Thursday, July 7, 2016

Of monsters and animals

The Hooded Utilitarian is a comics blog that often discusses other media which have been traditionally considered "lowbrow", such as superhero movies, horror movies, space opera and TV serials. I don't like the smug tone that much of the articles and threads seem to have and I'm wary of the heavy political bias of many of the contributors, but I keep an eye on it anyway for the occasional piece about furries and other interesting insights which occasionally pop up. One of the latest articles is in fact insightful and close to the topics of my blog:

I've rambled before about humanity vs. nature being an outdated and misleading story archetype, and such contemporary iterations of the story just keep proving how dishonest it is as a premise. You simply can't have a story about murderous giant sharks or pythons or whatever without fake science to justify it, because in the real world very few animals actually attack humans and such attacks happen in circumstances that are either too unlucky and odd to turn into a compelling story or stuff that movies don't want to deal with. The note about the mosquito is spot on as that's actually the most deadly animal for humans by a huge margin. (I recommend the first thirty or so episodes of the podcast This Week in Parasitism for extensive coverage of that and other related issues.)

The article mostly analyzes the power dynamics displayed in that story archetype and how they relate to racism. Racism in movies is a valid concern of course, yet the parallel feels a bit contrived to me. That's the typical humanistic approach of boiling everything down to internal conflicts of the human species and considering such conflicts the only problems that matter. But the culturally enforced conflict between humans and "the rest of nature" is a huge philosophical problem with its own dignity and it is very distinct from racism, even thought some of the dynamics are similar. I long for the day media critics will realize that a racist movie and a movie portraying sharks as worthless monsters are both flat out wrong.

As an artist I see this as an ethical issue which is especially pressing for fantasy/imaginative artists of all flavors. Making monsters out of creatures which are known not to be so is unethical. When you have to make up lies in order to paint some creature or individual as the bad guy, chances are you are being an irresponsible storyteller communicating a factually wrong message about the world to your audience.

If you really have to, at least use eldritch horrors which actually evoke the shapeless inner demons we can't control. I have my issues with Lovecraft but that's the one thing he got right: sadness, despair and hardship are closer to the indescribable Great Old Ones than to a CG shark. I don't see how defeating the ridiculously fake version of animal could give anyone a real feeling of empowerment.

Matt Lindley, Azathoth, 2012

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Only human characters are relatable (not)

I came about some interesting snippets from the blog of Mark Rosewater, head designer of the well know Magic: the Gathering card game. A common criticism among long time fans of the game is that as the game became more and more popular it moved away from the creative character designs and art styles found in the game's early artwork and settled on mainstream fantasy ideas which aren't really different from any other generic fantasy setting.

Adopting a mainstream style is understandable and was probably unavoidable for a game which didn't have a coherent lore from the start and grew to become one of the most popular games in the world, but other choices made by the designers don't make a lot of sense to me. For example in the game there is a kind of creatures known as "Slivers", which in their first few iterations were hive-minded insect-like creatures which granted special powers to each other where there were several of them in play.

In their most recent iteration though the art department abandoned that unique and very recognizable design, settling for a humanoid form which can't be told apart from a number of other generic humanoid monsters or even from the Eldrazi species developed in the latest expansions.

Comparing the game's current art with its early art there is an obvious attempt to represent a wider variety of human races, but the overall diversity of visuals in the game has decreased quite a lot. Now all the main storyline characters except for two are either humans or the Star Trek kind of aliens, that is humans with fancy makeup and some weird body feature. There are no more whimsical species introduced just for the sake of creativity or charmingly weird artwork such as that of Kaja and Phil Foglio, Ian Miller and a number of other early Magic artists.

Many of the creatures portrayed in early artwork didn't even feature in the game at all. Which kind of evil overlord would hire a giant bunny servant? Nowadays any marketing department would be mad about that and say it's stupid and alienates players, but actually when it happened it felt quite natural and was a big part of the aesthetic appeal of the game. It gave the impression that there was much more going on in the game's world than what was shown on the cards: they were just glimpses of a bigger picture. I feel this impression is vital in depicting a lively world as opposed to a simply coherent one, and it is something that the current practice of worldbuilding is extremely bad at with its almost exclusive focus on coherence and economy of ideas.

These are some of Rosewater's answers to questions about the change in Magic's design philosophy:

I would very much like to see some of these studies, but I guess he's talking about biased self-limiting studies such as those based on focus groups because those statements are clearly false in the general case (and the assumption that most creatures in the game must be "relatable" is frankly ridiculous, who would ever want to relate to a Sliver whatever its design?).

Characters don't need to be 99% human in order to be relatable, it all depends on the context. If we are talking about realistic psychological drama then yes, human characters are usually the most relatable. A book like Anna Karenina would be just confusing if the characters were aliens or anthropomorphic animals (even though I'm sure some fans of postmodernism would love it). But on the other hand books like Redwall or Incandescence can only work because the characters sport some degree of "otherness" from humans. The brand of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic managed to capture millions of grown ups on top of its target audience of small children simply because the characters are very endearing and relatable as simplified cartoon horses.

But even sticking to mainstream fantasy stuff: the Lord of the Rings tries to convey enough feeling of realism that it would only work well with humanlike characters. Yet The Hobbit doesn't take itself nearly as seriously and I'm quite sure it would work just as well if the hobbits were replaced by anthropomorphic rabbits or something like that. (Tolkien always denied that the concept of "hobbit" had anything to do with "rabbit", although there is plenty of evidence that he associated the two, as pointed out by Douglas A. Anderson in his annotated edition of the book.) The ever growing popularity of furry art is a clue that anthropomorphic animals may be even more relatable than humans in the right context, for example when portraying sexuality in a slightly idealized way.

In other words we related to believable human characters but we are also eager to relate to unbelievable non-human characters. It's character design as a whole that matters for relatability, the interplay between psychological complexity and physical design of characters.

Such interplay can't be easily translated to formulas though, so it's not surprising that it's left to individual creativity and that a corporation trying to sell a game would rather choose limiting but safe formulas. Plus there are other factors at work, like the decrepit cultural convention that grown ups must only like gritty "realistic" stuff (which usually isn't realistic at all, but feels so because it's gritty and pessimistic). Still it's always annoying for me to see "only human characters are relatable" repeated as a mantra.

Monday, April 18, 2016

On outdated myths and metaphors

An interesting reflection by artist Petar Meseldzija on the value of myths:
I love Meseldzija's style and ideas, but I think he's a bit off the mark in this case.

The fact is the metaphors on which most classic myths were built are outdated. They were already outdated before the modern era and they are twice as outdated by now. They come from a time in which mankind considered itself at odds with the forces of nature and with its own animal nature, threatened by every insinuation he wasn't the center of everything and engaged in an eternal war against anything he didn't understand. The only desirable outcome, the only hopeful vision of the future, was the triumph of personal will which would put man in charge of everything in the universe. This kind of vision, empowering but out of touch with reality, survived well into the modern era and reached its climax in early science fiction and superhero comics, in which men or manlike entities were literally able to harness every force in the universe.

Not all mythology is like this, but most Western mythology from pre-modern times is. The tale of St.George killing the dragon, which Meseldzija chose to illustrate the article, most certainly is. It is said sometimes that the modern era has failed to replace the older Western myths with newer myths of similar stature, but I would argue that that's untrue. Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Edmond Dantès, Long John Silver, Dr. Gulliver, Don Quixote, Ikari Shinji, Harry Potter... there are plenty of modern/contemporary archetypical heroes and antiheroes whose antics are more relevant to the cultures of 2016 than any of the ancient heroes', even though modern characters don't lend themselves as easily to reinterpretation.

Now, I understand what metaphors are for, and I understand that there are some rules to the structure of compelling tales because we want tales to stimulate our mind in certain ways. It goes without saying that many myths have superb narrative value. Yet in the contemporary cultural context I fail to see the educational value of myths about courage at a spear point and monster hunting. Of course this could be a personal limitation of mine stemming from the fact I don't trust psychoanalytical theories of art. But it seems to me that most people don't find any educational value in such metaphors either, even though most people would praise them if questioned. We praise them but in practice we consider them good only for entertainment. And rightfully so, because such metaphors don't make for good mental tools to deal with the contemporary world. If you are a teenager going through troublesome times at school or in your family, or dealing with serious inner demons such as suicidal tendencies or dangerous urges, reframing your situation as that of a hero fighting the unknown will likely do more harm than good.

Needless to say my favorite interpretation of Don Quixote - a very modern myth - is that of a warning against outdated human values. Old myths are compelling, but taking their teachings seriously leads to disaster.

There is one kind of heroic figure which the messy contemporary world needs though, and it's also the least represented in Western legends: the smart, self-inquiring, nurturing culture hero. We need to develop an admiration for creative figures such as Chiron or Johnny Appleseed much more than we need to celebrate battlefield heroes such as Odysseus or St.George. We are done fearing the wilderness, demons and vengeful gods. Living in the world of 2016 is akin to stepping carefully in a desert trying to figure out first and foremost how to not run out of water and how to not get hallucinations from the stress.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Restaurant lounge exhibit

I've been invited to exhibit my paintings for a whole year in an Indian/exotic themed lounge of a restaurant in my city. The Fourier Age Avatar paintings fits perfectly with the style of the place, so I plan on leaving it there for the whole time (unless somebody buys it). I will be rotating some of the other paintings every few weeks. Right now I'm juggling the dates to make this fit with other planned exhibits and my work schedule for the Eurofurence Art Show, but I should be able to show there most of the non-commission paintings I do this year.

The place has no problem hosting nudes and slightly erotic works, which will probably come across as strange to USA furries but is not too unusual here in Europe. I just love the idea of anthro art being in public spaces like this! It makes for great conversation pieces as I've experienced multiple times by now.

The opening party went well and I even finished on the spot the last details of a painting.

If I had to give a reason to stubbornly prefer traditional art to digital art it would be that digital art usually lacks this kind of appeal. Even when it's meant for printing, a handmade artifact has a different feeling. One of the reasons Andrew "Android" Jones has gained a well deserved reputation as the foremost digital fine artist is that he understands very well the need for involving the public and adding an immersive, tactile feeling to the visual appeal of digital art, since image quality alone is no longer enough to impress people given the deluge of visual noise we are exposed to. Nowadays making technically impressive pictures and producing great visual ideas is relatively easy with some training, but reaching out to people and actually leaving an impression is still as hard as it has always been.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A brief look at the job aspect of furry porn

This is one of the very first articles I've seen dealing more or less respectfully with furry artists and their job - a breath of fresh air after dozens of mainstream articles focusing only on internet gossip or fursuiting while giving only a passing mention the the true foundation of the furry fandom, that is anthro art and the fandom's commissions market.

I appreciate that the article doesn't try to hide the most common kind of anthro art (that is porn) behind a wall of awkward disclaimers and safe-for-work stuff. They writer didn't pick the best possible examples of furry erotica but that's hardly surprising given that furries are usually busy hiding their best artwork and the most interesting aspects of furry culture for fear that outsiders won't understand.

I also appreciate the choice to interview, among the others, Arania, an artist whose works full of body transformations and unbridled sense of wonder are closer to the roots of furry imagination than the more polished works of the most popular artists.

We are still a long way to go from a good rational analysis of anthro art, but it's a start.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Artist notes: Blotch

"Blotch" is the pseudonym used by anthro artists Kenket (Tess Garman) and BlackTeagan (Teagan Gavet) during their very fruitful collaboration period which ran from 2006 to 2014. As a general rule BlackTeagan was responsible for the linework and Kenket for the coloring which was usually watercolors. Kenket has since become an extremely skilled painter while BlackTeagan is focusing on comics and ink drawing.

For simplicity I will refer to Blotch as a male since that's the gender of the fictional character they estabilished as the author of the pictures, a male anthro leopard.

Even though the two artists already had some visibility on their own, Blotch appeared on the furry fandom scene out of nowhere and quickly rose to become one of the most popular furry artists of the late 2000s and early 2010s, if not the most popular. This led to quite a lot of controversy as he was the first highly skilled artist to feature anatomically correct genitals on characters - and quite prominently so.

Big Bad Wolf, 2008

If this had been only a distasteful gimmick it would have died out quickly though. Porn sells, but not consistently and certainly not for the price tags which have been consistently associated with Blotch's art. In spite of silly internet myths there is only so much that impulse buying can do.

Blotch's art has been dismissed as mere porn by some anthro fans unwilling to admit that erotic artwork could be a credit to the genre, but it has other qualities which make it stand out as iconic anthro art, well worth of being presented as one of the most important achievements in our little genre.

Speaking of Love, 2010

Blotch's erotic art in particular could come across as kitschy because of its open sentimentality, but I would argue that that is a superficial impression and that the novelty of what it tries to express about same-sex relationships experienced by young people is more important than such academic criticism.

Does sex in art need to feel gritty, smug, overwhelmingly physical and/or openly political all the time? One would think so looking at the works of recognized masters of erotic art. I'll be using male gay artists as an example here just because Blotch's subjcts are mostly male-on-male love scenes, but the situation is pretty much the same for all flavors of erotic art. There are notable exceptions like Tom Bianchi or Charles Demuth, but in most cases, from Tom of Finland to Gengoroh Tagame, from Robert Mapplethorpe to Harry Bush, power relationships are the most common underlying theme. Dominance, submission and hardcore physical sensations seem to dominate, and so does (in Western artists at least) a visual language which acknowledges and openly encourages political readings.

On the other end of the erotic gay art spectrum yaoi art leans towards more romantic tones, but power relationships are still a very prominent theme. There's apparently no escape from same-sex relationships being associated with power struggles, even if only in the imagination, whether the art in question is aimed to a male, female, gay or straight audience.

And yet Blotch's art has seduced the furry audience by focusing on something else entirely: playfulness and day to day affection.

5 More Minutes, 2008

In spite of their idealized settings the best works of Blotch are gay slice-of-life art, and not of the absurdly contrived kind brought forward by some other furry artists. It is slice-of-life in that it attempts to capure ordinary moments of affection. Any couple of lovers with an open mind and an appreciation for animals and nature can't help but smile in front of the simple and yet hard to express truths found in those images.

Don't Stop, 2014

One has to look at Far East art from centuries ago such as Ukiyo-e or Indian sacred art in order to consistently find similar light-hearted portrayals of male-on-male sexuality.

Surge, 2011

This, I believe, is why Blotch's pictures have reached iconic status in furry art even though most of them don't depict specific characters (as is usually the case in the commission dominated market of furry art). They clearly answered a need for representation that a huge number of furries shared. Sentimentality is not a flaw if it's brought out where it had been unjustly excluded and underestimated before.

And again, genuinely positive depictions of sex in art are so rare that they certainly cannot be considered a stale subject.

Minimum Security Prison, 2011

In dog we thrust, 2007

Penis party, 2013

Even Blotch's more whimsical pieces are full of the same playfulness and positivity which are the hallmark of good erotic anthro art. Whatever the subject an observer always gets the feeling that the characters are having a great time no matter their exact relationship to each other (or lack thereof), and that sincere feelings are never entirely absent from the sexual act.

Will this kind of art ever be recognized as the achievement it is outside of the anthro art niche? It's hard to tell, because even inside its niche there are people who would never take erotic art at more than face value. But I really hope it will, because what anthro artists like Blotch have done really is new and interesting in the landscape of Western art.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Symbolist art and the longing for anthropocentrism

This week I had a chance to visit an excellent exhibit about Symbolist artists being held in Milan. News of the exhibit had caught my interest because I didn’t have a clear overall view of the movement and I feel that fantastic artwork from that time period (late XIX century) is important for understanding how the representation of nature and anthropomorphism in art has evolved during the XX century. Here are my notes and reflections on the exhibit.

Representation of sexuality

The Symbolist movement was kickstarted by the works of Charles Baudelaire and other poets of the "accursed poets" group, who described modern life as gloomy and degenerate, dominated by greed, lust and the death of humanistic ideals. Symbolist artists in turn searched mythology and ancient iconography for visual metaphors they deemed appropriate to express their contempt for modern society. The supposedly dangerous nature of sexuality is a common theme in art of that age and is often dealt with by means of animal metaphors. Confident women in particular were often depicted as icons of lust, ready to prey upon men like snakes or sphinxes.

Baudelaire’s work can easily be interpreted as social critique because of its antagonistic nature and due to the fact it caused knee-jerk outrage when it was first published, leading to censorship and legal troubles for the artist. This is the classic interpretation suggested by the exhibit too: Baudelaire as a scathing critic of the ugly modern metropolis, longing for an ethically superior past and persecuted for that.

This interpretation never made a lot of sense to me though. Baudelaire was beyond any doubt an artistic genius, but his attitude towards society wasn't really that new. What he did was modernizing old tenets of conservative philosophy such as nostalgia for a supposedly more heroic past and the conflation of sensual love (as opposed to spiritual love) with death. But he clearly wallowed in the decadence he described as much as he castigated it.

The lasting success of gloomy Symbolist art after the initial outrage about its subject matter had settled down is a testament to the inconsistency of the critique it brought forward. Turns out people of the industrial age actually like decadence and self deprecation a lot: they want consuming lust and the other contemporary "evils" to be portrayed in detail on huge canvases.

Victor Prouvé, The voluptuous, 1889

Similar contradictions still runs strong today, with much of what passes for socio-critical art having no effect whatsoever on the real issues it addresses. Sometimes when I look at contemporary art of that kind it feels like passionate, consistent social critique as found in the works of Otto Dix or George Grosz never existed. If the Symbolists thought rampant degeneracy was threatening society maybe they shouldn't have contributed even more erotic artwork to art scene. (Of course they were wrong and they produced some great erotic artwork, but that's beside the consistency issue.)

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès, 1878

What does the constant philosophical bashing of sexuality, femalehood and instinct have to do with lamenting the death of humanism? If the nightmares and moral indignation of Baudelaire and the Symbolists were supposed to invoke a lost humanistic ideal then the death of humanism was probably a good riddance, because the world they longed for feels even more shallow than the “dirty” modern world.

If anything I would say they missed the absolute anthropocentrism of past ages (sometimes even theocentrism) rather than the more nuanced humanism which had led to the Age of Enlightenment.

Representation of nature

I’m also perplexed by how that longing for anthropocentrism is mistaken for a longing for “nature” or a “return to nature”. What kind of “nature” were the Symbolists longing for?

Félicien Rops, The Sphinx, 1882. Don’t you dare embrace your animal nature, the Devil will get you!

“Throughout your works I found again the solemnity of the grand sounds of Nature in her grandest aspects, as well as the solemnity of the grand passions of man” wrote Baudelaire in his famous letter to Wagner. Yet the core of Wagner’s art philosophy was the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art”, the aspiration to an all-encompassing artistic experience of reality tailored by humans for humans. This sounds at odds with any supposed aspiration to reconcile with nature.

I understand the awe of course. Great art can make us feel grand spaces and fleeting sensations we can only otherwise find in the wilderness. Many of the best works of art are, in the word of landscape painter Stapleton Kearns, “design installed upon nature”, and anthro art is possibly the most glaring example of redesigning aspects of nature to fit the artist’s whims. But anthro art, landscape art and wildlife art alike are almost always positive towards their sources, whereas the Symbolists were very negative in their portrayal of actual untamed nature.

Odilon Redon, Larvae So Bloodless and So Hideous, 1896

There is no better example of this attitude than the works of Odilon Redon. The exhibit hosted among other works his series of prints titled The origins (of the world). Taking inspiration from Darwin’s theories and from pioneering naturalistic artwork Redon was no backwards thinker and was well acquainted with contemporary science, yet a crippling sense of fear and disgust for the facts of nature seems to pervade his works. What did he imagine at the origins of the world? “Hideous” crawling larvae, “impotent” deformed animals, insane cyclops staring at the heavens as if disgusted by dirty old earth. It is a cosmogony of fear. Even his earlier and more lighthearted paintings never let go of the fear.

Arnold Böcklin was apparently more at ease with the forces of nature which he used to represent through classical mythical creatures such as satyrs and sirens. I quite like his portraits of those creatures. They look charming, funny, even goofy, sporting a touch of Rubens-esque liveliness.

But they are still disquieting creatures you would not want to deal with. Humans in his paintings are usually more blurry and undefined than the mythical creatures, as if they existed on a whole different level. In his work there are still subtle statements that humanity eventually triumphs over nature like a maiden turning the proud Unicorn into a blank-stared nag.

 Arnold Böcklin, Unicorn, 1885

All the various versions of his Isle of the Dead image feature man-made structures, suggesting that either the afterlife is a concept fabricated by humans for humans or a place reserved just for humans.

The late XIX century was a time of fast paced scientific advances like the Western world had never seen before. It's understandable that being confronted for the first time with the fact that nature was infinitely more complex than previously thought turned unsettled many people. But I can't help thinking that artists of the time missed a great opportunity to reexamine the attitude towards nature in art in the light of new scientific knowledge.

Among all the Symbolist currents only Les Nabis, a group of painters brought together by Paul Sérusier and inspired by the most optimistic works of Paul Gauguin and the Impressionist, attempted to moved on to a more wholesome depiction of nature. In their works the human element is often small and fleeting like a shadow. It is an integral part of nature, never in open conflict with it.

Georges Lacombe, The Yellow Sea, 1893

Representation of humanity

"Free man, you will always cherish the sea!
The sea is your mirror; you contemplate your soul
In the infinite unrolling of its billows;
Your mind is an abyss that is no less bitter." 

Charles Baudelaire, Man and the Sea, in Flowers of Evil

I cannot stand this kind of hyperbole about human nature.

Unfathomable, infinitely deep, absolutely free, cherishing the wonders of nature… humans aren’t really like that. Most of the time we are simple minded and confused and not too difficult to understand either. There is nothing soul crushing in admitting that. The world is big and complicated, there is plenty of interesting stuff to do to keep the human mind away from fear of meaninglessness even if we finally admit we aren’t the pinnacle of the universe.

It’s understandable that people would still cling to absolute anthropocentrism in the age of the Symbolists, but it’s baffling how much of an appeal it still has on people today. Such an outdated way of thinking about humanity can only lead to silliness such as art denouncing the evil powers of women and the supposed monstrosity of snakes. For an up to date mind in the world of 2016 snakes should mean beauty and complexity rather than danger.

Franz von Stuck, Sin, 1893

On a final note, the less known artist Galileo Martini stuck me as somebody who was able to see clearly beyond the smoke curtain of anthropocentric absolutism. It's hard for me to explain where such impression stems from. His works on display were mostly high contrast black and white prints depicing tales of violence and surreal figures. His Self portrait shows the artist himself as a surreal figure spawning ghosts through his hands and writings.

His subject matter is similar to that of other Symbolists, but in my opinion his handling of the subjects leaves no doubt as to what he considered the origin of human woes: our own hybris. We think of ourselves as omnipotent wizards but we are really just skilled illusionists. We cannot trascend our basic human flaws and we should not lie to ourselves about them.

Galileo Martini, Self portrait, 1911

The more I learn about Symbolists the more I feel torn between admiration for their creativity and aesthetics and annoyance for the backward worldview they convey. I feel similarly towards most of contemporary fantasy art, which is not surprising considering that it is in many ways a continuation of the Symbolist aesthetics and mindset.

A couple interesting readings:
- Full text of Baudelaire's letter to Wagner:
- Commentary about Odilon Redon’s sources of inspiration: