Limyaael's Rants

Art in a Fantasy Culture

Written on 2004-02-05; Read the original post on LiveJournal

Given the immense scope and expanse of human art, it always seems as though fantasy would be brimming with new interpretations of it. If nothing else, fantasies based on non-Western cultures would probably have non-Western types of art. But usually fantasy art is restricted to familiar forms- portraits, triumphal statues, love poetry.

There are many, many other possibilities, and even more so in fantasy.

  1. Decide what types of art your culture would most definitely not have. A blind people whose eyes had atrophied from living underground, for example, could have developed great music or could carve shapes into rock that they could feel with their fingers, but they are unlikely to have raised painting to a high art. Similarly, an animal-based race that's color-blind could appreciate various shades of gray and black, but vivid colors wouldn't have the same effect on them that they do on humans.

    Also consider what kinds of subject matter are appropriate for your fantasy art and which aren't. This is where those modern ideals tend to intrude, so that even fantasy cultures where, say, polyandry is common often tell stories of Romeo-Juliet couples and sigh for having one true love. I find it much more likely that such a culture would tell stories of how individuals learn to blend into one family instead. Tragic love stories would be more common in cultures with arranged marriages and family feuds- the kind of culture that Romeo and Juliet is set in, in fact.

  2. Decide what senses your fantasy culture has to appeal to. Perhaps, instead of being color-blind, they have much keener eyesight than humans, and can actually see the layers that paint makes across the canvas. Then painting would have another level besides subject matter to attend to, and might even neglect the surface appearance altogether for the sake of that level. Perhaps your fantasy race is very keen of nose, and could enjoy "scent concerts" which most humans could barely catch a sniff of, if at all.

    The ideals function in the same way, here. If you have the polyandrous culture that values blending into families and several men working together to care for the central mother and children, no matter whether or not they sired them, then perhaps they would also value paintings of many people standing together, connected by shared values rather than blood. Or perhaps they honor those who try to negotiate between families or countries more than they honor warriors. Their ideals don't need to match twentieth-century American ones or medieval ones at all, unless you're writing cultures based on those.

  3. Take historical events into account. Many times, the art that is mentioned in fantasy stories portrays wars and kings and the conquest of empires. This seems to happen even in stories where the empire has been at peace for generations and no new conquests have been made. Surely history hasn't been empty since then, though, and surely not every artist is interested in working from that world's equivalent of fantasy.

    Mythological scenes are always good- especially if the world resembles the medieval one in that new saints and miracles were sometimes claimed. Perhaps an old shrine has an appearance of its goddess, and a painter goes and paints that. Perhaps sculptors carve statues of gods or heroes from the legends. Perhaps songs get written about the local equivalent of King Arthur. Those subjects might still be related to war and empire-building, but at least they wouldn't imply that nothing worthwhile has happened since the founding of the empire.

    And what about adding historical events that relate to people other than the royals? Plagues, trade wars like the clash of English pirates with Spanish ships, magical events, discovery of new inventions, the local equivalent of the Renaissance- if the royal history really has been as boring as all that since the beginning of the kingdom, artists would probably jump at a chance for subjects like this.

  4. Build some depth. If every artwork is hauled in front of the reader and described intimately, then it loses some of its uniqueness- the same way that revealing the secret behind any mystery and explaining all about the hero's background right away destroys suspense. Try to build depth for your world that depends on the sense of distance and strangeness. Unless the plot has an artist hero, which rarely happens, then the artwork probably isn't central to the plot anyway, which makes it all right for the reader not to understand all about it.

    One way I like to do this is by quotes placed at the heads of chapters. I claim they've been taken from famous historical figures, from poetry, from histories, from travelers' tales, from journals, from songs, from myths, and any other quotable material I can think of. Those can set the mood for the chapter and sometimes give the audience important clues as well as deepen the setting. It doesn't really matter if I never explain who Elian Alian was, or why the Mistaken Mage apparently has at least thirty different sets of last words. They give the impression that this world has a history extending backward (or forward) in time, and that the current story is not the only set of voices populating the fantasy world. I find this last valuable because to me fantasy often has a real problem with making it seem as if the world exists only for the sake of main characters. The quotes have also given me about six story ideas in the past; something tossed out casually intrigues me, and I have at least the head start of knowing that that person has to be the kind of person who would say something like this.

    Unexplained references annoy some fantasy readers, but as long as those references aren't central to the plot, then you can probably get away with it.

  5. Art can deepen social issues in fantasy. One reason I find it hard sometimes to read stories where the rebel leader raises a mob and leads them against the evil overlords is because I always wonder what happens to the art. Do the rampaging mobs burn the books they can't understand, smash the statues they think are heretical, and slash through the canvases they see as relics of the rich? History suggests yes, far too much of the time. Intellectuals and artists may start out helping a revolution along, but they too often end up being its victims.

    Showing someone fighting to protect the status quo because of this kind of fear, or the rebellion having bad consequences as well as good ones, is a good way of making it seem as if the conflict is not shining heroes of light against evil overlords of darkness.

    Art also often influences the government and the public even when it doesn't come to actual revolution. Political cartoons in America in the nineteenth century savaged politicians and helped to boot some of them out of power. Satire and parody in some centuries was seen as so powerful that it was attacked, censored, or banned. Swinburne's books were burned and denounced in newspapers and from the pulpits in the 1860's for being poetry about sexuality and atheism, neither of which the Victorian society was ready to deal with.

    All of this could often be brought into fantasy, but the only examples seem personal, as when a bard makes up a song about a noble who embarrassed him. It's very rarely involved in the larger social issues.

  6. Identify some artistic personalities in your world. There's usually little mention of sculptors, painters, tapestry-weavers, or poets as individuals in fantasy. Bards are almost the only exception, and then they usually become famous for singing songs about heroes rather than because of their own achievements. If this is a medieval or medieval-like society and the artists are seen as serving some higher purpose, like the glory of God, then that might be understandable. But what if it's not? And even if it is, there might still be individuals who long for glory. (This is one of the main themes of Guy Gavriel Kay's excellent Sarantine Mosaic duology, where the main character, Crispin, a mosaicist, longs for someone to remember him as the creator of his mosaics).

    It might be fun to develop an artist personality, either as a main character or as that world's equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci or Michaelangelo. If nothing else, it can open up whole new plots that aren't available to the typical quest/war fantasy.

I've been thinking entirely too much about fantasy art lately. Random thoughts about non-human drama in the middle of taking notes about German tragic plays are not good.

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