Tuesday 14 December 2010

What Constitutes Art?

This is an interesting post for me to write - it almost becomes another of my Passions posts, being as it involves Warhammer.

Now, one of the key parts of Warhammer (it being a table-top, tactical game, involving two armies of miniatures) is the painting of the figures. For those who don't know much about it, the boxes of figures arrive like this:

And the most talented painters and modellers can create something like this:

Anyone who is unfamiliar with Warhammer - take my word for it that the model above is fantastically, shockingly well painted (done by one Matt Oakley, who has won numerous painting awards).

Now... I was browsing The Warhammer Forum, and found within their painting section a picture of the following diorama:

On the face of it, this is a spectacularly modelled and painted piece - truly stunning. Now look closer... Look at the Guardsman on the right as he undoes his belt; observe the guardsman on the left holding the Eldar warrior's chestplate. See the Eldar's hand inching towards the knife on the floor. Clearly this is a diorama depicting rape - or, at least, attempted rape.

Is this art? Is it necessary?

There has been plenty of commentary on the diorama above - the painter has provoked thought, reactions and discussion on the nature of war. This would indicate that the diorama has moved beyond mere painting and into artistry. Would you agree?

Some of those who viewed the tableau were horrified that someone would take of a tabletop hobby and create a "disgusting piece" (one of the descriptive terms used in a discussion thread that was locked when the discussion sparked into argument).

Can rape ever be used as art?

Where is the line drawn in the sand? What constitutes art?

p.s. I would be pleased with any comments - but this is my blog and I will moderate commentary as I see fit. If I receive verbal attacks about the above, I will remove them. I will also take away excessively inflammatory commentary.


  1. interesting.

    It depends on your definition of art, I suppose. Is art supposed to hold a mirror up to real life? Should art provoke discussion? The picture you posted has certainly done that. Is it ok to be offended by art? Yes, of course it is. Many modern artists court controversy and win big awards for producing pieces of art that do justthat. There are only so many dull bowls of fruit you can look at...

  2. That's a tough question. Is the above art? It is at least a discussion piece. And I've seen/read things a lot more graphic that was considered art.

    I think as with everything that concerns sensitive and taboo topics such as rape, it's all in the gradation and intent. The above may clearly depict the lead up to rape, as far as I can interpret it, it wasn't meant to titillate. As a discussion piece it would definitely qualify as art. For me I think that is where the line is: It shouldn't titillate or be meant to shock purely to be shocking, it should be a conversation starter, on the how and why. In this case, why is rape so often a weapon in war? Is it just the easiest and cruellest way to assert dominance over a vanquished foe? And only if that enemy is female or is that immaterial? Those are just the questions that spring up of the top of my head now.

    I do have to be honest and add that a) if it were more explicit it would be way past the line for and b) I wouldn't display this kind of scene in my house.

  3. We wrestle with this daily, over at Solaris Towers. As a publisher of fantasy fiction, we see a lot of rape pass through our hands; probably more than half the books we publish, in fantasy, sf and horror alike, by both men and women writers, feature rape, whether as a central plot point, in a character's background, or as a side plot. And we're wholly representative.

    We ask ourselves: is this necessary or valuable? It's often (far too often) used to establish a villain's villainy. It's (blessedly) somewhat less often used to establish a female character's reason for her vengeful behaviour. It's used to highlight the evils of war, the essentially base nature of the human animal, the decadance and corruption of society. Sometimes it's even used to highlight the banality of rape in fiction, which is a nicely circuitious bit of significance.

    Could any of these ideas be conveyed without resorting to rape? Maybe we need to be more sensitive in our treatment of a horrific crime. But then again, we are opposed to censorship. Surely this is a real thing, and it's the duty of contemporary fiction to deal with it unflinchingly? But then again, maybe it's just become fucking tired. It's used again and again; let's try something a little different for once. And so the thinking goes, round and round.

    I used to think I had a clear line; it's acceptable when it serves the story, for whatever reason, but is distasteful once it becomes clear that the author's intent is to titillate. But then my wife pointed out that a hefty part of women's erotica deals with dominance and rape, usually depicted from the victim's perspective. So is that unacceptable? Can it really be making light of man-on-woman rape to present it as a form of titillation if it's written by women, for women?

    We decided in the end that rape is just a part of fiction, good or bad. We won't encourage our writers to produce fiction that features rape, nor discourage it, unless we feel - by our wholly subjective and arbitrary standards - that it has become offensive or distasteful. We might hope that the genre trend will move away from it, but we won't try to change it.

  4. See Above but I recommend the following exercise:

    Does rape occur in books and/or movies?

    Are books and/or movies art?

    Does rape occur in badly written/amateurish books and/or movies?

    Are badly written/amateurish books and/or movies art?

    Repeat the above substituting any of the following for rape:


    Finally, is the work of the Brothers Chapman art?


    Rinse and repeat


  5. erotica = the intent is to titilate. Therefore it doesn't have to serve the story.

    SFF = the intent is not to titilate. My job is helping writers create good stories not creating sticky wankfantasies for grown men and women. Not that there's anything wrong with that line of work, but people look for our books in the SFF sections. Therefore 1) it needs to serve the story 2) if you're trying to make rape sexy, I don't think we're the right imprint for you and 3) I am tried of seeing certain kinds of rape tropes in fiction and will probably tell you so.

    I don't agree with everything David said about Solaris. Hmm... My opinions on this will probably go up at http://www.badreputation.org.uk/ one day soon.

  6. I don't really know a lot about art, but it strikes me that a lot of thought has gone into the composition of this in the same way that a painter would in a painting. It could be argued that it has moved into artistry. Is it really any different from this: http://www.oceansbridge.com/paintings/artists/recently-added/july2008/big/The-Rape-of-Lucretia-xx-Felice-Ficherelli.JPG or this: http://www.art-prints-on-demand.com/kunst/giulio_cesare_procaccini/rape_lucretia_hi.jpg ? In art, I don't think there is a line in the sand. I hasten to add that that doesn't mean I condone rape.

  7. Honestly, I never understand the need to narrow the definition of art. Art is simply anything that evokes a response. Art can be negative and positive and everything in between. Art doesn't have to be intentional.

    The fact that artist is using a sci-fi setting to force the viewer to analyze how rape fits into their own culture, their own viewpoint, undoubtedly makes it art no matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel.

  8. My boyfriend does 40k and is exceptionally talented at custom miniature creation. We display some of his best works on a shelf above the kitchen table. I can say for certain that if he made a piece like this, not only would it not be displayed, he and I would also have words.

    Art is too subjective to qualify a particular piece. I just know what would or wouldn't find a place in my house.

  9. Am I the only person who didn't think this scene was the build up to a rape? (at least on first glance...)
    I thought the Eldar lady was wounded and the Guardsman was about to apply a field dressing. I am so naive... :o(

    Is it art? Probably. The beauty about that particular term is that it's so wide ranging that almost anything can be seen as art by anybody. I'm not sure if I see it as art myself but I'd have to think a little longer on exactly why. It is a very nice paint job though.

    What interests me more is the mindset of gamers who play a wargame based in a gritty dystopian future regime but are perhaps unconciously trying to sanitise the setting at the same time. It's like they're saying 'war is hell... but that's just going too far...'

  10. Thanks for all these very thoughtful and sensitive comments - seems to be driving a decent discussion.

    Here is another comment from Alan (Barundin Thunderhammer on TWF). He says:

    Art is a subjective area. What might be beautiful to one person could be anathema to another.

    Its hard to give a general description for 'Art', for example, the diorama you are talking about is not what I would consider art. I consider it distasteful and a cynical attempt at creating shock and discussion...which it did.

    However, the next person might see something different in it, may even look beyond the obvious and discover hidden meanings or nuances. They may see it as a piece of art.

    If a piece (whether its a miniature, painting, photograph etc) holds my attention and makes me look closely at the themes or it tells a story to me, then I would consider that art. Something that will continue to stir my imagination, or hold my gaze for that little bit longer.

    'Art' is in the eye of the beholder and as such I believe is impossible to tie down to a specific description or genre.


  11. "I consider it distasteful and a cynical attempt at creating shock and discussion...which it did."

    If art never shocked and was never distasteful it would never evolve. If anything the shock and distaste a viewer experiences teaches them more about themselves than something that provided warm nebulous feel good vibes. As an anthropologist would say, its easier to define yourself by what you are not than what you are.

  12. What I think has already been said, more or less, but I thought it might be worthwhile to rehash it.

    One of art's main purposes is to provoke a response, whether that be emotional or intellectual (or both). That a piece of art is about or including rape doesn't preclude it from being art.

    I don't know anything about Warhammer, so this might be a silly question, but why was that particular tableau created? Are there competitions/exhibitions of Warhammer art or was it for a ... campaign? Or for no particular reason at all? (That last isn't negative.)

    Just curious.

  13. Those are insanely well modeled and painted miniatures (people tend to forget the effort in converting a Warhammer/40k model beyond the standard 'out of the box' format).

    Though the subject matter is not artistic, its depiction of it certainly is. Art contains within it a message, and the message that has been crafted in this medium is the debasement of masculinity in times of conflict. It's good that it's shocking, since it draws attention to the horror of such things that actually occur.

  14. I think that rape can be used in art, as the definition of art is so hard to pin down that, well, one person's trash is another's treasure. I can see quite clearly how this very setup could be artistic, a visual used to represent a situation that, let's face it, happens in war situations. Whether the artist is trying to convey, "Look at how these people are trying to take power and control from a worthy adversary in such a degrading way," or, "Yay, boobies," is objective; what we get from the piece is subjective and depends entirely on personal tastes, experiences, and how effectively the artist used their medium to convey the intended message. True art is more than just having skill with colours and a brush.

  15. Art is the original creation or composition of something that unveils an aspect of reality.

    So yes, it's art. Art as a term is not subjective. Response to art is.

    People seem to consider "art" like something they like, looks pretty, or want to put in their houses, but that's not a correct definition of art.

  16. "I consider it distasteful and a cynical attempt at creating shock and discussion...which it did."

    Whilst on the one hand I struggle to think of a genre less capable of getting to grips with issues surrounding rape than tabletop gaming there's nothing titillating in the diorama, nothing to suggest its an attempt at miniature rape erotica. Its stark and unpleasant which you'd expect covering the subject and reminds me of the stories of the fall of Berlin during WW2.

  17. It's art. For I see art as an expression of humanity. Be it good, bad, or ugly. Is it tasteful art? Probably not...

    But it is shocking and thought provoking in a subtle way that makes one take a second look and perhaps look away in disgust afterward.

    So as something that moves me and elicits an emotional response I would definitely consider it artistic.

  18. Whether it belongs or not the use of rape in art is well established - for example see Titian's "Rape of Lucretia" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tizian_094.jpg) not to mention the many other artistic interpretations that actual historical event inspired.

    Also has horrendous and devastating as the act of rape is - I think it pales compared to the act of genocide (and is often incorporated into it) and there is a massive amount of art dedicated to provoking thought, memorialising, and condemning that even more heinous crime

  19. Thoughtful and interesting comments about a very capably rendered scene. There's a lot of effort and skill which has gone into this. To a mature viewer this is certainly a thought provoking and horrid piece. Ugly, because what it reminds us of is ugly.

    Using toys as a medium is powerful too. The game these miniatures come from is a sterile environment. It's a game firmly aimed at teenagers, some of whom stick with it through to adulthood.

    That's perhaps my only concern. Sure it's valid as a piece of art. But is it something you'd show to your eleven year old? The vast majority of viewers at forums and galleries where this is displayed are prepubescent.

    Is it acceptable or wise to show this to so many of them?

    That, for me, is the controversial part of this works creation. Terrible things happen. Must you show them to other people's children?