Too many pictures, not enough words

For a supposedly underground culture, there are a lot of publishers throwing a lot of money at books on the designer toy world. So far, most of them have taken the picture-says-a-thousand-words approach. No real problem there, but this underlines something that’s bugged me for a while: is there really nothing to say about the toy world?

The reason I ask is that we’re not just being sold toys, but “art” toys – a subtle semantic difference that adds up to a whole lot, in the grand scheme of things. For me, as pretentious as it may sound, art needs to have a message. A narrative. An intention that goes beyond its physical appearance. It needn’t be the deepest thought in the world, but thought needs to be there. If nothing else, in simple terms, it’s what raises abstract paintings beyond the scrawlings of a chimp with poster paints.

Now – and here’s the deal breaker – I don’t feel the need for all my toys to have these layers of depth. I’m happy to take them at face value. To see them as nothing more than well-designed objects of limited edition that serve little purpose other than to look pretty and make me smile. That’s no bad thing – there are plenty of well-designed objects in the world that aren’t “art.” But it seems that in order to justify higher price tags, the “art” label is being thrust upon some toys that essentially aren’t up to the task.

And now I come full circle back to books. None of the tomes that have been published offer any real debate as to the artistic merits of this movement. At best, they present them as art as a whole, highlighting a few reasons why these toys are art – a lot of the time relying simply on the limited nature of the toys, or the artists behind them. At worst (unfortunately this encompasses pretty much every book out there), there’s no debate – no voice of dissent challenging this notion.

There are certain artists who have spoken extensively about how they see toys fitting into the art world. Tim Biskup’s views on PopSurrealism and Gary Baseman’s pervasive approach to his art have been well-documented, and there’s no need to tread that ground again. Their voices have been very welcome input to the tumbleweed-strewn arena that is the “art” toy debate.

In some ways, it’s the nature of the beast. Toys are eye candy, not brain candy. So if they look good, perhaps that says everything they need to say. However, if this is more than a fad, why is there the rush of publications? Are the publishers looking to make a quick buck before this all goes a bit Beanie Babies? There are so many questions left unanswered. To be honest, they’re just being ignored.

Why is it that the medium suits some artists better than others? Do all the artists involved see what they produce in vinyl as art? Art that’s on the same level as their canvases? Ron English’s paintings I love, but his figures don’t translate overly well to vinyl. The vibrancy and power of his 2D work struggles to make the leap to 3D.

I feel the same way towards Camille Rose Garcia’s toys. Her artwork is bewitching, dark and whimsical – qualities I don’t think any vinyl representation could ever live up to, although her recent plush work does capture more of the essence of her paintings. But these are my thoughts – what do the artists think? Not one book seems to have asked them.

Is it that the art toy world is just limited to cartoony, character-based art, for want of a better term? Art that already looks toy-like? There needs to be some discussion. The antagonists, and there are plenty, need to be welcomed to the fold to challenge the artistic nature of what I genuinely believe to be a modern-day art form.

If we’re all just going to sit back, bury our heads in the sand and content ourselves to look at pretty pictures of toys, then maybe the writing’s on the wall for art toys. It sure as hell ain’t in the books.

Drunken Master

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