Is your fantasy art too violent?

Does your art go too far? We explore what Charles Vess has called a "great preponderance" of violence in fantasy art.

Winona Nelson's Artifice

For over twenty years the Spectrum annual has been a showcase for the best and brightest creators of fantasy art. But Charles Vess no longer submits 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

Ruth Sanderson

Ruth Sanderson says artists need to "get back to story"- Any violence in her work is implied

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."

I'm tired of being surrounded by darkness

These are sentiments John Fleskes 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

Ruth Sanderson fairytale

Ruth Sanderson's cover for The Twelve Dancing Princesses is "a more lyrical approach to art" according to Charles

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."

Fairy tales have some very dark images but 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."

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 blood-soaked, 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

Winona Nelson Bloodsworn

Bloodsworn is one of Winona Nelson's contributions to Spectrum 20, along with the top page image

Another point Charles raised was how he feels some of the work in Spectrum is "over-rendered." 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 high-quality 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."

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.

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."

Words: Gary Evans

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 106.

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