Wednesday, 29 May 2013

clay horsey

Today we may perhaps hope that it will be possible to overcome the basic error – namely, the assumption that the imaginative content of a child’s toys is what determines his playing; whereas in reality the opposite is true. A child wants to pull something, and so he becomes a horse; he wants to play with sand, and so he turns into a baker; he wants to hide, and so he turns into a robber or a policeman.


In the same way, the genuine and self-evident simplicity of toys was a matter of technology, not formalist considerations. For a characteristic feature of folk art – the way in which primitive technology combined with cruder materials imitates sophisticated technology combined with expensive materials – can be seen with particular clarity in the world of toys. Porcelain from the great czarist factories in Russian villages provided the model for dolls and genre scenes carved in wood. More recent research into folk art has long since abandoned the belief that ‘primitive’ inevitably means ‘older.’ Frequently, so-called folk art is nothing more than the cultural goods of a ruling class that have trickled down and been given a new lease on life within the framework of a broad collective.” (Benjamin “Toys and Play” 119)

At around the same time, the advance of the Reformation forced many artists who had formerly worked for the Church ‘to shift to the production of goods to satisfy the demand for craftwork, and to produce smaller art objects for domestic use, instead of large-scale works.’ This led to a huge upsurge in the production of the tiny objects that filled toy cupboards and gave such pleasure to children, as well as the collections of artworks and curiosities that gave such pleasure to adults. It was this that created the fame of Nuremberg and led to the hitherto unshaken dominance of German toys on the world market.” (Benjamin “Cultural History of Toys” 114)

“If we survey the entire history of toys, it becomes evident that the question of size has far greater importance than might have been supposed. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when the long-term decline in these things begins, we see toys becoming larger; the unassuming, the tiny, and the playful all slowly disappear. It was only then that children acquired a playroom of their own and a cupboard in which they could keep books separately from those of their parents. There can be no doubt that the older volumes with their small format called for the mother’s presence, whereas the modern quartos with their insipid and indulgent sentimentality are designed to enable children to disregard her absence. The process of emancipating the toy begins. The more industrialization penetrates, the more it decisively eludes the control of the family and becomes increasingly alien to children and also to parents.” (Benjamin “Cultural History of Toys” 114)

Last, such a study would have to explore the great law that presides over the rules and rhythms of the entire world of play: the law of repetition. We know that for a child repetition is the soul of play, that nothing gives him greater pleasure than to ‘Do it again!’ The obscure urge to repeat things is scarcely less powerful in play, scarcely less cunning in its workings, than the sexual impulse in love. It is no accident that Freud has imagined he could detect an impulse ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ in it. And in fact, every profound experience longs to be insatiable, longs for return and repetition until the end of time, and for the reinstatement of an original condition from which it sprang. ‘All things would be resolved in a trice / If we could only do them twice.’ Children act on this proverb of Goethe’s. Except that the child is not satisfied with twice, but wants the same thing again and again, a hundred or even a thousand times. This is not only the way to master frightening fundamental experiences – by deadening one’s own response, by arbitrarily conjuring up experiences, or through parody; it also means enjoying one’s victories and triumphs over and over again, with total intensity. An adult relieves his heart from its terrors and doubles happiness by turning it into a story. A child creates the entire event anew and starts again right from the beginning. Here, perhaps, is the deepest explanation for the two meanings of the German word Spielen [which means 'to play' and 'games']: the element of repetition is what is actually common to them. Not a ‘doing as if’ but a ‘doing the same thing over and over again,’ the transformation of a shattering experience into habit – that is the essence of play.” (Benjamin “Toys and Play” 120)

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