Friday, October 10, 2014

Scale modeling is not art

A few days ago a friend shared a photo of a model on Facebook he thought was particularly well done (it was not my Gripen pictured below) with the comment, "Work of art!" I sent him a private message and told him not to use the word art, because scale modeling is not art. We had a brief exchange over whether scale modeling can be considered art, my friend taking the position that it is. It wasn't the first time this question has been debated, and it certainly won't be the last.

One of these is a great work of art, and the other is a plastic model.
I declare with as much finality as I can muster that, no, scale modeling is not art. Here's the conversation that I would likely have with the "Artist Wannabe" in our ranks.

SMS: What we do is not art.

AW: Of course it is! We use many of the same tools, media, and techniques.

SMS: Big deal. I used geometry, a saw, and sandpaper to fix the framing around a window in my house, but that doesn't make me a carpenter. Another example. I love to cook, and I'm very good at it. That does not make me a "chef." There's a big difference between my following a recipe to prepare a meal -- even when I improvise along the way -- and a trained chef who knows how to combine ingredients in new and unexpected ways. Calling myself a chef is an insult to the men and women who are.

AW: But we create things and make artistic decisions in the process.

SMS: We do create things, but we generally use parts and components that have already been created for us and follow a fairly strict process to bring them all together...using instructions, mind you! When we assemble the parts of a kit, there's only one "correct" way to do so, so there's negligible creativity in the output. If both you and I build a P-51, the results will pretty much look the same. Ask two artists to represent the feeling of love with paint and canvas and you'll likely get two very different paintings.

AW: Wait, I make artistic decisions. I decide what ordnance to use, how to paint my models, how to weather them.

SMS: Yes you do, but those decisions are constrained by norms about what is expected and even acceptable. That P-51 flown by Robin Olds can be painted only one way. Show too much creativity and scale modelers will dismiss your efforts as "fun" or "silly." Your decision to weather it -- often using off-the-shelf washes and pigments, by the way -- requires very little creativity on your part. The fact that there are so many articles and books that show us step-by-step how to achieve certain looks is evidence that many modelers are dismissing any desire to be creative in preference for proven techniques that are intended to achieve same result model after model after model.

AW: Wow, I never thought about it that way. Well what about modelers who scratchbuild models? Surely they're artists.

SMS: Nope. I'd consider them craftsmen or engineers. Like the kit builder, there's only one way to create a B-17, a Sherman, or the USS Kidd, even if you're scratchbuilding them.

AW: What about modelers who scratchbuild hypothetical vehicles or spacecraft? Are they artists?

SMS: Hmmm....maybe. Those guys are making some artistic decisions, so I'll give you that. But I'm uncomfortable saying they're artists because there's rarely any desire to convey emotion, feeling, or experience, which is often the desire in art.

AW: And the guys who sculpt figures?

SMS: I feel comfortable calling them artists. The difference between them and the majority of us is they're creating something out of nothing. That requires a great deal of creativity that we kit modelers don't use. When they bring original figures together in a vignette or diorama, there's great potential for creating something that anyone would describe as art.

AW: You make some good points, but I still like to consider what we do art.

SMS: Obviously you're free to do that, just as I'm free to call myself a chef. But do this the next time you meet a painter or sculptor; when he asks you what you do, tell him you're an artist, that you build scale models, and watch his reaction.

What say you? If you think I'm wrong, how would you argue all this plastic modeling stuff is art.


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  2. My friend John and I had a long conversation about this very point at IPMS Nationals over the summer. We didn't really reach a conclusion, but, I generally come down on the side that modeling is art. Maybe.

    I'd offer the following pushback on your points:

    In your first point you seem to be making the argument that ability with the tools of a given trade are what define artistry. If that is the case, is a wall painted by a house painter with 40 years of experience art?

    In your second point you say "we generally use parts and components that have already been created for us and follow a fairly strict process to bring them all together...using instructions". Isn't that a pretty good description of what a classical musician does when they play a piece from Bach? Are they not creating art when they play that piece?

    Your next point is that because we are constrained by norms, what modelers do is not art. If that's the case, then is aviation art not art? After all, the artist is constrained by what the subject looks like. Also, you seem to make the point that using off the shelf mixes somehow reduces the artistry. Is an artist who uses oil paint from a tube less of an artist then one that makes the paint themselves? Finally, a lot of books on how to create different looks doesn't disqualify us as artists in my mind, after all, I'm sure there are a lot more books on traditional drawing, painting and sculpture than there are modeling books. A teaching tool is just that, something that helps us learn to accomplish certain tasks, what we do with that knowledge defines our creativity.

    For your point about scratchbuilding, I'd go back to my point about aviation artists, just because something is constricted by norms doesn't mean it isn't art.

    For your point about figures I'd offer one change, I'd say that bringing vehicles and figures together from kits can be just as artistic as doing the same with original figures. (For disclosures sake, I should say that I primarily build dioramas.)

    Your point about how an artist or sculpture would react to the idea that a scale modeler is an artist is, to me, probably your weakest point, why are they the arbiters on what is art? After all, Van Gogh's work wasn't recognized in his lifetime, does that mean he wasn't an artist?

    To me, your most important point is the one about conveying feeling, emotion or experience. Conveying feeling, emotion or experience is what makes some models art and their creators artists. I'd say models that don't fall into that category are illustrations though and their creators illustrators. Of course, since many would call illustrators artists, I'm right back where I started, not sure if all modeling is art. Some certainly is, but all? I don't know.

    I hope some of that made sense, unlike much of the conversation John and I had that was primarily fueled by free margaritas during happy hour at the hotel bar at Nationals.

    Keep up the good work with the blog. I discovered it yesterday and have enjoyed what I've read so far.


    1. Matt, you make a lot of good points. I appreciate the opportunity to re-consider my views, so I'll have to think yet deeper on the subject. Thanks for reading and sharing!

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  4. Hey guys having studied art history in my university degree I'll propose this idea which we was put to us by our lecturers
    'art is defined as an object or material creation that serves no other utility or purpose other than to exist in it's own right'
    Therefore in my opinion scale models are some kind of art :)