Posts Tagged ‘art’

I find it interesting to see how writers develop. I see it in my own writing every time I go back to edit an old story. And I saw it in spades reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree.

I came to Kay through his more recent work, which is some of the richest and most brilliant in modern fantasy. The Summer Tree is a good read, but lacks the overwhelming beauty of Lions of Al-Rassan or The Sarantine Mosaic. But it helps in understanding where those books come from.

 The Roots of the Tree

Most obvious is the Tolkien connection. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father Silmarillion, and boy does it show in The Summer Tree. There’s a world of culturally varied nations that will pull together in the face of external menace. There’s an epic mythology frequently alluded to. There’s a battle brewing between everyday good and epic evil. There are even ordinary people suddenly thrown into great destinies.

Christian Ethics, Pagan Trappings

Its underlying morality also shows Tolkien’s influence. I don’t know what Kay’s religious beliefs are, but Tolkien was a Christian, and his stories showed Christian morality beneath pagan trappings. The same can be seen here.

Throughout The Summer Tree, we see self-sacrifice. In some cases characters literally sacrifice their lives for others, but just as often they sacrifice their happiness or desires. Although the most prominent example of this, using the Summer Tree of the title, draws from northern European pagan mythology, the repeated theme is a very Christian one. Good comes not from people expressing their own interests and finding a way to further those together, but from subsuming themselves in service and sacrifice.

An Interest in Art

While the book shows Kay’s past, the shadow of Tolkien from which he would eventually emerge, it also shows his future, and in particular the importance of the arts in his books.

Art and its relationship to power is a repeated theme in Kay’s novels, including poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan and mosaic in The Sarantine Mosaic. Like the Sarantine books The Fionavar Tapestry series wears that connection in its title.

But there are other links too. Music plays an important part in stirring emotions and signifying Paul’s past. Carefully crafted letters stir the heartstrings. Kevin solidifies friendships by playing guitar. Ivor’s tribe express themselves through dance.

Watching the Kay Tree Grow

The Summer Tree may not be as great a piece of writing as Kay’s more recent works. But seeing his development toward the writer he is today adds an extra pleasure to this already very good book.

Magic and art are a natural match in our minds. Art taps into the parts of ourselves we understand least – our emotions, our instincts, our subconscious. And magic, from card tricks at a kids’ birthday party to vast elemental spells in an epic fantasy, is all about the unexplained.

Casting of magic in stories often involves some form of art. It can be singing and chanting to cast a spell, dancing around a campfire to communicate with the spirits, drawing symbols or stitching together creepy voodoo dolls – if there’s an artform out there then there’s a form of magic to go with it.

Joss Whedon created one of my favourite examples, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Once More, With Feeling’. For a single episode song and dance are both enforced by and and unleashed by the power of magic, as the cast show off their variable music talents. It’s an in character excuse for an out of character novelty, turning a popular fantasy show into a musical for one episode, and it’s great fun.

Sailing to SarantiumGuy Gavriel Kay often explores art and power, and though magic often plays a low key part in his works, it still fuses with art in Sailing to Sarantium. Sculptures of birds are brought to life, art capturing the human spirit in a way that becomes unsettling as the truth behind it is revealed.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionCombining art and magic is something I’ve tried to do myself in some of the stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus. The emotional core of ‘Live by the Sword’ is about how the gladiator characters use art as an escape from the terrible brutality of their lives, and about magic making this literal. ‘The Essence of a Man’ fuses oil painting with alchemy, combining two arts that created high excitement during the European Renaissance. ‘The Magpie Dance’ is about dance as magic, while ‘One Minute of Beauty’ is about a very conscious attempt to squeeze the art and magic from life, the artist in his and her modern form.

I love to see magic and art combined in stories, one becoming an outlet for the other. So what other great examples are there? What other books, shows or films have combined magic and art in interesting ways? What have I missed?

Art and artisanship are recurring themes in Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, but they play a particularly prominent part in The Sarantine Mosaic. The name of this pair of books is a sign in itself, pointing to the centrality of the mosaicist Crispin’s art both as a plot element and as a symbol of the themes explored in the book.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

A few months back I asked Kay via Twitter about his interest in art as a theme, and he said that he is particularly interested in the relationship of art and power. And it’s this relationship that The Sarantine Mosaic explores, and through which it can help us to consider art’s role within society.

Art influences power

The Sarantine Mosaic explores art and culture in its broadest sense. There is the artistry of Crispin, creating his great mosaic; the new masterpiece of architecture he is decorating; the dancers who perform for racing fans and charioteers; the charioteers themselves, experts in the hazardous art of racing; the bureaucrat recording a history of the empire.

In all of this, art is a tool used to influence the balance of power. The new shrine is intended to secure the emperor’s position and contain religious disputes. The empress, herself once a dancer, uses her skills as a performer to influence the people around her. The chariot races are both the opiate of the masses, giving them a distraction from concerns about politics, and the trigger for violent upheavals.

More intimately, art is shown to inspire and influence great men and women, to shape the way that they look at and direct the world.

Power influences art

The relationship also works the other way around. Power has a great hold over art, over what is made and what endures. Crispin gets to make his mosaic because someone in power wants him to. Dominant religious doctrine limits what can be portrayed in art, though the artists find ways to subvert this. Dancers, writers, mosaicists, charioteers, all rely to some extent on patronage, and so are influenced by the powerful in what they portray.

This also affects the tools available to them. Crispin is able to create his greatest work in Sarantium precisely because that city is so powerful, its rulers having the wealth and influence to provide him with the finest materials available for his craft. Just as art can make people of power catch their breath, so too can the powerful provide artists with sublime moments.

But at its most brutal power is a restrictive force. It prevents and destroys certain types of art. It binds and restricts. It can chain the artist as readily as it can liberate her.

Art reflects power back

This is not to say that the ultimate message of these books is one of the tragedy of art and power. Art is shown as a mirror in which the powerful are shown themselves; as a window which reveals them to the world; as a microscope that brings scrutiny to certain aspects of their behaviour; as a medium in which the powerful and their achievements can be made to endure.

Our own awareness

It’s important to take these lessons on board, not just as abstractions from a fantasy story but as real issues for us in the modern world.

The relationship between power and art is a complex one, mediated and disguised by the influence of money. But for all the democratising influence of the internet age, it is still people in power – the wealthy, the influential, the publicly seen – who decide what art achieves prominence, what is widely read and enjoyed. The Sarantine Mosaic reminds us we have the power to influence them back, to shape the way they view the world, to duck around the limits they place on us and provide subversive commentary as we reflect power itself.

I’m not going to say that we have a duty. We all have choices to make, and I can’t impose obligations on anyone even if I wanted to. But art in all its forms provides us with opportunity, and it would be a shame not to seize it.