Only In Our Dreams: The Denigration of Fantasy


I remember a time in college when I found myself so incredibly frustrated by my homework and completely lost as to what to do with myself. I wanted to draw angels and elves, not splatter paint on a canvas and call it art. I didn’t want to tear up little bits of my journal entries, stick them in jars, and talk about how this was a wonderfully artistic bearing of my soul. This sort of expression just wasn’t me. My personal issues were for friends and family only. Why should I put them in jars for other people to puzzle over? Why should I abandon my long beloved symbols that I was impassioned for? Why, all the sudden, did fantasy become invalid as a form of expression in a School of Fine Art?

I understand the answer now that I have completed school and had a great deal of time to ponder my frustration. If I didn’t experiment outside of my comfort zones, I never would have discovered the joy of experimentation and how this has enriched my ability to express myself. Sticking to a single genre and never exploring has a way of stagnating your work, your art, and your inspiration. Still, I never forgot the eyeroll that came with admitting to some that I was an avid lover of fantasy. This extended not only to the art community, but to the writing community as well. My love of exaggerated descriptions and epic tales did not go over so well in my Creative Writing classes either.

So why is it that Fantasy, as a genre, is no longer seen as ‘High Art’ by the intellectual majority? Somewhere over the years we seemed to have lost our appreciation of the paintings of dryads, Naiads, and all manner of mythological folk. The Knight and the Dragon, the Damsel in the Tower, the Unlikely Hero Versus the Orc/Goblin/Dark Wizard, it’s all been liquified, told, and retold again till it has no meaning, no impact anymore. The magic of the myths has faded to a passing fancy, a colorful tale to be told and pondered and thrown away. Perhaps because people no longer believe in faeries or the wrath of the gods? Perhaps because these roles (or rather the execution of them), as Joseph Campbell prescribes, are no longer relevant to our modern society who crave something updated? Perhaps because we no longer need illustrated stories to teach us about the mysteries of the universe?

We are no longer the illiterate adult majority who used art to experience the emotion and morals of stories. There are few of us who remember the meaning of flowers or the very specific numerology of medieval imagery. Even for those of us who do study these symbols, the spiritual influence is not as fervent as those in the past who relied heavily on the act of venerating art in order to understand the passion and morals passed on by the stories these illustrative paintings were inspired by.

These days, we can pick up books ourselves without having to rely on the teachings of provocative images. We are told by art historians what pieces deserve our respect. Is that why there is a division between ‘low brow’ Fantasy and ‘high brow’ Romantic art? Because we are told there is? Or maybe there’s just too much out there so we’ve truly lost touch with the uniqueness of these original pieces? I always found it amusing that a modern artist could paint a dryad, but it would only be seen as Fantasy, while older paintings of the same subject are classified as “Romantic” and somehow more classical and valid. Like Duchamp, who first set a commode on a pedestal and called it art, no one can ever do such a thing again without being compared to the first person who had the great idea to do something different.

Perhaps Fantasy is merely escapism? A way for us to experience idealistic morals, beautiful figures, and perfectly rounded narratives? I, personally, find this definition an oversimplification of a genre capable of so much more. True, there is an element of escapism, but to say that’s all there is to it seems an understatement. Fantasy presents a way for us to tap into various parts of ourselves, a fear of the unknown, an indulgence of what we can and cannot do, as well as a way for us to reveal stories that tap into that long dormant sense of wonder and primal fear we remember only in our dreams.

In this modern (or is it post-modern?) era, we’ve given up the purity of genre and married things like Fantasy to Drama, Comedy with Horror, and have truly pushed the definitions that have kept things like ‘Fantasy’ from becoming respected art forms. I can only hope that strolling down the street, I’ll see more museum exhibitions like this one and more stories of a fantastical nature working their way into academia.

Just a bundle of questions for you guys to ponder. Whatever the reason for the denigration of Fantasy, I am content knowing I am not alone in its appreciation, that there are others who, for whatever reason, arrive at the conclusion there is more to its richness than bulging heroes, pretty ladies, repetitive epics, and hard to pronounce names.

Image: “The Lady of Shalott” by John Waterhouse.

4 comments

  1. Ban says:

    No Angela, you are not alone. And your experience at school was a near mirror image of my own ! I remember the Fine Arts teachers looking down their noses at me because I was an Illustration major – who’s to say an illustration can’t be fine art just because there is more ‘realizm’ in the techinque ?!?! Sorry, surfacing issues …
    Great post and that exhibit looks really fun. I’m about an hour from the Met …

  2. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps it’s because children are no longer taught to think for themselves and despite the fact that we all have control of books and knowledge now it requires too much critical thinking to truly appreciate fantasy and all the metaphors and nuances of human life it stands for.
    *shrug* It is nice to know there are others out there, but I’m one of those people who won’t back down until I’ve got a crowd of converts behind me. 😛 Maybe that’s another piece of why I became a writer, eh?

  3. Ethelie says:

    (Yay comment button is here!)

    One things that really makes me furious is that a lot of bookstores place all their fantasybooks in the “kids” or “young adult” sections. As if all fantasy is nothing more than kids storytales and by default, nothing adults would want to read.
    In my local library, these shelves hold authors like Robin Hobb, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne. Writers of books that I by no means would consider “childrens books”. There is a degredation of this genre imposed by the fact that only kids beleive in fairys and for adults to read fantasy is almost a bit frowned upon. I think the same goes for all artforms. We are expected to grow up and out of such childish idealisms and create “real” art instead.
    Tho I do feel like the tide is turning, fantasybooks in english(!) with original covers (instead of the translated ones with more child-adapted cover art) are getting more and more available. Perhaps it wont be like the 80´s again, but hopefully fantasy will get the appreciation it deserves and become accepted as an artform again.

  4. Ethelie says:

    oh, and I was at a Comic exhibition in Örebro, Sweden (has been open all summer) with loads of original works and much information on the history of comics, totally awesome 😉

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