every once in awhile, to get a dose of something uniquely American – in the positive senses, and there are many – just to ground and re-align myself amid the flurry and the chaos. But more than some vague conception of “American”-ness, “Friday Night Lights” spotlights the choices made by individuals that give ‘American-ness’ meaning; it dives into their heads and hearts and swims around and takes a picture here and there, and perhaps records a whisper about a secret about a hidden desire somewhere and bubbles it gradually to the surface and generally tries to witness everything without diminutizing its importance by way of explanation. It’s beautiful. It’s touching. It’s heart-rending. It can make you angry, it can make you sad, it can make you elated, and it can rip away any feeling you might be trying to have at all. And far from doing so to exploit your emotions, it provides a lens through which you can put into perspective not your own life, but the experience of life that we all share. In short, it’s art.

It took me a long time to recognize that artistic potential of television. For awhile I didn’t believe it existed. Television, as a means first and foremost to facilitate the dissemination of corporate-produced consumer products, tends not to care about the quality of its output in and of itself. This is not a condemnation, but is rather a statement of reality; to argue or worry about it is to become angry when it rains, or to become bitter at the darkness of the color black. And without a predisposition to favor the goodness of any program inherently, it’s extremely unlikely for that piece of programming to possess that goodness in the first place, because why go to the trouble to add value for the sake of value when what matters is first and foremost your viewership? You don’t score points for the quality of your shooting form; you score when you sink baskets.

The error, of course, is to assume that because the possession of such value is unlikely, it’s impossible. When you start to date TV-developer-junkie-critic-fangirl, of course, you start to be willing to see things in a different light, and in fact once I watched the first season of Veronica Mars I became convinced that some television shows could in fact be considered Art in the same way that poetry, film, video, painting, sculpture, music, performance, installation, etc. could be. It just took awhile.

It was only natural, then, that I would eventually ask myself the question: is Magic art, too?

It’s an interesting issue to examine because, even on the surface, it could mean many things. Are we talking about the visual art present on Magic cards? Maybe the card itself? The design? Or what about the playing of a game of Magic, the occasional mastery we witness and the decisions we make and the lines of play that lead our opponents right into our traps? What about the way we build decks, what we choose to include and discard, how we elect to draft or gather data from different media or playtest in a way that enables us to make those decisions? What about a set as a whole, the mechanics involved, the way the cards relate both to one another and to the other cards present across all the other formats? What about how the set relates to every other cards in Magic? What about the story behind the sets, the characters and conflicts and confluences – the Confluxes? – that drive a set’s movement across the block. Or what about the way the cards themselves reveal elements of the story, or in some cases even pivotal moments within the story itself?

It’s clearly a big question. My goal here is, naturally, to try and answer it.

The first thing you have to do in this kind of situation is to define what you mean when you say “art.” Such attempts to define something so vital and expansive can and have filled volumes and earned many people many Ph.D.-s. Furthermore, the process of doing so (and it is a process) was one of the central objects of my four-year liberal-arts education, so I am not going to reproduce the entire dialogue here. In a lot of cases what you want to do with such a massive topic is to clarify what you’re definitely not talking about, but in this case my definition of art is pretty liberal. Instead I want to address some of the critical interpretations of what, in a lot of people’s opinion, makes a thing not-art. Suffice to say, I believe many of these restrictions are wrong.

First and foremost, a lot of people have an impression that a piece of art must be created with express intent of being valuable in and of itself; that is, it cannot be a means of achieving something else, e.g. a piece of artifice or a tool. The Allan Bloom school almost takes pride – sadly, in my opinion – at this almost self-conscious lack of utility. Moreover, many who take this position also argue that not only mustn’t the object itself be defined by its purpose, but that it too must be created without the fulfillment of a purpose in mind – that it must have been made first and foremost to be valuable in and of itself, to be observed, to be worthy of having attention called to it.

Also, some people assert that a piece of art must be in some sense universal; that is, that its appeal must not only be far-reaching, but must also not require special training to appreciate or enjoy. This is related to the last relatively-common argument also, finally, which is that a piece of art must provide some kind of commentary on the human experience, must in a way engage the mind cognitively and encourage reflection upon both life and one’s participation in life through the lens, if you will, of the insight that a piece of art provides.

Pompous academia-speak done. Breathe in, breathe out. I am getting interesting, I swear.

Okay, pause in the narrative flow, because I really shouldn’t state this conclusion until the end of my next two paragraphs, but if I go on longer without explaining why this is important I’m going to lose most of y’all. So virtually-or-textually reposition as-necessary to keep you sane. But the reason I am talking about all of this, the reason I think it’s important to examine and define and categorize and include and exclude what art is and is not is that art is nothing less than the reason to live, the embodiment of everything that makes life beautiful and meaningful and unique and worthy of trying to understand and perceive. Art is what tells us we are in some sense special, that we are worthy of being appreciated, even if that appreciation comes only from within ourselves. Art is ultimately what people mean they lack when they complain of loneliness, what they seek when they want companionship – the artful living of another person – what absent which they cannot be fully human.

So, as you can imagine, we’re looking for a pretty broad definition of art here, because I love me some (for example) Thomas Pynchon or John Cage or Maya Deren, but I can certainly live without some Thomas Pynchon or John cage or Maya Deren.

The reasons in a nutshell that you can’t define the value of a piece of art by its lack of utility are 1) that sometimes a thing is artful by virtue of the means with which it executes its utility – that it’s just plain awesome how good a ShopVac is at cleaning your floor, or a Gus’ Fried Chicken Chicken Leg is at being yummy – and 2) that everything conceivable has some kind of utility, even if that utility is unintended by an object’s creator. E.g. the first time some guy gets a Ph.D. because he talks about how beautiful some painting is because it does nothing but sit there and get admired for its beauty, that object possesses the utility of earning Dude McDoctorson his Ph.D. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The utility of keeping people sane by displaying that it’s awesome to exist within a culture where, instead of (I was just in Sarawak) hunting one another’s heads with spears and kerises and hanging the skulls together in a woven basket from the ceiling to display our masculinity, we can sit around and produce beautiful-in-and-of-themselves three-dimensional conglomerations of copper and iron, or that of making people proud that the human race can produce something on the level of Goodbye, Columbus! and furthermore that we, all of us, are a part of that human race – these are really really really valuable utilities!

The second objection is therefore similarly flawed; e.g. the notion that Schindler’s List was greenlighted by a studio to make gobs and gobs of money and therefore cannot in the strictest sense be fully artistic, because it was obligated to attain some kind of end. Or that some artisan somewhere designs just the most badass snow-shovel ever that can displace – I am talking heaps and heaps of snow, and you are sitting there using it saying “Man, it’s kind of awesome that instead of trudging through this on my doorstep for three hours I am just mowing through this craziness like a ravaging marauder,” and that kind of makes your day – that is not artful why, exactly?

The third and fourth issues need to be attacked from a slightly different angle, but they’re similarly problematic. Art doesn’t need to be universal because there’s not really a good way to determine what is and is not universal. It assumes an awful lot, in other words, about an audience. There are of course the first-level objections – e.g. deaf people can’t hear Mozart – but even beyond that, who defines what cognitively resonates with whom? I personally believe a lot of the classical-music genre has been eclipsed by the possibilities of dub-and-layer-based play-your-instrument-and-sample-it-intensive electronic music, because you sacrifice nothing while upping exponentially the possibilities for intricacy, control, and precision. Listen to “Unfinished Sympathy” (yes, sympathy) by Massive Attack and tell me how you could have produced something comparable a hundred years ago. But mine is an extremely controversial and by no means universal opinion, and I am never going to make a serious claim that like Vivaldi isn’t really art, anymore. Similarly: a lot of people not only don’t understand but don’t even care to understand Jackson Pollack or Andy Warhol, Vincent Van Gogh or Stan Brakhage, but that doesn’t mean that people validly derive meaning from them. And this, really, is the problem with the fourth objection: meaning can be derived in different ways, and just because you don’t achieve sagely, life-altering wisdom from something doesn’t mean that it isn’t artistic, that it isn’t meaningful, that it isn’t beautiful. It’s not everyone or everything’s job to address ‘the human condition,’ or to resolve existential angst, or whatever. You can listen to The Waste Land and ignore completely every single reference, every single item of substance, paying attention purely to the sound of the language and the lilt of the rhythm, and derive joy from the phonetic quality of the words alone. And that can mean something. And that can be valuable, beautiful.

So that’s my definition of art: anything created or performed that possesses beauty or meaning, and was crafted or performed with an aim that enabled that beauty or meaning, even if beauty and/or meaning was not the object of that aim. That is, it’s this presence of aim, of some kind of target to hit, that makes something art. A mountain can be beautiful, and you can derive meaning from seeing it, but you wouldn’t call it “art.” Something, though, about the notion of a goal, a defining focus that drives and guides the creation of a thing – even if that goal has nothing whatsoever to do with lofty concepts of artfulness, beauty, meaning, whatever – is essential to calling something art. Art, in other words, is how you maximize a given medium.

So, then, let’s apply that to Magic. Is this game we play, somehow, art. And perhaps more relevantly – really, more to the root of why I want to write this article – are the game’s creators, maybe even its players, in some sense artists?

I got some of those objections out of the way because they apply directly to Magic. We have to keep in mind, first and foremost, that Magic is 1) a game and 2) designed to maximize the amount of money that Hasbro, Inc. takes in. The most fun, well-designed, awesomely-concepted set in the world is absolutely worthless if no one buys it. Perhaps more importantly, Magic is designed to be played – decks are constructed, decks are shuffled and randomized and inherently categorized by their disorder, which means that on some level the designer does not have the ability to manifest his will, his intent, onto an individual gameplay experience. He or she has to do so indirectly. This seems to cap, at least on some level, the extent to which an actual game of Magic can be viewed as artistic from the perspective of the designer.

From the perspective of a player, of course, it’s a totally different story. Because the art of a player is defined by how he or she reacts given the information and decision-trees available, it doesn’t really matter that the progression of the game occurs randomly. In this sense, it’s similar to a sport; a player can be an artist, but by no means does that player possess control of all the relevant variables. And yes, I do believe that athletes are artists. I used to not believe this, for what it’s worth. But there is something universally resonant about the way a Michael Jordan, a Kobe Bryant, a LeBron James, or even for example a Steve Nash plays basketball, the extent to which given a certain set of rules, boundaries, and limitations that player so closely approaches the theoretical maximum, that is definitely beautiful. That such form and art (as in artisanship) and determination and physical limit-pushing and expansion of possibility can be present in one human being. There are times when you watch sports and experience awe, genuine awe – the same kind of awe you get when you’re a kid staring out into the stars – and that awe, for me, is an indicia of artfulness. Similar feelings have happened to me during games of Magic. Covering Finkel’s semifinal match against Marcio Carvalho in Kuala Lumpur, for example, I was overcome by how masterfully he tackled every conceivable variable in the game state. I had a similar feeling playing against Kenji at Worlds a few months before; I won the match, but he was milking every conceivable possibility that he could to try and make something happen, and it was inspiring to witness how he never allowed himself to give up. Even in a few of my own games – a High Tide final pre-Columbus, a Heartbeat mulligan-to-five against the aggro-Rock nut draw, a Time Spiral Block draft match against Mike Hron at 2007 Nationals where neither of us made a single mistake – in a few of those games, I have felt what it’s like to maximize yourself, to pull out all the stops and to now allow yourself to make concessions, and it’s exhilarating. It makes you want more. It makes you upset to stop. It makes you hungry to get to that point again. In a way, it’s addictive. But it’s also beautiful.

The ‘sports’ example is yet another reason why I find the “needs to provide commentary on something fundamental about life” objection hollow: because all of those “football-as-a-metaphor-for-life” stories seem, for the most part, to in the first place be contrived and second to really, ultimately, miss the point. It’s okay to appreciate how Peyton Manning hits a receiver in the end zone with maybe a four-square-inch window of available space without trying to concoct some story about how that parallels what it means to be a man, or whatever. What’s important is the mastery itself. And that removes a possible objection one could have to Magic, which is that you don’t really ponder fundamental human ‘issues’ in the middle of a game. Sure, it’s not like I cast Chains of Mephistopheles and think “I wonder how this inability to draw more than one card per turn parallels my internal angst over not being able to realize my full potential within society,” or whatever. That’s ridiculous. Really I think something along the lines of “Man, I have absolutely no idea how this card works, and I’m probably going to get wrecked.” But I can still appreciate the design.

This inherent desire to appreciate design is, really, one of the reasons it’s problematic to need every piece of art to be universally appreciable. I am sure I don’t understand most of the struggle and one-upping and calculation and split-second reaction time that goes into breaking a defensive line in football, but it doesn’t mean that someone else can’t appreciate the intense effort and devotion that goes into being good at doing that. Similarly, a lot of potential elegance and meaning-creation and beauty and simplicity and power contained in a single simple Magic card requires some fairly sophisticated knowledge to comprehend, viz. how to play the game, what the ‘color pie’ means, how cards interact with one another, what they say about the storyline, etc. etc. Nevertheless, there are some individual Magic cards that to me are in and of themselves tremendous pieces of art, maximizations of the Magic medium, perfections of every conceivable component.

The very first card that had this effect on me was the Beta Dark Ritual. It just worked. It was so the color black to sacrifice a bit of sanity – viz. a card – for a temporary burst of power, and the art was perfect, and the mechanical implications were enormous, and it was so elegant, and everything just clicked. Something felt very evil about Dark Ritual, and this was when “evil” was a more defining aspect of Black. But it didn’t stop there. A card that absolutely floored me when it was printed was Obliterate. I recall distinctly saying “Awesome,” like that was the entire extent of the sentence, “Awesome,” all that needed to be said, standing there next to my friend Tim’s computer screen just staring. Because we knew what it meant. “For his family, Barrin made a funeral pyre of Tolaria.” Everything worked. The name Barrin: barren. Devoid, finally, of hope, of emotion, even of vision and ambition, betrayed by a god and ready for an end. The unforgettable art, the tiny silhouette of a man and the potent crackle of his staff calling forth a cataclysm to sound his release from the world. The carnage, the titular Obliteration, engulfing literally everything in front of him. And again that staff – positively sizzling with blue, a reminder that all of this really wasn’t Barrin, not really, but that when pushed to the brink a man’s fury was such that not only did it pulverize everything, there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. Like, for example, cast a Counterspell.

For his family, Barrin made a funeral pyre of Tolaria. Wow. The polar inverse of a pyramid. Instead of immortalizing someone with a monument that would enshrine their memory forever, engineer oblivion and commemorate them with the eerie calm of nothing.

There are others: Time Stop is just perfect on every level, down to the care with which she caresses the egg, down to the incredibly simple text of ‘End the turn,’ the labyrinth of reminder text itself hinting at the many layers of possibility. Cryptic Command is just unabashedly, unashamedly Blue. Lightning Helix and Agony Warp both do for me exactly what the blend of their two respective colors should definitely do. Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is the picture of tragedy – the broken staff, the noble defiance – because imagine for example finally willing in yourself the courage to be a martyr for your own mistakes, only to find your sacrifice ineffectual and your death worse than any kind of dying. Bloodied Ghost, an almost perfect harmony of flavor and function (and simple, striking aesthetic beauty). And finally, of course, the five original Lorwyn Planeswalkers, who seem the cardboard-print embodiments of whatever’s in your head when you say, “Wow.”

Even the story – for all its problems, it’s certainly gotten there in the past. I mentioned Teferi, who in another medium (and with deeper execution) would be one of the most tragic characters ever conceived. But there’s Karn, with whom you can’t help but empathize, and Jaya, whom you’d just love to hang out with at a bar. For me, though, the most resonant plot element in Magic’s history has been the Mirari. There’s something timeless, enchanting, and curiosity-provoking about an item that’s defined first by its unparalleled potency and second by its complete lack of individual identity. A gun, a poison, the sharpest sword in the world – these are all potent, but they have an aim, a specific thing that they accomplish. Mirari does nothing but sit there and hint at, flirt with, the possibility of something more – another world impossibly deeper than this one. What makes it powerful is the extent to which people will dive into themselves to acquire it, and once they have it, to maintain possession of it at all costs. It’s fitting, in a way, that its surface both reflects and distorts.

And, as a person who frequently concentrates on what he can do at the expense of whether he should do it in the first place, there’s something very personal about the notion of the thing, this idea that it’s much easier to execute than it is to guide, to judge.

Yes, I think Magic – how you play it, how it’s created, how it’s conceived, how it appears in front of you when you crack that booster pack – is certainly art. And I think we’d all be served if we took a step back every once in awhile, not just to appreciate how beautifully complex it is to do what we’re doing, but to look at the cards themselves, the sets, the form of every single individual rectangular piece of cardboard that composes the body of possibilities inside this game of ours, and think of them as an artistic medium in and of themselves – like a canvas or a raw lump of clay. There really is a lot of meaning there, a lot of beauty, a lot of potential. And it serves us well, when we’re sitting there manascrewed and frustrated and irritated that we haven’t drawn our Elspeth in three matches and couldn’t possibly lose if we did – it serves us well to think about how, honestly, awesome it is that such combinations exist, that such combinations are capable of eliciting such strong emotions inside of us, of possessing such tremendous import. Because sure, at the end of the day, we’re doing nothing but playing a game. Great.

We’re doing nothing less than that, either.