Yeah, I know, the perennial question: “Is modelling Art?” This is not an answer, more of an opinion, I guess.
What is Art? Mirriam Webster can swing; I’m not going to bore you with a dictionary definition that fits my bias. Defining art is like wrestling jelly (Jello. if you are a north American), you can’t get to grips with it, and you end up with a mess. However, we need a frame of reference, so I suppose I had better give it a try. Before I do though, bear in mind this is an opinion, and the arguments thereafter will hang on this opinion. Others are very much available, and I encourage everyone to always seek a plurality of opinions.
The short answer, to quote United States Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, is “I know it when I see it?”
The long answer is this:
Most people in modelling fall back on the same basic argument: modelling is creative, and art is the act of making an object using creativity. However, I have two issues with this.
The first is that creativity means to make something using your own imagination or conception. When you talk to most modellers, nearly all I have spoken to, there is a need to conform to the reality of the object they are making. They try to get the colours right (or at least in the right ballpark) and to make the model so that it looks like the prototype. So how is this creative? You can argue that there is some wiggle room, you can put it in a scene, or weather it a certain way, or use non-kit decals, but really, isn’t this just fiddling with the detail? The aim is to faithfully replicate something real. So, if we accept that (yes, I can hear teeth grinding as I type this, but bear with me), then necessarily the second part of the basic argument outlined above, falls flat.
So, I am saying modelling isn’t art, right? No, that is not what I am saying. Well…. OK, it is. A bit.
Most definitions of art say that it elicits an emotional response. I can agree with this, although I would also argue it can challenge intellectual responses too. In other words, it makes you feel, or think. So, can this apply to modelling? Yes, it can.
Let’s look at some models that I consider good examples of this:
Marijn van Gils: “Zappa”
The emotion that sizzles off Marijn’s “Zappa” like steam of a volcano is sheer, unalloyed, joy. Marijn captures Zappa in an exultant moment of unselfconscious abandonment to the power of the chord he has just struck. You can hear it ring from the speakers even though there is no speaker on the scene, and you can feel the feeling Zappa is feeling right now. This feeling, and the power with which Marijn communicates it, is Art, with a capital ‘A’.
But it’s not just the feeling. It is successful because Marijn gives you only just enough to make it work; we have the figure, the guitar, a tiny piece of monitor, and the stage. That’s it. Any element which does not serve the piece, is removed. Any distraction from the main area of focus is removed. It is of single purpose: the message, and anything which does not communicate that message is noise. Marijn eliminates the noise to allow you to purely engage with the signal.
Of course, the main element is the figure. Here, Marijn references Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 cubist painting “nude descending staircase” and the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s work on capturing human and animal motion with multi-exposure sequences (which he made between 1878 and 1886).
Motion is expressed by multiple sculpts of Zappa in stages of his motion forward and upward, which have been compressed into a single multi-limbed figure, with each stage differentiated by colour saturation. This is incredibly difficult to sculpt and paint, especially so successfully, and the deceptively simple scene belies the outstanding technical achievement, as it should. You don’t want the technique casting shade on the message.Clean, audacious, with an emotional blast that you can’t ignore.
Peter Usher: “Mind the Gap”
Like Marijn’s work, I could have picked almost anything Peter makes, but I’ve chosen his famous “Mind the Gap” diorama.
This is the kind of scene that a lot of modellers try to do, and most fail. They fail because they don’t put enough thought into the composition, and the details. Peter has kept it very simple, dividing the scene into thirds. These remind me of classical altar piece triptychs of the Calvary, such as Paul Peter Reubens “the Raising of the Cross” (1610) In the centre is the suffering. On the left the onlookers, and on the right the loved one in anguish.
In artistic terms, the central two protagonists are perhaps most reminiscent of “The Creation of Adam” By Michaelangelo. Although the theme of “Mind the Gap” could obviously not be more different, Peter mirrors the reaching action of God and Adam, to create the message and drama of the diorama in the wounded soldier in the centre, and his comrade reaching for him.
Of course, the message of this piece is that relationship, and the anguish of the situation. Everything else around the diorama is set up to support the emotional impact of these two figures, and once again, nothing is redundant. The trains either side create a channel down the centre of the diorama that indicates the sniper’s line of sight, which adds the aspect of threat, which creates the anxiety, along with the central figures exposed position. We can read the situation immediately, but it’s the reaching hands and the men holding the would-be rescuer back, which turn the emotion up to 11. The men on the left of the scene search for the sniper, but the viewer knows that the wounded man has maybe minutes to live, and he is just bait for his comrades.
Although I have compared this piece to classical art by old masters, and I don’t want that to seem pretentious, it is important to look at how models can borrow the artistic language of great artists to amplify their effectiveness and impact. They help us see how the elements are used to focus on the emotional impact of the two figures.
No matter how many times you look at this piece, you won’t be able to escape that emotional gut-punch. Even understanding how it works, does nothing to reduce it. That fear for someone you care for, in immediate danger is visceral, and universal. This is Art.
“With the Asaro Mudmen. Goroka Highlands, German New Guinea, 1915.” Alexandre Duchamp
Alex is a master of the small vignette, but this form comes loaded with constricting elements. You can use only one or two figures, and you have only a small space to establish a setting or context. Because of these factors, it is hard to tell a story or explain a complex idea clearly. Alex works with the constraints of the form using mood, symbolism, and allusion. Let’s have a look.
The setting is tropical. We have lush ferns and plants, bright green low foliage and a single palm tree that works to suggest woodland or a forest. The setting is high contrast with the bright plants and dark earth, which gives the feeling of tropics and a forest canopy above.
Stood in this scene, is a rather surreal character. He is wearing boots and khaki brown jodhpur style trousers which suggest German military in the late 19th or early 20th century. He is shirtless, and wears full head mask of aboriginal origin, (some googling on the title lead me to the Asaro “Mudmen” of Papua New Guinea, who craft these full-head masks from mud). He is holding a framed portrait of Kaiser Wilhem II (A portrait photograph made by T H Voight in 1902) and appears to be presenting it to the viewer.
If you want to do what I did, and do a bunch of googling, you can deduce the exact historical context and view it purely as a historical figure piece. But if you stop there, you are missing the point. You don’t need to know the exact date, or the historical context, to read Alex’s intent here. Essentially, it’s a piece about European colonialism.
Overall, the mood is like a fever dream. The setting is hot and humid, you can imagine rain dripping from the canopy above, and the shirtless figure hints at the heat. The man has discarded most of his uniform, and his sober bearing. Something strange is happening here.
The military trousers and boots in this setting, shout “colonialism”, but the portrait nails it on. This is the military coloniser as cultural coloniser. When European powers grabbed land all over the world, they didn’t just take from the indigenous peoples and their land, they attempted to assimilate them culturally, exporting their European laws and symbols, and religions, and forcing them on the colonised.
But the mask, tells a more complex story, Part of this is the theft and cultural appropriation of the art and culture of the colonised. Thousands of artefacts would be taken for display in museums and private collections, but also words and culture would be absorbed into the culture of the coloniser for their own purposes and uses, in a system that ultimately sought to neutralise the culture of the colonised through acquisition. But the cultural assimilation is not always one way. In colonial circles, there were always those who assimilated part, or whole, into the culture of the colonised. There are disdainful words for it ‘going native’, ‘gone Asiatic’. Is this figure looting or is he teetering between two worlds?
The colonisers would invariably see themselves as more civilised than those they colonised. Alex challenges this with this figure. He appears to have discarded part of his western identity, but he still carries his holstered pistol. Is he losing his mind, or is he losing his morals?
This piece in one single figure, in a deceptively simple setting, challenges our beliefs and memories, or concept of European vs African, Asian and South American. Our understanding of European history and the actions of our ancestors, and our concepts of civilisation, humanity, and quality.
A very powerful piece of Art that challenges us on a more intellectual, rather than an emotional level, but with some emotion in there too.
Does it Need to be Art?
So I’ve laid out what I think art is, and how it can apply to scale modelling. But what about all the stuff I do not consider art? Is it not as good? Is it somehow less valid? Hell NO. Any model you make is as valid as any model anyone else makes.
People use the word “Art” to legitimise what we do with models, perhaps because of modelling’s historical connection with being an activity associated with children, the idea that some have that they are “toys”.
But here’s the thing, you don’t need it to be art for it to be legitimate. You can make something with no more intent than just to enjoy making a thing, whether it’s an out of the box 1960s Lindberg kit or a multi part diorama with sublime detail and fidelity to reality. It’s all the same. It’s all worth doing and it’s all as valid as anything else you can choose to spend your time on. The fact it isn’t Art (or at least 99% of it isn’t) doesn’t mean it isn’t *yours*, and it doesn’t make it any less valid.
If you don’t make actual Art with your models, that’s great! You are making something, and you get all the same rewards from it as anyone else. Celebrate it for what it is, making models. It doesn’t need to be anything else. Not art, not engineering, not history (don’t get me started), just being modelling is more than enough.
But if you do want to make art, you can do it. Anyone can. But look at what you are doing. Look at how things read, what they can say beyond what they are and a vague historical connection. Try to evoke a strong emotion or challenge the viewer’s ideas and beliefs. Go beyond the object you are modelling and make a connection to the viewer. You won’t always be successful, but it is very fulfilling and will change the way you do the hobby.
And if you just want to make accurate representations of a prototypical machine, do it! I love to look at those too!
Thanks for reading and see you next time.