Earlier this month, over 35,000 fans gathered in Atlanta for Dragon*Con, the event that touts itself as the world’s largest popular culture convention dedicated to science fiction and fantasy. Although at its heart the convention remains an annual forum for fans of those two genres, its programming has expanded to accommodate an ever-widening range of interests including literature, visual and performing arts, film, animation, as well as both analog and digital gaming.
So what was a nice arts publication like BURNAWAY doing at a convention aimed at popular culture? Examining it, for a start.
It would be a mistake to ignore the behemoth in our own back yard, particularly if it was dismissed on the basis of its content. It is not necessary to have an interest in the genres to be able to analyze the convention as an aesthetic phenomenon and question what insights might be culled from the cultural production found within.
It should be noted that categorization is also perpetuated within genre subcultures. At Dragon*Con, specialized “tracks” delineate clear subgenre categories within its ranks. Costuming, for instance, is not to be confused with the Art Show, which is itself separate from the Comics and Pop Artist track. For all this categorization, merely identifying a genre neither gives clues as to what the art’s relationship is to the fine art world, nor does it give an indication as to how artists might slide between genres. To be more blunt, what is it that makes a monster painting more than, well, just a monster painting?
And pretending that monster paintings are divorced from both the economic and intellectual valuation of art would also be disingenuous. How are we to situate genre art within a larger context? Although iterations of this question have been posed since the earliest days of art criticism, it seems to concern critics more than the artists themselves. Something is backwards here: Artists would do well to honestly assess their work in relationship to the larger world in which it is produced.
While the ghettoization of artwork may be of little concern to artists who embrace working within a genre tradition, others wrestle against claiming their specialization. The genre ghetto can be particularly frustrating if the artist has struggled to produce work that is intended to appeal to audiences and critics outside the genre. Genre-identification can create very real barriers to work ever being shown or seen by mainstream (read: museum-oriented) fine art audiences.
And what of artists who find a measure of success in producing genre work, but desire to undertake new directions? They risk losing a ready-made audience eager to consume not something radically different, but more of the same. In many ways, this problem—a nice one to have in contrast to struggling in obscurity—is one familiar to certain artists working within the fine art mainstream. Once an artist has established a personal visual vocabulary, audiences anticipate that what is next will be tied to previous work, unless you are lucky enough to be Philip Guston.
Of course, some of the same issues muddle the fine art world. Although the hierarchy of the salon is a thing of the past, prejudices based on content and categorization die hard. Work of women artists, for example, is often deemed “too feminine” or “not feminine enough.” Expectations based on race or identity impact artists who are African-American or Eastern European or queer: All are subject to being essentialized to the point of anonymity, on one hand, or pilloried for failing to create a desirable representation of their constituent communities on the other. Clearly, artists have far more agency over what they choose to paint than over their heritage, but the drive to pigeonhole both art and artists achieves similar results in both instances.
While academia has established serious study of science fiction and fantasy in literature and film, visual art has been slower to genre-jump than any other art form. From criticism surrounding the Tim Burton retrospective at MoMA to Hilton Kramer‘s cultural invectives, there is a trenchant camp of imperious defenders of high art (whose virtue must be defended at any cost!) that are deeply suspicious of the genres they reject, even at the expense of gathering defensible information on why “low” culture might yet matter.
The truth is that although many artists are inspired by science fiction or fantasy, very few genre artists ever cross the line into fine art territory. At the risk of invoking Clement Greenberg’s famous essay, one of the largest reasons for this is not fantastical content in and of itself, but genre art’s overarching tendency toward kitsch. Although its precise qualities are contestable, kitsch employs mimetic—or at least representational—effects, drawing upon imagery that audiences can easily read and understand. Kitsch is designed to produce a reaction from the senses, and does not require—indeed, often discourages—reflection or critical analysis.
It is precisely through this uncritical lens that most revelers experience Dragon*Con. It is this same lack of criticality that disengages monster paintings—even those skillfully rendered—from any hope of serious consideration from the mainstream art world.
Of course, most attendees come to Dragon*Con to enjoy a great party. Fittingly, most who trawl the Art Show see the work displayed there not as a means for enlisting a conversation with the larger world, but as a comforting or thrilling refuge from reality. The Photoshopped fairies and sword-bearing bikini babes rarely transcend past their face value as tokens of entertainment to be easily and passively consumed.
In order for artwork to go beyond the obviousness of its genre—any genre—it must at least offer the possibility of extending an exchange beyond its own frame. Although Dragon*Con is an unparalleled spectacle of amusement, it is important—particularly for cultural examiners and producers—to identify where the event falls short.
I wonder if there is not a third option, some middle way that acknowledges the problematic in the midst of the party. After all, if postmodernism was supposed to do away with binaries, why feel pressured to choose between mindless consumption and strident rejection? By refusing to cling to the teat of rigid categorization, it is possible for artists, critics, scholars, and fans to learn much from one another.