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!

[poll id=”11″]

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

  1. Rollen (Lich Barrister)

    Given the lack of a definitive example (“this is Lego as art,”) I’d suppose that the best way to consider this is that some creations become art, rather than that all are art or that a builder can consciously decide to craft a work of Lego art. It’s simply a matter of that certain “je ne sais quois” that turns a MOC into an artistic masterpiece rather than just a a builder’s masterpiece.

    Then again, I’m fairly amateur still (and as interested in stories as builds), so I may just be reacting as someone whose MOCs have yet to transcend. Maybe some of the pro builders featured here have set out to craft art and have succeeded in both personal and community reactions.

    Anyone else think of the “Calvin and Hobbes” strip where they talk about painting and cartoons? “What about a comic of a painting of a cartoon?”

  2. Sibley

    I would argue that any realistic depiction of a human face (as the Man in Black) expresses an emotion–that of the person depicted. Other than that I have little to say; it matters not to me what is or is not considered art, since it is only a label and does not affect my enjoyment (or lack thereof) of a creation.

    I do, however, think it would help readability if Nannan’s introduction and wrap-up were italicized and the main article normal. Also I should say I enjoyed reading it and wouldn’t mind seeing more content like this.

  3. Imhotepidus


    I would argue that there is a difference between the artist expressing an emotion in the artwork, and the artwork expressing an emotion in another manner. Thus, in the mosaic, there is certainly some emotion expressed in Johnny Cash’s face. But that had nothing to do with me – other than my copying it from the photo I used as the basis of the mosaic. In other words, it is Johnny doing the expressing, not me.

    So… I guess my claim is that to be an artwork the creation must express something whose origin is in the artist, and not just be a case of the creator copying the expression from somewhere else.

    (Another example: If I found some random Chinese ideogram, and did a painting of it merely by copying it, the painting would of course express something to someone who read Chinese, but I would not have expressed anything. I think the mosaic case is much like this.)


  4. Imhotepidus


    I think your initial comment hit the nail on the head, in terms of at least part of the reason this topic is so difficult. We don’t have a ‘critical mass’ of widely accepted masterpieces to study, and against which to compare other works. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, it just means that LEGO is a relatively new medium. Comics and film were in the same situation 50 or so years ago.


  5. Gambort

    I don’t see Little Artists as creating ‘LEGO Art’. I see them as creating art using LEGO bricks. From memory their aim was to reduce the ‘greats’ of contemporary (British?) art to a small size toy both in reference to their own name and to be critical of the artworld’s self-inflation. The point isn’t that they are reproducing great artworks, it’s that they’re reproducing the artwork and the artist him/herself. LEGO was merely the medium to do this and probably chosen because it had a wider range of parts than other construction toys.


  6. Imhotepidus


    Fair enough – my criticism of them as LEGO artists might be wide of the mark. But my more general comments about how the reception of their work (whether interpreted as LEGO art or merely sculpture that happened to use LEGO) has been detrimental to how we think about LEGO as an artistic medium still stand, I think. After all, whether this was their intention or not, at present the only artworks made out of LEGO bricks that are taken by the established art world as important are ‘deflationary’ reproductions of other, established and undeniably important artworks.


  7. Chiles

    I think that no matter what the Lego creation is, even if it’s random pieces thrown together, it will always be art. If not in your eyes, the eyes of the creator. That’s where it counts. For this, I believe this poll is vague…

  8. Gambort

    I totally agree with your broader point. Reproduction of other artwork is certainly no guarantee of artistic merit, good or bad. Personally I see LEGO as a craft which, like most crafts, can be elevated to an art.

    To address once more the Little Artists: Of course now their works are established and undeniably important [1] artworks. They certainly meet the criterion you give for an artwork.

    There have been earlier works in LEGO often using the plastic nature of the bricks as a focal point (there’s a few examples in World of LEGO Toys). One particular artist was highly fond of it. Sorry I can’t remember any details.

    [1] History will decide the long-term merit of their work and some of the artists they ‘cover’.

  9. Leigh Holcombe

    From Wikipedia:
    “One compact definition is that postmodernism rejects modernism’s grand narratives of artistic direction, eradicating the boundaries between high and low forms of art, and disrupting genre’s conventions with collision, collage, and fragmentation. Postmodern art holds that all stances are unstable and insincere, and therefore irony, parody, and humor are the only positions that cannot be overturned by critique or revision.”

    I bring that up because I think this essay has limited itself to a more modernist definition of art, in which high form and sincerity are considered canon. Soup cans, Benday dots from comic books, and arranged geometric shapes can all be art. So can television commercials and exaggeratedly pretentious splatters from a parodist’s brush. As Tim mentioned above, reducing important works to plastic toy representations can itself be art.

    Your mosaic goes even a step further, into what might be called post-postmodernism – turning playful representation into serious business by using a toy in such a skillful way that it transcends the original context of the medium itself. C’mon, that’s art.

  10. Sibley

    But your choice of source and subject says to me that you consider the emotion expressed therein worthy of depiction. I’m curious why you chose to replicate this photograph if not to restate what it expresses. Again, I’m not arguing that it is art because I don’t know or care what that means, I’m just saying that an emotion is expressed. I’m not ruling out the possibility that this is merely a semantic argument.

    The Chinese example is an imperfect analogy, since (presumably) you (Roy) can “read” Johnny’s face more easily than you can read Chinese. You couldn’t a “random Chinese ideogram” for a much deeper reason than how cool it looks.

  11. Alan R

    I think it is worth note that there is at least one artist who considers LEGO an art form of its own. At the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona there is an exhibit that consists of some number of tons of plain white bricks and plates (2×2, 1×2, 2×4, 2×8, etc) on a table.

    Basically, everybody builds whatever they want.

    Overall, it’s clearly not art (a couple tons of white bricks isn’t thought-provoking), but there are definitely some works of art mixed in with the destruction.

    The website for the museum is http://www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org/index.php?idioma=2

    I believe the artist is Olafur Eliasson, but I’m not certain about that.

  12. Andrew

    Roy, you saved me the trouble of writing this editorial myself. :) I could not agree more, even to your point about your own mosaic not being art. Recreation of another work of art isn’t automatically art.

    Which brings up an important clarification about how we use categories here on The Brothers Brick. I consider just about everything we post here to be a work of art. Promoting LEGO as a legitimate art form is what drives me to keep this blog going, highlighting all the beautiful, often thought-provoking creations built by LEGO fans. I’m much more interested in LEGO as an art form than I am in the engineering or technical possibilities of LEGO. (The low response rate on our Technic and MINDSTORMS posts also seem to indicate this is true on some level for many of our readers.)

    So, to clarify, our Art post category simply represents creations that reference or recreate other art, or are clearly intended as art by the builder. Think of it this way: Our Music category doesn’t contain LEGO music. ;-) It contains LEGO creations influenced or inspired by music in some way.

    Back to the definition of what constitutes LEGO art. :) With all due respect to the LEGO Certified Professionals, Master Model Makers, self-identified LEGO artists, and others who get all the public limelight and critical respect, I think there’s more artistic value in many of the small things we feature here on TBB than in those large-scale creations. Big does not necessarily equal Art!

    I truly do respect Nathan Sawaya, Sean Kenney, and others, but I personally see more artistic merit in a “baseless vignette” by Michael Jasper or a sculpture by Nannan. Other than the creations by the Little Artists, people seem to see a creation with a minifig in it and think immediately, “Oh, that’s cute, but it’s not art!” — if they even give it a second thought.

    To reiterate, recreations of other art isn’t art. Big isn’t art. Non-sculptural, non-mosaic, minifig-scale creations can be art!

  13. Mainman

    I’ll preface this response by saying that I am not an artist, I have no formal or informal training in art, and I have often stated that I do not understand “art” in the slightest. Having thus whittled away my own credibility as a responder to this essay, I’ll continue. :)

    I get what you are mean when you say copies of existing works of art do not fit your criteria. A copy of the Mona Lisa in brick form, while interesting to see, is more a technical achievement (in my mind) than a “creative” one: the builder must figure out what techniques best represent the subject.

    However, I do have a question regarding your definition of art (putting Lego aside for the moment). Do those three criteria really encompass all art? Since my childhood I have held John Sibbick to be one of my favorite artists (this is one of my favorites of his: http://www.johnsibbick.com/prehist-pages/pre-p-07.asp ). It displays form (excellent proficiency with his paints) and historical (well, prehistorical) context, but is there a specific message or emotion? It evokes emotion in me; specifically, an awe of the creatures of the past, but if Mr. Sibbick is conveying an emotion through this Oviraptor, I don’t think I’m receiving it. Perhaps it is a message instead. Something like, “This is what Oviraptor nests probably looked like.” This makes more sense under the context of your criteria, but seems to me unnecessary for a definition.

    How about this one: http://www.johnsibbick.com/nathis-pages/koala.asp
    It is nothing more than a painting of a koala. Given that it was painted for National Geographic, it’s probably safe to assume his viewers know what koalas look like, so the “this is what koalas look like” message seems pretty unimportant. Nevertheless, I would generally consider it art because it is a highly accurate rendition of something real, created by a person talented in the use of his chosen medium. But does it fit into your criteria? After all, it is only a recreation of something that already exists. Indeed, unless Mr. Sibbick was out at the zoo while he painted this, it probably is based on photographs and/or other paintings. Does that make it less artistic?

    So similarly you could say that, even though your Johnny Cash is based on a photograph or a painting, it is an accurate rendition displaying a talent with your chosen medium, even if it is less “original” than Nannan’s Lego art.

    (as a note, my questions above are not necessarily rhetorical. There are probably “content” aspects that I am missing, so don’t be afraid to enlighten me.)

    Now, with all that said, I generally do not consider Lego creations to be art, and I certainly don’t consider my own MOCs art. Creating art is not a pursuit I’m particularly interested in, and I am similarly uninterested in critiquing others’ builds as “that is/isn’t art!” My attitude is thus: I build things that I want to build and/or that I enjoy building. IMO, the labels that people give those creations are more their problem than mine.

    So when I see the likes of Nannan’s “Cry of Dreams,” I may say to myself, “I have no idea what’s going on here” and, “why would someone consider this great art?” (no offense, Nannan), but at the same time I know it is something he wanted to build and probably enjoyed building, so that is enough for me. If building his art gives Nannan the same kind of enjoyment that I get from building (non-art) spacecraft, I don’t feel a particular need to question the labels he applies to it.

    I think most of us are in this hobby for the enjoyment of it. I’d consider the ‘artfulness’ aspect of it secondary.

  14. Imhotepidus


    I am not going to open up this can of worms any more than I have to, but I am definitely NOT of the “something is art if I think it is” camp. Quite the contrary, I think that there are facts of the matter regarding whether something is or isn’t art, and it is our job (as theorists) to determine what those facts are. So, to put it bluntly, whether or not the creator thinks it is art is, for the most part, completely irrelevant.


    Actually, I chose that photo mainly because (1) Johnny Cash is cool, (2) it’s a bad-ass looking photo, (3) it was in black and white, and (4) initial tests with the method suggested that this photo would turn out well using this technique – the last is why I went with this photo, and not a nude of my wife, which was also bad-ass looking and black and white, but didn’t seem to work with the method as well.

    But I think your general point is well-taken, even if this example isn’t a particularly good instance: The line between a creation through which the artist expresses something significant, and one in which nothing is expressed by the artist, is not a sharp one. There are going to be lots of borderline cases.

    Nevertheless, I think my examples are still pretty effective, because Nannan clearly intends to be making a statement with his creations, and succeeds, while I did not intend to express anything with my mosaic, and, as a result, anything that was expressed was purely unintentional (or perhaps subconscious), and not very deep.


  15. fallentomato

    I’m really glad this essay was posted here. This is more along the lines of what I was hoping for when the “LEGO as Communication” series started. As a self-proclaimed LEGO artist, this issue is essential and I think that it’s one that’s not discussed enough within the community.

    I have always thought that LEGO is simply another artistic medium like paint or clay or film or candy or whatever art is being made out of these days. So the question of what makes something LEGO art is (the same as what makes something made of clay art. But the meaning of art is huge and unwieldy topic that we should probably avoid. I think that the three criteria that Roy put forth are good because they are 3 things one would expect of any art, LEGO or otherwise.

    Within the (now sundered) LEGO animation community, there is much discussion of what makes a “brickfilm” a good “brickfilm.” And while there is an overlarge emphasis put on fluidity of animation, the criteria are generally the same criteria one would apply to any other film, story, pacing, cinematography etc.

    However, I would say what makes something good LEGO art, aside from being art that is made using LEGO, is that it is somehow better because it is made of LEGO as opposed to another material. Now I know what you’re thinking, “It’s better because it’s made of LEGO!” Well, yes, that’s why we’re here after all, but my point is, that good art takes advantage of the medium it’s made of. This is one reason why good books rarely adapt well into movies. Let me give some examples.

    I’m sure many of you are familiar with the LEGO Concentration Camp sets designed by Zbigniew Libera. (For those of you who aren’t you can read more here – http://users.erols.com/kennrice/lego-kz.htm ) This is an extreme example of exploiting the LEGO medium as part of the art. The juxtaposition of the LEGO brand and the Nazi Concentration Camps is the crux of the artwork.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the tons of white LEGO that Olafur Eliasson had dumped in front of Norway’s national art Musuem. (http://www.aftenposten.no/english/local/article1446562.ece) This installation was about creativity and collaboration and took advantage of the simplicity and flexibility of LEGO as a medium. I actually did something similar for my college’s festival of the arts where I put a large number of LEGO (of all colors) out in front of one of the main campus buildings. (http://uchiblogo.uchicago.edu/archives/aIMG_4164.html) I did this two years in a row, the first year the exhibit was vandalized and the second year it was completely stolen. Ironically, there was a huge to-do made over the vandalism the first year (other art works were damaged as well) I was contacted by the administration and reassured that the vandals would be found and punished, the second year I couldn’t seem to get anyone to care about the theft. They responded “This isn’t someone’s masterpiece, it’s a bunch of LEGO.” Which I’ll admit is true, but it still represented a lot of time and money.

    And while I’m talking about myself I’ll just briefly mention my final project for a sculpture class I took. I made LEGO replicas of the pieces the other students had made during the course and then forced them to destroy them. There was slightly more to it than that, but essentially the piece was about the ephemeral nature of memory. That might be an example of when LEGO replicas of art can be viewed as art, because the piece was about representation. But maybe I’m just full of myself ;)

    Those are some pretty extreme examples of taking advantage of the medium, but I think it can also be done in subtler ways. Nathan Sawaya’s work really emphasizes the simplicity of the brick, both in form and color. A lot of Nannan’s work plays with the adorable nature of the minifig as well as the geometric elegance of the brick. Etc. I just wanted to use examples that are not purely sculptural to emphasize the variety of LEGO art.

  16. Imhotepidus

    Alan R:

    From what I understood, Eliasson’s Cubic Structural Evolution Project 2004 was intended to be understood as a single, ongoing, collaborative project. Audience collaboration is central to much of his work. As a result, I am relatively sure he intended the entire cityscape created by the audience to be viewed as the single (constantly changing) artwork.

    Of course, whether it is LEGO art, of merely sculpture that happens to be made out of LEGO as a matter of convenience (see Tim’s comment), is another matter.


    You state early on that you consider just about everything you post here to be art, but you seem to back off of this later in your comment. Where exactly, and how, do you draw the line. As I have suggested, I suspect that only a small minority of the creations that are posted on LEGO sites are artwork (again, I emphasize that this doesn’t mean I think they are bad, it just means that they are doing something different).


  17. Imhotepidus


    Your comments probably deserve more attention than I can give them, but here goes:

    First off, I think most presentations of whatever it is that postmodernism is meant to be about, end up collapsing into nonsense. For example, in your Wikepedia quote, it says:

    “Postmodern art holds that all stances are unstable and insincere, and therefore irony, parody, and humor are the only positions that cannot be overturned by critique or revision.”

    Of course, postmodernism is itself a stance, so in the end postmodernism entails that we should laugh at postmodernism.

    At any rate, I am not sure how any of my comments rule out “Soup cans, Benday dots from comic books, and arranged geometric shapes” as art, or how I limited myself to a “modernistic” framework. After all, the artists who mobilized such pop culture references (Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc.) were clearly trying to make statements about the art and culture that preceded them. Heck, I never said or implied anything about “high art” or “sincerity” – I teach university courses on comics as art, for Pete’s sake!

    You also state that my mosaic become “post-postmodern… by using a toy in such a skillful way that it transcends the original context of the medium itself.” I might agree, if that were what I intended. In fact, I think that one interesting and promising direction for creating serious LEGO artwork might be to play off this idea of transcending the original context – that of a toy. But presumably, to pull that off, you have to intend to so transcend it. On the contrary, I was, when constructing the mosaic, just playing.


  18. Gambort

    IMO The poll should read “Can LEGO creations be art” or offer a “Sometimes” option. At present it misses a vital option that “Some LEGO creations are art and some are not”.

  19. Imhotepidus


    I agree about the survey (I didn’t do that part), but I just put “maybe”, assuming that this option covered the “some are, some aren’t” option.


    I think much of what you discuss touches on the good art/bad art distinction, instead of the art/non-art distinction. Thus, things like context, content, and form might be important for distinguishing between those creations that are art, and those that aren’t. But then, when we restrict our attention to those creations that are art, we want to make further distinctions between better and worse artworks, and it is here that I think that “taking advantage of the medium” in the way you suggest can be relevant. Is this roughly what you were getting at?


  20. Laura

    So to clarify: in your view, to be considered an art work it must incorporate those three elements listed AND they must have been the intention of the artist? I ask because despite some people suggesting that they DO view your work as art, you continue to make the case that it is not, based on the idea that it was not your intention, it was “just play”.
    This is an interesting idea but how does it address art where the precise intention of the artist is not and will never be known?
    Was Da Vinci merely playing when he created the Mona Lisa? Perhaps, but does that diminish it’s status as a great work of art? (now arguably, its status is vastly over-rated and perhaps not, by your definition, art.)
    This leads me to another thought; while I do think it is important to discuss what qualifies art, I also am curious as to whether the point of the discussion is “to convince the rest of the world that what we do is (sometimes) serious and worthy of their attention”? I doubt it, but it is suggested nonetheless that this matters. Why?
    or is it, engaging people in a deeper thought process about why they create, and why with lego? Maybe with the hopeful result greater quality in lego art?

  21. jehkay

    To truly appreciate lego creations, whether we see lego as art or not isn’t very important, more important is enjoying, admiring, commenting on and discussing lego creations, and we are already doing that.

    I see no need to sell lego creations as art. Exposure is what we need, just make it easier for people to see lego creations, maybe encourage them to take more than a cursory glance. Appreciation will come naturally. Perhaps it is the fixation on the label “art” that is the main problem.

  22. Rollen (Lich Barrister)

    This debate’s really taken off and it’s been fun to read. (Roy, I’ll have to look up what you teach for comics later – I have, in general, very similar interests.)

    I’m not a specialist on po-mo, but I’d add that I’ve usually found that this “discipline” based on criticism seems inherently unstable. (And stability is so close to “swooshability…”) I usually end up quoting Randy Waterhouse in “Cryptonomicon” the rare times that I run into latter-day post-moderns who ask “Who decides what is good?” and simply say “I do.” (It holds water better when it’s a field I’m strong in, but hey…) The world of “nobrow” art of the last decade-plus, I think, may not be one that will endure.

    Ultimately, there’s got to be something that’s good and that draws our attention (and our criticism, too) in whatever field you’re interested in or art to which you adhere. As Noel Murray noted a few weeks ago when he discussed Kanye West on the Onion AV website, there’s got to be someone (or something) that’s trying to be the best so that it forces people to strive for something, either to meet it or to defeat it.

    That said, I’m not that guy. I can’t even claim that I’m gunning for the top builders/artists or that I’m critiquing them, because my builds aren’t quite there yet. But as I learn from other MOCs and from my tinkering, I gain insight and ability – and I’m better able to participate. With any luck, the art will find me along the way.

    And now I’m really tempted to try and replicate some bits from the “Krazy” show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. No Lego, but lots of anime, manga, comics and graphic novels, and other goodness… It won’t be art, but it will be an apprenticeship. And that’s one way to start.

  23. Olog

    Lego can become art through the hands of a person with artistic abilities. I have discussed this issue on a Romanian Art forum a couple of weeks ago. None have even doubted the fact that Lego can become art, after I posted my creations there. I don’t agree on the fact that Lego as art relates only to the above pictured creations. Yes, some of those are the obvious choices when anyone would think about “art”.

    “# Content: (the creation has to express a message, emotion, etc.)” , that’s fairly true, but the message isn’t always so obvious. I do agree with the main post’s idea, but I haven’t seen Anything about Design. For me, Design is a form of art that is greatly restricted by certain factors such as physics, ergonomics, materials, and the consumer (market). Now, isn’t it the same with Lego? I am not talking about the obvious works of art that are created in Lego, I am talking about the MOCs, the ships, the tanks the DIOs. the castles, even the building process can be considered art. The usual creations that we see all the time highlighted on TBB, or on Flickr, all of these go through similar processes as a Designed object. While all of them trying to impress even more than the last one. We follow trends, bandwagons, the raised bar, we try to make it “fit a fig”, we carefully chose the colour scheme. The entire process follows a close pattern to that of Design creation. Which is mostly art.

  24. Bohman

    First, I’d like to say that I’m glad this discussion is being held. I believe that to make the hobby more than a hobby we need to have these theoretical discussions. In part, that was what I wanted to do with the previous “LEGO as communication”-series.

    It’s hard to draw the line between MOCs that are art/not art. For a long time I was of the mind that there hadn’t been any LEGO artworks created, but rather that there was going to be. Ironically, I think the breaking point was somewhere around the time when you posted the original document on Classic-Space – that’s when we started to see some works that might be considered art. Or maybe rather, collectively began to accept the notion that there might be LEGO art.

    Unsure where to draw the distinction of when a LEGO work is art or not, I’ve instead tried to think about some factors that led us to even seriously considering the concept. I’ve noticed three, and would like to hear more:
    1. We’ve started to value some builders better than others. (Making models somehow of measurable quality.)
    2. Theoretical discussions like these. (By taking our medium seriously others take the medium seriously.)
    3. MOC categorizing. (Again, helps models compare to each other.)

    This is obviously thanks to community organization and the internet. (By thinking about what made us perceive the medium more than a toy we can try to share this with the rest of the world – I’m really adamant about proving that LEGO can be (though isn’t always) more than just a toy.)

    Another discussion is quite relevant in this context: art vs design. I’d argue that most MOCs (presumably thought through and well constructed) are LEGO design rather than LEGO art. I don’t know where to draw the line between the two, but I suspect I personally attribute it to the “content”-factor of your model.

    Today, I believe that there exist some LEGO artworks. Examples of these are some works by Nannan, some by Shannon Ocean, and some by the Arvos (though I don’t think Roy will agree with me on the last one). However, I’d argue that we’ve yet to see a brilliant (as subjective as that is) LEGO artwork. So far, most artists use the medium to portrait something, whatever it might be. I’d like to see someone transcend the medium, and use the strengths to create a different artwork altogether. Eliasson’s project is on the verge of doing this. I disagree with the notion that only the constructed cityscape was the artwork – I think the actual community collaboration was the artwork. I consider this a problem with the medium: we’re so focused on the end result, the actual model, that we forget to acknowledge that the act of creating, if to an extent following form, content and context, can be an artwork too.

    Maybe it’s about what you think art should be. I believe that it ultimately is about expressions (of thoughts, of views). This enables art to be more than objects you can touch; it can also be performances or acts. Most LEGO artist do not take this into account.

  25. Mark Stafford (Nabii)

    Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping. ~Jean Cocteau

    It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work. ~Henry Moore

  26. Imhotepidus


    You wrote:

    “Exposure is what we need, just make it easier for people to see lego creations, maybe encourage them to take more than a cursory glance. Appreciation will come naturally.”

    I am not sure this is true (depending on what you mean by ‘appreciation’). To return to a favorite comparison of mine, comics had immense exposure for well over a century, but it still took the serious theoretical work of the last few decades, coupled with the handful of masterpieces that appeared in the 1980s, before anyone was appreciating them as anything other than disposable trash reading for kids (even though they were read by as many adults a kids prior to and during WWII).

    I think that developing a serious framework for thinking about LEGO artworks will, in the end, be an important aspect of achieving broader appreciation within the wider public.

    (I am reminded here of the famous New Yorker cartoon, where a swanky woman at a posh cocktail party says “So now I have to pretend to like graphic novels too?”)


    You wrote:

    “None have even doubted the fact that Lego can become art, after I posted my creations there.”

    Hmm… well, they must be pretty impressive creations.

    Okay, that was a bit of an unfair jab, but the problem I find is that many people just reject, in principle, the very possibility that LEGO creations can be art, even after being exposed to the work of creators such as Nannan, Felix Greco, Steve DeCraemer… fill in your favorites here! They just think the very concept – LEGO art – is impossible, no matter what sort of examples you might provide to convince them otherwise. (You should hear some of the conversations I have with colleagues and students in my department at the University of Minnesota about my ambitions for developing a serious aesthetic theory of LEGO, and these are the same people who hired me, at least in part, for my interest in the aesthetics of film and comics!)

    Regarding your comment about ‘design’. I didn’t talk specifically about design quite intentionally, and for two reasons: First, I think that some of what falls under this heading is already covered by the ‘form’ aspect: That artwork must involve competent manipulation of the medium. The great majority of what is considered ‘design’, however, I don’t think is relevant to art (the idea that it is, in my opinion, is one case of a wider syndrome – any field that involves creativity of some sort wants to be considered an art form, but art involves more than just creativity). You mention the idea that design is:

    “greatly restricted by certain factors such as physics, ergonomics, materials, and the consumer (market).”

    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.

    Of course, as I have repeatedly stated, LEGO creations need not be artworks to be valuable, and in my opinion being instances of good design is another way in which LEGO creations can be worthwhile (think of the elegant solutions to real-world problems achieved by the best technic or Mindstorms builders). But being worthwhile, and, in particular, being an instance of great design, aren’t, in my opinion, the same as being good art (or even the same as being art at all).


  27. Bohman

    Hah! This discussion rolls so fast that I hadn’t even read Jehkay’s comment (or the ones below it) before I posted my response. Fun!

  28. Imhotepidus


    You wrote:

    “It’s hard to draw the line between MOCs that are art/not art. For a long time I was of the mind that there hadn’t been any LEGO artworks created, but rather that there was going to be. Ironically, I think the breaking point was somewhere around the time when you posted the original document on Classic-Space – that’s when we started to see some works that might be considered art. Or maybe rather, collectively began to accept the notion that there might be LEGO art.”

    I suspect that there already were LEGO artworks around, and now that we are starting to think critically about the possibility, we will be mining the past for examples that were already out there to be discovered. The situation, I think, will be similar to how there wasn’t all that much discussion of film as art until Hitchcock, Welles, Renior, etc., did their thing, but once we had the idea in our heads, we could go back and start appreciating the work of Eisenstien, Chaplin, and Griffith as artworks.

    You wrote:

    “I disagree with the notion that only the constructed cityscape was the artwork – I think the actual community collaboration was the artwork.”

    Actually, I agree totally, and admit that in the previous comment I was falling into the all-too-easy trap of feeling the need to identify the artwork with a particular object.

    With regard to your list of creators who are making artworks – I certainly agree with your careful assessment that only some of the work of the creators being listed is art (and I also agree with your prediction that I won’t think that the Arvos’ work is art, although it is some of the coolest stuff I have ever seen!). But I also think that one of the creators you mention, and that I have mentioned a good bit, also highlights another issue worth mentioning.

    Part of the problem with LEGO creations is the lack of a historical context, or tradition, within which we can locate, and thus judge, LEGO artworks. I think that Nannan’s work, in particular, really emphasizes this lack. (Okay, after all of the nice things I have said about Nannan, you knew it had to go bad at some point, so here it goes! Apologies to Nannan ahead of time!)

    As many of you will be aware, Nannan’s creations are usually accompanied by lengthy philosophical rants that are, one assumes, intended to help us to ‘get’ the creation. In my (admittedly subjective) opinion, these long, Lovecraftian monologues are both unnecessary and, in fact, detrimental – I firmly believe that Nannan’s work is far better if one interprets it for oneself, without the ‘backstory’. (Okay, I realize that criticizing Nannan’s philosophical views, as expressed in his explanations of his creations, is a bit of a cheap shot, coming from a reasonably distinguished philosophy professor, but bear with me).

    I know that others will disagree with me about the value of Nannan’s ‘background text’, but that is beside the point. The point, really, is this: If LEGO artwork had a lengthy historical tradition against which particular creations could be judged, then Nannan probably wouldn’t feel the need to create these long explanations in the first place – instead, he could just rely on the interpreter to see the connections between his own creations and those that came before (after all, you don’t see lengthy explanations pasted to the wall next to the Mona Lisa!).

    I think that this is what we are missing – a tradition, or historical context, against which we can judge particular LEGO artworks. As we think more about these issues, and as we accumulate more works that we think are ‘masterpieces’, in the relevant sense, then this context will begin to emerge. 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. Part of the goal of this editorial (and my all-too lengthy responses, and my previous writing and talks on this topic, etc.) is to start the ball rolling.


  29. Bohman

    Very true. The lack of historical context is worth noting. It would be interesting to imagine how the LEGO community at large had perceived Nannan’s MOCs without the commentary. I’m guessing that it would’ve taken a longer time for it to accept the MOCs as ‘art’, rather than being ‘artsy’.

    I’d like to give another point of view on jehkay’s thoughts that maybe it’s the label “art” that’s problematic. Being linguistically and communicationally oriented, I’m of the opinion that ‘art’ (and all labels in general) are problematic but neccessary.

    They’re neccessary since our words aren’t our thoughts – they’re representations of our thoughts. In order to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, we need labels that are well defined.

    Problem is that these labels have, naturally, values themselves. This value is dependant of the things earlier grouped in the category. By being grouped with great established works the recognition those bring rubs off to the new item. That is, if we try to label LEGO as art, the medium immediately gets compared to the technical showmanship of painters, sculptors and so on (and through that, the practicioners get deserved credit).

    Naturally, this has another side that I’m not sure the LEGO community at large fully realizes. Playing with Roy’s discussion of historical context: What would happen if tomorrow, just overnight, everyone in the entire world accepts the notion that LEGO is art?

    That would suddenly mean that our medium have another context to relate to – that of the philosophy and thinkings that go into an artwork (or at least gets interpreted into an artwork) beside the technical construction. In my opinion, very few – if any – models today could live up to the scrutiny this would bring, inevitably getting the general public to conclude that, again, “LEGO ain’t art!”

    That doesn’t mean we’ll never get there – we’re just not there yet. For this reason I agree that we need to think about the medium in a more systematic manner – it ensures that the community’s ‘art’ means the same as the rest of the worlds ‘art’.

    It would be interesting to see a poll in two parts:
    a) Do you want LEGO to be art?
    b) Why?

    Sometimes I get the feeling that the community at large is so desperate to get attention, or get recognized, that it forgets that it’d bring a whole new playground.

    Good thing this won’t happen. The community will hopefully have plenty of time to look its feet and the surrounding terrain and then construct the shoes that makes the best fit.

    (Actually, I believe that the diversity of our hobby and the fact that it attracts so many different people will ensure this. The main counterpoint to this is the general lack of female builders. Come on guys! Make your girlfriends build! :-) )

  30. TaltosVT

    I guess I fall into the category of people who think that people think about this too much, trying to put a label on something that doesn’t really need labeling.

    I didn’t see a whole lot of discussion about the viewer. For me, I think the people looking at our works are the ones who decide if something is or isn’t art. If it needs a label, let the viewer label it.

    As an example, a few years ago I built a small police car and call-box to fit in with my “Rumrunners” minifig theme. For me, it was something fun to build. No more, no less. A few months later I was contacted by an organization who had seen the photos online, and wanted to display the MOC as part of an art exhibit based around old police call-boxes. Ultimately the display didn’t happen, but that was unrelated to the MOC. The point is, that while I didn’t consider what I had done to be art, someone who was viewing it did. So, did I intentionally set out to create a work of art? No. Did someone consider it art? Yes. So is it art?

    I’ve also often had people come up to me during train shows and prattle on about what a great group of artists our club is. They start talking about form and color and space, etc. I usually smile and nod and listen to what they have to say, but again, I’m not sure I can argue that our train layout is art. Apparently to some, it is.

    I also wonder about the context of a display. If I display a train MOC at a train show, most people see it as just a model of a train. What happens if I display that same train in a modern art museum, presenting it as some sort of artistic representation of the complexity of our transportation system. Did it just become art?

    So I guess my question is, why label something? People will interpret a Lego creation, clay sculpture, comic book, or whatever, however they wish, regardless of what the creator may think.

  31. Tim David

    I think I’m with TaltosVT. Does it matter if something is art or not? If somone enjoys it (even just the builder) that is enough. I also don’t see the need to work to get Lego established as an artistic medium. The people that get it will still enjoy it, just as some people like [insert any category of art] while others think it is boring/not art/etc.

  32. Gambort

    Reading all this has got me thinking (it’s a nasty trait I know). I don’t think the “LEGO Art” exists for the same reason I don’t think “Staedtler Art” exists. Art is conveyed through a medium, not as a result of that medium. The medium can be, and often is, used as part of the message but a sculptor is not a “Mount Omaney Granite Artist” (I made that one up) even if she chooses to use only granite from Mount Omaney for its historical ties to Murris. An artist could have a good contentual or contextual reason to only ever use LEGO for art but I have never, and expect never, to see one (eg. Little Artists use multiple media). To take it to an extreme I’d almost be willing to say that the moment you set out to create “LEGO Art” as opposed to Art using LEGO is the moment you fail to be an artist.

    I may be missing something vital here but I’m racking my brains for a counterexample from the broader art field and coming up with nothing. I simply cannot ever recall seeing an artist referred to by the material they use in a critical situation. The commonest and closest analogy I can think of is when sculptors are sometimes referred to in critiques as “working mostly in XX”. Do those of you with theory behind you understand what I’m saying? Is there an historical or contemporary example that goes against it?

  33. Paul Lee

    Having gone through art school, and 2 years of grad school as an Art Major, I’ve suffered through enough discussions about Art with a capital “A.” The danger here is introducing pretentiousness to the idea of Lego as art. When we hold onto lofty notions of what “art” is or is supposed to be, we lose the appreciation of the simple things. Norman Rockwell for example. Great American illustrator whose work is dismissed by the art establishment as commercial, or nostalgic, or overly sentimental. But it’s great art, and beautiful painting.

    As for whether your mosaic qualifies as art, why not? You may have been replicating a photo, but you are also making choices in the process. From what photo to use, to what technique, what colors, etc. your artist hand is still imprinted into the process. Your intent is only relevant to you. It is important as far as your own process, but centuries from now, without a record of your “intent”, intent will only be a matter of speculation.

    As much as I hate to say, all creations qualify as “Art.” The real question is if it’s any good. And that’s a can of worms I’d steer clear.

  34. fallentomato

    Imhotepidus said “I think much of what you discuss touches on the good art/bad art distinction, instead of the art/non-art distinction…Is this roughly what you were getting at?”

    Exactly. I essentially agree with your assessment and was just trying to think further of how we should judge LEGO art. Maybe it’s too early to start worrying about the distinction between great LEGO art and so-so LEGO art, but if LEGO art is every going to be taken seriously, it’s going to be the great LEGO art that gets people’s attention. In other words we need to identify LEGO masterpieces. Then if someone questions the idea of LEGO being art there is a collection of undeniable works of art we could show them.

    I agree with you that the great majority of LEGO creations are not art. I think the the distinction you made between designers and artists is an important one. For the most part this is a community of designers, people with amazing technical skill who make amazing creations. Most LEGO builders have no interest in creating art. I think the responses that are along the lines of “all LEGO is art” are really trying to say something more along the lines of “all LEGO can be appreciated aesthetically.” Which is very true, but that doesn’t make it art.

    The artwork category from Brickworld problem could probably be resolved by having a separate category for mosaics. But I don’t know if that would fix the underlying issue of LEGO art being equated with LEGO creations that look like other art. I think this gets back to your point about needed a historical context to place LEGO art in. The problem is that while there have certainly been some LEGO artworks created, there is no continuously ongoing discussion of LEGO art. The conversation is a sporadic one. Maybe what is needed is a LEGO community (a blog or a forum) entirely devoted to the idea of LEGO as art. People could post works that they think are LEGO art and the community could discuss them and whether or not they are art, how they fit into the tradition etc. I guess what I’m saying is that what is needed is LEGO art criticism because (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) maybe art doesn’t really exist with out art criticism?

  35. Nannan Post author

    When I read the opening of Roy’s essay, I gave some thought to his three criteria for defining a LEGO creation as art. While I totally agree with the first two (form and content), the last one (context) made me think. As a science student with aspirations in medicine, I have never received any higher education on art. Therefore my artistic creations are based on form and content only, while completely ignoring and lacking context. I admit I don’t fully grasp the meaning of context, and after all, LEGO art seems to be an innovative genre within the entire art world, and past references and tradition in LEGO art are near non-existent.

    Most of my creations contain a strictly personal message, rather than a universally significant message or a highlight of certain common themes that urge people to think. It is important to say that my purpose in creating LEGO art is for self-expression, and therefore no external factors such as public opinion or tradition influence me. I believe this is well contrasted with works by builders such as Nathan Sawaya or Sean Kenney. Thus LEGO art can be further categorized into subgenres, and at this time we have yet to do so.

  36. J. R. Schwartz

    Every single little MOC is art. Period. That’s how I look at it and what I’ve been saying for a long time.

  37. Andrew

    ^ That’s actually what I meant. Thank you, Jordan.

    The distinction I was making, Roy, was between those works of art that have artistic merit or value and those that don’t. As Jordan says, I believe all LEGO creations are works of art — some successful, some not; some with artistic merit, many with none.

  38. Rollen (Lich Barrister)

    A further complication for the notion of context is the fact that there is a company that is also in the business of producing its own “art” – namely, Lego and its sets.

    I’m still pretty enamored of certain new sets, but few pull me back in like the classics of youth – and many of them seem to be inspirational touchstones for many of us.

    Perhaps as a starting point for the contextual field of this art form, we would need to have a better recognized “canon” of Lego products. (Wikipedia had a page for classic, seminal sets, but I can’t seem to find it now.) Part of this canon would be educational (“What did Classic Space look like?) and part of it would be inspirational (“I’m pretty sure I can build a better King’s Castle than that one…”), but the greater effect would be contextual.

    An example: most everyone, at some point or another, seems to have mentioned or at least encountered the Galaxy Explorer. It’s one of the first sets I ever received (from a neighbour who’d *tired* of the stuff in the early 80s) and although I’ve long-since lost the instructions, it still looms as an example of a fun craft with great lines and few specialized pieces. One of the builders I’ve bookmarked on flickr did his own version of it a few weeks ago, and I’d like to think that it’s an excellent example of the art of Classic Space: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38509565@N00/2617375599/
    (I hope this builder does not mind that I’ve added this link; if so, please excise this part of the comment.)

  39. Rocko

    I also believe all Lego creations to be art. The concepts of “good” and “bad” and everything in between are human constructs. The judging of any art reflects competitive human tendencies and a desire of the mind to categorize and catalog the world around us.

    That and it’s a personal power trip to judge others.

  40. Imhotepidus


    I might be missing your point, if so by all means say so. But it seems to me that you are perhaps begging a question in suggesting that “LEGO art” doesn’t exist.

    You compare LEGO art to “Mount Omaney Granite Art”, and note that we don’t think that there is a legitimate TYPE of art corresponding to this distinction. Note, however, that the reason we don’t think “Mount Omaney Granite Art” is a medium, is that is constitutes merely a restriction, based on materials, of the actual medium: sculpture. But certainly, painting is a TYPE of art, and in particular is that type of art created with paint (okay, it’s not quite this simple, but you get the idea). In the same way, although painting is a medium, oil painting is not a medium, but just a subcategory of painting.

    So, the question is, I think: Are LEGO creations (and, in particular, the artistically valuable ones, if there are such) merely instances of the larger medium sculpture, in which case the term “LEGO art” would be analogous to “metal sculpture” or “Mount Omaney Granite Art”, or is LEGO a medium unto itself, in which case the term “LEGO Art” functions more like the terms “painting” or “sculpture”.

    Now, there is no doubt that the straightforward thought would be that LEGO creations, of whatever type, as a subspecies of sculpture (as I noted in the editorial, there are obvious similarities). But I think there are differences as well, which at least means we should think about whether LEGO art is a separate medium, and not merely a subcategory of sculpture.

    Lenny Hoffman once suggested “quantum sculpture” as a nicer-sounding term for LEGO art, and a useful one as well, since it emphasizes the similarities between LEGO building and sculpture, but also points out one of the main differences (the quantum nature of LEGO elements).


  41. Imhotepidus

    Paul Lee and Mainman,

    I agree that much of what in the past has been considered non-art, because it was not fine art, is, in retrospect, art. Examples include Norman Rockwell paintings, nature illustrations, comics, film, photography, and many other forms of mass, or popular art. One perhaps has to look harder for the content here, but I would say that in all of the cases that have come up so far, the content, or message is there.

    Recognizing that these things are art, however, doesn’t mean we have to recognize EVERYTHING, or even everything created lovingly by human hands, as artwork. Deciding to draw the line differently doesn’t mean that we have two refuse to draw the line at all.

    With regard to the fine art versus popular art borderline, there is a substantial movement within the theoretical world that challenges the very coherence of such a sharp boundary (unsurprisingly, many of the defenders of such a view are also interested in the artistic aspects of popular, as opposed to fine, art!). A very good book on the subject of mass art is Noel Carroll’s “A Philosophy of Mass Art” (warning: I didn’t say it was short, or easy!):



  42. Imhotepidus


    Since your work is an example that keeps coming up, I think it is worthwhile to use it as a bit of a case study. So I would ask you to answer the following question for us, if you are willing:

    Do you view, say, the physical object (i.e. pile of LEGO bricks) “Cry of Dreams”, and the text that goes along with it, as:

    (a) A single, multi-media work.
    (b) Two separate, but interconnected works.
    (c) A single work (the LEGO object) with an ‘explanation’ of sorts (i.e. the text isn’t ‘artistic’ at all).
    (d) Something else?

    [By the way, don’t read too much into the use of the word ‘explanation’ in (c). I couldn’t come up with anything more neutral – you could substitute “backstory”, “context”, etc.]

    In my earlier comments, I was certainly interpreting it as (c) – and also judging that the explanation was unneeded, or, at least, in a perfect world, where we had a substantial historical and theoretical context against which to judge LEGO creations, it would be unneeded. But upon further thought, I realized that I might be misunderstanding what is going on in your work.


  43. Imhotepidus


    Yep, my view is that to be an artwork, the work must somehow incorporate all three (or at least the first two, I am actually a bit wishy-washy about exactly how context comes into the picture). In addition, the artist had to intend these things (okay, with regard to content, things might again be more complex, since there are some reasonably convincing views out there that propose that content somehow arises out of an interaction between the intentions and actions of the artist, and the actions and interpretations of the audience. But I am definitely not buying into the whole ‘the author is dead, it’s all about what the audience finds in it, regardless of the intentions of the artist” camp. So, to be more careful: my view is that the artists intentions must be at least part of the story).

    With regard to great works of the past, where we don’t have any direct (and in some cases very little indirect) access to the intentions of the artist, we just have to make educated guesses. In some cases we might get it wrong, and include objects that aren’t art into the canon of what we consider great artworks. So be it. If Da Vinci didn’t intend any message in the Mona Lisa (and note, for artworks of that time, the message was usually just trying to somehow embed the three-dimensional beauty of nature on a two-dimensional canvas, or something rather straightforward like that) but was merely playing around, then yeah, that does diminish its value as art. Of course, we will never know. Given what we know about the Mona Lisa and about Da Vinci more generally, I think that his merely ‘playing around’ is pretty unlikely. So we make the best guess we can, and categorize it as art, knowing that sometimes we might get it wrong.

    With regard to your final point, I perhaps was not as clear as I should have been. Convincing the rest of the world that what we do is (sometimes) serious and worthy of attention is obviously one possible outcome of theorizing of this sort, and it certainly wouldn’t be a bad one. But you are right, the real reason why we should think about this stuff is to engage “people in a deeper thought process about why they create, and why with lego?” And as you note, one of the more important consequences of such thought will be (one hopes) an increase in artistically valuable creations. After all, it is the work, in the end, that matters.


  44. Gambort


    I think you got my main point.

    If we assume for the sake of argument that “LEGO Art” exists as a separate form from sculpture [1] then we first need to define what it is that separates it from the broader school of sculpture. Is it the logo on top of the bricks as the name suggests? The reproducablity of the works? The quantal nature?

    Furthermore, how do each of these fit in with a historical context? How do they differ from, say, plastic sculpture constructed from CAD in a 3D printer?

    To make ‘content’ important an artist now has to justify not only their choice of LEGO as a medium but the ‘rules’ (for want of a better word) that define this medium. Why choose ‘LEGO art’ or ‘quantum sculpting’ or whatever you wish to name it? What is added to the meaning of the work by choosing to construct ‘LEGO art’?

    In your editorial essay and subsequent response you give a summary of what defines art but I think you beg all of the above questions and more that I’ve not thought of. Even ignoring all of these the question that is most prominently absent is: What need is there to separate ‘LEGO Art’ from other forms of art?

    Until this final question is answered the entire discussion strikes me as moot. Unless ‘LEGO Art’ is a distinct form then any artistic LEGO creation needs to be judged in the broader context of art (or sculpture if you so choose) and the medium should be considered as an aspect of the work itself.


    [1] I don’t think it does and consider it a form of sculpture in the same way that ‘found object’ art is usually considered sculpture.

  45. Allan/A-dog

    Anything created with the intention of creating art is art. Therefor if one creates a “MOC” without that intention in mind it would not be considered art. The matter of whether or not lego would accepted as art in the main stream art world is something else all together. For example someone painting clouds, trees and mountains on canvas would most likely be intending to creating art (does not have to be good). A person could be doing the same kind of painting for the background of a model train layout would not be creating the clouds, trees and mountains with the same intentions. If you were to set out to create a piece of art and chose Lego as your medium then indeed it would be art. This is my opinion based on the 3 years of fine art training I have taken. Three years does not make me an expert. :)

  46. jehkay


    I think that developing a serious framework for thinking about LEGO artworks will, in the end, be an important aspect of achieving broader appreciation within the wider public.[/quote]

    I agree with developing a serious framework for thinking about lego creations and consider it one of the best ideas in promoting them, although I still hold that it is not necessary to classify them as art in order to do so.

    A name or label is just a name. Someone can be called an environmental services associate or janitor, he is still worth the same to the company and his worth does not change by changing his title. Smart company staff can see what he is regardless of title and if the janitor is good at his job, with some help in educating everyone on the job scope of the janitor, everyone will sooner or later realise the work he does and appreciate his efforts.

    If we truly believe our lego creations have worth, then 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.

    I definitely would not support classifying lego creations as art in order to delude the “ignorant plebians” into respecting them.

  47. Imhotepidus


    First off, I should point out that the tripartite analysis art in terms of form/content/context is neither novel with me, nor limited to LEGO artworks. I have defended it (here, a bit, and elsewhere more thoroughly) as both on the right track, and particularly useful when thinking about LEGO. But I never intended to imply that the analysis is novel with me (not that you are making this assumption, Tim, but the general tone of some of the posts seems to indicate that some people think that this aspect of my account is some novel, completely out-of-the-blue theory I have come up with, and not just my adaptation to LEGO of a relatively common idea within aesthetic theory. Heck, there’s even a textbook on art history and appreciation titled “Responding to Art: Form, Content, and Context”)

    Now, with that out of the way, I think we can get to the more serious issues.

    First off, I (unfortunately) don’t have a knock-down argument that LEGO creations are not instances of sculpture, and I am certainly sympathetic to the obvious thought that LEGO sure looks a lot like sculpture. But I do think that this question is worth thinking about.

    In addressing this topic, you ask “What need is there to separate ‘LEGO art’ from other forms of art?” If that is the question, then the answer is “none” – there is no NEED. But I would suggest that the phrasing begs certain questions. I approach philosophical questions such as these (and in fact all philosophical questions worth asking) as completely analogous to scientific questions. Basically, there are facts out there, and it is our job to discover them. Thus, the question should not be the one you asked, but rather “Is LEGO art separate from other forms of art (and if so, how do we find out)?” It is this question that I am trying to answer (amongst many other questions!).

    And, given this way of phrasing the question, I think that the answer is not quite so straightforward as you suggest. I agree with you to this extent: If LEGO creations are merely instances of some already established art form, then the art form in question is certainly sculpture. But I think that there are reasons for at least questioning whether LEGO creations are sculpture, or something new.

    One of the most prominent such reasons is the quantum nature of LEGO building. In traditional sculpture one can (usually) add and subtract as much or as little material as one wants (within the limits imposed by physics, of course!). In LEGO creation, once cannot do this – there are limitations imposed by the quantum nature of the medium.

    Of course, this ties in to issues of ‘purity’ – i.e. whether or not we allow ourselves to modify, cut, etc. our bricks. I actually think that there are extremely good reasons to be purist, at least for those creations which we intend to be artistic (I am not going to give these reasons now, although perhaps in a later reply – this one is already gettng long enough).

    But, if purity of this sort is conducive to producing artistically valuable creations, then we would be faced with a puzzle: If LEGO art is just sculpture, then purity shouldn’t matter. But purity does matter!

    Finally, even if LEGO creation is merely just one type of sculpture, that doesn’t mean that we have to treat LEGO art as completely analogous to all other forms of sculpture. After all, completely independently of LEGO, we do subdivide sculpture into different types, and different subcategories often have different criteria for critiquing and evaluating them. For example, it would be inappropriate to judge a Surreallist sculptural work in terms of whether or not it effectively uses contrapposto posing to achieve an appealing representation of the idealized man, but such criteria are perfectly appropriate for evaluating Renaissance sculpture.

    Finally (as the Surrealism versus Renaissance example suggests), often these differences will not have to do so much with the material being used as the historical context of the work. And this is a lesson that I think is worth taking – it might be that LEGO art is distinct from other types of sculpture, or from sculpture altogether, not merely because we are building with little plastic bricks, but in addition, because we are building with little plastic bricks that are intended to be used as a children’s toy (thus, the Little Artists were at least very good at manipulating the context of LEGO bricks!)


    PS: I also think that the reproducibility of the work (i.e. in technical terminology, that LEGO creations might be type artworks, while sculpture typically (but not always) are token artworks) and the whole LEGO cad issue (i.e. what do we say about creations that only exist virtually) are two extremely important issues (and are both issues I touched on in my recent Brickworld presentation). Maybe I’ll write more about these later.

  48. jehkay

    I forgot to add that the term “art” contains some very powerful connotations which I consider unsuitable to attach to most mecha, space or castle creations among others. Technically speaking, I do consider all lego creations as having the potential to become art, though the word “art” has through the ages developed too many false attachments (galleries, famous critques, high society, strong emotions, etc.) that give it more weight than it deserves. Most lego creations are appreciated in a simpler way, but appreciated to a similar level of enjoyment nonetheless. So perhaps it would not be suitable to develop the framework along the same lines as for art.

  49. Gambort


    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.


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

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

  50. 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.

  51. Imhotepidus


    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?


    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.

  52. Imhotepidus


    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.


  53. Gambort


    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.


  54. Imhotepidus


    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.


  55. Imhotepidus


    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.


    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.

  56. jehkay


    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.

  57. Imhotepidus


    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.


    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.

  58. Paul Lee


    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

  59. 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.)

  60. Brodacious


    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)


    -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.


  61. 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?

  62. Chris Edwards

    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.”


  63. Imhotepidus


    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.


  64. 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!


  65. 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!)

  66. Laura

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

  67. Paul Lee

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

  68. 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…

  69. 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.

  70. 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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