Get ready for some heavy theorizing!
Recently, most serious discussions of miniatures, in gallery guides, news accounts, and published books, quote Susan Stewart as the expert who can can tell us why we are fascinated by and devoted to miniatures. Stewart wrote a book in 1984 called On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. In this book is a chapter called “The Miniature” which presents a philosophy of miniatures based in psychoanalytic, Marxist, and Deconstruction theories. I think the simple explanation for the endless references to Stewart (apart from the fact that everyone repeats what they have read elsewhere) is that we don’t know where to turn to explain our experiences with miniature worlds and objects. Once someone found and used Stewart, so many years after the 1984 publication of this essay, it seems like everyone ended up using her essay without really questioning what she said. I want to do that questioning because she is, quite simply, wrong when she talks about miniatures.
Basically her problem is that she sees miniatures as a metaphor or symbol, or as metonymy, making them not important in and of themselves, but as demonstrations of some human anxiety or foible or unrelated action. Miniatures, she says, create a nostalgia for craft (rather than being a direct indication of such craft handiwork); miniatures to her are demonstrations of the Marxist dialectical concern with public vs private property; and miniatures are precious objects in space with no narrative capabilities, “timeless and uncontaminated” and speechless, to be seen but not engaged. For her miniatures are something people look at passively and at a distance rather than something that draws viewers into the worlds a miniature can present.
Let me start out by saying this: I am not a “rube” when it comes to the type of theorizing Susan Stewart did. I read her work in graduate school, in a theory seminar along with all the post-structural, psychoanalytic, and deconstructionist theorists she quotes. And I have read this chapter in her book On Longing many times (see evidence below). So it’s not that I am naive, or don’t understand this dense thinking, or am afraid of this approach. I just find it unfortunate that she is considered the last word on miniatures.
Stewart is quoted in the statement for the 2006 “Miniature Worlds” show in London as supporting the miniature as a static entity saying, “The miniature world becomes a stage on which we project….a deliberately framed series of events.” Instead, it is more rewarding to see miniatures as a site of ambiguity, wonder, and possibility. A Canadian show of 2015, “Minimized Histories,” cites Stewart’s idea that miniatures can enhance an ideological message because of the use of a small example standing in for a larger idea (that’s the metonymy). The wonderful and challenging show at the New York Museum of Arts and Design in 2011, called “Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities,” also calls upon Stewart to explain their fascinating exhibit. She is quoted a saying, “In its tableau-like form, the miniature is a world of arrested time; its stillness emphasizes the activity that is outside its borders. And this effect is reciprocal, for once we attend to the miniature world, the outside world stops and is lost to us.” Would anyone say this about a painting, which is also usually “static” but which is easily recognized as a cultural artifact that can move us dizzyingly between two worlds?
More recently the 2015 exhibit “Feel Big Live Small” sponsored by apexart in New York also relies on her for the basis of their show. The show’s brochure, after considering the early history of miniatures, states, “Why we are so universally drawn to miniatures, however, is a somewhat elusive question.” So they turn to Stewart who first tells them that miniatures are about nostalgia (thus the title of her book, On Longing). By nostalgia she is referring to a desire for lost or forgotten things, things of childhood that still affect us today. It is a psychoanalytical concept, very Freudian in its dependence on ideas like “projection” and “displacement” and “erasure.” I can’t explain all those terms here but they all refer to the idea that miniatures are some sort of compensation for something we have lost or miss or desire.
The most popular quote used from her work is, “the interiority of the enclosed world tends to reify the interiority of the viewer.” Translation: she is saying we make miniatures to enact or reenact in tiny, enclosed, static spaces the traumas and chaos of our lives. The “interiority” refers to Freudian things we repress and which can get expressed safely in miniatures. It makes you question whether she has really seen or experienced miniatures or just considers them abstractly.
The idea that miniatures are about controlling chaos is the second most common theory that references Stewart. The same apexart brochure quotes show artist Thomas Doyle as stating, “The creation of small worlds gives us the illusion of control.” I would argue the opposite. Whether you are talking about control or the illusion of control, miniatures suggest to me not control but evidence that something has taken place in the space depicted and more can happen there, too.
The same Thomas Doyle reiterate a Stewart theme and one that is perhaps most destructive to creative miniaturizing: miniatures as an escape from reality and the real world. Doyle states, “In a world that grows ever faster and more chaotic…artworks in small scales allow us a place of retreat, where time has stopped.” Putting aside the idea that we live in a uniquely chaotic time (check out the 19th century), the best miniature worlds are not ones where time has seemed to stop. They are the worlds where something has just happened and something else is about to happen and we are witnesses to that in-between moment. Unlike Stewart’s claim that miniatures are about an experience that is “domesticated” and “protected from contamination,” the most engaging miniatures pull us in and out of the real and it is that journey that makes miniatures so intriguing.
But more importantly, great miniatures are not an escape from the real world but a way to engage, confront, question, critique, or consider it. Stewart doesn’t support that and her focus on Marxist property relations, Freudian nostalgia and longing, and concepts of “interiority” (or as she state it, “within within within”) are not helpful for understanding what intrigues us about miniatures. What we need is a new language for talking about this subject and that will be addressed in Part 3.