I may have posted this here before but it's vanished into the vaults and I think it's important to keep this thinking current. Art, we all know, is subjective. We like what we like - but we also, in some cases, like what we're taught to like. Many people are embarrassed by their own taste and suppress it to keep the status quo. Many more never get to express themselves, and never get roundly exposed to work that isn't 'safe' or 'respectable'. Some just get completely rewired by their tutors and seniors into believing what they are told about art, buying the establishment line and brandishing their credentials with contempt. This was written for a talk I gave about the value of representative - ie. realistic - drawing, specifically when it comes to fantasy art. Enjoy!
I think there's a kind of foot-shuffling embarrassment in the serious Arts world when it comes to science fiction or fantasy. They want it to go away, and for us practitioners to 'grow-up' and 'get real'.
One fine art lecturer once said to me 'isn't it all a bit redundant post Hiroshima?'
The question is, then how can it possibly be significant?
There's a second question that often goes hand-in-hand, and that is regarding 'representative art' the natural or hard-won skill to be able to draw, paint or sculpt things in a manner that replicates reality.
Surely redundant post-photography?
My object here is to broadly set out the anthropological roots of the fantasy saga widely drawn from oral and literary tradition, but always accompanied by sculptures, drawings and other visual representations - and explain why it generally requires old-school representative drawing to work effectively.
Conceptual art seems to me to be about individual stance, a skewered view on our living reality filtered through an idea made solid or at least tangible.
Abstract art trawls the subliminal and constructs form out of chaos or finds chaos in form.
I would argue that in imaginative arts there is a bigger human story that gets side-lined, and that is never fully taken into consideration:
And that is it's historical and cultural significance.
The first piece of art you could claim as mythic, a genuinely imaginative leap, comes in the form of 'The Sorcerer', from the Three Brothers cave in France dated at approximately 13,000bc. It's an anthropomorphic horned beast-man, or shaman, and the very first representation of something that doesn't exist.
In literature, the most ancient poem we have is a Mesopotamian fantasy called The Epic of Gilgamesh', from 2500bc.
Beyond that we get Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
The Trojan War - Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and his ten-year journey home. The great quest, the fellowship, the un-surmountable obstacles - And of course; the monsters!
But what was Homer getting at? What purpose did these fantasies serve?
The Romans give us their version of the story in Virgil's the 'Aeneid' and here it's pretty clear what the intention is:
Aeneas, just a bit-part in the Iliad, is recreated as the fictional ancestor of Julius Caesar, and therefore of his adopted son Augustus Caesar.
Aeneas also makes a great journey, out-witting and defeating any and all adversaries and eventually founding Rome. Virgil gives his fellow Roman's something to swell their chests - He makes them mythic by dint of this faux history:
They are all the children of Troy.
Germany later gives us 'Siegfried and the Dragon', the epic 'Ring Cycle'.
Ireland gives us 'Cuculain' - who had to be rolled in the snow to cool down after battle.
We get King Arthur.
Geoffrey of Monmouth writes the obscure prophecies of a magician called Myrddyn, from the Welsh, whom he renamed Merlin - in his book 'The History of the Kings of Britain'.
Then there's our oldest written poem, an Anglo-Saxon tale concerning a certain Viking called Beowulf, and the beast, Grendel, who he literally disarms.
And to my eyes, at least, the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel is an illustration of another epic mythology of man that serves a similar purpose.
The comparisons to be made are endless, but the point is clear:
Heroic fantasy is one of the highest and most ancient of art-forms from which sprang ALL literature and ALL stories.
To answer my earlier question on purpose what did, and what does, it do for us?
Well - what it did was confirm our struggle with nature, help us understand our environment.
It empowered us, emboldened us before battle.
It gave us strength in times of famine or hardship.
It ennobled us - giving us heroic ancestors, whose parents were gods - thereby linking us directly with our creators.
As Isaac Asimov once observed: these were the parents we invented for ourselves, that would not grow old and die, but would instead remain perpetually bigger and better and stronger than we could ever be.
And so this, in turn, also gifted us hope beyond life. It made death comprehendible and acceptable to us.
Fantasy art is, therefore, aspirational and inspirational.
But what of cultural and social significance?
Swift's 'Guliver's Travels' used that ancient magical quest format to create biting satire.
Lewis Carol's 'Alice in Wonderland' seems to be a drug-fuelled quivering meditation on denial and frustrated longing - but wearing fantasy clothing.
In art Goya, Brueghel and Bosch all used fantastical imagery to supreme effect.
Later the surrealists would create works that trawled the imagination.
Dali in particular created work that was anthropomorphic and mythic. He also proclaimed himself the first painter of the 'atomic age' ironically, perhaps, as he was directly inspired by the shock of Hiroshima.
As we see, the imaginative bent of mankind, our ability to create fictions, does more than just swell our hearts - it gets us looking forward. It can comment on now as allegory or it can be prophetic.
This same power of conception led early scientists to speculate on the nature of the universe.
Leonardo Da Vinci imagined submarines, helicopters and gliders.
H.G. Wells imagined time-travel.
Asimov envisaged AI.
Arthur C. Clarke predicted space-walks and moon-landings.
So it's clear the tradition, at least, is honorable - rooted in our most ancient past, our primordial and archetypal selves. But in art we don't generally gift it with such auspicious origins.
Given that we used to put our fears in the hands of the epic saga writers, and our hopes in the hands of visionaries - why is there now a tendency to snigger?
IS fantasy art really redundant post-Hiroshima?
Have we no more journeys to make - no more great steps as a human nation into the future?
There seems to be an old Empire Victorian contempt associated with fantasy art that they used to reserve for foreigners. It has the same hallmarks of inner-circles and perpetuated memes, lofty elitism Not open-mindedness and playful exploration.
For art to be of value must it only ever reflect our current condition?
Must we only look inwards, at ourselves, and our schizophrenic paranoid-yet-vain, media-driven lives now that Andy Warhol has been proven right, and we are all famous for fifteen minutes on facebook?
I read somewhere that it was Jane Eyre that ended the reign of the imaginative arts, focusing the collective mind on social politics, the affairs of the day. But imaginative art utilizes a unique human faculty - and that facility steeled us to cross over continents and oceans, and eventually to travel to the moon and beyond.
I would argue that our ability to IMAGINE the FANTASTIC might be one of the key things to define us as human beings. It should be embraced as uniquely human and not derided by intelligent people that should know better.
Lastly, returning to my point about representative art: It used to be THAT skill alone that singled out a child with a talent for art. Now it's often considered redundant.
In the imaginative arts, at least, that skill is absolutely required in order to successfully depict the impossible in a manner people can easily comprehend.
For me, growing up with a natural facility for realistic drawing, it was far more interesting to draw imaginary beings in a way that seemed real than just drawing the everyday.
To slightly risk ridicule and the undermining my own argument by causing you all to shift uneasily in your seats - you can pickle a shark, photograph a grazing sheep, but you can't photograph the graceful sinuous majesty of a dragon in full flight!
Despite the technical skill of many of its practitioners, and despite (or arguably because of) its popularity, Fantasy art is not considered part of the canon, or fine art, in the sense that it is not hung in galleries, subsidised by governments, studied in art schools etc.
A few works which are canonical, particularly surrealist or pre-Raphaelite works, have many characteristics in common with fantasy art. For example The Castle in the Pyrenees by Rene Magritte, and The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, would almost certainly be accepted as fantasy art if they had been created recently by an artist who presented them as such. As with much fantasy art, the latter illustrates a scene from another work. Other modern fantasy artists use the Art Nouveau Movement and other high culture art movements with the contention that fantasy or faerie art should be critically evaluated and noticed by academic institutions. Historical standards of what is high art or what is not high art was a common problem for now famous artists from the Glasgow School, who were also defined as inferior in their time.