Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art [Editorial]

Sometime or another, you may have thought about LEGO as art or even participated in a discussion. In this Brothers Brick exclusive editorial, LEGO Ambassador Roy T. Cook (aka Imhotepidus) challenges our popular views on LEGO art. As a university professor who teaches logic, philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art, Roy looks at the subject of LEGO art from a different perspective and makes an argument for our misperception of LEGO creations as art. I dare you to read his potentially controversial essay:

I have spoken at Brickfest (2005, 2006) and Brickworld (2008) on the topic of LEGO as art, arguing that LEGO creations can be art. In addition, I have argued that in order to be an artwork, a LEGO creation needs to incorporate three elements:

  • Form: (the creation has to display some minimum of building skill)
  • Content: (the creation has to express a message, emotion, etc.)
  • Context: (the creation has to be situated in a larger historical or traditional context)

I am not going to rehash these arguments here – a number of you may have already heard them – especially those of you who also frequent the Research and Development section of Classic-Space.com – and I can return to these issues in the comments if appropriate. Instead, I want to suggest that we, as a fan community, are thinking about LEGO the wrong way, at least if we want to take the idea of LEGO as art seriously.

I think that the problem with the way that we think about LEGO as an art form is easy to locate, and can be illustrated by a simple example: At Brickworld 2008, a travesty occurred: My own “MOC the Line: The Man in Black (and White, and Bley)” won the Best Artwork category, while Nannan’s “Cry of Dreams” came in (a very close!) second. (No worries, however, since Nannan went on to win the coveted Judges’ Award!) Now, I am not claiming that this was a travesty out of some misguided, false modesty (since I do think that my mosaic was pretty frickin’ cool), nor am I even saying that Nannan’s creation was necessarily better (I’ll let others make that sort of judgment). What I am saying is that my mosaic had no business being judged in a Best Artwork category at all, since it isn’t an artwork to begin with. Unlike Nannan’s creation, my Johnny Cash mosaic doesn’t come with a message, or express an emotion. At best, it is a technical achievement showing off a new method for creating mosaics. This doesn’t mean it was bad, or that it had no value – it just means that is wasn’t art. The fact that it was in the Best Artwork category at all shows that we are thinking about LEGO artwork the wrong way.

The problem, more generally, is that we, as a community, equate LEGO artworks with LEGO creations that resemble other art forms. Thus LEGO mosaics, LEGO sculptures, and perhaps LEGO vignettes get grouped under the technical term ‘Art’, regardless of whether they actually satisfy the criteria for being artworks. At the same time, many other creations which do seem to satisfy the criteria for being artworks – that is, they express a substantial message or emotion, etc. – are not included under the ‘Art’ heading simply because they fall into some other well-established theme or category. It is worth noting that this very blog – yes, the blog that was nice enough to invite me to write this editorial – makes this mistake in the way it categorizes posts. Just click on the category called ‘Art’ if you don’t believe me! :)

A few more examples:

When LEGO artist Duane Hess (Legozilla) was asked to participate in the Denver Art Museum’s “Best Spring Break Ever” this past March, members of the public were invited to help him assemble a LEGO mosaic recreation of Marsden Hartley’s painting “The Bright Breakfast of Minnie

After all, what better way to display the potential of LEGO as an artistic medium than by using it to copy a masterpiece in another medium (insert sarcasm here)? Of course, I am not denying the value of having simple, hands-on activities that engage the museum-going public, and it is likely that this sort of consideration, and not philosophically deep considerations about the aesthetic status of LEGO, motivated choosing this particular activity to be part of the exhibit. Nevertheless, identifying LEGO art with LEGO creations that resemble artworks in other media does little to advance appreciation of LEGO as a unique art form.

Even more appalling, in my eyes, is the ‘achievement’ of the Little Artists, John Cake and Darren Neave. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the work of the Little Artists, Cake and Neave have carved out a niche for themselves in the British Modern Art scene by recreating major works such as Damien Hirst’s “Shark Tank” and Salvador Dali’s “Lobster Phone” in LEGO (Shark Tank, Lobster Phone).

This pair have somehow become the most important LEGO artists alive by subverting the very idea that LEGO is an art form at all. As a result, the most important LEGO artworks in the world, at least in the opinion of the art world itself (Little Artists’ creations are included in the permanent collection of the Walker Gallery in Liverpool) and in terms of their price tags (the work of the Little Artists is collected by Charles Saatchi), would seem to be cute LEGO spoofs of other, important, artworks. Again, we have the idea that LEGO artworks, and in particular, great LEGO artworks, are those LEGO creations that resemble (or, in this case, are flat-out authorized forgeries of) great artworks in other art forms.

To head off at least one sort of angry response, I should make it clear that it is not the creations of the Little Artists that I find appalling – on the contrary, many of their creations are quite clever. What I find appalling is the critical reaction to these works, and the detrimental result that reactions like this have on serious thought about LEGO as an artistic medium.

What we have yet to grasp, as a group (and as a society as a whole), is that LEGO is an artistic medium unto itself. LEGO creations need to resemble neither great paintings nor great sculptures in order to be great artworks. Of course, there are strong analogies between creating with LEGO and sculpting (thus, Nannan’s creations can often be fairly characterized as ‘sculptural’), but there are also differences. We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that the more sculpture-like or painting-like a creation is, the more artistic it is.

I will conclude this essay with a call to arms. Instead of mindlessly categorizing particular LEGO creations as artworks merely because they vaguely resemble masterpieces in other art forms, we need to begin to think hard about what makes a LEGO creation a great work of art, or a work of art at all. There is little reason to think that the criteria we discover will be the same, or even all that similar to, the criteria for being a great painting or great sculpture. At any rate, we won’t find out what the similarities, if any, are unless we spend some time thinking about these issues.

Of course, all of this depends on the assumption that LEGO is not only fun, but can also be a medium for creating works of artistic value. At LEGO events I often run into builders who are antagonistic to this idea, typically for one of two reasons: First, some builders seem to think that thinking hard about LEGO as an art form will somehow take the fun out of building. This line of thought seems mistaken to me, since there would appear to be no reason to think that one cannot both enjoy doing something and think hard about how it is, or should be, done. Second, I get the “But it’s just LEGO! It’s just a toy! You’re taking this all way too seriously!” reaction. Of course, on one level this reaction is correct: If no one begins to take it seriously, then it will remain just a toy, and neither we nor the public will have any right to treating it as anything more. On the other hand, if we do begin thinking about the status of LEGO as a medium for the creation of art, and we develop the critical tools for evaluating and critiquing LEGO models in virtue of their artistic qualities (and not merely in terms of how complicated the SNOT techniques are, or how swooshable they are, or how cool they are), then eventually we will accumulate the theoretical ammunition necessary to convince the rest of the world that what we do is (sometimes) serious and worthy of their attention. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?

In short, Roy has urged us to re-evaluate our definitions of LEGO art. As a start, I’ve inserted a variety of LEGO creations throughout this editorial to stir up the idle brain juice inside our heads. How do you judge if a LEGO creation is a work of art? Is there a clearly defined boundary that seperates LEGO creations from LEGO art, or is there a massive gray area? If LEGO is meant to be a medium for creativity and imagination, then wouldn’t every LEGO creation be a work of art? Let your voice be heard!

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75 comments on “Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art [Editorial]

  1. Gambort

    Roy,

    As you correctly surmised I did realise that those three points weren’t yours. I think I’d even agree with them.

    You make reference to a scientific approach. I would argue that ‘useful’ scientific development comes from explaining things where current theory is insufficient or incorrect. If this were not the case then we would constantly be reinventing fundamental laws. It’s not a bad thing to do per se but it doesn’t add a lot to the broader base of scientific knowledge.

    Thus, in my opinion, the question “Is LEGO art separate from other forms of art (and if so, how do we find out)?” only becomes important if something indicates that there is a lack in the current theory. I must, therefore, stick by my point that “What need[1] is there to separate ‘LEGO Art’ from other forms of art?” is the more fundamental question.

    Although I’m no art historian I do believe that the issue of ‘purity’ does have historical context: religious art. Many theistic traditions have assigned importance to the ‘elements’ that comprise their artforms. I see the personalised dogmas of LEGO purism as little or no different. I seem to remember that ‘brands’ even work on the same portion of the brain as religion.

    Tim

    PS. When I referred to CAD I meant general CAD creation of 3D designs.

    [1] Or perhaps ‘need’ can be replaced by ‘gain’.

  2. bruce

    A couple of points:

    -I’d add the traveling Nathan Sawaya exhibit to your example of the Little Artists. The fact that this is being shown in art museums means that some, at least, in the art world accept this as art. IMO he does an interesting job of taking advantage of the shapes and colors that make this specifically “LEGO art” rather than “art that happens to use LEGO as the medium.”

    -I don’t know if I like the distinction between “art” and “not art” in general. Perhaps it would be better to try and define “great art” “fine art” or some other modified form of “art” because, in one sense, I think that everything from a child’s finger painting up to a Van Gogh is on a continuum rather than cleanly divided between “art” and “not art.” This goes back to a disagreement I had once with my wife where I referred to some friends as “musicians.” She gave me a hard time about this because she had a friend who studied at Juilliard and played with Itzhak Perlman, and I had the temerity to use the word to describe some guys who had a garage band. My point was that these were all people who in some way were devoting themselves to music, while obviously in no way trying to say they were on comparable levels. Thus with “art”. I would say that anything that is meant to be art is; it just might be at a very low level of achievement. There’s an essay by Robert Fulgham (of “All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”) that when we are children we are all artists, dancers, singers, etc, but along the way we are told we are not good enough, so we slowly stop trying to express ourselves in these ways, so we lose a lot of joy in life.

    -I disagree with the implication that a recreation of fine art cannot in itself be fine art. Think, for instance, of Monet’s paintings of the Cathedral at Rouen. You start with the original artwork, the cathedral itself. Then Monet reinterpreted that in a series of recreations using a different medium, that of painting. One could argue that portraits, landscapes, still-lifes etc are just recreations of something else, drawn from the world about us. But these recreations can achieve the level of “high art”. The creator makes choices of subject matter, of medium, of how to represent the original object, etc, that are all part of the artistic endeavor. I would argue that your Johnny Cash mosaic does all of this, even though it is a recreation of a photo. You even developed a new mosaic technique, using wedge plates the way you did, which is very interesting. The Gugick recreation of the Mona Lisa also helped develop a mosaic technique, using 1×1 round plates over a background to give two layers of color to the mosaic. I even think the Little Artists are doing something interesting in their work, but after doing it once I think the point was made, so doing more is just sort of cashing in on the buzz, IMO.

    This is a really interesting discussion. I like the suggestion somewhere upthread of a forum to discuss LEGO art, where we could take individual works and discuss them on the level of their artistic merits.

  3. Imhotepidus

    Jehkay,

    I am not sure I get why you seem so antagonistic to the project of determining whether (some) LEGO creations are art and, if so, what sort of art they are, and what characterstics might make a LEGO creation an artwork (or a great artwork).

    The reason (or one of the reasons) we have terms like “art” in our language is that we think that certain human creations fall into a special category, and that in addition, objects that fall into that category have a certain sort of value (I am not talking monetary value here, although artworks certainly have that too. I am talking about aesthetic value, or cultural value, or something more ephemeral like that).

    Now, (and this is similar to the point I made in my response to Tim above) I certainly don’t think that it is NECESSARY to classify these creations as art. I am certainly not trying to delude “ignorant plebians” or anyone else. On the contrary, what I want to do is akin to good science: I want to figure out whether LEGO creations are art, and why. (Okay, I’ll be honest, I am already convinced that some creations are art, so I am at this point more interested in the “why” question).

    As you point out, “if we truly believe our lego creations have worth, then [we could] simply showcase them to the world, let them see, teach them how to appreciate them the way we do using the developed framework mentioned above.” But what would be wrong with the picture if part of that framework involved evidence that LEGO creations were art, and if that framework traced the similarities and differences between LEGO creations and other types of art? Wouldn’t that make the framework better, more complete? Why avoid the questions of whether LEGO creations are art, and what makes them art, when we might be able to answer these questions?

    Roy

    PS: With regard to your follow-up question, I agree with you to a point – I certainly want to distance myself from much of the “high art” pretension and snobbery. As I have noted earlier, however, there is a pretty serious movement within some academic circles challenging the legitimacy of the distinction between “high art” or “fine art” on the one hand, and “low art” or “popular art” or “mass art” or etc. etc. on the other hand. My main academic interest within aesthetics is comic books, so it probably isn’t necessary to point out which side of this debate you will find me on. As a result of this, I think that there is plenty of room for appreciating and evaluating mecha, space, or castle creations (or anything else) as legitimate art.

  4. Imhotepidus

    Tim

    Regarding your comment that:

    “I would argue that ‘useful’ scientific development comes from explaining things where current theory is insufficient or incorrect. . . I must, therefore, stick by my point that “What need [or gain[ is there to separate ‘LEGO Art’ from other forms of art?” is the more fundamental question.”

    Ah, the very fine distinction between science and philosophy. I suspect that this difference of opinion between us stems from your being a scientist – thus, your quite reasonable (from a scientific standpoint) attitude of “our current theory is empirically adequate, it explains all the data, why go looking for another theory?”, and my (typical philosophical) rejoinder “because there is an objective reality out there waiting to be discovered, and even if empirically adequate, our current theory might be mis-describing it!”

    Basically, I want to ask the question, because it might turn out that the perfectly useful theory we have now is, nonetheless, wrong.

    Roy

  5. Gambort

    Roy,

    You brought the ‘scientific approach’ up, I just took it further ;)

    My own philosophical take is there is no objective reality for art because art is by its nature subjective. Thus any needless expansion on current ‘best practise’ theory has a high risk of muddying rather than furthering our objective approximation to the subjective reality.

    As a general rule the more variables you throw into a fitting function the better you’ll match the points to be fit but the worse your interpolation becomes.

    Tim

  6. Imhotepidus

    Tim,

    Fair enough about the ‘scientific approach’ observation. Basically, the reference to scientific methodology was intended to distinguish what I do (analytic philosophy) from the standard attitude that I typically get as a philosopher (the whole “Oh, I have a philosophy – let me tell you about my half-baked ideas of cosmic significance that I haven’t spent an hour thinking about seriously!”) The comment, aimed towards you in particular, probably did more harm than good, however, since there are serious differences between philosophical thought about an issue and scientific thought about an issue (in particular, the standard – and for their/your purposes correct – stopping point, for scientists, at empirical adequacy).

    I suspect that your comment about subjectivity really gets to the heart of our disagreement (at least this one). I firmly believe that there is already a real distinction (even if it turns out to be a fuzzy one) between art and non-art (I am a rather robust realist about this particular matter, to use the philosophical jargon). In addition, I think that there are real distinctions between different art forms. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the distinction between art and non-art isn’t at least partially dependent on the actions of actual artists. It just means that, once the particular facts (including facts about behavior and attitudes) are fixed, then there is a fact of the matter.

    Rereading that, I am not sure it really gets at what I am trying to say. Basically, the cartoon version is this: ‘art’ is a category we discovered, which of course required us to be lucky enough to have made a few examples first in order to make the discovery. Hmm… not sure if that helps either.

    Roy

  7. Imhotepidus

    Rocko,

    You state that “the concepts of “good” and “bad” and everything in between are human constructs. The judging of any art reflects human tendencies and a desire of the mind to categorize and catalog the world around us”

    Well, I would like to suggest that the terms “good” and “bad” are not merely human constructs, but are real properties that hold of particular objects (i.e. artworks) and particular actions. The idea that they are not is merely feel-good relativism gone to extremes. (There is a difference between saying that everyone has a right to their opinion (at least, in cases where the answer is unclear, and the options are reasonable) and saying that everyone is right (which is just incoherent, in most cases).

    Although it has to do with moral “good” and “bad”, and not artistic “good” and “bad”, the following anecdote might be helpful: Whenever I teach introduction to philosophy, and a student expresses convictions similar to yours with regard to moral “goodness” and “badness”, I immediately pull out my gradebook, make a mark in it, and then inform the student that he or she doesn’t have to show up to the midterm since he or she has already been marked down as failing. The student of course immediately begins spluttering about how that isn’t fair, or is wrong, or “I can’t fail them merely because of their opinions!” I then point out to them that, according to the view they have just espoused, that I can, and that they have no legitimate grounds for complaint. After all, didn’t they just point out that “good” and “bad” are merely matters of opinion, and completely subjective? Well, if that’s the case, then there is nothing ‘wrong’ with me deciding that they deserve an “F” – its just my opinion, but it’s as good as any other. Typically, I quickly manage to talk them off of the precipice of relativism.

    Roy

    PS: Just in case anyone is wondering, the mark in the gradebook is a random squiggle in the margin – I would never fail anyone for real (merely) for this.

  8. jehkay

    Roy,

    I apologise if I sound antagonistic, I admit I tend to sound very blunt when discussing issues.

    Anyway I see the ultimate goal as having the general public recognise working with lego as a respectable activity for mature adults and establishing lego creations as art is merely one of a few ways to go about achieving that end. I agree it does help greatly if it can be achieved, but it will be exceedingly difficult to do so and the attempt might also bog down the efforts to achieve the ultimate goal.

  9. Imhotepidus

    jehkay,

    Cool. I guess I am just less pessimistic about whether we will get “bogged down” by thinking about LEGO as art. I personally think it is a pretty promising way of thinking about the issue, with a lot of potential for demonstrating that LEGO is a “responsible activity”, and for understanding what makes certain sorts of LEGO creations valuable.

    Of course, I am not saying everyone has to think about it this way. So I guess each of us should pursue the larger issue in his or her own way, and see what turns out best in the end.

    Roy

    PS: God forbid you should apologize to me, of all people, for sounding blunt! When I get going, I tend to be the bluntest of the blunt, as some of the comments above demonstrate.

  10. Paul Lee

    Roy;

    This has turned into quite an impressive and epic scholarly debate. Who knew we had it in us? Bravo for elevating the Lego discourse again. Clearly you’ve made us all think. I hope you don’t feel assailed or overly defensive because this.

    This is a topic that needed to be addressed.

    -paul lee

  11. fallentomato

    Kevoh said: “is LEGO always sculpture?”

    I think this is a very interesting point. Although the majority (mosaics aside) of LEGO creations are 3 dimensional, most of them don’t resemble sculpture in any significant way. For instance, town buildings and castles and space bases might be more properly categorized as (mini-)architecture. And people building mecha or certain vehicles might be doing something more like engineering. (Functionality – for minifigs or no one at all – seems to be an important concern in many LEGO works. Art does not seem so preoccupied with function – is this important?) Does this mean that each LEGO (art)work should be judged by the standards of the preexisting category it most closely resembles? Should Kevoh’s picture be judged just as any other photograph, or specifically as a LEGO photo?

    Imhotepidus said: “In addition, it is likely that this context will involve, in some sense, the idea that LEGO was originally a children’s toy, and thus will involve our ‘utilizing’ or ’subverting’ this origin in some way.”

    I’m really interested in the place of the System themes in this context. Because I think that some of the most incredible LEGO artwork are those big posters and catalog spread photographs LEGO used to do for all it’s themes until the late 90s. (In particular I think of the Aquazone poster that came with 6175 Crystal Sub Explorer, which is currently hanging in my living room and which I intend to have framed) The same is true for a lot of the old boxart.

    That paragraph turned into a sentimental tangent. Sorry. Let me try again. I’m really interested in the place of the System themes in this context. I feel like a lot of what might be unique about LEGO art comes from the fact that creations are so often tied into a larger story. Whether or not this story is explicitly stated to the viewer, a lot of it can be inferred. (I think that the Brick Miner is especially good at wordlessly evoking a story.)

  12. Brodacious

    Hi,

    First time poster, long time reader. I was immediately reminded by this discussion of that famous quote by Ad Reinhardt:

    ‘Art is Art. Everything else is everything else.’

    I’ve read the preceeding with interest. Admittedly, I’ve not thought through this issue as thoroughly as I’d like, however, I’ll share a few (not necessarily connected) ideas.

    Art transcends the medium. The fact that something is made with LEGO has little bearing on whether or not it is art.

    I would submit that LEGO as an artistic medium has at least these characteristics:

    -three-dimensional (width, length, depth); this characteristic influences how the creation defines space and manipulates light/shadow

    -modularity (a universal system) and simplicity (I think this is what recommended LEGO as a medium to Olafur Eliasson, as it is superbly suited to collective creation)

    -the context of LEGO as a children’s toy (this can be used to the artist’s advantage as in Zbigniew Libera’s work and the works of John Cake and Darren Neave, the Little Artists)

    -reproducibility

    -plastic material, texture (probably connotes the modern age, machine aesthetic)

    -a limited colour palette

    -restricted geometries of form

    -structure (pragmatic elements of programme/technique)

    There are probably more characteristics that could be added to the list.

    LEGO certainly has the potential to be art. But is most LEGO, art? Probably not. My hunch is that most of the creations we see posted here and around the LEGO community are not art.

    For me ‘LEGO art’ is art when it transcends the medium of LEGO. The answer to the question ‘Why has the artist chosen to use the medium of LEGO?’ should have relevance to the proposed criteria of Form, Content, Context.

    Cheers,
    Brody

  13. Rollen (Lich Barrister)

    A short question that may condense a thread that’s been running through this: if a MOC includes (a) minifig(s), can it be art?

    I realize that this question has an immediate problem – namely, does the minifig have to be used for its inherent “minifigness” or can it merely be another part? – but it brings in questions about the nature of Lego’s sets, the place of System and genre, and other things that may or may not be here. The example of Libera’s concentration camp piece (in the art sense, not the block sense), in a way, indicates that the presence of minifigs does not preclude artistic merit – or does it?

  14. Chris Edwards

    Roy-
    I’m going to go slightly off-topic for a bit, but I will return to the topic at the end. I want to reply to a few things you said, and I will also apologize in advance for being blunt…

    You said:
    “Well, I would like to suggest that the terms “good” and “bad” are not merely human constructs, but are real properties that hold of particular objects (i.e. artworks) and particular actions. The idea that they are not is merely feel-good relativism gone to extremes. (There is a difference between saying that everyone has a right to their opinion (at least, in cases where the answer is unclear, and the options are reasonable) and saying that everyone is right (which is just incoherent, in most cases).”

    I think the idea that good and bad are _not_ human constructs is merely feel-good spiritualism gone to extremes. In taking relativism to extremes myself, I would never claim that “everyone is right,” because I agree that that is incoherent. Instead, I would claim that “no one is right” (we just approximate the ideal).

    As for proving your point to your students with the grade book, it seems to me that you are using fear tactics to get them to give up the argument, instead of having a real discussion. I don’t see their complaints of unfairness as attempts at absolute moral categorization. It’s all contained within the artificial human constructs of “higher education” and economics, in which you and they make certain mutually-beneficial agreements. They pay to be taught and to be judged fairly, and you get paid to teach and to judge fairly. They know that they have recourse if you do judge them unfairly: they can complain to the administration, and you can be punished for it. They don’t want to go to all that trouble, so they just give in. Even if it did go that far (and if you weren’t just squiggling in the margin), the argument would never reach the plane of abosolute right-and-wrong, because you would likely submit to the construct of fairness in order to keep your job.

    Anyway, back to the regular discussion:
    I really like most of what you’ve said about Lego as art and about art in general. You’ve articulated things beautifully that I’ve thought about but have never been able to put into words. The only part I have a problem with is the assertion that pilosophical questions (especially the question “what is art?”) are completely analogous to scientific questions, with facts that are out there waiting to be discovered. I think they are fairly analogous, but in a different way…

    You said:
    “Ah, the very fine distinction between science and philosophy. I suspect that this difference of opinion between us stems from your being a scientist – thus, your quite reasonable (from a scientific standpoint) attitude of “our current theory is empirically adequate, it explains all the data, why go looking for another theory?”, and my (typical philosophical) rejoinder “because there is an objective reality out there waiting to be discovered, and even if empirically adequate, our current theory might be mis-describing it!””"

    I think the best response in both fields is:
    “Our current theory is empirically adequate and therefore useful, but we can never reach perfection. What we can do is continually refine and improve our theory to be ever more useful.”

    -Chris

  15. Imhotepidus

    Chris,

    Actually, I really don’t think that the technique I use in class is a case of ‘fear tactics’ (mainly because I am enough of a laid-back teacher that I don’t think anyone in the class believes for a moment that I am actually going to fail them, including the student in question. It is always clear that the point is being made for the sake of discussion). And as for the relevant notion of fairness being relative to expectations within the university, and not some absolute notion – this is one of the first things that I bring up in the discussion: of course I would get into trouble if I failed people merely on whim. But, and here’s the real point: even if the University decided to give professors complete freedom regarding how they graded, and students and faculty knew this, so that there was no institutional notion of ‘fairness’ in play here, most people’s intuition would be that I would still be doing something wrong by grading them in such an arbitrary manner.

    At any rate, this is a bit off-topic, and was only meant for a comparison.

    Roy

  16. Imhotepidus

    Paul Lee:

    You wrote:

    “I hope you don’t feel assailed or overly defensive because this.”

    Quite the contrary – I am immensely pleased that my little editorial has gotten this much attention.

    Additionally, I am fully aware that many of the views I have expressed (in both the editorial and the follow-up) are rather controversial (it was, of course, intended this way!). And, as Tim, among others, have made abundantly clear, even with all of the essay-length follow-up comments that I have made, I have certainly not fully and adequately defended all of the claims I have made. But that’s okay, I expected that.

    The point of this (in my opinion) was not to prove I am right (although, as you will notice, I am nevertheless trying as hard as I can to argue for my views). The point is to get people thinking about the issues, even if they don’t agree with me. And that has certainly been accomplished!

    As a final note: I am leaving for a conference in Austria tomorrow, and I don’t know if I will have regular, or even any, internet access for the next week. So I am likely to disappear for a while (I may try to post again this evening – we will see.) Please, please continue the discussion without me!

    Roy

  17. Laura

    A quick thought. I would posit that the quantum nature of LEGO as a medium does not justify LEGO art being considered as separate from sculpture (as opposed to a subcategory). As with LEGO’s associations with being a children’s toy, the quantum nature is something which could be utilized or subverted with the intention of creating art.

    I would also be interested in what people might have to say about the following:

    Art is the overarching concept we are talking about. It can be defined by the following: form, content, context (and assumed intention of the artist?).

    With that as a starting point I would say that everything that is considered art falls into one of two categories: 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional. ***

    Are there additional criteria for deciding what is “good” and “bad” (or successful and unsuccessful if you prefer) within these categories? I don’t think so.

    Going further you can have possibly infinite subcategories (aside: Roy, did I just step in a minefield mentioning the word infinite in your presence? ha) and with each subcategory (Renaissance, Surrealist, Painting, Pottery, LEGO, origami, painted eggs, etc, etc.) it would be necessary to consider how the artist made choices within the chosen limitations of the medium.

    While it is useful to compare art within a specific subcategory for is effectiveness (or lack thereof) eventually it must be judged within the greater context of Art. (Ergo, classifying LEGO as separate from sculpture is only useful for making the successful/unsuccessful conversation easier by limiting the pool from which to judge.)

    Can something be successful art in the larger context (Art with a capital A) and unsuccessful art in it’s subcategory? Or vice versa?
    I would venture to guess the answer is that it must have the same artistic merit in both if you consider that successful and unsuccessful are “real properties that hold of particular objects”. Which, probably unsurprisingly, I do consider to be the case. (The only exception I can see is, like this situation with LEGO, where there isn’t a great historical context, one can say that something is successful as LEGO art and not as Art, only insofar as it hasn’t yet been done better….)

    ***now, having just reread what i’ve written it has occurred to me that i haven’t taken 4d work into account, which would encompass things like the difficult to define “performance art” (or any 3d object moving through time). Which makes me wonder what category film would fall under…. So my above thought is imperfect, but i’m going to leave it like it is for the moment because i need to get to sleep and I’m sure you’ll get what i’m arguing here anyway….

    (…. “a quick thought”, my @ss….. didn’t realize this was all going to come out of me…. this is such a great discussion!)

  18. Laura

    Needed to clarify, i realize Surrealism and Renaissance are not mediums, I should have said “chosen limitations of the medium or school”.

  19. Paul Lee

    But we all agree that if if a moc uses Star Wars shooters as shooters, then it isn’t art. Right?

  20. Rollen (Lich Barrister)

    @Paul Lee:

    But what if they’re the focal point of a technic based helmet built along the lines of the mask that Winston has to endure in “1984″? They don’t even have to be flick-fired to freak some builders out; they would simply have to be there…

    Other helmets in this series would have a Jack Stone figurine, the old Technic figures, and anything else that would cause the wearer to recant their unorthodoxies…

  21. Bill Ward

    Let me preface this by saying that I know little about Art. My main qualification is a few months of junior high school Art class. I would like to say though that I had a very interesting conversation on this topic with Roy at BF06, and am pleased to see it come up again here.

    I think there are a number of different kinds of art that LEGO models might be. It’s not right to say that “all lego is sculpture” of course; there are plenty of easy counterexamples – mosaic being the most obvious one.

    Some LEGO creations are sculpture, and therefore art. I would argue that some of Nathan Sawaya’s work falls into this category (he certainly thinks so, I assume, based on his use of brickartist.com for his Web site).

    But a lot of LEGO creations are more like models of objects, either real world or imaginary. I think it’s more like the argument about photography as art – since all you’re doing is capturing an image of a real object, how can that be art? Well, the answer for photography is that the artist chooses the composition, to some extent the lighting, whether to use black-and-white or color, choices of lenses and exposures that affect things like depth-of-field and brightness/darkness, how to focus, etc., and by doing so inserts the element of creativity that makes it possible for it to be art. But are all photographs art? Probably not.

    And so, I would say that LEGO models which represent real-world objects may be art, in that the artist chooses what parts and in what configurations to place those parts to achieve the desired effect. But they may also be just models.

    As for the quantum sculpture thing, I’ve seen plenty of other examples of quantum sculpture outside of the LEGO world. People build sculptures out of junk, for example: are car parts necessarily an art medium? Probably not if they’re built into a car, but they certainly are if they’re built into a sculpture. So I would argue that LEGO parts are not inherently an art medium any more than car parts or photography are. I think it’s more that LEGO is one way of implementing art of various other media, such as sculpture, images (mosaics), etc.

  22. Laura

    I’m interested in a prior comment on the definition between an artist and a designer:

    “Now, I would never deny that these are not considerations when creating art – after all, the artist cannot violate the laws of physics, and presumably the artist wants to sell his or her work eventually. But these are not the primary concerns of the artist. They are, however, typically the primary concerns of the designer. And this is what distinguishes the artist from the designer, and also shows that the two are (at least in principle) distinct.”
    i’m not sure if i’m going to word this in any coherent way. Perhaps I do need more elucidation on the arguments behind those elements (or a link to where they are discussed).

    What I’m curious about is whether to be art (painting, sculpture, mosiac, what have you…) something must be, in a practical sense, useless?
    Or said in another way: Useful only in the sense that it, being observed, “makes you think” (for lack of a better expression).
    Is this where the difference between what we call design and what we call art lie?

    I’m trying to think of a good example for what I’m trying to explain and think i will fall short of the task. It would probably be more appropriate to find an example of good historical “art” that is by the above differentiation, design (perhaps an example from architecture?…).

    For example, a MacBook computer, most would say, an example of good design; and that makes sense to me given that it was designed with the intention of being sold. Surely, though this computer has the necessary criteria listed to be considered art; the crux which separates it from being art is it’s intended end use. This doesn’t mean it lacks in form, content, or context, does it?

    I keep getting back to the idea of intent, because this seems to me the most muddy part of the water in this whole discussion. You can never know absolutely the mind of another (at least science hasn’t yet been able to document it) and yet for all the talk of form, content, and context, the key assumption is that it all must have been intended by the maker as the PRIMARY concern.

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