Art and the Hobby
One of the great things about being part of a community of bloggers is that what we see others write about can inspire us. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about our hobby and where it stands in relation to art in general, and Warlock’s post the other day encouraged me to write down some of what I’ve been mulling over.
So. I think most of us would agree that when we paint a miniature and present it as finished, we have created a work of art on at least some level. Most of us would agree – but a lot of people in the fine art world might not. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see a 1988 Mike McVey Great Unclean One in a gallery next to a Jackson Pollock painting? No? Well too bad because I have. I have wondered that exact thing. And now I’m going to write about it, so if you don’t like the sound of that there’s… well… there’s heaps of great blogs right here. Click upon them, and be soothed.
For the rest of you gluttons for punishment, welcome to my hedge-philosophical comparative analysis of our hobby and fine art!
By the way, a “hedge philosopher” is something I totally made up. It’s sort of like a hedge wizard: someone who has some formal training, but is not currently in the loop professionally. That’s me these days. I usually do OK until I come up against a real working academic philosopher, and then it’s Willow’s grandpa’s acorn against Bavmorda all over again.
Ooookay. Now that’s out of the way. What is art?
Kidding! Like anyone can answer that definitively. Art critics, philosophers and other people with eccentric moustaches have been arguing about that one for ever. I’m sure we all have our definitions if we bother to think about it. Please share them in the comments if you like and we can talk about them. My personal favourite, and one that I think goes a long way towards explaining why minis aren’t in galleries right now, comes from the American philosopher George Dickie, and is sometimes known as his “institutional theory of art.” Basically it states:
Art is that which has been created for an art world.
Simple, but deceptively deep. It’s much easier to identify art worlds than it is to classify art. An “art world” is simply any group of people who are interested in making, buying, selling, and critiquing works of art. Art, then, is something (anything) made for that world.
I like this definition, because artists are a strangely creative breed of
homeless person. If you try to classify art by things like content, meaning, subject matter, purpose or style, then some smart-arse artist is always going to have made something that doesn’t fit your criteria, yet is universally accepted as art. Yoko Ono famously met John Lennon when he went to a show of hers in NYC which was everyday objects on pedestals, and he picked up and ate an apple that was one of the exhibits. So you can see how art is hard to recognise.
The definition of art I just gave may seem circular. After all, you need to know whether something is art or not to know whether to accept it into the art world, right? It is actually not circular; more symbiotic. The art world decides what art is, based largely on what it has let in before (art history), and then artists make their art to fit into those parameters, exploring and stretching them but not breaking them. New things are let in to the canon if they surprise and impress enough members of the art world in the right way. It’s sort of like how legal precedents are set and judgments are made by a judge, only less formal and more dependant on taste. So far the fine art world has not yet deigned to let gaming miniatures into the canon, as far as I know.
Now the thing is, there are lots of art worlds. One is the main one, the fine art world – the one most people think of when they think of Art with a capital A. This one includes the Mona Lisa, and Picasso, and Van Gogh, and yes, even Yoko’s apple. This art world used to like to pretend that it was the only real art world, but that didn’t work out so well what with post-modernism and globalization, and now it’s in a bit of a pickle. These days, western-style fine art tends to be incomprehensible to anyone not in the fine art world. Which is not a problem, unless you want to claim that fine art should be universal and is important to human nature and culture. In that case, oh dear.
Other art worlds include street art, comics, illustration, maybe pretentious cookery, knitting, video games, and yes, miniature painting and modelling. Each of these has cordoned off a little area consisting of things that are accepted and things that are not in that cultural world. People think of the fine art world as being exclusive and snobby, but the truth is they all are. A friend of mine who paints (among other things) geek-themed art was turned down by an editor of Image (the comics publisher) because his oil paintings of Hellboy were too “impressionistic.” This is a nice way of saying “comic art has to look a certain way, buddy. Go back to the hipster art gallery.”
Unfortunately the security settings on my mate’s site defeated me so I couldn’t show a pic. Go here if you want to see his stuff, it’s good.
So I think miniature painting has it’s own art world. Look at CMoN: it is literally a marketplace and gallery with a built-in judging system. It’s taken years for mini-painters to not feel like second-class artists, and many of us still have that voice in our head resisting any connection to the mainstream ideas of art and artistry. Many of us would even actively resist the claim that we are artists, preferring to be known as hobbyists.
I actually think we have a lot in common with street art, since both scenes are full of people who don’t want to be part of the mainstream art world but are quite obviously making art. Street art, incidentally, has it’s own gatekeepers. Another friend of mine who trained as a fine artist started doing paste-ups with her web address on them, and straight away got threats of physical violence from street and graffiti artists for putting up work on their turf. I know, awkward right? Every art world has a different culture. Fine art has security guards who won’t let you in the building without permission. Comics have snobby editors. Street artists police themselves in a… grittier way. I wonder who our gatekeepers are?
Now street art’s relationship with fine art is interesting. The fine art world – which is, as I said, in a bit of a pickle – is at the moment being infiltrated quite steadily by street art and other pop forms like comic art. The fine art world does this every now and then. It explores another art world by temporarily letting in some of the artists and techniques, and adding them to the fine art canon. It happened with indigenous/tribal art, it happened in the 1800s and again more recently with Japanese art (think anime), and now it’s happening with street art, comics and other pop forms.
You might see where I’m going with this. Will minis ever be in art galleries, appreciated on something like their own terms? I don’t see why not. There are certain approaches to presenting a mini that would help it to cross worlds. But would we want to? Or are we content to be our own little sub-culture forever? The Warlock’s recent post highlights some of the problems with that, as do the anecdotes we read in the comments of empty cabinets at painting contests around the world. Sub-cultures can easily go stale and die out completely.
Individual artists, once they get a level of success, can often cross worlds. But they rarely bring their fans with them. A well-established and universally acknowledged fantasy illustrator like Games Workshop’s John Blanche could have a show of his works in a gallery, for example. He probably has had, on many occasions. But the people going would not be his usual audience. What would happen if someone like our own Kelly of Sable and Spray, or Zab of Almost Perftec, took some minis to a local gallery and asked them to show them, and they said yes? What would it mean for them and for the rest of us?
I’m raising a lot of questions here that I don’t have the answers to. But I think that there’s definitely a growing sense among the hobby community that what we do has artistic value, but people are not sure where we stand in relation to the wider world of art and artists. I know I’m not. So openly dicussing it can’t hurt.
For what it’s worth, I think that the exchange of ideas and techniques between art worlds says a lot about where each world stands. Well-established art worlds freely borrow from one another while keeping their own integrity. But I don’t think an art world has really arrived until one of the others borrows from it. So we are “just” a hobby (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that) until we have produced a technique or style that is quintessentially our own, and makes artists in other worlds want to adapt it.
Everything we do so far, that I know of, comes from an established art world: traditional painting or sculpture. Even the styles we find fashionable reflect trends in fantasy illustration. As you can see from the two pics below, our little art world owes a huge debt to fantasy illustration, not just in subject matter but in composition, palette, and even direct referencing. You could almost say that most of us, sculptors and painters alike, are unconsciously in the tradition of fantasy and SF illustrators.
What we might need to start talking to the big boys is a work that could only have been a painted model. Until someone does that, we’re just copying the other artist’s answers. This is much harder to do than you might at first think. I have some ideas I’ll talk about another time, but sadly I probably lack the technical skill to be noticed. Making art is not easy, despite how it may sometimes appear. Well, making art is easy; making art that gets past the gatekeepers of your art world of choice and earns its place is hard.
One last thing I will say is that I think I’ve pretty much shown that we have our own art world on our hands. So perhaps it’s time we grew up and started acting like one: taking responsibility as a community for things like plagiarism, and admitting to our place in the wider context of art. I feel like it’s only once we know our history and where we stand in relation to other artists and art worlds that we can really grow creatively. We have artists; we have people willing to buy our art. What we lack at the moment are critics who are willing to look beyond the purely technical aspects, and honestly place our works in the wider context.
Anyway, thanks for reading. That’s probably more than enough for today. Let me know in the comments if you want me to keep writing about this because like I said I have some ideas for future discussion. Or tell me not to, if you find it strange and horrifying, and I’ll get back to my usual thing (whatever the hell that is).
Have a good one!