Sunday, May 21, 2017

Furry Art Archaeology project

I've started a little project on the side of my main blog. Basically I'll be sifting through old furry fandom art from my archives (mostly stuff from the fur.artwork.* newsgroups) and writing some musings and critical commentary about it:

This is something I've been wanting to do for a while, in part for personal amusement but also to put to the test the art theory stuff I've been learning in the last few years. Apart from the [Adjective][Species] blog (currently on hiatus) and the extremely rare insightful posts on furry image boards I think there is a sore lack of proper analysis of furry art, especially the naive furry art from the early years of the internet-based fandom which has cast the foundations for many of the tropes and quirks found in furry art today. I don't mean technical commentary but more all-around critical analysis: carefully observing the details and deconstructing images while trying to understand the concepts and emotions they were trying to convey, the context in which they were created, the aesthetic they drew upon, stuff like that. That's what I'll be trying to do with the new blog.

Don't expect any freudian nonsense though, like trying to infer an artist's sexuality from their art. I loathe that kind of art commentary and I hope this will become clear along the way.

I hope it will be of some interest for people other than me - I've been surprised myself seeing how even some of the crudest images can yield much more than they seemed to offer at face value. But at worst it will be a fun nostalgia ride for me and a way to figure out what I actually have in the archives.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Zeuxis' centauress

An excerpt from Tummers, J.C. (2009):

There was already disagreement on the matter back in antiquity. On the one hand, craftsmanship was considered very important – witness an anecdote about the ancient painter Zeuxis, to which both the art theorists Franciscus Junius and Samuel van Hoogstraten refer. According to the ancient writer Lucian, Zeuxis had painted a picture of a female centaur suckling two baby centaurs, which he thought would be greatly praised for its craftsmanship such as the connection between the human skin of the upper part of the centaurs’ bodies and their furry lower bodies and legs. However, when Zeuxis displayed the work to a general audience:

'All of them praised most … the unusual aspect of the subject, and the novelty of its ‘message’, which was unknown to earlier artists. Thus when Zeuxis realized that the curiosity of the painting rather than his technique was capturing their attention and was putting the refinement of the work to one side, he said to his pupil: ‘Micion, cover it up and take it back home. These people are praising the raw mud of our art, but as for the lighting, how well it looks and how carefully done, they have nothing to say. The novelty of the subject surpasses the discipline of the execution’.

Zeuxis apparently did not agree with the preferences of his audience, and both Junius and Samuel van Hoogstraten use his comment about the audience focusing on the ‘mud of the art’ (droesem van de kunst) to stress the importance of knowing what aspects to praise in a painting.

I really really wish that particular picture had survived to this day, but alas it's lost like most ancient Greek-Roman paintings.

The anecdote is interesting though, whether real or fictional. Anthropomorphic beings feature often in Greek-Roman mythology and there are several instances of nonhuman creatures fostering and nursing heroes and even gods: in some version of the Greek cosmogony myth Zeus himself had been nursed for a period by the goat Amalthea. So the idea had to be quite familiar to the ancient Greek public and the nursing of Zeus had certainly been a recurring subject of art. Why were they so surprised by the subject of Zeuxis' artwork then?

The fact is the centauress was not nursing a human or a god, but her own children. This was quite the conceptual leap from the "mainstream" myth which played upon the contrasting natures of the foster mother and the infant and was ultimately focused on the human(like) nature of the latter. But it was also a conceptual leap from the typical epic depictions of mythical creatures. Those centaurs were engaged in a very mundane activity which didn't have any obvious reference to mythology.

I can imagine how puzzled the audience had to be, and it is not surprising at all that the skillful execution was overshadowed by discussion of the subject matter. Why did he choose that over the top subject? What was the point, the meaning of it? Cryptic symbolism or a mere gimmick? Did it have any artistic value at all?

Those are pretty much the same questions that furry art faces today when exposed to outsiders, and in fact a painting like that could very well be furry art created nowadays. The appeal is obvious to us furries. The intimacy and daily life of almost-human creatures is what furry is all about.

It sounds like Zeuxis' goals with that painting were exactly the same of many realist furry artists, down to the desire of being appreciated for skillful handling of anatomical difficulties... and the audience didn't understand his goals and focused on all the wrong things, just like it often happens with furry art.

The subject of nursing centaurs still appeared here and there in Western art, but it certainly wasn't as remarkable as it had been in a culture which had centaurs as part of its religious canon - or as it would be much later in the eyes of furry fans.

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 an idealized way.

In other words we relate 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.