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Ruminations on Mythic Art
by {to await from the stars} (sphinxmuse)
at July 19th, 2006 (03:12 pm)

What is mythic art? What distinguishes mythic art from fantasy art?

“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

Mythic art, in this case, does not simply mean depictions of "mythical creatures" (there are communities dedicated to that subject: 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, etc. 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 and to elucidate one's position within a culture or the world itself, 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. 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.

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.

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. 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 live.
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, page 265

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.
"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
There are definitely works of visual art and literature which blur the lines between mythic and fantasy work, but for the purposes of this community we are looking for work which is substantially mythic rather than fantasy.

Other Resources
• Julie Bartel's article Mythic Fiction for Young Adults in the Spring 2006 issue of Endicott Studio's Journal of Mythic Arts also includes some thoughtful discussion of what distinguishes the fantastical from the mythic:
The simplest and best definition of mythic fiction is fiction that draws essential substance from myth, folklore, fairy tale and legend. The conscious use of mythic themes and tropes — that is elements and language that reflect either figurative or literal use of images, symbols, and metaphors from myth and folklore —is the key ingredient, allowing authors to explore realistic themes on a symbolic level. As in much of the best fantastic literature, the strength of mythic fiction lies in the metaphorical foundations of the story, and in the writer's use of timeles motifs to comment on or illuminate contemporary life. Drawing upon material that has inspired for thousands of years gives writers a voice in the continuing conversation which tries to make sense of the human experience, and add resonance and depth to mythic fiction.
I believe the same can be said of mythic art in other media.

• Bruce Holland Rogers' essay entitled "What is Magical Realism, Really?" contains some great insights on distinguishing magical realism from pure fantasy. Although magical realism is not exactly the same as mythic art and literature, the similarities are plentiful in this instance:
"It is, first of all, a branch of serious fiction,
which is to say, it is not escapist. Let me be clear:
I like escapist fiction, and some of what I write is
escapism. I'm with C.S. Lewis when he observes that
the only person who opposes escape is, by definition,
a jailer. Entertainment, release, fun...these are all
good reasons to read and to write. But serious
fiction's task is not escape, but engagement. Serious
fiction helps us to name our world and see our place
in it. It conveys or explores truth.

Any genre of fiction can get at truths, of course.
Some science fiction and fantasy do so, and are
serious fiction. Some SF and fantasy are escapist. But
magical realism is always serious, never escapist,
because it is trying to convey the reality of one or
several worldviews that actually exist, or have
existed. Magical realism is a kind of realism, but one
different from the realism that most of our culture
now experiences.
The whole essay is a treasure trove, I recommend that you read it in its entirety.

Comments, opinions, questions, etc.?