Monday, June 10, 2013

The Art of the Fantastic

I had the great luck to be able to attend Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 2 just a little while ago.  The drive to Kansas City, MO took far longer than I should have wished, but it was well worth it. The variety of great artists filling the gallery hall was a site I will remember in both my memory and my photo album. These are the paintings that inspire children to dream of dragons, for men and women to visualize as they read through books to escape their lives for a short time, these are the pieces that create a world beyond the real.  While my main objective for this trip was to enjoy the fantastic art I have loved since childhood and to have informative conversations with artist of a far better caliber than myself, I always have secondary objectives. 
Spectrum 20 Award Gala, Beautiful

Walking around the hall, rows of paintings, sketches, sculptures, and live demonstrations, it is easy to identify some of the classic depiction of sci-fi and fantasy women. Sadly, these classic depictions are most commonly that of the Damsel in Distress, the Evil Seductress, or the Power is Sex(y). There were rows upon rows of booths, but within those rows, hidden sometimes at the corners, these upsetting depictions of the women in sci-fi and fantasy were still alive. At one point I began to notice that some of the paintings, prints, and illustration that had more graphic sexual content were being censored with small slips of stick-notes. They were stuck on, hiding nipples or genitalia, while the rest of the picture was open for the viewing public. The picture of the chained woman with the distressed face and her legs spread, the exposed captured woman being taken off, the seductress enthralling onlookers with her sexual power, were all okay for viewing, all undamaging, as long as those few key pieces of anatomy were covered.  Seeing this it gave off a sad message: Viewing women as disempowered and objectified is fine, so long as that sticky-note stayed were it was stuck. I know this may have been for the sake of the children, since both artists and spectators were free to bring their children and some certainly did, but that does not really make the situations any better in my opinion. By blocking off those parts, but not the image it self, it may make it appropriate for public viewing, but it certainly does not decrease the impact it would have on how a boy views women or how a girl will choose to view herself.
I would like to clarify that I am not at all opposed to nudity in art. Nudity in art has existed since the beginning of art itself. The human body can convey power, grace, beauty, sexuality, environmental interaction, and the spectrum of human emotion.  David Palumdo's Fed is a great example of the power nudity can convey to an image. It is a disappointment when these such powerful works are overrun by the objectified and over-sexualized female figures so common in the sci-fi and fantasy world.  Again, though, similar to the argument about who has the power in what children see if video games, who has the power to change what is seen on book or comic covers?
Dan Dos Santos, a great artist I had the pleasure of meeting at SFAL2, was indirectly accused by a BBC article of being sexist in his works by using one of Dos Santos’ works as the example for sexist science fiction art.  The article goes on, giving other examples including the classic Conan depictions. The article brings up a few good points, such as how “many science fiction and fantasy readers are disappointed to encounter everyday sexism in a medium that is supposed to offer an escape” (which is similar to the immersion-problem many feel when playing video games).  It also points out that many science fiction covers, classic and modern, are still created to attract a heterosexual male audience, even though the amount of science fiction and fantasy female authors and readers, as well as members of the TGLBQ community, is on the rise.  One of the most powerful, and true, lines from the BBC article comes as a quote from Tracy Hurley:

"Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women's sexuality will be emphasized. And why is that a problem? It's constraining for both men and women."

Art Hall, filled with fans, both men and women.
In response to this indirect critique, the artist collaboration blog Muddy Colors responded internally with a post by Arnie Fenner, retiring co-director of the long running Spectrum books that inspired/created the whole SFAL event.  Arnie brings up the key of the whole issue in his post Objectify:

“But unless I'm missing something, here's the thing that bugged me about the BBC article and Hines' cosplay: the artists get the "blame" for what appears on the books' covers. Not the writers whose stories and descriptions lend themselves to the interpretations being decried; not the publishers, not the editors, not the art directors, not the sales reps, not the retailers, and not the consumers. All of whom dictate what the commercial artist creates and delivers. If they don't approve, if the artist doesn't follow direction and give them what they're paying for, the art is never seen. If the customers don't buy the books, other solutions are sought.”


I agree, mostly. I agree that it takes a whole line of people from writer, to an art director, to an artist, to a publisher, to the consumer to create the sphere of influence in which these art pieces (both written and visual) can exist.  There is no easy solution. It is a whole cultural setting in which the realm of the idealized men and objectified women is written about, enforced, and portrayed. No individual or part of the chain of creation can be completely at fault, and blame cannot be so easily delegated.

            So, when a talented artist such as Dos Santos creates works such as the one critiqued by the BBC article, it took several stages for it to become that particular piece. The writer created the character, the art director gave input for the work, and the art was completed through the views of several people, not the artist alone. Also, to have called out an individual piece without these correct justifications was an obvious mistake. Sexist and objectified depictions, in video games, in comics, in the world of Fantastic art, do not exist in a vacuum and do not under the majority of circumstances come into the public view through the work of an individual.

            I’ve heard it said that in the art world that you have to take the jobs offered to you. To start off, you need all the money, work, and publicity you can get. Young artists, or artists just starting off, may find that falling in line with these constricted image types is the best way to begin a career, but this will only continue to perpetuate these images for years to come. Once set in their career, artist can choose to be picky. Steven Belledin, another artist I have had the great opportunity to meet, never compromises his values in his depiction of female characters.  He has said that this has at times put him at odds with those offering jobs, but I would like to assure him that for some viewers and new artists just knowing that not compromising is an option is a light for a better future. 


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