February 23, 2016

Model Railroads as Art?

 I recently came across this video essay by Robert Florczak on "Why Modern Art is So Bad." He eloquently summarizes exactly how I feel on the subject.

Potomac Creek on my ACW layout
But are model railroads art? Yes, I believe they can be. According to Florczak art should, "demand the highest standards of excellence, improve upon the work of previous masters, and aspire to the highest quality of work attainable."  These are goals that I and many other model railroaders try to attain.

Quinnimont in N Scale
Furthermore, Florczak says that the work should be, "profound, inspiring, and beautiful."

Profound - means showing great emotion, insight, and knowledge. Model railroads that use prototype scenes to tell a story about a space and time can easily attain that.

Inspiring - I know I am inspired when I visit a great model railroad.

A module from the FCSME club

Beautiful - some layouts are beautiful, even if they depict gritty urban or industrial subjects.

Here some examples that I believe show  art in model railroads.

Rob Spangler's backdrop

A antiqued image from my WWI layout

Paul Dolkos's Baltimore Harbor layout


  1. Two subjects close to my heart!

    I think both you and Robert Florczak are confusing art with craft and design. Florczak appears to argue that great art can only be great if executed with great craft, whereas I think the greatness of art resides more in the greatness of the concept behind it. Conceptually, the Mona Lisa is a very dull work indeed (or at least it is now dull because anything once novel about it has been copied thousands of times in other portraits)and I suspect only its provenance makes it distinguished.

    Plus Florczak seems to value art that is realist, rather than in any degree abstract or stylised, but you only need a smattering of art history to know that stylised and abstract imagery have always been a part of art history. Indeed, so far as we know, the very first art produced by man were stylised and abstract images rather than anything that strove for naturalism.

    The other problem is that Florczak uses both the best and 'worst' extremes of old and new art to make his point. There are hundreds of thousands of old paintings that were created with great skill but remain utterly dull and uninspiring and there is a lot of modern art (modern being anything under one-hundred and something years old according to Florczak) that is excellent. He's forgetting that history has a filter that allows us to remember the best of any period in history and filter out the worst.

    As for model railroads, curiously, the more they mimic the prototype the less art they have in them (though often the better the mimicry the higher the craft)because art must be innovative and offer an interpretation of reality. Some approach art, albeit I have only seen them online and they may be different in reality, and one modeller who comes to mind is John Ott http://www.ottgallery.com/index.html

    It's worth remembering that one of the greatest paintings of a railway ever made was Rain, Steam, and Speed, by JMW Turner.

  2. In my view art requires craft as a prerequisite. Great art has craft as well as originality, message etc. To only be original is insufficient.

    Monet had some great railway paintings. But railways came too late for great masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer to see what they would have done with the subject matter.

    Your comment on prototype railway modeling is interesting. I suppose an exact copy of a prototype scene could be uninspired. But nobody has sufficient space to exactly replicate a scene. Deciding what to keep, what to leave out, and what to embellish, how to compose , light and color it, is how the craft transcends into art.

  3. Hi. This is a great subject. I definitely think model railroading can be art. The trick, for me, is to not rely only upon craft. Like one of the posts says above, art must be profound. To me, this means model railroaders seeking to really make art out of their subject matter should move beyond simply replicating what is in front of them and instead seek to make evident a point of view or specific way of viewing/depicting the subject matter and combine that with craft. A statement needs to be made beyond, "here it is, exactly the way it looks in real life." It's not enough to simply replicate the subject with a high degree of craft, and call it art. Artistic maybe, but not art.

    I think of Chuck Close's self portraits from the sixties. Even though the subject matter was realistic, it was made into something more profound. How? First, the portraits were larger than life size, and second they were black and white. This removes it from the realm of replication and makes the subject more abstract. The necessary craft comes in with the way the portraits were painted. I think one of them was done entirely with thumbprints of the artist, which speaks to the craft of painting and enhances the idea of the self portrait. In many ways a fingerprint is the ultimate self portrait, since no two people have the same. In my opinion, model railroading can and should be thought of this way in order to truly become art.
    J. Jones
    CNJ Modeler

    1. I agree with you. That was the point I tried to make in my follow up to Colin. I think you stated it better. Thanks.

  4. In modeling as in painting, sculpture and other disciplines, the creator of the work brings many skills to bear.

    There is craft to be certain. One must have a command of the medium and the tools involved before any kind of expression can be considered. Beyond craft, the artist brings an aesthetic judgement to the subject, regardless of whether the form of the work is realist or abstract. Such judgement is developed over time like any other skill, by study, trial and error.

    Bringing an aesthetic eye means you see qualities in the subject that others may not and by bringing your powers of observation, craft and judgement to they work, an artist makes a statement about those qualities that others may respond to.

    We do no less, in the design and craft of modeling. We exercise these skills by what we choose to model and the manner in which we present the work.

    Mike Cougill

  5. There are at least a few people in the hobby who know that there is nothing “wrong” with modern art and in fact channel some of positive energy they receive from interacting with certain works back into model railroading. It is too bad an artist such as Mr. Florczak does not appreciate certain movements in the history and evolution of artistic expression. While that is certainly his right it is also his loss. More importantly, his negative perspective creates at best a problematic intellectual space to begin an open-ended discussion of the relationship between “art” and “craftsmanship” under any circumstance.

    For the record every three months or so I go to MOMA to view the works of abstract impressionists such a Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko… to name just a few. I do this because seeing their work in person inspires me to think and to write and try to be creative. For many people the work of these artists -and of many other painters, sculptors, and photographers- demonstrate the great potential of humanity and remind us of why life is worth living.

    While it is certainly fine to not embrace certain forms and movements within the art world –no one person can appreciate, enjoy, or understand everything- it is much easier and more beneficial to start the creative process, much less a dialogue about the creative process, by engaging with a piece or a movement that you enjoy rather than denigrating a painting or sculpture that for whatever reason does not capture your fancy. A few months ago I started a blog post on Jackson Pollack and model railroading but never finished it…I suppose now I will have to do so.

    See you at MOMA!


    Gerard J. Fitzgerald
    Charlottesville, Virginia

    1. I guess I am just going to have to disagree with you. I saw some Rothko's and Newman's pieces on display at the Tower Gallery in the National gallery a few years ago, as I like to wander over there for lunch every now and then. I honestly thought it was some kind of prank. Here is a link to one of the pieces in case there are some that are not familiar with the "paintings."

      I do want to read your piece on Pollock and Model Railroads. I personally do not find Pollock to be noteworthy, but I am curious on how you would relate the two topics.

    2. Will do. That Pollack piece is at the bottom of my to do list but posting it sometime later this year is now a priority. Upon reading it I am sure many in the hobby will encourage me to move on over into stamp collecting.


  6. As a non-educated yet appreciative observer of art, I am enjoying this line of exchange as it relates to building, creating, constructing a model railroad. Your comments have perked a reflection on how I have come to appreciate other's layout creations. Art, opinion of course, is the manifestation, an expression and ultimately an interpretation of form. With respect to our niche hobby, I find that I am most intrigued and inspired when the "artist" has shaped or expressed his idea, vision, to reveal the story in a most authentic manner. I want to emphasize I am referring to model rails vs the whole magilla of the art world. An artistic model railroad for me can inspire and instill an element of intrigue, curiosity. I can go from simply observing the work and the content, to curious as to the builder's skill and technique to creating the scenes, or onto the more, what I would call visceral, imagining of how it all tells a story. The art then, for me, is perhaps an image that can convey and engage feeling, context, grace and awe such that I am moved, inspired.
    This is an interesting process for me as I have not thought of our hobby/craft in this manner. Thanks fellas for the stimulating exchange.