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“The artist's play”
By Salvador B. Hurtado Ponce 
Translated by María Ritter
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Salvador B. Hurtado Ponce is a doctoral candidate in Modern Letters at the Universidad Iberoamericana. He studied Communication at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Acting with Ludwik Margules at the Foro Teatro Contemporáneo and Methodology and Stage Direction Techniques with the latter. In addition to multiple acting workshops with teachers such as: Julieta Egurrola, Luisa Huertas, Adriana Roel, Rodolfo Obregón and Patricia Reyes Espíndola.


He is 100% fluent in Spanish and English and 75% fluent in French and Italian.


He is a lecturer and author of literary essays on semiotics, theology and comparative religions and recently published Satanás, una biografía no autorizada (2017), presented by the Seminario Internacional del Discurso Forense and by the Instituto de Investigaciones Semiológicas of UNAM. In fiction literature, he is the author of the novel El Sabbath del Lobo (2012). As a short story writer, he was awarded the 2008 Beatriz Espejo National Short Story Prize for "Postmortem" sponsored by INBA, CONACULTA and the Institute of Culture of Yucatan. He also received the 2009 Juana Santacruz Iberoamerican Award from the Spanish Athenaeum for the short story titled Mal Amigo. He has also participated as a writer in the magazines Generación, Viceversa and in the magazine AdCebra. He has staged two of his own plays: Pendragón... La Tierra sin un Rey and Espantapájaros, among other publications. He was a radio scriptwriter for XE-TAR "La voz de la Sierra Tarahumara" of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista.


As an author he has participated in multiple academic conferences of postgraduate studies, among them: in the International Seminar of Forensic Discourse Studies (UNAM), in the International Center for Higher Studies (CIES), for the Mexican Academy of Pediatrics, for the Department of Literature of the Universidad Iberoamericana (UIA), for the Mexican Academy of Psychiatry, among others.

He has also participated as a selected author in the Primer Semana de Novela Negra at the Biblioteca Rosario Castellanos and in multiple radio and television programs with the theme of his work, among which stand out: Espiral with Ricardo Rafael (XHIPN Canal 11), Sacro y Profano with Bernardo Barranco (XHIPN Canal Once), Diálogos en Confianza (XHIPN Canal 11), Ver y Creer with Roberto Ofarril (Canal mexiquense), El Pulso de la Fe with Roberto Ofarril (Canal 40), and others on Canal de la Ciudad with Dr. Bolasky and Canal 21. Also on WFM Radio with Mariana Braun, Radio Ciudadana, XHUIB Radio Ibero and others.

When the American painter Jackson Pollock turned away from figurative art in 1938, especially as a result of the development of his "dripping" technique in 1947 and the presentation of his concept of action painting, which culminated in his work "Convergence" in 1952, he was the object of fierce criticism in which some experts labeled his work as "anti-art". However, he is considered one of the most important authors of American plastic art today.


The rupture with figurative art and with the classical concepts of the academy on behalf of many artists of his generation led some critics to consider seriously the possibility of the "death of art". Moreover, even some artists such as Andy Warhol came to think that the "artistic work" was a concept "of the past".


Rational Kantian thought held the thesis that, in painting, the true bearer of beauty is the form. On the contrary, colors are a mere charm, that is, a sensitive emotionality that is subjective and therefore has nothing to do with artistic or aesthetic creation.


However, this way of thinking, fruit of its time, did not reach the intuition of art as a mean of communication between the artist and the immense emotional and unconscious baggage of each one of the spectators of the work, who reconfigure it from the intuition of their own unique and unrepeatable emotional experience.


Paul Ricoeur, one of the great thinkers of the literary criticism known as Hermeneutics, explains in his Writings and Lectures that the literary work (although in this case the concept can be extended to the artistic work in general) has three different stages. The prefiguration, where the artist devises the work he intends to make; the configuration, which is the final result of the artist's work (with all the conscious or unconscious variations that differentiate it from his "ideal" work) and finally the reconfiguration of the work, in which the artist no longer participates, because it is the spectator who receives it and makes it pass through the sieve of his sensibility, experience, and imagination to recreate it.

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Paul Ricoeur. [web image]

The philosopher Georg Gadamer elaborates on this theme in his book “The actuality of the beautiful” when he presents the ludic element in art. In his text, he explains that we cannot even think of human culture without the element of play, and for this reason, play is an elementary function of human life. It is not in vain that some authors speak of the modern human being as "Homo Ludens" replacing the category of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

Gadamer defines play as swaying, like the movement of waves, or the play of lights at dusk. Play appears as the self-movement that does not tend to an end or a goal, its just movement as movement, which indicates, so to speak, a phenomenon of excess, of the self-representation of the living being. It should be remembered that, for the Greeks, animation, i.e., movement, was what differentiated living beings from inert matter. However, he emphasizes human play as something very different from the play of nature:

"[...] the particularity of human play lies in the fact that play can also include reason in itself; the distinctive character most proper to human beings consists in being able to give themselves ends and consciously aspire to achieve them, and can circumvent what is characteristic of a reason according to an end. For the humanity of human play lies in the fact that, in this play of movements, it orders and disciplines, so to speak, its own play movements as if they had goals; for example, when a child counts how many times he bounces the ball on the ground before it escapes him." 


(Actuality of the Beautiful, 31)

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Hans-Georg Gadamer - Collage portrait, anonymous. [web image]

Gadamer goes beyond this particularity of human play by adding that playing always demands a “with". That is to say, that all play demands a participatio or participation of the other, of the one who observes. That is to say that if the one who watches the game is      present, he then participates in it actively. In the case of the child who bounces the ball, he becomes his own spectator and becomes discouraged if he fails to bounce the ball ten times and is excited and celebrates if he manages to do it thirty times. Let us observe, for example, a tennis match and the movement of necks as they follow the ball from one side of the net to the other; and the emotional manifestations of one who is deeply involved in the match. Returning to our subject, Gadamer tells us that one of the fundamental impulses of modern art is the desire to annul the distance between the audience, consumers, or public and the artwork. And he goes further by affirming that this impulse to transform the distancing of the spectator into his involvement as a co-player can be found in all forms of modern experimental art.


This reflection of the philosopher goes hand in hand with the dramatic theory of Bertolt Brecht, who tried to make a theater that "distanced" (Verfremdungseffekt) the audience from the artistic work, so that the artifice would not seduce the "spectator" and, in this way, he could transform himself into a "spectator" who would rationally and emotionally participate in the work, making its message his own.

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Brecht with Helene Weigel on the roof of the Berliner Ensemble during the International Workers' Day demonstrations in 1954. (Berlin, Germany). [web image]

Thus, the concept of the artwork is in no way linked to the classical concepts of harmony (beauty, truth, goodness). However, by what means, does a "work" possess its identity as a work? Ricoeur, Gadamer, and Brecht would agree that its identity would depend greatly on what each spectator actively produces through his or her active emotional and spiritual participation, for as we have seen, the co-player is also part of the game.

Then, is the artistic work whatever the viewer wants to interpret? The answer is "no." Every game, as well as every artistic work,  has a framework or structure and rules that we will label "convention". When Dostoyevsky describes a dark staircase twisting to the left, he means exactly that. No one can interpret the staircase as "straight" or "luminous". However, the image of that staircase that each reader visualizes in his mind may vary in form and meaning, so that each reader is convinced that he sees the "right" staircase.


This issue, which would delight Wittgenstein, was nicely identified by Roman Ingarden, who speaks about "points of indeterminacy". Every poetic trope leaves a free space that the creative imagination of the reader fills, following the linguistic evocation of the narrator, giving rise to polysemy in art.


When studying Todorov and the Russian formalist school one faces the dilemma: how does a vacuum cleaner manual differ from a literary text? The answer has to do with the "estrangement factor" (Ostrasnanie) of language. The vacuum cleaner manual should be univocal, with only one possible meaning, e.g. "do not plug in underwater" should be understood as such and in no other way. Nevertheless, when confronted with the symbolic language of art, the possibilities of the symbol are full of different interpretations. This is the challenge that the consumer of the artistic work assumes. That is why one cannot go to a museum or gallery and leave unscathed. The spiritual enjoyment of art appreciation is directly proportional to our creative rapport with the work of each artist.

Even when watching the work of a figurative author such as Velázquez; for example, if when we observe the equestrian portrait of Charles V we only see the imitation of nature (the "photograph" of a man on a horse), in reality, we have seen nothing. It is necessary to observe the background, the gaze, the attitude of the emperor ("in my kingdom the sun never sets"), the folds of the bridle. In short, we must detect the symbols, the poetic tropes that elevate art beyond the representation of nature. Because the difference between an oil portrait and a photograph is that the latter reproduces what the naked eye sees, while a painting records precisely what the eye cannot capture.

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Figurative art. Edward Hopper-Nighthawks (1942). [web image]

This is why Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky, and all modern abstract painters encompass a high form of art; this is why the artwork remains relevant, because it continues to play with us on an aesthetic, emotional, unconscious level, but at the same time, with a deeply symbolic and logical intelligence within its convention. Recalling Alejandro Jodorowsky, we would say that art is the game we all play.

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Vasili Kandinsky: First abstract watercolor, 1910, watercolor, 49.6 x 64.8 cm, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris. Lyrical abstraction. [web image] 


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