Warn­ing: some art may of­fend

Vi­cious vi­su­als Does your art go too far? We ex­plore what Charles Vess has called a “great pre­pon­der­ance” of vi­o­lence in fan­tasy art

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Has fan­tasy art be­come too vi­o­lent and macabre? We ex­plore the ar­gu­ments.

Charles Vess will no longer sub­mit his work to Spec­trum. The Amer­i­can fan­tasy artist and comic book il­lus­tra­tor says he feels “to­tally out of place” in the il­lus­tra­tion an­nual ded­i­cated to con­tem­po­rary fan­tas­tic art.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing Spec­trum 20, he posted on his Face­book page that the “dark and gothic” im­agery in the book trou­bles him. “I just don’t feel com­fort­able any­more,” he writes, “see­ing my art set amongst all those vi­o­lent im­ages. So I won’t be sub­mit­ting any more work to the venue in the fu­ture.”

Any­one can send work to Spec­trum. A jury of top artists chooses which en­tries are pub­lished. Charles is a long-time con­trib­u­tor and ju­ror. But he’s now call­ing for a more lyri­cal ap­proach, and the need for a “lovely book filled with lovely art.” He con­cluded: “I’m tired of be­ing sur­rounded by dark­ness.”

Af­ter five years in a back­ground role, John Fleskes is Spec­trum’s new art di­rec­tor, edi­tor and pub­lisher – tak­ing over from pre­vi­ous own­ers Cathy and Arnie Fen­ner. He be­lieves that fan­tasy and sci-fi art with vi­o­lent themes is in

the mi­nor­ity, and that there’s a wealth of non-vi­o­lent im­agery to be found in Spec­trum’s pages and be­yond. He notes that our fas­ci­na­tion with sto­ries and im­ages that are “scary and wicked as well as fun and play­ful” is noth­ing new.

Vi­o­lent past

From re­li­gious texts to an­cient ta­pes­tries, Goya to Andy Warhol: for as long as marks have been made and sto­ries told, there’s been vi­o­lent im­agery. Some of the ear­li­est known paint­ings are found in the Chau­vet Cave in south­ern France. They’re over 30,000 years old and de­pict preda­tory an­i­mals. They il­lus­trate the hunt. They show woolly rhi­nos butting horns. They’re scenes of the ev­ery-day vi­o­lence of ice-age life.

The moral panic sur­round­ing such im­ages is a more re­cent de­vel­op­ment. In the 1950s, psy­chi­a­trist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Se­duc­tion of the In­no­cent. It claimed that comic books were ex­pos­ing chil­dren to vi­o­lence and caus­ing them to be­come delin­quent. The me­dia may change, but the idea pre­vails.

The Cam­paign Against Cen­sor­ship is a body that be­lieves, “What is ac­cept­able for adults to read, see or hear should be de­cided by per­sonal judge­ment and taste.” It also fights for the “Free­dom for cre­ative artists to present their per­cep­tions, in­ter­pre­ta­tions and ideas.”

These are sen­ti­ments John agrees with, which is why Spec­trum doesn’t “pre-screen or fil­ter” its sub­mis­sions. Judges see ev­ery sin­gle en­try. It’s never re­ceived any­thing deemed too in­ap­pro­pri­ate to pub­lish. And, in its 21-year his­tory, the pub­li­ca­tion has re­ceived only a hand­ful of com­plaints – none of which had any­thing to do with vi­o­lent im­agery. It’s for these rea­sons he sees no need to cen­sor the pub­li­ca­tion in any way.

“I wouldn’t want to see a parental ad­vi­sory la­bel on the Spec­trum art book an­nual,” he says. “Nor do I think it’s needed, or an ap­pro­pri­ate la­bel.

“My goal is for Spec­trum to con­tinue to serve as a full-range rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the year, and to be some­thing that can be en­joyed by as wide an age group as pos­si­ble. As a par­ent of a young child, I find rat­ings for TV, films and games very help­ful. Age clas­si­fi­ca­tions for books and mag­a­zines are not so much the ques­tion or con­cern as much as who would be set­ting those clas­si­fi­ca­tions on us and what would their guide­lines be. But in the long run, I don’t think an age clas­si­fi­ca­tion on Spec­trum would hin­der our sales, since we’re not try­ing to hide any­thing or pre­tend to be some­thing that we’re not.”

INTO THE LIGHT

In his Face­book post, Charles Vess pointed to a hand­ful of Spec­trum 20 con­trib­u­tors whom he was happy to have his work sit along­side – those who also es­chew the darker el­e­ments he dis­likes. One of

which was Ruth San­der­son. The il­lus­tra­tor says Spec­trum should come with an age rat­ing. Her con­cern is that we are “in­jur­ing our chil­dren’s spir­its” with vi­o­lent im­agery. She pro­motes an al­ter­na­tive. “Let’s get back to story,” she says. “We do need dra­matic sto­ries – I’m in agree­ment with that, and con­flict is the core of a good story – but it doesn’t have to be as vis­ually graphic and of­fen­sive as it has be­come to­day.”

Ruth works mainly as a book il­lus­tra­tor. “Fairy tales have some very dark im­ages,” she says, “but I think be­cause they’re in books, they feel more safe to the child.”

It’s an in­ter­est­ing distinc­tion, and one that Laura Kip­nis, pro­fes­sor of me­dia stud­ies at North­west­ern Univer­sity, ex­panded upon in a re­cent ar­ti­cle for the New York Times: “The lower the cul­tural form, or the ticket price, or – let’s just say it – the pre­sumed ed­u­ca­tion level of the typ­i­cal viewer, the more de­pic­tions of vi­o­lence are sus­pected of in­duc­ing mind­less em­u­la­tion in their au­di­ences, who will soon re-en­act the mayhem like morally chal­lenged mon­keys, un­like the view­ers of, say, Ti­tus An­dron­i­cus, about whose moral in­tel­li­gence so­ci­ety is con­fi­dent.”

I en­joy paint­ing gothic hor­ror im­ages, but not mod­ern hor­ror, be­cause that does tend to go over the line

Ruth says she has never been able to sit through hor­ror films, and sees il­lus­tra­tions de­pict­ing graphic vi­o­lence in a sim­i­lar light. But, ul­ti­mately, she says it’s all down to per­sonal pref­er­ence. “I don’t have to buy, read, look at or watch the stuff,” she says, “and free­dom of ex­pres­sion is im­por­tant, even if it is not to ev­ery­one’s taste.”

Wi­nona Nel­son con­trib­uted two im­ages to Spec­trum 20. The first de­picts a blood­soaked, dag­ger-wield­ing vam­pire. The sec­ond, a man and women sep­a­rated in a sea of riot po­lice. Like much of Wi­nona’s work, they’re beau­ti­fully ren­dered, al­most photo-real.

Hy­per real

An­other point Charles raised was how he feels some of the work in Spec­trum is “over­ren­dered.” Wi­nona says this trend to­wards a more real­is­tic style of fan­tasy and sci-fi art comes down to the facts that it’s eas­ier than ever to learn these tech­niques and find high­qual­ity ref­er­ences, also point­ing to the games in­dus­try as an in­flu­ence.

“An­other,” she says, “is that re­al­ism is an av­enue of art where some­thing can be more ob­vi­ously im­pres­sive on a tech­ni­cal level, while stylis­ing is more sub­jec­tive and per­sonal, and there­fore can be more in­tim­i­dat­ing for a young artist to pur­sue once they start fo­cus­ing on land­ing pro­fes­sional work.”

The de­bate be­tween Charles and John Fleskes has been an am­i­ca­ble, in­tel­li­gent one. John plans to ex­plore the sub­ject fur­ther in his Spec­trum 21 year in re­view. Wi­nona says it’s a shame Charles feels he has to quit Spec­trum, be­cause, in do­ing so, “he con­trib­utes to the nar­row­ing of styles rep­re­sented in the collection.” But her over­rid­ing mes­sage is sim­ple.

“There’s room for all kinds of imag­i­nary worlds, so it’s up to both artist and viewer to de­cide what they’re com­fort­able with.

“It’s up to per­sonal taste and the re­quests of the client. As artists, part of our job is to choose clients and jobs that we feel com­fort­able with. For in­stance, I en­joy paint­ing gothic hor­ror im­ages, but not mod­ern hor­ror, be­cause that does tend to go over the line for me. But I’m not go­ing to be of­fended by oth­ers pro­duc­ing work in that field. It’s all about find­ing where you fit in, which is ex­actly what Charles is do­ing by leav­ing Spec­trum.”

Wi­nona Nel­son’s Ar­ti­fice ap­pears in Spec­trum 20. For­mer judge Charles Vess says he feels out of place among the darker im­ages pub­lished in the fan­tasy art an­nual.

Ruth San­der­son’s cover for fairy­tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses is an ex­am­ple of what Charles Vess has called more ‘lyri­cal ap­proach to art, and an al­ter­na­tive to ‘dark and gothic’ im­agery. Blood­sworn is an­other of Wi­nona Nel­son’s con­tri­bu­tions to Spec­trum 20. Wi­nona says it’s up to both artist and viewer to de­cide what they’re com­fort­able with.

Ruth San­der­son says artists need to “get back to story.” Any vi­o­lence in her work is im­plied rather than ex­plic­itly de­scribed. Heart of the World by Ruth San­der­son, a

Spec­trum 20 con­trib­u­tor who Charles Vess feels com­fort­able see­ing his

work along­side.

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