Saturday, November 13, 2010

Your Red Box has Better art in it than Many Professional Galleries

Something interesting and important is going on right now over at The Mule Abides, where Tavis is talking about D&D and contemporary fine art. Maybe this conversation has been going on around the art/game world for a while, but I’m just becoming aware of it.

Tavis asks, pointedly “what is the alleged difference between commercial art by Dave Trampier, Ian Miller, Gary Gygax, et. al. and gallery artists take serious at all?”

It’s a self-evident to me that the distinction between the kind of art those artists made and contemporary fine art is vanishingly small. Erol Otus could walk into half a dozen Seattle galleries today and get his art hung, no question.

Compare a recent Erol Otus:

Hackmaster Basic cover by Erol Otus

To these gallery-worthy works of art:
Why Do I Do What I Do? by Tara McPherson

Wishes for the Wicked by Scott Campbell

Art by Andrey Mayorov

They’re on a par, at least in enough ways to matter. What’s more interesting to me is how we got to here.

Here’s some art from Magic: The Gathering, circa 1994-ish.
Hymn to Tourach by Scott Kirschner

Mana Vault by Scott Tedin

Necropotence by Scott Tedin

I really dig that Hymn to Tourach (top image). What the hell is going on there? Who is that guy? What's going to happen if he drinks that cup? Don't drink the cup, man! Don't drink it!?

Anyway, this is art that stimulates the imagination. It gives you enough to start you feeling, but then leaves you to complete the journey on its own. It’s interesting, exciting, and evokes a range of emotions including wonder, interest, and enjoyment. By the way, these experiences all work in a direction that’s oblique to the business interests of the company publishing the game. They’re unnecessary.

Here’s some art from Magic: the Gathering circa now:
Auriok Edgewright by Mike Bierek

Auriok Sunchaser by James Ryman

Abuna Acolyte by Kieryluk

It’s generally of a higher technical quality. It’s highly art directed and carefully produced. It’s also utterly soulless. There’s no question posed that can’t be answered by buying a comic or a novel or something. There’s no experience that can’t be harnessed as an engine of the business. It’s unquestionably some of the best game art out there, but “fine” it is not.*

I submit that old-school D&D art and contemporary art that employs gamer sensibilities is looking better and better because commercial art has pulled away from it in an altogether less inspiring direction, leaving the good stuff standing alone.

Yeah, I think that’s one of the most important functions of good art today: to make the distinction between commercial and creative crystal clear. That’s why tattoo art, graffiti, flash mobs, lowbrow, pop culture, outsider art, folk art, and brute art are everywhere these days.

* Hey, business is a great thing! After all, Erol Otus got his start drawing for a business, right? I’m not slamming commercial illustration here. It can be greatly awesome.

Edit: Added picture credits

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Blogger John Evans said...

Ooh, nice cherry-picking there!

November 13, 2010 at 1:36 PM

Blogger David T. Macknet said...

Hmm. There are things that I see in galleries which I wonder about, and there are things I see in the world which are phenomenal. The boundaries, they are very porous. But I'm not an artist in this way, so must think about the "why" quite a bit before venturing an opinion.

November 13, 2010 at 1:42 PM

Blogger Dyson Logos said...

I miss Mark Tedin's magic cards.

November 13, 2010 at 3:07 PM

Blogger Stefan Poag said...

I find it very hard to talk seriously about 'quality' or 'what is or is not really art,' but I find myself very inspired by the more freakish/underground looking older stuff (Erol Otus, Trampier, etc.). Modern 'photorealistic' fantasy art that currently seems in vogue certainly gives more of an illusion of reality, but it also doesn't inspire me to pick up my pen or brush like the older, more funky stuff. Maybe because I could never draw like Mr. Elmore... I just lack the skill.
But I got a little hollow feeling inside when I heard Gygax say that he thought Elmore and Parkinson defined the pinnacle of D&D's aesthetic for him. I just didn't see it like that.
I know people love that painting of the adventurers gathered around the small dragon hanging from the tree by Elmore --- for many people that is THE picture that screams D&D to them. For me, it's the cover of the 1e PHB with the demon idol, or the 1e DM's screen that has a montage of monsters and adventurers and a big dragon blasting fire.

November 13, 2010 at 3:35 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question about commercial vs. gallery art comes from an email from Zak Smith, whose perspective on such things is much better informed than my own! I do think this conversation is interesting and important, and am glad to have been able to facilitate it.

The observation that when commercial game art pulls away and leaves the older stuff to pursue its own unique virtues rings true to me; in _The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performance Art_ Daniel Mackay says that having computer RPGs pull in the direction of the combat-centric tactical slog will free tabletop RPGs to do their own unique thing. He wrote that at the turn of the millenium, I think, and it's interesting to see how it has or hasn't come true.
- Tavis

November 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Well John linked some pretty gorgeous art there. I picked my examples of modern MtG art pretty much at random. There's no doubt that MtG is still responsible for the creation of some pretty great art. I have a strong tendency to criticize Wizards' art direction. I've gotten into trouble for this before on the Internets. :)

Here I'm more about saying how it's no longer about "illustrator" versus "artist", and more about art that's very produced and directed versus art that's not.

November 13, 2010 at 4:14 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Oo! We crossed in the aether, Tavis. That's a pretty interesting perspective. The more someone proposes new rules, the more artists are invited to flaunt them, like how you can now find artists who paint pictures of Mario or Mickey Mouse or someone in compromising situations.

November 13, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Blogger Stefan Poag said...

The 'Magic the Gathering' illustrations linked by John Evans are undoubtedly gorgeous and quite well done. I don't know if they are or are not 'fine art' (and I don't know if that distinction is important to me). I usually feel like the illustrations stuff I do for RPGs is NOT fine art... and it is in no way as good as the MTG stuff John Evans linked.
But when I go to a gallery, I want something more from what's hanging on the wall beyond just showing me a cool monster or an illustration of an RPG concept --- I want it to spark a thought or start a conversation. And those brand new Magic the Gathering cards don't do that for me.
I don't know if the Trampier illos I love are "art" either --- but at least they usually get me wondering and thinking.
I don't think my experience is the be-all-and-end-all definition. Others may feel the opposite... but what is valid for me is what matters to me.
It might all be art --- I don't know. After Duchamp put a urinal on a pedestal and called it art, it seems most bets on who will develop the definitive definition of what IS art? are off.

November 13, 2010 at 4:52 PM


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