Popular Sculpture

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Just as we have popular music and popular cinema, we also have popular sculpture:

Much of it is what we would usually call ornaments. Some of it is minis — i.e., miniatures. Minis are sculpture for the masses in the same way as pop is music for the masses. (If you are trying to explain this to someone suspicious with an arts degree you can call them Kleinplastik, which means almost the same thing but is German and therefore a valid intellectual construct.)

Warhammer 40k Space Marine Minis

Every mini is linked to and feeds back into an overarching fiction, so each mini must encapsulate and even move forward a bit of the story. It has to have continuity with what came before.

In the 40k ’verse older technology is always better — and most of it is lost. R&D is forbidden. To make something better you have to actually find an archive and mine it for already existing designs. This makes sense of the insane tech levels in 40k, especially in human culture. Old and new, recently discovered and long forgotten all mixed together almost incoherently. If game designers want to invent something new they just have something old discovered. This means designers get to invent what they want, so long as it makes artistic sense. It feeds back into the power of the fiction because everything is old and decayed and no-one understands it.

Stories need inherent technology to talk about the future so that we understand it now. Star Trek has post-relativistic speeds, gravity control, matter reorganisation, and AI. A society with those things would look and act like nothing we can recognise. So the tech is used but the implications are ignored.

40k gets around this by inventing an incoherent culture. Its brokenness adds emotional and aesthetic power rather than taking it.One of my favourite things about 40k lore is the backward technology.

If it’s made by a major corporation then it will be affected by what the market wants. Space Marine models outnumber other human models because everyone wants to play Space Marines. The company semi-accidently hit something that jams right in to the adolescent male mind. It does so in an interesting way. It’s like a pop hit of popular sculpture. (If we look back at the fiction constraint, everything developed by the company for this setting needs to live inside a universe that justifies the existence of Space Marines. In the same way, everything developed for the Star Wars universe needs to live inside a universe that can justify Jedi Knights and star fighters.)

It will be affected by what the company thinks it can persuade people to want and by what makes the most money. The company has worked out it has a higher profit margin on very large very expensive kits. Now every army has one. (This means that in the fiction of the game, every imagined culture suddenly has access to unique giant robots that they are assumed to have always had, but that they just didn’t mention until now.)

In terms of sculpture, the Games Workshop mega-kit provides an entirely new aesthetic territory to work on. A small figure of a hero has the main job of persuading you that a very tiny thing can represent a very powerful or potent personality or being. A lot of what very small minis do is shape their form to persuade you that they are larger and have more mass, both more physical and more dramatic weight, than they actually have.

A very large figure is trying to be beautiful or interesting in a different way. It has real size, real mass, and space for enormous amounts of detail. A big part of its job is organising the arrangement of its detail and surfaces in a way that seems both pleasing and correct for its scale. Another job it has it to relate its enormous size to the imagined world whose active participants are usually represented by much smaller things. It must feel as if it can meaningfully interact with these tiny things, as if it represents something made by the same culture and belongs to the same world.

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