Star Wars and Minimalism

Artist John Powers has begun an ambitious undertaking; to show the world that the 1977 classic sci-fi film and cultural icon Star Wars is actually a masterwork of minimalism and modernism.  Powers makes visual connections like the one between Robert Morris’s War (1963) and the design of an imperial stormtropper’s armor as well as idealogical connections between the world of fine art and Star Wars.

Quoting Clemet Greenburg adn Robert Morris alongside the likes of George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick Powers examines how art theory influenced the world of science fiction.  Powers lays bare the connections between the two, highlighting how a 1967 Greenburg essay on minimalism might have just as readily described the art direction of Star Wars;

“Everything is rigorously rectilinear or spherical. Development within a given piece is usually repetition of the same modular shape, which may or may not be varied in size.”

At the same way that post-modernist made the modernist visions of a Utopian future obsolete Star Wars made the 1950s metallic flying saucer an obsolete vision of the future.  George Lucas created a future dominated by geometric forms of black, gray, and white, much like the minimalist objects.  Lucas admittedly drew heavily on another iconic sci-fi film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.    Powers demonstrates how Kubrick adapted the visual language of modernist architecture to create the ship in 2001 and to reflect the Utopian desires of the astronauts and the space program.  For the black obelisk however Kubrick borrowed from minimal art as away to create something truly alien, an attempt to visualize something that cannot be visualized; a very minimalist idea.  In Star Wars this two aesthetics become mixed, jumbled, and at war with each other.  Powers asserts that Lucas choose a kind of grand scale minimalism as the aesthetic of the evil galactic empire.  The suggestion is that the empire is the logical conclusion of minimalist thought, a purging of imperfections at the cost of individuality.  Powers goes further to say that Lucas is a non-believer, an idea supported by Lucas’s original intent to create a film in protest of the Vietnam war, and points to the Death Star as the proof.  The seemless unitary grey geometric form of the Death Star is shown to be  an endless maze of jumbled geometric bodies, revealing the impossibility and futility of modernist’s attempt to reduce, simplify, and sterilize.  Powers contextualizes this by discussing the adoption of minimalism by authoritarianism and sites the demolition of Priutt Igoe and the Vietnam War as revealing the flaws beneath American Power.  In this way the detailed nonuniform surface of the Death Star become a metaphor for the deep rifts hidden by the veneer of American might.

Powers goes on to discuss the contrast between the stamped-out world of the Death Star with the squalor and disorder of the Rebellion;

The Death Star is a flying saucer that has been inflated to the size of a moon. Like the minimalist art it resembles, the Death Star is a utopia stripped of all progressive justification: It has monastic barracks, its sexuality is defined negatively (see Darth Vader’s masochistic garb), and its entryway is a breach in the “equatorial trench.”

The Death Star is a textbook example of the modernist “total design” rigidly ordered to be a perfect machine for living.  The Rebellion however becomes a post-modern incremental city, built out of necessity it is an amalgamation of what works.  The Rebellion and their ships are reflective of everyday life, drinking, gambling, broken parts, and improvised solutions.  The Rebellion becomes an example of the minimalist “expanded field.”

As a lifelong Star Wars fan and a student of Art and Art History I find Powers work to be compelling, intelligent, and entertaining.  Popular culture has an increasing significance in our lives and I love to see it appropriated and reinterpreted to create new and interesting connections.  The great thing about what Powers is doing is how well these two seemingly unrelated things fit together.  Powers uses research, information, and quotes to build a very solid argument for Star Wars having been influenced by fine art theory.    The work will eventually be released in the form of an “artist’s commentary” to be listened to while watching the film much like a director’s commentary.  However, Power’s commentary will be a discussion of all the elements of art, politics, and culture that he argues created the aesthetics of Star Wars.  In the mean time Powers has a short slide show/article discussing his work;

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