November 2019

Hot Work for Coldplay: Approaching Music Criticism with a Ludic Attitude


This weeks’ blog post comes from music writer and OCH Public Fellow Katie Moulton. Here, Katie explores the concept of play in relation to music and music criticism.

As a music critic, my work is a lot of play. Beyond the deluge of press emails and deadlines, awkward phone calls with indie rockers, digging grimy pink earplugs out of every pocket, and occasionally pissing off Coldplay fans—the job is fun. But it’s meaningful fun: a critical approach to culture that requires a playful attitude.

The cliché goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (A 1918 article in the New Republic even says it’s “as illogical as singing about economics.”) This is meant to indicate that it’s a pointless exercise that also misses the point of experiencing the thing itself. I agree that the phrase “dancing about architecture” sounds absurd—but it also sounds like a lot of fun! Imagine your favorite Art Deco building in downtown Tulsa. Now imagine a body moving rhythmically in response to its unmoving monolith: What might it look like, feel like? What could be learned or made in the seemingly vast gap between forms?

In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga outlines the characteristics of play, which include, paradoxically, freedom and order. Play “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection.” Constraints are in fact necessary for play, because within those limits—imposed outside consequences of our everyday systems—the player is also afforded freedom outside these everyday systems. It’s a feeling of being forced into the present moment. The same concept can be applied to listening to or playing music: a limited system of notes and a limited combination of materials that result in experiencing the full transcendent range of human emotions.

Whether we’re playing games or making art, we accept these limitations in order to access play. It happens when we cross a threshold, whether it’s gathering around the card-table, stepping into the arena—or standing atop or beneath a stage for a concert. These special spaces are examples of what Huizinga calls the magic circle, “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” This temporary world apart is what I take into account, for example, when reviewing a show, the manner in which musicians create the space and how listeners respond/play within it.

The interplay among listeners is nearly as important as the interplay between audience and artist, and among the musicians themselves. Concert-goers are having individual experiences in response to a music performance—their own reveries, memories, preferences, moods—but they are also having a communal experience, in a dark room, shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers. It’s reminiscent of Huizinga’s concept of the “play-community,” determined by the “feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, and retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.”

The best music criticism retains this magic: It makes something more in the space between the music and the writing, not simply a stimulus and response. In Ludic City (2007), Quentin Stevens writes, “Play is a lived critique of instrumentally rational action because it discovers new needs and develops new forms of social life.” Allowing for experimentation and reinterpretation, the most effective music critique creates an active, ongoing conversation—even if the conversation goes beyond what an artist (or its diehard fans) may intend or agree with.

In my career, one memorable assignment that required a dedicated playful approach—even after the piece was written—was when I wrote a concert review of the biggest band in the world: Coldplay. The British pop group broke globally in 2000, and became ubiquitous. The band, and its likeable, if forgettably faced frontman Chris Martin, also became the punching bag for music critics. At some point, it was almost trendy among music snobs to bash Coldplay for its blandness. By 2016, when I set out to review the show, that critique was nearly as flavorless as Coldplay was accused of being. So I went into the arena accepting the rules of the magic circle: be present, see what all the fandom is about with thousands of my glowstick-toting new best friends, and be entertained. It was a feel-good spectacle!

But as one upbeat electro-pop jam bled into the next, peppered with vague calls for “good vibes” to wherever in the world that might need it, my mind wandered. I felt disconnected, not under the spell the musicians were trying to cast, the communal “apart-together” feeling of the audience. As a critic, I must pay close attention to the experience within and without me: the order/systems, freedom, play-community, and that last of Huizinga’s play elements: fun. “Fun,” he writes, “resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” And in trying to describe or analyze fun, we’re back to that initial impossible task: dancing about architecture.

In the review, I wrote that though Coldplay peddles pop to the masses, sometimes the “lowest common denominator” is, in fact, true emotion. I wrote that Martin, in his enthusiasm, exploded into an avalanche of rainbow confetti. But I critiqued the ways the flashy-yet-generic stage show felt like we were being pandered to, as though the band were trying to be everything and therefore stood for nothing. If Coldplay is truly the biggest pop band in the world, I wondered, then what are they doing with that power—artistically, politically? But as a player within the magic circle of the concert, an audience member whose interplay with each other and the artist is essential to the experience—I had to interrogate my own reactions: Why would I write about an act despite my ambivalence? Why would I write about my ambivalence? What role did I play as a critic, in trying to give my own audience whatever it might want? Only by maintaining a playful awareness was I able to find meaning and connections at the heart of the experience. How am I using my platform, small as it is? I wrote. How are you using yours?

When the review appeared, I was proud. I also received more numerous and nasty internet comments than I had ever received before. I was shocked: Who knew Coldplay fans could be so fervent and creative in their insults? But it was further proof that music criticism can fuel a living conversation around and beyond the art, the audience, me—and even beyond the magic circle.

Tulsa 100 Journals Project: Be Part of the Experiment

What will happen when we unleash 100 blank journals throughout the city, asking people to share their personal thoughts and creativity? What will people put in the journals? Where will they end up? Will they be returned?

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities is sponsoring an experimental public art project, and you can be part of it!  As part of this years’ theme of PLAY, we’re distributing hardcover journals throughout the TU campus and the wider Tulsa community. The Tulsa 100 Journals Project is an initiative to encourage people to play, create, and share.

Everyone who comes across a journal is encouraged to add something and then pass it along. Add a story, a poem, a secret, or an opinion. Draw something, make a collage, or anything you wish. Be as creative as you like! You can sign your contribution or you can keep it anonymous.

When you are finished adding to the journal, you can snap a photo of the cover or your page(s) and share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any social media platform of your choosing. Use the hashtag #100journalstulsa. Tell everyone where you found it (or left it) so someone else can contribute—or pass it along to a friend.

The experiment will officially end on May 1, 2020. All of the journals that make it back to us will be part of a public art exhibit in Tulsa in 2020.

All journals can be returned to The University of Tulsa, 800 S. Tucker Drive, Tyrrell Hall, Room 1035, Tulsa, OK 74104

Be part of the experiment!

Connecting through Community Art

This week’s post is brought to you by Piper Prolago, OCH Student Fellow and TU sophomore in art history. Piper is interested in the ways that public art commemorates and brings meaning to communities outside of the normal confines of efficiency and capital–in turn, community art becomes a space for play and re-imagining mundane spaces.

When I moved to Tulsa for my freshman year of college, one of the first times I felt at home in the new city was driving downtown and looking at all of the murals that decorated the buildings. As an art history major, seeing the way that various communities express themselves has always been one of the most exciting parts of traveling. Whether glimpsed on a road trip or appearing suddenly in my hometown, public art serves to celebrate these seemingly mundane spaces.

With this in mind, I chose to consider the concept of play in public spaces as part of this year’s OCH theme. In a world geared towards efficiency and capital, it becomes increasingly difficult to find ways to reconnect with this fundamentally human urge to play. The inclusion of art in urban spaces not only facilitates, but encourages, us to do this.

In order to explore the connectivity between art and cities, I asked all of the research fellows to select a work of art from their hometown and one from Tulsa. They each spoke about the memories they associated with the works and how they felt individually connected to each piece. In most cases, the fellows selected works that were commemorative or primarily aesthetic, and certain themes began to emerge.

Murals throughout Tulsa as well as examples like Magda Sayeg’s yarn bombing stood out as being intentionally and characteristically playful. These works aimed to shift the way we think about and interact with everyday objects. Rather than seeing the same brick wall or stop sign, these artists use play to readapt and reimagine the urban environment. Through this, we are able to look at spaces we might see over and over again – or even aesthetics that seem to exist in every city – and rethink them. As a result, otherwise mundane objects or spaces  become unique to a certain city. I call these works lusory because they so plainly embody the spirit and idea of play.

The commemorative works that seemed to characterize hometowns illustrate a different kind of public art. Rather than being strictly aesthetic, they articulate a specific message, speaking to the collective memory of a certain set of people. In the case of monuments like a statue of the Colorado Springs founder that Dr. Latham submitted or the Land Rush memorial in Oklahoma City that Professor Taghavi-Burris shared, the works become indicative of the city’s history. These kinds of community art speak to a narrative shared by the inhabitants of a particular space.

While the explicitly commemorative examples above become accessible to inhabitants of a particular space, other veins of community art serve a more specific cultural group. In these instances, community art can give a sense of presence and voice to groups who may not be represented in a space. Examples include eL Seed’s murals of Arabic calligraphy on buildings across the world or Diego Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. eL Seed adapts this traditional form of art characteristic of the Islamic world, reimagining it to challenge viewers’ conception of Muslims in their own communities. Rivera is able to capture a biopic of Mexican history with particular emphasis on the effects of colonialism, revolution, and conquest on indigenous groups. Here, Rivera is able to effectively insert indigenuos issues into a narrative that generally ignores their perspectives.

In both of these instances, community art also has an essential  critical function. In such cases, artists identify issues and aim to draw attention to them with the ultimate goal of remedying a perceived flaw in society. Works like Jenny Holzer’s Vigil projections of accounts of gun violence onto Rockefeller Center confronts the public with a problem, demanding recognition and action to solve it. Alfredo Jaar’s Lights in the City targets the problem of homelessness in Montreal. Jaar installed red lights in the Copula of the Marche Bonsecours, which were triggered when homeless people were invited to press buttons situated throughout the city. By giving the homeless population a very aggressive and visual presence in the city, Jaar aimed to force the population to engage in conversations about a problem that has generally been ignored, just as the people themselves are.

Regardless of how we attempt to categorize such works, they become “community” art through the interactions and memories that individuals within a particular space share with it. Regardless of a work’s seriousness, it starts as being “lusory” by nature. Public art imposes acts of leisure – observation and contemplation – in an otherwise efficiency-centered space. Artists must play with ideas and topics in order to present them to the public in the most compelling manner. Art does not need to be playful in order to play with us, nor does art does need to have a critical meaning to be meaningful.

Play Therapy: Foundations and Education

This week, TU student and OCH fellow Bisher Akel explores play therapy. As a senior studying psychology and biology, Bisher is interested in the potential for play to help children with various challenges, from success in school to emotional growth.

Play is not a new concept by any means. Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Bernard Suits and Roger Callois have explored why it might be fundamental to our everyday lives and even our very sense of being human. In recent years, an increasing number of mental health professionals have observed and noted the significance of play in human happiness and well-being, as well as in love and work.

In 1962 on his study of children, psychologist Jean Piaget reported observations that most children in their first decade of life had neither meaningful expression nor the ability to comprehend complex issues, motives, and feelings because they lacked the ability of abstract thinking. Piaget also noted that when a child is in his/her second period of intellectual development, the child begins assimilative play with the ability to form symbols. As the cognitive horizon expands, play becomes more complex with rules, moral judgment, and language development.

My own research looks at play therapy, a well-structured and theoretically-based psychological technique that enables therapists to analyze and understand the motivations behind children’s play in order to understand their psychological ailments and be better able to treat them. Play, it turns out, is a medium of discourse for children with adults, with other children, and even within their own consciousness. It develops self-expression, self-knowledge, self-actualization, and self-efficacy. Play can allow children to relieve feelings of stress and boredom, connect to people in a positive way, stimulate creative thinking and exploration, and regulate emotions, behavior, and conduct.

Play in and of itself is a very therapeutic activity, however, play therapy is not mere light entertainment. Instead, it represents a unique form of treatment that is not only geared toward young children, but is also translated into a language children can comprehend and utilize – the language of play.

Because play is the primary way that children learn about the world, understand how different things work, express their thoughts and feelings, and develop their physical, mental, and effective social skills, play therapy provides a means to use the diverse concept of play to benefit children dealing with academic, mental, emotional, or personal difficulties.

Play therapies have been particularly effective in managing ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, a condition that makes it unusually difficult for children to concentrate on tasks, pay attention, stay organized, remember details, sit still, or control impulsive behavior. The incorporation of play therapy into schools offers a means to utilize a child’s disorder to educate them rather than attempting to maneuver around an integral part of the child’s psyche in an effort to teach them despite their disorder. There are even several recent studies that support the use play therapy in an educational setting in order to better aid struggling students in their academics. An Iranian study in 2010, for example, found that the children were able to significantly increase their attention and improve control of their hyperactivity through play therapy.  

Another study in 2014 examined the rationale for cognitive-behavioral play therapy (CBPT) and social skills development in the group setting through a case study and an eight-session social skills experimental group developed for elementary school children. The results of this experiment indicate that this form of therapy is effective with students that demonstrate personal, social, behavioral, emotional, and academic deficits. Other studies explain how the use of play in the school setting, specifically by school counselors, can aid students as they strive to overcome the many challenges that may hinder social and academic growth and success.

Such research just barely touches on the evolution of the field and the expanding views and understanding of the use of play therapy. So what does its future hold? The field seems to be growing both in terms of enrollment in the advanced certificate programs offered at universities and through more research on the topic. New studies might bring to light additional possibilities as well, such as research into the use of sports in play therapy and the incorporation of virtual reality. The way I see it, the possibilities are endless. Therapeutic play is not confined to the clinical playroom or the counselor’s office, and I feel that the use, credibility, and appreciation for it will only grow from here.


Where Do Humanities Majors Find Work?

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences just released a new poster/infographic entitled “Where Humanities Majors Find Work,” as well as additional one-pagers that bring together quantitative data and profiles of innovative humanities programs. With over 7,000,000 humanities majors in the US workforce, they can be found in almost every occupation. According to the recent work indicators, upwards of 18% of humanities majors are employed in teaching, museum, and library positions. A high number of humanities majors also indicated working in management and office settings.

According to

Although the role of the humanities in the economic life of the United States may not be as readily apparent as that of engineering, for example, the humanities are, in fact, crucial to many fundamental elements and functions of modern economic productivity. Institutions such as museums and universities, as well as business enterprises in publishing and journalism, generate employment, returns on private investments, and tax revenues. They also depend on the humanistic skills of critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking, and, while these skills have always been important, they have become increasingly vital to today’s knowledge-based economy, which requires a strong humanities workforce (The Humanities Workforce).

The new releases are part of the “Humanities in Our Lives” series, developed with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The series reflects the Indicators’ holistic view of the humanities, and demonstrates the wide range of subject areas across which the data can be brought to bear.

By collecting comprehensive, up-to-date statistical information, the Humanities Indicators provide a nonpartisan, objective picture of how the humanities are faring in the United States today. These indicators describe employment in humanistic settings and occupations, with emphasis on post-secondary faculty, and also the career paths of those with undergraduate and graduate degrees in the humanities.

For more information on the state of the humanities in the US, career paths for humanities majors, degree program indicators, and more, visit Humanities Indicators.