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poster: Kristen Murphy

[META] Pop! Goes the Fanart

This guest post by fanartist Betty Anne expands on comments she made to a recent OTW news post regarding Salon’s coverage of fanart. One of the prevailing problems fanartists run into is acceptance of their art by the mainstream art world. Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Salon.com, attempted to bridge this gap with his article, “The most extraordinary movie fan art.” Unfortunately, the article fell a bit short. Along with focusing exclusively on art created by men and related to movies, the article and slideshow tried too hard to fit fanart neatly into the Modern view of pop art. Fanart is certainly pop art, but “pop art” (as an umbrella term) isn’t limited just to that found in the works of 1950s-1970s America, which is what a lot of the works and artists selected by Seitz resemble. The difficulty in categorizing fanart is that there isn’t even a good definition for most art being created today — labels like “post-post-modern,” “contemporary art,” or “new modern” are just that: labels intended to help people niche themselves. (Artistic genres are generally defined after the art era has passed — otherwise you end up with very old art still being called “avant-garde” or the like.) A particularly problematic segment of Seitz’s article is:

But there’s a thriving subcategory that could be called “amateur professional art”: work that’s created by people with serious aesthetic and technical chops — graphic artists, Web designers, filmmakers or former art students whose day job has nothing to do with movies. The purpose of the second kind of art is much the same as the first: to communicate enthusiasm for, and understanding of, favorite films and filmmakers, and perhaps indulge the fantasy of being the person who’s paid to create the real thing: the posters and teaser sheets and DVD box art and tie-in book covers that you see in the marketplace.

In particular, the use of the term “the real thing” suggests only paid graphic designers in employ of the movie studios are real artists — everyone else is an imitator, or in Seitz’s words, “amateur professional.” Artists, Seitz suggests, are not professional professionals until they are under the heel of a studio or PR head who dictates what their art looks like and conveys. This is the antithesis of fanart. Fanartists create art that conveys their vision and their thoughts about their chosen source medium in their manner. (Yes, there are also plenty of fanartists who are just copying manga covers or screencaps for kicks and to get e-applause from their friends. The article briefly touched on that, in a somewhat disparaging comment: “crude but endearing work that’s personal, private and not intended to impress, much less sell, but merely to amuse.” It is a separate type of fanart, not something less worthy, as the Salon article insinuates.) On a broad spectrum, fanart falls into four major categories. These categories can overlap (but don’t have to) and have further nuances within them, just as any other broad category of art does. By exploring within these categories, it is possible to see that fanart really covers any and all of the range of other types of art. Art That Fleshes Out the Unseen Fanart allows many artists the opportunity to flesh out existing narratives. No story, completed or otherwise, can ever give every detail a fan may want or think of. This is where fanartists frequently step in and fill the gaps. Meliza (taichikun14) fleshed out the original story of Dragon Ball Z with an image that fits directly into both the style and the narrative of the series. This is one of those special family moments that are frequently left out of shonen (boy-oriented) series to keep the focus on the good vs. evil action dynamic. By working with simple scenes such as this one, fanartists bring attention back to the understated interactions of characters and their stories. Other works in this category include:

Art That Explores “What If” In some cases, a fan just isn’t satisfied with what the canon of a given story provides. Problematic storytelling issues, such as sexism, can arise, or the original storyteller might have a weak grasp on a concept the fanartist knows well. In other cases, the story might be left hanging, the story could take unexpected turns, or — in the case of The Dark Knight‘s Heath Ledger — tragedy can strike and interrupt a story. Perhaps a fanartist just has a different vision of the characters or plot. Some artists wonder about how the narrative would be if one or more of the characters were gay. In these instances, art becomes a venue for exploring “what if” something were different. The Joker and Harley Quinn have been a staple couple of the Batman fandom nearly since Harley’s creation as a character. It’s no wonder, then, that many fans were disappointed to discover that Harley didn’t have a role in The Dark Knight. This impact was only deepened when Heath Ledger passed away suddenly, leaving the movie franchise not only without a successful Joker, but without any hope of ever seeing that Joker with a Harley Quinn of his own in the future. This is another place where fans such as Brianna Garcia (bri-chan) step in. Garcia’s art speculates on story/continues the universe of The Dark Knight, both by direct art and by pairing the art with fanfiction that fulfills the same purpose. Other examples of art that tackle the “what ifs” of their fandoms include:

Art That is Eye Candy Aesthetic appeal has long been a driving factor in the production of art, and even among art that carries an inner meaning for the artist, many works are admired solely for their exterior beauty. These works function to entertain viewers and bring a sense of life, vitality and decoration to the world. Among eye candy art, the classic pinup is probably the most famous of the modern era. Fanartists also work in this genre of art, as demonstrated by Ty Romsa’s (Overlander) art that pleases the “male gaze” with a classic female pinup of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has long been a staple of this type of art, and Romsa’s work incorporates the contemporary medium of digital painting to convey it to a wired audience. Other samples of aesthetically-oriented art include:

Art That Keeps Context But Changes Styles A challenge many fanartists undertake is conveying popular characters and narratives in their own style. This pairs the struggle all artists go through — finding one’s self in art — with the need to communicate the fandom effectively. Li Kovacs (Pikmin Link) is well-known in the Legend of Zelda fandom for bringing the game franchise to life through cosplay and photography. This type of art breathes new and exciting dimensions into a fandom, both for the artist and the viewer. Other art forms that pursue this end include:

Once fanart is recognized as a legitimate form of art, it is not difficult at all to discover the true range fanart covers. Individuals from hugely diverse backgrounds all over the world become fanartists, and many of them produce large bodies of fanart over the course of their careers. Even a basic search for the word “fanart” on Google produces thousands of hits for fanart collectives and archives as well as individual images. Being an artist has never been primarily about making money or creating commercial products; it has always been first and foremost about the artist’s vision and the passion for art. Fanartists incorporate their passion for their fandom(s) into that drive toward art to produce unique creations of their own.