February 21, 2020, 07:06:27 PM

Author Topic: Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy  (Read 266 times)

Online Yora

Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy
« on: December 10, 2019, 02:53:21 PM »
While my quest of becoming a Sword & Sorcery writer with aspirations to bring the forgotten niche style back from the mists of time is crawling along slowly (but steadily), I do find myself turning more and more into an art critic. :D
I was originally motivated by just wanting to give the world a few more fun adventure stories, but I've always also been thinking about why I really have this urge to create such tales and what exactly I could be offering that readers would actually thirst for. I fully admit that I am not a frequent reader myself and have little first hand experience with the fantasy literature from the last two decades. I've also not seen a huge number of movies either. But this isn't out of a lack of craving for new fantasy, but because I find little appeal in what I hear about current fantasy, adventure, and action entertainment. I also don't follow the current conversation about representation, diversity, and respect in mainstream entertainment very closely because it really doesn't sound any fun to get myself worked up over it. But obviously there's a huge drawn out fight going on for years now in which one side is upset about discrimination anywhere, the other side complaining about thought police ruining their beloved thing, and every is just completely outraged all the time,

When we talk about mainstream movies, music, books, TV, and so on, we usually refer to it as entertainment which is not considered to be are by elite critics. But I think that the fighting over idea in contemporary entertainment is exactly the same thing that went on about fighting over ideas in art in previous generations.

Something I figured out in my research of the Sword & Sorcery style of fantasy that had two strong periods in the 30s and 70s is that it's a form of storytelling and associated visual art that is both visceral and sensual and very passionate in the spirit of 18th century Romanticism that arose as a counter-culture to the Enlightenment. Not too sure about the history of Romanticism in the English and French language spheres, but here in Germany this movement is most prominently represented by Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, the two immortal titans of German literature to this day. In the culture of "Poets and Thinkers", these are the poets in whose lights all German intellectual art is still basking to this day.

All this got me thinking and led to perhaps not exactly a hypothesis, but at least an impression about today's cultural sphere and it's conflicts:
The issue that is central to everything going on is the wish to transform our entertainment (and we really can replace that term with art) to one that is free of discrimination and in which all artists are given space to express themselves regardless of their demographic background. So we have developed a very critical eye to constantly look out for work that stereotype and marginalize underprivileged minorities and perpetuate the convention that the characters who really matter are white, men, and heterosexual. Frankly speaking, there really are people in our world who take offense even at that basic idea and who really want white heterosexual men to be privileged and everyone else to be subservient to them. Those people are idiots and just so plain wrong that there's no point to even consider arguing their viewpoints. But particularly in recent years it always seems to me that in the fervent effort to push them out to the side where they belong, the middle ground where real social progress could be made becomes a casualty.

One of the effects that I am sensing is that our contemporary art (read: entertainment) has become rather gun shy when it comes to passion. I would say the biggest movies that are getting the most people super excited these days are superhero movies. Yes, there is a passion and emotional investment, but superheroes are very safe and clean. There is big action, but it usually seems very detached and even abstract. When people praise great stories these days, they are praising the characters' wits, their clever schemes and trickery, and the ability to ultimately outsmart their enemies by exploiting their blind spots. Think Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. We got narrative art that is all smirking and scowling.

I feel like contemporary art, particularly narrative art, has an aversion to passion. The only big emotion we see in the action, adventure, and fantasy genres seem to be anger. When characters are actually allowed to abandon reason and give in to their emotions, it always seem to be letting themselves get overtaken by anger to crush the injustices they are suffering. When stories go from the rational to the emotional, the only way that seems to be culturally accepted now is through violence. Violence is fine, violence we understand.
But I really feel that pretty much all we have today really shies away from positive passions. That too macho! That's degrading to women! Too flamboyant! Insensitive! In today's art we are purging the things that have negative connotations, but we are not engaging with them to transform them into something more wholesome. All the discussion seems to be around negativity, but I feel like there's a complete lack of any mainstream attempts for positivity. Like a fear that any attempt to make something sensual will automatically be rejected as being sleazy. Nobody wants to stand for something out of fear of being rejected. So everyone only stands against something. Usually lots of things.

I think our culture could really use some more art that is transgressive and deviant, and that isn't shy of embarrassing itself. Art that is willing to risk being called trashy or sleazy, but also takes a stance for the acceptance of things that don't have universal appeal to everyone. This is not something that could come down from the top. The big industries build their entire business concept on mass appeal and being acceptable for everyone. It also might not make any money. But I still really would love to see more artists offering to take us along on a ride to experience things that they are deeply passionate about and that are foreign to us.

Some rambling from me. I was making this up as I went.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy
« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2019, 03:18:08 PM »
I really enjoyed reading this, specifically the following:
there's a complete lack of any mainstream attempts for positivity.
(...)
Nobody wants to stand for something out of fear of being rejected. So everyone only stands against something. Usually lots of things.
I wouldn't say 'complete', but I agree that things seem to be regressing to an angry position, 'us' vs. them' discourse in mainstream art. It didn't feel this was the way we were going 10 or even 5 years ago, I think...

However, I stress the 'mainstream'.
There are books with positive stories; there are films with nice messages; there are authors writing different things, new things - but not many people know about it, because what sells is the anger, the conflict. That's what gets advertised and goes 'viral'.
Maybe we just need to ignore the mainstream altogether and search for our positive art elsewhere?
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Online Yora

Re: Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy
« Reply #2 on: December 10, 2019, 04:10:55 PM »
We are living in a world where the word of mouth (or rather fingers) can travel further and faster than ever before. While there are much more works out now that can drown out the attention for more fringe subjects, there is also much less gatekeeping. You don't need positive discussion by the art critic establishment to get access to the public stage.

Obviously, we need creators who are creating new works of art outside of the mainstream. But I think it is equally important for audiences to go looking for it and spread the word, and not wait for something to become famous and then take a look at it. All it takes is another Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games and then things can go very quickly. We probably all remember the huge backlash Twilight got when it entered the mainstream. But when you see people who are reflecting about narrative art talking about it now, there seems to be a lot of appreciation for the writer just  doing her thing. If she wants to write about Vampire and Werwolf Love Triangles, that's great. People might call it stupid, call it trash and you a hack, but if that's what you want to do, then stick to your guns and do it! Face the storm and own it. History will be your judge. Sleep can be very peaceful on a bed of $125,000,000.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline cupiscent

Re: Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2019, 02:47:05 AM »
This might seem like a wild left-field suggestion, but: try watching a Bollywood movie or six. :) I remember reading someone talking about watching some Bollywood and being amazed at the depiction of masculinity in particular. Bollywood heroes sing, dance, laugh, cry, and in general: show emotion. That is what a strong man looks like in that culture--not our stoic smothered stuff. Bollywood tends in general to be more flamboyant, more "extra", more outrageous in their stories, and I gather that watching it in situ (which I appreciate is far more difficult to achieve!) is really an experience like unto, say, going to the Globe to see the latest Shakespeare back in the day--audience participation, shouting, cheering, carrying on.

I am not sure what I am suggesting you get out of this, but it sprang to mind as I read your thoughts about art here, so I thought I would share. :)

Online Yora

Re: Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy
« Reply #4 on: December 11, 2019, 05:20:46 PM »
Just last weekend I had been researching how people in the Bronze Age were dealing with interpersonal conflicts and what cultural rules had developed to prevent violence and reconcile hostile factions. One prime example is the conflict of Agamemnon and Achilles over a perceived insult that rips apart the Achean army in the Illiad, and another really good ones are the Biblical stories of Jacob. When you look at it from this perspective, the whole family story seems to have been written as a textbook on the family law of nomadic herders.
And that reminded me that in a lot of ancient stories, the heroes proclaim their grievances to assemblies of the important people by tearing their shirts and crying in the floor. And I think most of the time, the person who ends up being ashamed by the whole display is the accused, who frequently comes to see his error and asks for forgiveness.

Working something in this vein into modern stories would probably be quite difficult. I don't think modern fiction isn't doing great outbursts anymore. When there is emotional shouting by heroes,  it's to give an angry speech about the villain's horribleness.
We can see big emotional outbursts in movies from the 80s and into the 90s, when the hero shouts his big "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Which today is regarded as a total cliche and has become a complete joke.
I think this perfectly mirrors the trend that strong physicallity is only seen as safe when it takes the form of violence. No touching, except to hurt. And no strong emotion, except anger. There is something really wrong there with out culture. Why is bad emotion and contact safe but good ones uncomfortable?

Earlier today I have been thinking about the whole idea of creating bold art without shame and what that really means. Looking at it in reverse, what is art that is embarassing to the artist? What would the artist be embarrased for? I believe that generally think of works thar are embarassingly bad. When the creator makes embarassing mistakes, or releases something that shows embarassingly low skill.
But I think accidental mistakes are not that bad, even if they could easily have been avoided. They are still just mistakes. Showing little skill in an art also isn't really that bad a thing. Everyone starts at the bottom and gets better with practice. If a work becomes popular or gets a major release usually reserved for masterpieces, that's not really the fault of the creator. You can't blame the creator for that, it's entirely in the hands of fans and publishers/studios.
Quality is not really ground for embarassment. The real embarassment from a work is what the creators expose of themselves that society considers odd, weird, or deviant. And it's not even the greatest embarassment when it exposes what you are. We are tought not to judge people for things they have no choice over. The real embarassment of passionate art is in how you expose what you want to be.

And that is especially the case in fantasy fiction, where you have full control over what the world is like, what the characters are like, and what can happen. Everything that supports your characters exists because you put it there, and everything that your characters are struggling against exists because you put it there. Whatever state the hero is in at the end of the story, and whatever way the conflicts come to a resolution, is entirely the result of your own dreams and ideals.
And this comes all the way around to the earlier observation that our contemporary art culture is promoting fairness and equality by making everyone the same, instead of accepting everyone's differences.

I see this as a great social problem, but when you find yourself as an artist inside these circumstances, I also see it as an opportunity. It certainly requires a special kind of artists who have a strong resilience to hurtful rejection. Many people simply are very sensitive to personal hostility, even when it is completely unfounded. But when you can let it just slide off you and keep it separate from positive admiration and encouragement, I think you can really make an impact by writing about things that many crave but society doesn't consider decent.
The more I think about this and my creative ideas, the more I get excited about writing without inhibition or fear of rejection. I would love to write someone else's guilty pleasures.

(I wish I started writing 20 years earlier. This would make a great philosophical treatise about art and individuality in the 2010s.)
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Online Bender

Re: Transgression, passion, and sensuality in modern fantasy
« Reply #5 on: December 11, 2019, 06:27:40 PM »
The issue that is central to everything going on is the wish to transform our entertainment (and we really can replace that term with art) to one that is free of discrimination and in which all artists are given space to express themselves regardless of their demographic background.

Not sure I follow, but I would not be in favor of this. Purpose of entertainment is to entertain and that's how it should be. We are at a situation when "art" and "artsiness" are becoming the domain of intellectuals and further from common man. Can't speak for others, but I'd be more inclined to see Superman than Shape of Water. But success of such movies both commercially and in recognition shows niche spaces are becoming more mainstream.

As to mainstream media, we are already making big strides into going beyond stereotypes and giving power to those suppressed before. For example, movies themed or featuring same sex relationships are on the rise. Same with social problems, drugs, relationship issues etc. Society still has quite a bit to go to even these but the movement is happening. Women and minorities are getting recognition and calls challenging even popular "white" characters like James Bond and Superman are getting louder.

I had the misfortune of reading one of the Kushiel books before and was surprised about how popular they were. Same with the Shades of Gray series. Or watched Human Centipede? I still don't know if they are art or entertainment or something else but everyone has opportunities to express themselves.

I currently don't believe we have much of a taboo subject or demographic in mainstream entertainment anymore.
« Last Edit: December 11, 2019, 06:29:34 PM by Bender »
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