Chess as a Mode of Art: Part One

“Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes throughts, and these throughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. Actually, I believe that every chess player experiences a mixture of two aesthetic pleasures: first, the abstract image akin to the poetic idea of writing; secondly, the sensuous pleasure of the ideographic execution of that image on the chessboard. From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” — Marcel Duchamp, August 30, 1952 address to the New York State Chess Association

Duchamp’s 1911 Portrait of Chess Players probably says even more about our game than his speech. Take a look at it here on the website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Notice how the painting gives a shape to the inner world of the chess player. One can almost imagine how much pain they’re enduring. A chess friend of mine has to take an unhealthy dose of aspirin before competition because he would otherwise be overcome by migraines. He goes to tournaments where he spends hours mimicking mock battles between two armies. In a sense this is a singular act of will for no great purpose.

The artistry of the game rises in us from the desire to make sense of the chaos all around, and the overarching human need to do so. Without the desire to solve the insoluble problems the board presents, chess is just wooden men, and nothing more. This I concede. When, however, you begin to take what occurs over the board to heart, that is as a challenge to restore equilibrium, you invest in the game something that renders it an artistic sensibility.

By analogy I will tell you my favorite painter is Van Dyck. His portraiture, and especially his larger-than-life Christian-themed epics withstand the test of time. So important was his craft to him that he went on painting during the ravages of a plague. His mode of expression became to him more important than leaving Italy for safety. The world didn’t need another depiction of what plague looked like since life in the 17th century had no shortage of hardships. The important thing to remember is that Van Dyck himself felt compelled to continue.

So the next time you’re sitting over the board think about your own cognition. You can scoop up your pieces after the game’s first mistake and proceed with the rest of your afternoon if you so choose. Maybe the sun is shining or there’s a pretty girl waiting for you. I’m willing to bet that you’ll move your board outside if it comes to that, and tell your sweetie you’ll be a couple of minutes late. You’ve started something that has become more than just something.

When you started off your life you had nearly nothing in your neural web. All you wanted was a mother’s milk and a little companionship. Somewhere along the line, through selfish genes or something yet undiscovered, you became more than a clinging thing. You started to strive and work towards figuring out abstractions that on the surface make no sense. No other animal in the world can do what you do. No other thing in the world needs to spend its time resolving anything but the most basic of priorities. So it’s up to you. Chess and art intersect at a point of duty.

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