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Flora, Fauna, Persona
the art & writing of Desirée Isphording
Ruminations on Mythic Art 
1st-May-2006 05:01 pm
I've been attempting to collect my thoughts surrounding the issues of what distinguishes mythic art from fantasy art as well as what I personally feel mythic art to be. My notes on these subjects form undulating blocks of handwriting which ebb and flow around the notes I was taking for my art history classes. I hope to take the raw material of these notes, develop them into something more refined, and post them as something of a keynote reading at both mythicart and mythicfaery. For the moment, I'm just transcribing the bulk of them in this journal entry with minimal editing, so expect a decent amount of repetition and a general rough, sketchy quality from the writing. I've also interspersed some quotations I'm considering adding to the discussion in the final draft.

“Myth is the primordial language natural to [the] psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythical imagery.”
- Carl Gustav Jung

"The great artists, I think, do not show us the 'fantastical,' or the 'supernatural.' Instead, they offer us a more expansive view of our own world, revealing places, people, and experiences we might not otherwise perceive." - Ari Berk from the foreword to Brian Froud's World of Faerie

• Fantasy and fantasy art tends to be insular, self-sufficient, whole unto itself. The fantasy artist in essence visually creates a separate universe from our own, almost a "virtual reality." Fantasy fabricates cultures, characters, creatures, entire worlds, and although they may be inspired by actual existing cultures, etc. they are separate from them. They may also include creatures originating from earthly mythology e.g. dragons, unicorns, etc. but these creatures are set in the context of the separate fabricated universe and not in relation to our history and folklore. These fantasy universes are separate both spatially and temporally, their creators invent entirely the landscapes, the timeline, the histories of the lands in which their stories are set. Fantasy realms are escapes from the world in which we currently reside, in a sense they are highly creative delusions. In fantasy people revel in a pleasurable distance from their daily realities. There is a chasm, a break between our mundane lives and the lands in which fantasy takes place. These realms are different enough to serve as a delightful mental flight of fancy, but similar enough that we do not feel so horribly alien when we mentally inhabit those spaces.

Mythic art, on the other hand, does not seek to exist in its own isolated bubble, but to tie into our world both spatially and temporally. Mythic art does not seek to temporarily sever us from our daily lives, but encourages us to delve deeper into the fabric of the world we actually inhabit. Fantasy whisks us away, while mythic art seeks instead to take us on a journey, which may be either fairly direct or labyrinthine, that ultimately leads back to the origin - the world we encounter everyday. Mythic art brings us full circle.
There are good stories and mediocre stories and downright bad stories. How are they to be judged? If they do not aim at a static or "literal" reality, how can we discern whether one telling of events is any better or more worthy than another? The answer is this: a story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And "making sense" must her be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, turning the tongue to actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are.
- David Abram in The Spell of the Senuous

• Fantasy asks us to suspend our accepted thoughts about reality in order to participate in an entirely new set of ideas established in the fantasy realm. Mythic art instead invites us to broaden, deepen, and/or challenge our accepted thoughts and perceptions about the world which we daily inhabit.
"Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life. [. . .] Myth serves [a] mystical function [. . .] realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery. Myth opens the world to a dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all form. If you lose that, you don't have a mythology. If mystery is manifest through all things, the universe becomes, as it were, a holy picture. You are always addressing the transcendent mystery through your actual world."
- Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth

• Mythic art, in this case, does not simply mean "mythical creatures" (there are different communities dedicated to that: creaturexchange, mythical_world, etc.). There is a definition of "myth" as an untruth, something that is not factual, and while that is a valid definition in some contexts, it is not the one being utilized here. For the purposes of this community, myths are stories, images, conceptions which are intended to tap the deeper nature of existence. They are often metaphors and poetic expressions of the mysteries of birth, life, growth, death, and what lies beyond. They can illuminate connections and relationships between humans and animals, humans and the divine, humans and nature, etc. Mythology can reveal profound insights into its culture of origin. Although some have stated that mythology is a form of primitive science, that is generally not the case, and it is a somewhat inaccurate statement. Myth is often a means to impart meaning, but it is rarely a literal attempt to explain the mechanics of the universe in the way science does.

• What makes mythic art mythic is the background, the consideration for rendering not just a creature one has imagined and designed, but a conscious sensitivity to connect the image to something deeper, whether that is in direct reference to existing world mythology, folklore, legends, etc. or to figures from one's own personal mythology, dreams, and visions.
"I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you."
- Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth

Mythic art is created in the same state of mind/consciousness as mythology is: it is an exploration of our relationships with nature, the divine, each other, and even with ourselves. It is not just something one creates because it looks cool or cute or pretty or sexy or mysterious. Both fantasy and myth take advantage of the human imagination, but while fantasy is a respite (and sometimes an escape - in its ultimate extremes it can manifest as psychosis and delusion) from our ordinary perceptions of the world, mythic art seeks to sacralize and bestow meaning to it.

Mythic art can be devotional and reverential, implying that the artist holds their subject as sacred, but it can also be interpretive and speculative, a means of plumbing the human consciousness.

• Fantasy is an elaborate statement. Myth is more akin to an invitation. While fantasy certainly includes many elements of the human experience, both pleasant and heart-wrenching, it is bound together by the human context. The unpleasant aspects, like war, bloodshed, even death are incorporated to stir the emotions in a further attempt to approximate a real experience, but even the unpleasant aspects of fantasy are well within human direction. In the end fantasy is finite - it has a beginning and an ending. A continuation must come in the form of a sequel, prequel, next year's convention, tomorrow evening's role-playing game. Myth, on the other hand, implicitly involves the participation of something Other. Even once a figure in the myth completes a task, the story does not end. There is no "happily ever after" in mythology.

• There are definitely works of visual art and literature which blurs the lines between mythic and fantasy work, but for the purposes of this community (in reference to mythicart) we are looking for work which is substantially mythic rather than fantasy.

• Also, this is emphatically not a fanart community. For instance, although a lot of anime is somewhat based on Japanese (and other) mythology, we do not wish to see your drawings of other people's previously designed characters. Presenting personal interpretations and illustrations of mythology, legends, poetry, fairy-tales, etc. is welcomed of course, but redrawing someone else's creation is not. For example, an illustration of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast is perfectly acceptable, an illustration of Disney's Belle character is not. The same principle applies to a great deal of so called furry or anthropomorphic art as well. Animal-human hybrids, shapeshifters, animals with human features, humans with animal features, etc. certainly exist in world myth, but there is a distinction between a mythological centaur, mermaid, or selkie and a personal furry wolf character someone invents to exist in its own fantasy storyline.

Comments, opinions, questions, etc.?
· originally posted to sphinxmuse
16th-Mar-2007 07:56 am (UTC)
Over all I think this is well thought out and well written, even in this draft stage, so good work. :D

I would have to disagree with the idea that all fantasy is only escapist, though. Fantasy has the capacity to create the same or similar responses as myth does. Afterall, fantasy is often merely personal myth. If someone creates a god that embodies destruction, but that god is not any currently existing god, it still has the potential (though perhaps not as strong) to inspire the same kind of thoughts that an 'actual' god of destruction might.

In addition, myth has the drawback of often being culturally bound. To use the destruction god example, Kali is a very powerful figure to me, a westerner, BUT I can't possibly begin to really understand her full meaning and scope because I am not Indian or Hindu - there are subtleties that will be lost on anyone outside of that culture, and probably even 'fallacies' that proliferate outside that culture.

Not that any of that really matters in terms of what your goals for this writing seem to be: identifying what will and will not be acceptable for certian groups. I guess I just felt a response based on my own relationship with myth. I love mythology, and if I wasn't an artist and wanted to go back to school it would be my major. But I've also noticed that sometimes simply a reference to an archetype (without any actual 'real' myth) is enough for a piece of artwork or writing to have the kind of power that something from a 'legitimate' myth would.
23rd-Jul-2007 12:44 am (UTC)
Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I believe though that you have somewhat misunderstood the full scope of what I personally feel myth encompasses. For instance, you state that simply a reference to an archetype (without any actual 'real' myth) is enough for a piece of artwork or writing to have the kind of power that something from a 'legitimate' myth would. I would completely agree with the first portion of that statement - archetypes have mythic power. However,I do not believe that an exact figure, deity, theme from a specific culture's documented corpus of mythology has to be present in a piece of art for it to be considered truly, 'legitimately' mythic. My view of mythology most defintely includes personal mythology. With regards to your comment about myth being culturally bound, I feel that this is not always the case. Formal, academic distinctions of mythology, e.g. Greek mythology, Celtic mythology, Yoroba mythology, are often classed based upon culture, but the heart of mythology itself and the universal need for humanity to create it is beyond any particular culture.

I would have to disagree with the idea that all fantasy is only escapist, though. Fantasy has the capacity to create the same or similar responses as myth does. Afterall, fantasy is often merely personal myth. The line between mythic work and fantasy work can definitely be blurry at times. There is a great deal of work out there that I honestly do believe has been mislabeled as "fantasy" when it is in fact mythic in nature, which I think is largely the case with what you refer to as non-escapist fantasy. In addition, often times if a viewer/reader takes a piece of mythic art out of context (this can occur if the viewer/reader has no sensitivity to the nature of the work or if he or she is only interested in its superficial aspects) he or she may consider it within the fantasy genre. The same process could also feasibly occur with surrealistic artwork: an uneducated or simply apathetic viewer would see a painting that includes things which he or she doesn't come across in his or her daily life or see on the news, etc. and would come to the conclusion that it is a fantasy picture.
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