Sunday 29 September 2013

Completely enclosed in the hollow of his hand

“He must strive continually to think of, and use, form in its full spatial completeness. He gets the solid shape, as it were, inside his head - he thinks of it, whatever it’s size, as if he were holding it completely enclosed in the hollow of his hand. He mentally visualises a complex form from all round itself; he knows while he looks at one side what the other side is like; he identifies himself with its centre of gravity, its mass, its weight; he realises its volume, as the space that the shape displaces I the air.”

Henry Moore ‘Notes on Sculpture’ in Herbert Reads ‘Henry Moore, sculpture and drawings’

There is popular music and popular cinema and there is actually popular sculpture. Much of it is what we would usually call ornaments. Some of it is mini’s. Minis are sculpture for the masses in the same way as pop is music for the masses.

It is a kind of invisible art.

Constraints shape thought. The mind is a little like water. Any particular thought will usually choose the path of least resistance to its assumed end. Total freedom often leads to general blandness. See the melange of modern fantasy.

When constraints are introduced. (I think of them as patterns of activation rather than constraints.) The thought is displaced from its track. Like a river being dammed. It must find a new route through usually untouched pastures of the mind and make unusual connections to be what it needs to be.

The most powerful and creatively interesting constraints are those of different kinds. If a D&D character has to be a cleric but cannot worship any stated god in a D&D book, that is two constraints from within a very similar field. If the cleric has to be created in five minutes because a train was late, that introduces a constraint from a different level. If it needs to fit into the poetic formation of a sonnet, that is another, if it needs to be generated from a memory of your real life then this is another. Constraints imposed from different levels of reality are the most powerful

I have been thinking about the overlapping constraints under which big companies make popular sculpture and they fascinate me.

How many?

The Fiction. Every mini is linked to and feeds back into an overarching fiction, so each mini must encapsulate and even move forward a bit of the story. It has to have continuity with what came before.

One of my favourite things about 40k lore is the backward technology. In the 40k verse older technology is always better and most of it is lost. R&D is forbidden. To make something better you have to actually find an archive and mine it for already existing designs. This makes sense of the insane tech levels in 40k, especially in human culture. Old and new, recently discovered and long forgotten all mixed together almost incoherently. If game designers want to invent something new they just have something old discovered. This means designers get to invent what they want, so long as it makes artistic sense. It feeds back into the power of the fiction because everything is old and decayed and no-one understands it.

Stories need inherent technology to talk about the future so that we understand it now. Star Trek has post-relativistic speeds, gravity control, matte reorganisation and AI. A society with those things would look and act like nothing we can recognise. So the tech is used but the implications are ignored.

40k gets around this by inventing an incoherent culture. It’s brokenness adds emotional and aesthetic power rather than taking it.

Capital. If it’s made by a major corporation then it will be affected by what the market wants. Space Marine models outnumber Imperial Guard models because everyone wants to play Space Marines. The company semi-accidently hit something that jams right in to the adolescent male mind. It does so in an interesting way. It’s like a pop hit of popular sculpture. Everything they do almost has to hang somewhere around the orbit of Space Marines as they drive profits. If we look back at the fiction constraint, they need to live inside a universe that justifies the existence of Space Marines.

It will be affected by what the company thinks it can persuade people to want and by what makes the most money. The company has worked out it has a higher profit margin on very large very expensive kits. Now every army has one. Would you like a giant multi-part GW kit? Buy two for your apocalypse game. The creation of these mega-kits has been enabled by shifts in…

The Means of Production. It needs to be mass produced. The materials and the techniques change. Generally you are trying to fake a figure that occupies three dimensional space with a technology that wants to make long thin things. Old models were usually arranged across a single axis. So instead you make it in parts, the parts get snipped off the sprue and attached a different way so it occupies 3d space in a more fluid way. Computers can scan in complex shapes for mass production.

Materials. Lead holds differently to pewter which holds differently to plastic which holds differently to finecast resin. Metals are heavy and need special glues to make them stick so its hard to build big multipart models without special skills. Plastic bends under heat and glues super easy so that effects things for the consumer.

(Some of what we think of as an ancient style of sculpture is based on how granite carries detail. Granite is a hard rock. It survives when others wear. Its hard to cut so you have to use simple bold designs.  Those designs last so they become symbolic of time. The material affects the form which affects the culture.)

Architects of old large buildings would shift the level of detail in the building depending on its distance from the viewer. Fine detail in the distance is often bad detail because its fineness fades when seen from a long distance away. Detail on a battlefield might work in the same way.

USE! This is where popular sculpture is really different to any other kind of art. The guy who designed Space Marines gave them that unusual highly distinctive upper body profile because the player is always looking down on them from above and they need to pop against a mixed background. Warhammer fantasy minis need to click together next to each other on square bases as a regiment while also forming a semi-realistic impression of something going to war.

Movement and uniformity

(Go and have a look at the 360 rotating images on the site)

 It’s assumed that the user will and should want to alter the product. Means are designed specifically for the end user to do that. Is there any other form of art in which it is assumed that the consumer is also a minor creator?

Painting is a whole other thing. So far as I know the west hasn’t painted sculptures since Greece. Except we do.

Go here and tell me if you think you are looking at an artform

Emotion? This may be a sub-constraint of story. Most warhammer minis need to not look stupid when they are posed alone away from a combat, but also no look stupid when rammed right up next to another model in hand-to-hand. This often strands them in a kind of strangulated emotional space. There are exceptions, sort of.

(The guy who designed this mini based it unconsciously on his grandfather, he only realised when it was finished. You can’t see here but the characters hand is held behind it’s back and clenched into a fist. Which, ok, isn’t that subtle. But for 40k it is.)

I suppose where I am going with this is that it makes more sense to think about minis as a form of popular art and to assess them along with elite officially-art sculpture in a similar relation as that of pop music to classical music.

Except if you brought in assessment of ALL the things working on a model design and how they all knit together to make something you are talking about it in a way I think no-one has before.

I can’t help but think that if you took some GW sculpts, filed off the details, leaving them as abstract shapes, then grew them is size and took them to a gallery, they would be regarded as art and possibly as high art.

the rotating version of this is great

Art has movements and markets and the mind of the sculpture but it doesn’t have a fucking universe to draw from and account for. And it isn’t for the people. It’s for some people. You can go and buy some remarkable forms of art right now. And the creators assume you are capable and willing to alter and adapt them to your will. You are invited to do so. You are invited to use the art. You can hold one in the palm of your hand.

Has anyone done this kind of criticism or analysis? It sounds like somebody should have I know nothing about sculpture. If anyone does have anything interesting to add to this, or can direct me to anyone who has done original thinking on it then please do let me know.


  1. The only response High Art has to this (and they are lame, really) are crap. There are 2:
    -High Art does the basic R&D and then Low Art takes it and runs with it (which is allegedly easy, but isn't--and often produces better results).
    So a High Artist like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invents detective stories (budding off the tree of Literature) and then anyone after that writing a detective story is a Low Artist working in that person's footsteps.
    Hieronymous Bosch and other early Christians invent the Hellish Grotesque and then the other people who draw them (unless they can plausibly merge their grotesques with the High Art fashion of the day) are Genre Artists working in a factory he built.
    -The other fact is "art" is a category we only use when we can't think of any other way to sell a thing.
    If you make a tiny sculpture, it's _automatically_ art. If you can use it as a bottle opener or chess piece or toy soldier or paperweight it has ascended to a commercially more secure but less prestigious place (in the market's mind) by suddenly no longer needing to justify itself on looks (or whatever) alone. It has a use!
    The art world considers that cheating, basically. If it was honest _art_ it'd gamble on its ability to survive commercially on wits alone.
    Folks also have vague notions of meaning being a prerequisite for art, but these all fall apart on even a cursory inspection or else disqualify many undeniably Fine Art objects because they're mutually contradictory.
    So, in short: there are lots of reasons folks don't recognize these things as art but none of them are good.

  2. If you don't know about Zhu's blog, you should take a look for some of his thinking on this subject:

    I was looking for a picture of Alan Perry's orc "irregular" with the Margaret Thatcher banner to crudely illustrate this, but...

    When you say that art doesn't have a universe to draw from and account for - I take it that taking you're comparing (unaccountable) High Art to the closed feedback loop of GW and other popular fantasy IP's - which has to exist in reference to itself. I'd agree that this - or the appearance of this - internal coherence is a bit part of 40k's appeal.

    But a good deal of the output from early GW's artists and writers was straight-up news parody, accomplished with whatever genre trappings would best support it. At that time, it wasn't really accounting for its universe so much as for ours - that's where the grimness first came in.