Wednesday, July 24, 2013

LEGO as Art, a paper by Roy Cook

Roy Cook is both a professor of philosophy who has done work on art and aesthetics and also an AFOL and former LEGO Ambassador. I've previously noted his Brothers-Brick essay on Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art. I've done some looking around and found the he subsequently wrote a longer piece LEGO as Art in which he further develops and expands upon the themes from the shorter Brothers-Brick essay. An excerpt from this paper appeared in the book the Cult of LEGO, but I highly recommend that you read the whole thing on the Twinlug site. It's not too long and very thought provoking. Some highlights:

Roy first raises the question of what is art. He dismisses what he calls the 'institutional definition' - that art is that which is accepted by museums and other institutions, or produced by 'legitimate' artists. He also dismisses identifying LEGO creations as art simply because they resemble recognized art forms of sculpture and mosaic. Instead he defines three criteria for a work be called 'art.' It must have some form, that is, there must be some excellence of technique in the creation. It must have some content, it must convey some message or depict some emotion (though this content may be very hard to define, and this is complicated by the fact that a message involves both the sender and receiver, and so the creator of the artwork may be expressing a message that the viewer may not get). It must also have some context, that is, it must relate to some larger artistic movement and understanding. It is this last criterion that is the most problematic, in that we don't have a real mental framework to evaluate LEGO creations as artworks in relation to others. He notes that this is true of all new artistic forms. If you were to make a painting, we could relate this to the context of other paintings. But when photography was first developed some people rejected it as art because of lack of context. He notes that the same was true of film and the novel when they appeared, and now is true of 'LEGO art'.

Roy also notes the barriers to acceptance because LEGO is a toy. Most people do not have a mental framework to evaluate LEGO as art, but they do have a framework to evaluate it as a toy. And therefore they may be dismissive of the possibility of LEGO art in general. I've noted this, for instance, in a New York Times review of a Nathan Sawaya show. The reviewer was very dismissive of the show simply on the basis of the medium, and never really evaluated the works themselves.

To me the heart of Roy's paper comes at the end. We need to develop the context to discuss LEGO art, and he asks a series of questions:
(a) Is LEGO art merely a sub-category of sculpture, oran independent art form?
(b) What, if anything, follows from the fact that LEGO is a mass art form (like comics, film, and television), that is, it is a medium that is easily accessed and understood by the general, untutored public?
(c) Does the modification of pieces, or the use of ‘clone’ bricks, inherently impede the artistic process?
(d) Are some building ‘themes’ within the LEGO community more conducive to creating art than others?
(e) What impact, if any, does the fact that LEGO is intended as a children’s toy have on the proper interpretion of LEGO artwork?
If I could be so bold to add a couple of questions of my own:
(f) What is the significance of the fact that any LEGO creation is a combination of many small pieces? Is there a relationship to other art forms like collage, pointillist paintings, mosaics or sculptures that are assemblages of found objects?
(g) Special pieces aside, LEGO is made up of a lot of right angles. Are there any particular challenges or opportunities for artistic expression that come from the geometric constraints of LEGO building?

What do you think? What are the rules for LEGO art? If anything, I hope that this blog can help spur that conversation.

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