Play and Symbols
The peculiarity of play is rooted in the aesthetic, and it is commonly found within
the whole animal kingdom, including human beings, so it is not necessarily a cultural
or intellectual issue. In this regard it is useful to outline the ideas of Johan
Huizinga which argue (whether one agrees or not) that there is a biological relationship.
This idea is crucial in order to analise human behaviour in relation to its natural history, as it connects the
behaviour of play with biology and the meaning of life.
Because of its association with beauty (including the ideal of physical human beauty), Huizinga asks himself
whether play should fall within the aesthetic realm. For his part Schiller, many years earlier, also considered
art as play, but from a different point of view, because his concept of beauty did not include any connection
with an animal past.
According to Huizinga, "All play and art has meaning." "Within the concept of play there is its own absolute
order. So here is another positive characteristic of play: to create order, to have order. It gives provisional
and limited perfection to an imperfect world and to a confused life. Play requires an absolute order." "Play
inclines, as we have said, to a limited extent, to the idea of beauty".
A few years after the publication of "Homo Ludens" Ernst Cassirer developed his concept about the human being
as a symbolic animal, an issue that was a matter of discussion for several years. He stated that "The artist
is a discoverer of the forms of nature just as a scientist is a discoverer of facts or natural laws"; works
of art "are neither purely representative nor just merely expressive. They are symbols in a new and deeper
sense." "Every great work is characterised by a profound structural unity" and therefore generates symbolic
forms. The idea of beauty and uniqueness is again combined , which in this case is condensed in a symbolic
A symbolic form is a sensory representation depicting something. Works of art would be symbolic forms that
would represent things we would not necessarily know. An example would be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
However not all symbolic forms represent unknown things, like a red cross which in Western culture,
represents rescue, health and humanitarian aid. Hans-George Gadamer said, "They are not immediately
perceived as such within the vision of comprehension."
But the most interesting statement, for me, is that: "Play provides fun and recreation, but it also serves
a different purpose, as it has a general biological importance insofar as it anticipates future activities"
"Moreover, art teaches us to visualise and not simply to conceptualise or use things". This is perfectly
consistent with the idea that art generates symbolic forms, and therefore one cannot produce an argument
about the thing represented, when in fact the thing represented was the primordial idea perceived in the
mind of the artist, which cannot be seen by others.
The symbol may be "interested" or not (a Maltese Cross identifies a disabled person). But not every symbol
is "interested", some symbols, especially those which are associated with art, are "disinterested".
Cassirer considers play and also art as generators of symbolic forms, while Huizinga says that art is a
form of play.
It is with Cassirer, who more than anybody else has insisted that art objects constitute a teleological
structure, that I can conclude with his assertion that "Every great work of art is characterised by a deep
My concept of a great work of art is that in which a triad of space, time and synthetic unification or
immanence is formed which at the same time creates beauty, with which its possessor can identify himself.