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May 28th, 2008

Red-Headed Step Child

I’ve just received and answered my umpteenth letter from an art student frustrated by his art school’s dismissive attitude toward Fantastic Art. Fantasy art is respected in the “Old World,” but in America it is the red-headed step-child.

It is, in part, an unfortunate side effect of the Disney Factor – the mistaken impression that these are mere fairy stories intended to entertain the kiddies. Fairy Stories themselves are the remnants of older belief systems, the roots of which are worth exploring in their own right. Of course these tales were told to children — all our tales are. Sunday school, anyone? But the older beliefs were buried by the newer ones until only the skins of the stories remained like the shrouds of ghosts, the deeper meanings lingering darkly, like kelpies beneath the surface of our canons.

What we lose by dismissing Fantasy is huge. The genre is metaphor: Lord of the Rings is chock full of Tolkein’s Catholic upbringing and beliefs about morality, faith, and progress. It shines a light on society: consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula and what it reveals about the conflict of faith and enlightenment in Victorian England, or Shelly’s Frankenstein as commentary on the fallibility of modern science and medicine, or George Orwell warning us against the dystopian perils of fascism and communism in 1984 and Animal Farm.

Fantasy art is about the ineffable, secret heart of human existence that our stories and cultures have sought to define for millennia. It is about Discovery.

The best fantasy artists and writers understand the depths of myth, religion, and psychology revealed in good Fantasy tales and art. Froud celebrates it. Giger exposes its squirming underbelly. Beksinski expands the dialog with deeply personal visions of his own.

My own piece Cerberus began as the visual aid for a role-playing campaign (you can’t get much lower on the cultural shit-list than D&D), but quickly became an exploration of hell and the afterlife seen through several different lenses – Christian, mythological, personal – and the result is powerful because it speaks to and through them all.

My dad showed Kali to someone once; they glanced at it and pronounced it “pornography”. They couldn’t get past the nipples to see what was being said. If they knew anything at all about Indian Hindu art, they might see more of what it means – it’s a Westernized interpretation of an ancient Hindu goddess, taken back to her “earth mother” roots to a degree, but also contains commentary on her strengths and failings as a metaphor for spirituality . The entire cycle of life is covered, from creation through birth to death. The three aspects of the European Goddess archetype are there too, in the human cycle: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. But she is blind to the void behind her; she fails in that she sees not “behind the veil”, as it were, into the other realm – the afterlife, which other faiths consider more deeply.

But that’s all too deep for some people, especially unimaginative people who want their art to be straightforward and simple to comprehend, or – worse – to fit into preconceived boundaries of acceptability. If pretty little cottages with flowers all around describes your worldview, hooray for you. But why would an art school want to limit or even censor the range of expression for their students? Sure, a lot of fantasy art is crap. I get really weary of women in chainmail bikinis with nipples so hard that even the metal can’t contain them, wielding swords so large that a man twice their size would have difficulty lifting it – let alone swinging it. But every genre of art has it’s range of quality, and some of it does well despite that. Think “Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light”. Excuse me? The French Impressionists were the painters of light. Thomas Kinkade is a talented man who settled on huge marketing schemes for his universal, but ultimately bland landscapes, threw in a dose of Christian piety to make them appealing to a moneyed crowd, and took it to the bank. If your school is advocating that, they should add a marketing class. If they’re teaching art, they need only look back at the entire history of art to see fantasy aplenty. You don’t even have to add Christian themed art (though I would) to find a vast range of mythical images. Frazetta, Froud, Lee, and Howe only build upon a legacy replete with Fantastic images, from the statue of Winged Victory by an unknown in ancient Greece to The Book of Kells; to sculpture and paintings by Rembrandt, Gustave Dore, Rodin, Waterhouse, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth… even the landscapes of Bierstadt and Church.

A bit of well-taught realism, and some study of the history of fantasy art would open windows to expression that appeal to people not because it is low art, but because it speaks to those parts of our psyche which we do not readily comprehend. Modern science and religion as practiced in the world today leave little room for discovery of the real Mystery that is life and the Universe, since both, either together or — sadly and too often –separately, seem focused on fundamental absolutes. When so many act as if they have all the answers, it is no wonder that people are drawn to art and stories that knock on the door of the subconscious, that dare to suggest possibilities wider and deeper than the mundane. Look at the top-grossing movies of the last half-century; no pretty little cottages in the bunch! Fantasy art and story telling has never been about glorifying or recording what we see, but about that which we strive to see, and that which can be seen no other way.

Posted by Todd in Blog Home

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